Friday, 18 October 2019

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Elijah Cummings, recent foil (and thus, inevitably, target) of Donald Trump as head of the House Oversight Committee, was online at the Guardian yesterday, and is in the paper paper today. You can link to the online version here. It is pretty much as I wrote it; a couple of literals snuck in, but they also edited it nicely to make clearer his children and relationships. There were a couple of other stories. One I left out because I didn't see it as relevant, which involved the murder of his nephew at college in Virginia. Another was the mini-scandal around his debts, including on taxes, at one point in his life. The source I was reading attributed it to ill-health, which I thought might have some relevance given his poor health in the last few years, but another source mentioned his child support payments, which led me to dig out his first wife and the parentage of his three kids. I left the debt out, but as I said, I thought the piece in the end explains his children well. One of his daughters was also in the news when it turned out she was using Cummings' congressional car while driving for Lyft, which isn't quite at Hunter Biden levels of scandal, but did get a lot of press.

Last summer I posed for a picture in my Baltimore Elite Giants shirt (they were a team in baseball's Negro Leagues, and the Elite was pronounced ee-lite) in support of Rep. Cummings when Trump was attacking him, and the city of Baltimore, in which I worked one summer and which I liked immensely, because, even though it was still more or less de facto segregated, it was a real city. Cummings strikes me as an old-fashioned machine kind of politician, although the machine has changed as it constituent parts have changed, and one who, when he had his opportunity on the bigger stages, didn't let that constituency down. RIP

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

DANIEL SILVA'S ENGLISH SPY

The English Spy is the first novel by Daniel Silva I have read, but it is instructive in revealing some of the secrets of his immense popularity in spy fiction. The story begins with the detonation of a bomb aboard a yacht, which kills an English princess, part Diana part Kate, and sparks a massive investigation. The early signs lead English spy chief Graham Seymour, engaged in an ongoing feud/battle with the head of MI5 who is his former boss, to enlist the help of the Israelis, who have identified the killer.'He's an old friend' says the head of Mossad. 'Of yours, or ours?' asks Seymoure. 'Of yours', Uzi Navot replies. 'We have no friends.' Which means Silva's Gabriel Allen, the art restorer about to become head of the Mossad, comes on board. And because they are chasing after a former IRA bomb maker turned international terrorist named Eamonn Quinn, the two men turn to Christopher Keller, an assassin who once knew Quinn while he was infiltrating the IRA on behalf of the British.

From this beginning flows an international game of cat and mouse, a plot that is so inventive it was surprising Quinn, who appears to have structured much of it, does not get enough credit for the brilliance of his plan. And of course, it all points back to Ireland, recalling the past killings and betrayals that are the mark of international spies and assassins.

Allen, in many ways, is the English spy of the title; or perhaps it's Keller, and the two make an interesting pair, one which seems to have been set up for the future (note: I have not read further, or indeed back, in the saga, of which this is the fifteenth). In Silva's world the English are the civilised masters of the game, the Israelis are the harder edged forces having to deal with a more violent reality. Allen is the exception; the Israeli who to all extents and purposes is the very model of a modern MI operative. Their opponents, Irish or Arab, are almost universally evil, a lesser breed. And the Americans are the bulls in the china shop, blundering, unsophisticated, unreliable. It's an interesting world view. It's the sort of stuff I used to see businessmen reading in the business class lounge at Dusseldorf airport.

The story comes down to personal face to face violence. There are two former Russian sleeper agents involved, there are hints of lost love, and all the while Silva's new, Italian wife, is about to give birth in an Israeli hospital. The resolution makes sense, although there is a coda which is appropriate enough, but seems somehow forced, given the nature of Quinn and Keller. There is nothing fancy about Silva's prose, but he keeps the plot moving at a good pace and, as I said, the plot is immensely satisfying.

The English Spy by Daniel Silva
Harper Collins £8.99 ISBN 9870007552337

BREXIT: A MODEST PROPOSAL My suggestions via Arc Digital

I've written a piece for Arc Digital suggesting an easy way to make the current conundrum over Brexit something more bearable, entertaining and successful for all concerned. The piece was recommended to readers on Medium, in their World section, and they have provided a link by which you can read it and laugh without necessarily having to subscribe there, though that's not a bad idea. You can find that link here....happy reading

Monday, 30 September 2019

JOSEPH WILSON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Joseph C Wilson, the former US Ambassador who went to Niger to investigate whether Iraq was trying to buy uranium, and discovered that, contrary to the Bush administration's claims, they weren't, is online on the Guardian's website now. You can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it. Having to condense the whole business and combine it with Wilson's life made for little excess to cut away! I was amazed at the relatively easy the road to entering governmental service seemed to be for both Plame and Wilson. It might have been nice to expand the whistleblower motif to today's situation, where the case for keeping secret the identity of the CIA whistleblower re Trump's Ukraine phone call  is reinforced by the Plame Affair. I also would have liked to have more detail about the Wilson/Clinton relationship; I wonder who would play Clinton in that movie. I've never seen Fair Game but I might have to now after seeing the still the Guardian printed: it's interesting how much less serious Sean Penn and Naomi Watts look than their real life counterparts, and how it's actually Plame who's flattered by the actor portraying her.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

BIG GAME: LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FOOTBALL FAMOUS

There is an interesting moment in Big Game when author Mark Leibovich mentions he had been reading 'an old book about the NFL, The League, by David Harris. It's a throwaway (the book is not mentioned in the index) because he's identifying where he first heard the story of Mark Davis' bar-mitzvah (Davis, son of Al, is now the Raiders' owner). Big Game is a strange book, because it basically cannot do what it purports to want to do, which is examine the NFL in the 'dangerous times' of Donald Trump, but in essence that is exactly what David Harris' book did, in 1986, which hardly makes it an 'old' book. Harris already saw the NFL in decline, and wrote about the way the business functioned as it became a sort of corporate monopoly. The NFL has prospered exponentially since then but Harris was also prescient in the very sense that Leibovich wants to examine, the sense that the league is a mirror and a signpost for American society. In the end, however, his book turns out to be more a part of that mirror than a signpost toward a better future.
The book instead is a sort of corollary to Leibovich's main gig writing from Washington about celebrity the New York Times magazine, a Sunday colour supplement that celebrates celebrity at the same time it bemoans its pernicious influence. Given that the book was written at the time Donald Trump (himself a frustrated NFL owner) was attacking the NFL (which is heavily dependent on its exemption from government monopoly regulation) this created a perfect storm for Leibovich to investigate, if not exploit. Which is odd also in the sense that, to an American audience of football fans, there will be little that is new, while to a British audience, much that needs to be explained is left for the American audience that already knows the stories. He admits he doesn't always cover football, which makes him somewhat similar to his New York Times colleague who covers horse racing but is next to him in the Super Bowl press box because, well, this is the New York Times.

Leibovich is a Patriots fan too, which puts him in the centre of the Ballghazi scandal, which is not really the best way to approach the structural truths about the NFL. Instead he tries to draw a metaphoric connection between the Patriots, Bob Kraft, Tom Brady, Bill Belichicks and Trump (not a difficult connection so far, as the three Pats are Trump 'friends', and Kraft at least was a major donor). It takes him until election night, and watching future ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson, to make that connection, and he decides he has grown 'weary of the … moral agonizing that surrounded the game'. It was as if he had just discovered NFL owners, as he puts it, 'with few exceptions, lean Republican'. The way Gronk laying out for a pass may be said to be 'leaning' just before his body smashes against the turf. He concludes that 'for consumers of football, politics and life in America, this had been a brutal season.'  Before you say 'no shit Sherlock', he never has really explained whence that brutality comes.

So what you get is really Lifestyles Of The Rich And Football Famous, which is somewhat revealing and sometimes entertaining, but never really on message. Unless the message is that the NFL is, for its owners, a different sort of big game, which would contradict the book's subtitles, since the times don't seem that dangerous to them, especially as the money continues to roll in. Like F Scott Fitzgerald, he's discovered the rich are different from you and me, and he's sharp enough to realise that Commissioner Roger Goodell's selling of the NFL as a liberation for the boring workaday lives of average Joes, is a sham...like a sort of reality TV.

But he admits that he is also a fan, and he seems to be seeking solace of his own when he interviews Tom Brady for a NYTimes Magazine profile, and Brady, while seeming perfectly pleasant in a business-like way, misses the chance to befriend him. All of a sudden he's lost in a sort of limbo where the celebrity life-style of the marketing TB12 conflicts with his idea of the game, and it's no fun to read about his difficulties with access—it reminded me of Richard Hoffer's book about Mike Tyson, where Don King is boycotting Sports Illustrated because they are part of the Time Warner empire alongside HBO, and Hoffer can't get any access, and all the best lines in his book are quotes from boxing beat writers. Then again, Leibovich can't fit that into the bigger picture: it's not easy, like when he deals with owners. But he does write very well and movingly about his own father, who was dying at the time, beyond trying to link the event to Brady's parents.

He's very funny about the owners as they parade around meetings with their latest trophy wives or girlfriends (and Kraft's deflations at a Florida massage parlor just down the road from Mar A Lago would have been more grist for that mill) like richer protologists at a proctologist convention, and the very best scene in the book comes when he spends some time interviewing Jerry Jones in his private bus, drinking Johnny Walker Blue from giant Cowboys 24 oz plastic stadium cups. Jones leaves him passed out in the trailer.  It's Jones who has the best line in the book: “Do you think the (TV) networks pay these rights fees to broke dicks? With their asses hanging out?” But sadly, he never talks to a network exec, or a former network exec without a skin in the game.

There is a constant irritation in the book when you realise it's been pieced together from various separate interviews (composted, too, meaning the use of off-cut material from earlier interviews) as characters get reintroduced, one, Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz, at the heart of Ballghazi (aka Deflategate) twice within the space of five pages. And there are insights like 'pie is delicious' which seem less than revelatory. But perhaps the real problem is, as Leibovich says, “football is football, angst is for writers”. Perhaps a contrast of the real angst of football with the faux-angst of 'protecting the Shield' and keeping the cash flowing might have been more instructive.

BIG GAME: The NFL In Dangerous Times
by Mark Leibovich
Harper Collins £16.99 ISBN 9780008317614

Thursday, 29 August 2019

FOOTBALL IS UPON US: MUCH MORE MIKE

The NFL season is rapidly approaching, and I've done a couple of deep previews of it. The first. which I wrote at the beginning of August, has just been published in The American magazine here in the UK. You can read it in print or online; go to this link for details. It picks all the divisions and also previews the four games in London this fall.

Then this week I did another, more detailed, preview for Betfair: grouping teams by Elite, Contenders, Dark Horses, Pretenders, and Forget It. Where did your team get slotted? Check it out at Betfair here. There will also be a Betfair video podcast up next week just before the season starts.

And of course if you're really hard-core and want complete run-downs you can go to my patreon site right here and read my off-season run downs of each team. They're done division by division, with looks at the full roster. There will be a feature or two next week before I start picking every game of the season with my Friday Morning Tight End column--67% right last year.


Monday, 26 August 2019

JIM BOUTON: THE LAST WORD

Although I'd recorded the interview with Matthew Bannister a month ago, my appreciation of Jim Bouton has just been broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Last Word. It's a wonderful show: it begins with Peter Fonda and ends with Bouton: two icons of Sixties rebellion, of counter-culture, from different ends of the American spectrum. You can listen to the show on BBC IPlayer (actually now rebranded Sounds! to appeal to those too young to seek out obituary programmes) with this link . Fonda leads off the show; my bit is at the end, starting around 21 mins. The rest of the show is as interesting as usual, but I do love the way Fonda and Bouton play off against each other.

In case you missed my story at Arc Digital, going into more detail, you can link to that here.

Monday, 19 August 2019

NICK BUONICONTI: HIS FOOTBALL LIFE

Nick Buoniconti was unique in being a player from the era before free agency who is remembered a being crucial and beloved by fans of two teams. Nowadays we are used to players who move from team to team, often at their peaks, often collecting rings along the way. Previously, talented players were moved only when their original teams either thought they were on the decline or suffered a personality clash. Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams to the Eagles and a title. Sonny Jurgensen from the Eagles to the Redskins, and beloved by both sets of fans. Some moved toward the ends of their careers (coaches like George Allen specialised in picking them up) but their peak at their new clubs was short (think Sam Huff, NY Football Giants to Washington). Buoniconti went to from the Patriots to the Dolphins when he was still at his peak, and stayed there for another six seasons that brought two Super Bowl titles and of course the only undefeated, untied season in NFL history.

He went to Notre Dame, who recruited him out of Springfield (Mass) Cathedral High, which had produced Angelo Bertelli, the Irish’s first Heisman winner. He played both ways, at guard and linebacker/middle guard, but was overshadowed on the line by big tackle Myron Pottios. He was considered undersized for the NFL. Which wasn’t an exaggeration; he basically played at 5-11 220. He wasn’t much smaller than someone like Lee Roy Jordan, but southern players had the reputation of being faster harder hitters.

He wasn’t picked in the NFL draft, and went to the Boston Patriots in round 13 of the AFL draft (pick 102 overall). The Pats might have taken a flyer on him because as a former all-stat player from Massachusetts, he was relatively local. Mike Holovak was the head coach and Marion Campbell might have been the guy to see the potential for him at linebacker. Remember the original 4-3 defenses often had middle guards simply step back and play off the line; Bill George is sometimes called the first, Huff was another. In an odd front, the nose guard basically played a read and react game; if you watch Buoniconti you’ll see how that transitioned into playing MLB.

Buoniconti;s instincts were perfect, his pursuit relentless, but he also had ball skills; he intercepted 32 passes over his career. Dolphin fans might compare him to someone like Zach Thomas, especially if he hadn’t been pumped up to carry more weight, smoother in his drops and better with his hands. London Fletcher might be another good modern comparison.

In 1963 he played in the AFL All-Star game; the next four seasons he was also first-team all-AFL. In 68 he played only 8 games (second team all-AFL), but someone on the Pats , probably owner Billy Sullivan, felt he was on the decline, and he was traded to the Dolphins in 1969, for LB John Bramlett and Q, B Kim Hammond. Bramlett was a decent player but Hammond, the key to the deal, never made it. Nick, meanwhile, was again first-team all AFL.

The Dolphins were acquiring some of the core of their great teams: they traded for Larry Little in 69, and in 1970 for Paul Warfield and of course head coach Don Shula, each of whom cost them a first-round pick (they were fined for ‘tampering’ with Shula before his Colts’ contract had expired). With Bill Arnsparger as the defensive coordinator, Buoniconti became the perfect middle linebacker in what became the 53 D: with an outside backer used as a rush end. When I consider one of the starting OLBs on that team was Doug Swift, against whom I played when he was dominant at D3 Amherst, but who had previously been cut by the CFL’s Alouettes, it gives me huge respect for the quality of the coaching and the smarts of that D, and Buoniconti was its core. Don Shula once said that after their 1972 season, when he and Arnsbarger reviewed the film of the season, they found only 11 mental errors all season. That was 11 from the whole defense.

It was also finally his chance to play on a winner. His three varsity years at Notre Dame under Joe Kuharich had all been losing seasons—Kuharich never was able to recreate his success at San Francisco, about which I wrote a few months ago, anywhere else. The Pats went to the AFL championship in 1963, where they were smashed by the Chargers, then lapsed into mediocrity.

Buoniconti had gone to law school while he played for the Patriots, and after retiring he was for a time a lawyer. He acted as an agent for baseball players (Boston fans needed to think twice about his representing the Yankees’ Bucky Dent) and he was for a time president of the US Tobacco Company—who secialised in the smokeless tobacco which caused mouth cancers; he was a leading figure in trying to dismiss such studies.

But the fulcrum of his later life came in 1985 when his son Marc, playing linebacker at The Citadel, suffered a spinal cord injury and was left a quadriplegic. He set up a charity, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and became a public spokesman. Later in his career he would turn to media and present Inside The NFL, where his analysis of games was just as sharp as it had been as a linebacker.

Buoniconti himself began showing signs of CTE in his later years, and he joined the campaign to limit youngsters to playing flag football. He donated his brain to CTE research at Boston University. HBO made a documentary, The Many Lives Of Nick Buoniconti, which aired this year. His life is a catalogue of the high and lows of the sport,
just as his career was. And he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the team halls of both the Patriots and the Dolphins.

Friday, 16 August 2019

ANDREAS NORMAN'S SILENT WAR

Many of the greatest writers of espionage fiction have been fascinated by the idea of betrayal, and the ways in which its being stock in trade for a spy means it must necessarily become part of the personal lives of those involved in the great game. It is the essence of John LeCarre, but he is far from alone in building on E.M. Forster’s famous dictum about having the courage to choose friend over country.

For starters, a spy must keep his or her work secret, which means having secrets, lying, to those you supposedly love. And of course, because they are practiced liars trained in deception and, by definition, believers in ends justifying means, it is no surprise that this paradox rears its ugly head frequently.

But few writers have put it at the centre of a novel quite the way Andreas Norman has in The Silent War, which opens with the head of Swedish intelligence in Brussels, Bente Jensen, being passed files which reveal a British programme of torture carried out at a secret site in the Middle East. This will put her at odds with the Brussels station chief of MI6, Jonathan Green, and the scene is set at an embassy reception in which quick glances and a partner absent for just a short while begin a tale in which every relationship is never quite what it seems.

What makes it work is the way the personal morality gets in the way of the larger issues of political morality, and it is odd that Norman, a former Swedish diplomat, is most cutting in the relationship of Green and his MI6 friend and colleague with whom he is at least nominally competing for a deputy directorship, Like honourable schoolboys, theirs is perhaps the most telling and coldblooded in the book.

What doesn’t quite work is the nature of Jensen and Green’s past, of which there are hints but no definition—it seems personal from the start, but it doesn’t go that far. Green’s operation in Syria and his final efforts to contain the leaked documents add action to the story, but the real action is what takes place behind the scenes. The book is best when it is focused on betrayal, and in the end, those who are the best at it are the ones who gain the ultimate victory.

The Silent War by Andreas Norman
translated from the Swedish by Ian Giles
Riverun, £20, ISBN 9781784293628
published 5 September 2019

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

THE WOODSTOCK JAZZ BAND THAT WASN'T: THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY

Looking yet again at Woodstock for its 50th anniversary, I was struck by the full lineup of musicians who played – those who missed the cut for the movie have assumed a sort of ghost form in the public memory. What jumped out at me was that you could have formed a nice ECM-style trio there.

Tim Hardin lived in Woodstock, and because he was there the organisers apparently wanted him to open when scheduling acts were showing up late because of the traffic jams. But Hardin had two longer journeys to make that day: first he was a junkie and second he suffered from stage fright. It is not inconceivable those two conditions were related.

He played with a band the first day that included Ralph Towner on guitar and piano and Glen Moore on bass. A year later, those two would found Oregon, which preceded the jazz-rock fusion with a kind of acoustic, eastern-influenced jazz that prefigured both ECM and, at the other end of a similar spectrum, the new age mood music of George Winston. Towner’s Solstice band included Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek and was a regular on my turntable as I wrote the poems of my master’s thesis.

Hardin’s use of jazz musicians wasn’t unusual. His album Tim Hardin 3, the year before, had included Mike Manieri on vibes, Warren Bernhardt on piano and Eddie Gomez on bass (as well as warning, in the liner notes, about the bells drummer Donald McDonald was wearing being audible! But I remember Bernhardt explaining once that because of nerves and being strung out, Hardin would rarely play as rehearsed, missing beats, adding things, and there was often as sense of their being out of time with him. This is also how his set at Woodstock was described, and it’s a shame, because the band also included Richard Bock on cello: Hardin was way ahead of his time in bring a wider palette of sounds to what had been 'folk' music: another  junkie Tim, Tim Buckley, was doing something similar too.

Arlo Guthrie played the next day and his drummer was the late Paul Motian, another of the mainstays of ECM but someone who had already played with Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett before a brief stint with Arlo that included the festival. Interestingly, he would go on to play mainly with guitarists in small group situations, including an amazing trio with Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, and wonderful stuff with bassist Charlie Haden.

Towner, Moore and Motian would have been a fantastic trio. I’m not sure if there would have been a smooth way to fit David Sanborn into that group, but of course he would go on to a huge career in jazz fusion. At Woodstock he was still playing in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s horn section, with Gene Dinwiddie and drummer Philip Wilson. I’d maybe float them bassist Jim Fielder, one of the overlooked great rock bassists, and trumpeter Lew Soloff from Blood Sweat and Tears and make them some sort of fusion group. 

It's not surprising that google reveals little in the way of pictures of back-up bands from Woodstock. It would have been nice to illustrate this exercise in building fantasy band lineups from 50 years ago...

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

DON WINSLOW'S BORDER

NOTE: This is the 1,200th post to this blog since I first posted a review of George Pelecanos' The Turnaround in July 2008. I like that symmetry, in part because I have written about Don Winslow often, going back before this blog, and I have been pleased with the way he has taken his career, much as Pelecanos did, from insider's favourite to major best-seller. As you'll see from this review, his success is well-deserved.

I was partway through The Border, following along with the battles between cartels and gangs to fill the power vacuum left in the Mexican drug trade, when I found myself, trying to keep track of who is a cousin of whom, and which section of Mexico they control or wish to control, wishing for a list of the characters, the kind of thing you would find at the start of an epic Russian novel. And it occurred to me at that moment that Don Winslow's War On Drugs trilogy, of which this is the final volume, is a crime fiction version of War And Peace.

No, Don is not Tolstoy, but as the scope of the narrative widens in his story, he manages to do the most crucial thing any epic novel needs to do: balance the stories of its main protagonists on the wider stage with the stories of those affected by what happens on that stage. The Border is balanced finely between Art Keller, the agent who has battled through two novels and 40 years against the Sinaloa Cartel and its rivals and successors, and the newly-embattled drug rivals. Keller, the rebellious, uncontrollable agent, is now head of the DEA, and mired in the Beltway politics which have always been at the heart of the failure of drugs policy. Meanwhile Mexico is breaking out in full-scale warfare between rival drug lords, with the body counts threatening Keller's always tenuous position.

Meanwhile, a new administration is taking over in Washington, a property developer turned reality TV star, whose son in law deals with laundered money. You may see the possibilities for conflicts of interests arising. This plot strand attracted plenty of attention in America, for obvious reasons, and Winslow to some extend has become a visible spokesperson against 'The Wall' as well as on drug policy. It speaks to his intimate knowledge, gleaned from agents and from journalists, and one thing his writing makes clear is how dangerous a profession being a journalist is among the cartels in Mexico; The Border is dedicated to dozens who've sacrificed their lives.

For Keller, whose fight against the cartels has cost him a family, the new job includes a new turn in his relationship with Dr Marisol Cisneros, herself physically a victim of drug violence. Keller has always had at least a foot in both worlds, now he has his entire existence there. But beneath that story, Winslow works the other end of the drug world: the cops and dealers, the junkies and those who try to help them, the refugees fleeing for safety to El Norte, their trip dangerous along the way and difficult once they get there, because you cannot follow the progress of the war without being aware of the lives torn apart on its battlefields. This is epic writing at its layered best, and at times the personal becomes almost unbearably tragic, even as the large scale violence seems unbelievable, except that its real.

As impressive as The Power Of The Dog was in 2005, it was impossible to conceive then that, 15 years later, the story would have been continued through two more novels, each getting better, more nuanced, more textured even as they grow more epic. Sadly, this trilogy may have concluded, but the drug wars, the border crisis, have not.

The Border by Don Winslow
Harper Collins, £20, ISBN 9780008227531
note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

THE MOON, MANSON & MUSIC: THE SUMMER OF 69

I've done a long essay on the Summer of 69 and the Age of Aquarius, the Moon, Manson and Music, which has just gone up at Medium. You can link to it, without joining, here. Please do, and if you like it, give it a clap...