Friday, 30 November 2012


My obit of Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association for 16 crucial years, in online now at You can link to it here, and it should appear in the paper paper soon (note: 'soon' in Guardian terms is a flexible term: the obit actually ran in print on 30 January 2013!).

I would place Miller among the five most influential people in sport in the second-half of the 20th century, along with Mark McCormack, Roone Arledge, Pete Rozelle, and Juan Antonio Samaranch or Billie Jean King, all of whom would certainly rank in the top ten overall. Miller's function was to begin the inevitable path of sportsmen into profit-sharing (if not equal) partners in the evolving entertainment business of sport. Many people have called him the most successful labor leader of the 20th century, but his lasting achievement was to get his disparate constituency to give up the sort of individualist dreams that let ownership play them against each other. Baseball is not a perfect business by any means, and players can take advantage of the system, and seem remarkably petty toward minor-league players, umpires, and others without whom the game could not progress. But the overwhelming source of most of the problems in the game is the owners' greed, not the players', and as I suggest in my obit the biggest ongoing problem is the owners' inabilty to share their profits equitably among themselves, something they try to make the players do for them.

The idea that Miller is not in the baseball Hall of Fame seems to me an insult to the players themselves--and it's interesting to see how often journalists instinctively take management's side (it was no different for me when I was shop steward at UPITN, and looked on wonderingly as my  ITN equivalent, who also happened to be their 'industrial correspondent' routine trashed trade unions. I had wanted to include Dick Young, the New York Daily News' reactionary (except in matters of race, where he was a brave stalwart of equality) sports reporter, who regularly called Miller 'Svengali', implying some sort of evil control over otherwise dumb but honest players. What's particularly galling is that Miller's nemesis, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, is in the Hall, despite any number of bonehead decisions, not just his dug-in heels as baseball's designated anti-Miller. It was partly in reaction to Kuhn that baseball went in the other direction to choose a commissioner who might be seen as something more than a tool of the owners. They chose Bart Giamatti, president of Yale, and when he died prematurely, his assistant, Fay Vincent, took over, and would be the 'last' commissioner.

Miller came from unions like the UAW and USWA where workers had had to fight, literally, for everything they'd got, and where the costs could be measured in bodies. MLB was never as vicious in that sense as the big industries, but it was if anything far more feudal, with the players positioned as serfs. The irony was that one could almost understand the owners' position when they were men who made their livings running ballclubs--but as baseball became more and more of an industry, and more and more of the owners were rich men indulging their egos, the sense of feudality and the serfdom became even more intrenched.

I never met Miller, but in the four years I worked for Major League Baseball International, I could see the evidence of that feudal system, and the effects of his work all around me. The most evident was the inability of the union and the owners to view each other without suspicion. Miller famously told his players that if he had good relations with the owners he wouldn't be doing his job, but I look at the relationship between Paul Tagliabue as commissioner of the NFL and Gene Upshaw of the NFL players as instructive. Miller's successor (with a slight delay) Donald Fehr, was adversarial in extremis, but when Vincent, who was commissioner when I worked there, approached the union in a relatively conciliatory manner, the owners fired him and made one of their own the boss.

This became apparent to me when we had the opportunity of arranging two events in Europe; one a two-game series (which turned into one thanks to rain) between two teams (which turned into minor leaguers from the Red Sox and Mets organisations) at Lords Cricket Ground (which turned into the Oval), and the other an exhibition between an MLB team (the Cardinals) and a select team of Japanese players, to be staged in Barcelona in the spring before the 1992 Olympic games at the new baseball stadium in L'Hospitalet. I was part of management, obviously, but my position involved trying to get everyone to compromise in order to get some kind of new event off the ground. I realised I would never get there when I sat in on discussion of another event, the All-Star tour of Japan, in which my boss was arguing over meal-money, on top of the appearance fee, for the players while they were there. The union wanted $700 a day, and provision of food in the locker rooms before and after then game, which seemed a somewhat contradictory position, but would not come down from the figure. 'Frank,' they said to my boss, 'the players have to eat!' I also knew there would be more trouble when I took one of the MLBPA lawyers to Lords, and she asked why she wouldn't be able to watch the proposed games from the Long Room, but I was on her side on that one. The Olympic event never did happen, though the players had agreed to it, while the Oval game was a limited success, but what I noticed most was the way the feudal system swung into effect once everyone from New York arrived in London.

As it happens I read Miller's excellent memoir, A Whole Different Ballgame (1991), while I was working for MLBI, and John Helyar's even better The Lords Of The Realm (1994) just after I'd left it. I'd had much of my instinctive sympathy with the union hammered flat while negotiating with them, although my sympathies usually swung back towards them, thanks to the institutional malaise that was MLB. But those books put the sport I loved, and sport in general, into perspective. That sort of perspective isn't enough to get Miller into the Hall Of Fame, but it shouldn't need to be.

Monday, 19 November 2012


My interview with Mariella Frostrup about Dashiell Hammett was on Open Book yesterday; the show will be repeated Thursday and is available on IPlayer (you can link to it here; it starts 18 minutes in). It's a good programme--Rachel Johnson plugging her novel Winter Games, bright young thing English gels falling for Hitler's Lifestyles of the Reich and Famous, without anyone ever mentioning the Mitford sisters (!) and a discussion of writing sequels to famous novels which immediately precedes my talking about Hammett.

Which is appropriate, given that the hook for Open Book is the publication of The Return Of The Thin Man, a new book presenting Hammett's treatments for the first two sequels to the original Thin Man movie under the guise of two 'recently-discovered' works of fiction. Our discussion of the book itself was edited from the show, sadly, because although I pointed out that this is by no means new Hammett fiction, it is very enjoyable indeed. You can see clearly not only his sense of sharp dialogue, but also his visual sense of how movies work, and what will be funny visually as well as (or instead of) verbally. But these are very much film treatments, and the first, and better, of the two, After The Thin Man, is actually a combination of two treatments, the second done after Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, MGM's resident sophisticated comedy writing pair, had done a screenplay based on the first version. Presumably the finished product, like the film itself, reflects their contributions too. The discussion of Nick Charles also lost the image of Hammett himself, posed on the original cover of the novel, every bit as elegant and handsome as his detective hero.

Hammett's is a fascinating life, often used as a metaphor for some sort of inevitable artistic failure of American artists--all those lost generation boys, as well as, say, the abstract expressionist painters who followed them in the post-war era. Fitzgerald's career forms an eerie parallel with Hammett's, right down the relationship with a younger woman who would become a more successful writer. They were in Hollywood at the same time, and Fitz seemed to be leery of Hammett, perhaps feeling once shy after Hemingway. But as I say in the programme, I think there's a definite influence, and William Nolan made the interesting point about a Hammett short-story in Colliers 'This Little Pig', which may have influenced Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories (Hammett also appeared in the very first issue of Esquire). Hammett was close to Nathanel West, and I don't have any doubt that, as I say, he was a huge influence on West's Miss Lonelyhearts and Day Of The Locust.

A few Hammett stories were also lost along the way; I mentioned that went Gertrude Stein went to Hollywood, she announced the two Americans she wanted to meet were Hammett and Charlie Chaplin. As usual, she didn't get it particularly correct. Dorothy Parker literally knelt and kissed Hammett's hand, and, in one famously unguarded bit of writing, Hemingway himself praised him in a story. Red Harvest was published two years after The Sun Also Rises, but the character and style predate it, and of course it had first appeared in serial form in Black Mask. I went into the parallels between the two writers, who were very much contemporaneous; I don't see a direct influence but I think they were working, in different ways, in the same direction at the same time.

The discussion of the films was brief, and didn't make the cut either (it is, after all, a book programme!) but
the Thin Man and Maltese Falcon both benefit from being cast perfectly (in fact, the second of the three Maltese Falcon adaptations, Satan Met A Lady, attempted to turn it into a Thin Man-type story, with Bette Davis and Warren William failing to match Myrna Loy and William Powell. The first Maltese Falcon, with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, is a pre-code wonder that messes with the plot in order to preserve its characters' sizzle. The famous and wonderful 1941 version was put together, literally, by John Huston by cutting and pasting passages from the novel into his screenplay (the killer final line, however, is his).

We also cut short the discussion of Hammett's political career--he was a man who was determined to make a stand, which he did twice for his country, and which he did not only to support his political beliefs, but also to stand up for free speech itself. That was the work of the last part of his life, when he was too weak physically, from the tuberulosis, the emphysema, the venereal diseases, the drinking, and the smoking, to even continue writing, he still found the strength to stand up for what his believed in. That makes him an American hero as much as an American tragedy. That and his great writing.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


I remember going to the 80th birthday concert for Elliott Carter, at the Albert Hall, and thinking how lucky I was because there might not be another chance to see the man who through much of my lifetime I thought of as the greatest living composer. That was in 1988. Carter has died, at 103, and it's immensely sad because I always think of him as embodying the greatest impulses of the modern era—an artist who managed to express the 20th century in its own musical language, but in a way that would be, ultimately, comprehensible in terms of the previous era. That he continued doing this into the 21st century was almost as remarkable.

Almost twenty years after grabbing that 'last chance', in 2006 I went to one of the Get Carter events at the Barbican, and Carter, now 98, was there again. Some of the music being played was old, but some was new, and just as enthralling, challenging, and satisfying as anything he'd written. I can't think of another artist who continued producing quality work that late into his life; De Kooning's late paintings don't have the same force as the early ones (and there are the inevitable questions about their provenance). Eubie Blake was still playing in his 90s, but not composing. Carter's final composition was finished just two months ago, and now he has died, aged 103, not far shy of another birtnhday.

I'm sure I came to Carter's music through Charles Ives. Just as Carter nearly spanned the Twentieth Century, he was also a living bridge to Ives, whom he discovered as a youngster in New York. Ives wrote a recommendation for Carter's application to Harvard. I once wrote about Ives, in the Spectator, and said he had a 20th century mind trapped in a 19th century soul—and what drew me to Carter, I think, was the sense I had, before I had even tried to think these things out, that Carter's mind and soul were deeply in tune with my times.

At college, I had a couple of Carter records, with lovely simple psuedo-surreal jacket designs on Nonesuch. One of them, the 1952 Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (you can link to it here) was one of the two I played most nights when I was going to sleep (the other was Miles Davis' Bitches Brew--and it occurs to me as I write this that I felt much of the same awareness in Miles, Monk, or Coltrane that I did with Carter) which did not necessarily endear me to my roommates, even after I closed the door. I'm listening to it now, and I understand better now what it was then that appealed to me, on a deep and instinctive level. In one sense it's post-modern, about the instruments themselves, and their relations. But underneath the conflicts between the sounds, the timings, the essence of each individual, there is also a coming together, a way of knitting the chaos together, that to me brings all of modern life into focus, into perspective, into a sense of being something we can cope with and celebrate.

That sense becomes more and more profound in Carter's later work—especially as he moved to larger ensembles. I sometimes feel his status worldwide was less than it might have been because he was seen as a 'chamber' composer, as if the absence of a series of symphonies somehow lessened the impact of his music. But his major period is generally thought to have begun with the Concert For Orchestra, in 1969, and among my favourites of his work are the awesome A Symphony Of Three Orchestras and the Double Concerto for Harp and Piano, whose scale of ambition ought to be enough for anyone.

Carter is always the composer I suggest when people say they don't 'get' 'modern' music. There was a fantastic South Bank Show back in the 80s, in the days before contrived talent shows, house-selling, and cooking replaced serious work on commercial TV. It was made by Alan Benson, and linked carefully Carter's music to the tradition, provided signposts for hearing it as such. Seeing it performed often might accomplish the same thing: where the instruments might be arranged across the stage, and even regroup to illustrate what they up to. That he was perhaps better appreciated in this country than in America is interesting; Carter had many champions, but none so effective, or with the status in his own country, as Oliver Knussen here, and Knussen's conducting of Carter's work shows the profundity of his understanding of it.

It's funny. I began writing this feeling sad, wanting to mark the passing of not only a great man, but an amazing creative span, a century of artistic progress in an age not always committed to that. But as I listen to those four instruments engaged in their interactions, I find it impossible to be sad. Just as it did when I was young and looking to clear my addled brain, Carter's music seems to be recognising, and then unravelling mysteries. It is truly a thing of wonder, and though he will be missed, this music will live on, and speak to future generations about our times as profoundly as Mozart or Beethoven do about theirs.

Thursday, 1 November 2012


My obituary of Russell Means is up now on the Guardian's website (link to it here); it should be in the paper paper tomorrow. It was a difficult one to write to the assigned length, simply because Means' life within the AIM was so fraught with internal friction, and I could have got lost in hundreds of words on feuds, issues and personalities.

There's no question he divided people in the movement, and I wonder how much was due to the fact that, as I said, he was a drifter going from odd job to odd job across the West before he latched on to Indian politics. The urge to put his own interests in the foreground was the main bone of contention with his fellow AIM members, but it isn't surprising in the sense of a self-made political figure, particularly one as well-versed in political theatre as Means. That the theatre sometimes resulted in violent confrontation somehow made his point about the history of relations between Native Americans and the Europeans who pushed them out even more clear.

The move to movies was natural--no pun on Natural Born Killers intended--and he is very good indeed as Chingachgook in Michael Mann's Last Of The Mohicans, which is an excellent movie that's true to James Fenimore Cooper even as it departs from the text. Oddly enough, he played a supporting role in another Fenimore Cooper adaptation, a 1996 TV movie of The Pathfinder, in which Graham Greene plays the older Chingachgook (Pathfinder is Natty Bumppo, aka Hawkeye and Deerslayer). Even more oddly, he played the title character in another film called Pathfinder (2007) not based on Fenimore Cooper but about Vikings battling Indians in the pre-Columbian times. I made the point that he played a number of Indian heroes, which came out in the paper as simply heroes, but Jim Thorpe is a fine example of a hero whose status as an American Indian made his story ultimately tragic. I'm not of the belief Means' story is tragic, by any means, but it certainly never achieved all that we would have hoped he might have. And my original ended with a noting that, three days after his death, his ashes were scattered at a ceremony in the Black Hills.


The second series of Homeland begins with Carrie on her meds and teaching EFL, while Saul is cruisiaround Beirut dressed as Meyer Lansky, and might as well be wearing a sign saying 'shoot me, I'm the CIA station chief here and I'm Jewish'. But having disposed of Carrie, the CIA then send her back to Beirut, which in Homeland terms is basically a teeming street market bordered by crumbling houses and populated by shifty-looking people who automatically follow strangers and threaten them. Sort of like Brooklyn.

Meanwhile Brody, everybody's favourite Marine sergeant turned Congressman is now a viable Vice-Presidential candidate; in fact more viable than Paul Ryan, while moonlighting as an Islamic terrorist. It's a shame he appears to be a Republican, because he'd fit right into the Obama White House with that profile. He's picked up a new handler, an English-accented woman (Roya Hammad, played by Zuleika Robinson, left) who's somehow got White House press credentials for her grad student blog, because we have to make it easy for Al-Queda, and because no one's yet figured out that Damian Lewis, despite having served in the 101st Airborne during WWII, is British. But then so is the guy playing Carrie's careerist nemesis at the CIA, David Estes (played by David Harewood).

By a quirk of picking up the right cloth shoulder bag on her way out of her Beirut contact's apartment, Carrie unwittingly delivers to Saul a copy of Brody's suicide-bomb confession—which of course has never been used, but the Al-Queda types like to carry around with them when they head to the teeming markets to do their shopping. Saul manages to sneak it out of Beirut, by hiding a copy which the Lebanese version of Homeland Securtity confiscate, and now we now that the psychologically disturbed Carrie was right, David was wrong, and Brody is now a problem.

In fact, Lewis' adjustment to American life has an extreme flaw, which is when he gets into casual dress. He seems to prefer a kangol and polo shirt (this is a marine sergeant, not a suburban golf pro, remember) two sizes too small early on. But then, in episode three, despite his having to make an important political speech with the VP (played by Jamey Sheridan as if he's Michael Murphy), Roya sends him to drive the Al Queda bombmaker who's a tailor in Gettysburg to a safe house. The illogic of this boggles the mind, especially since in other ways Al-Queda are supposed to be all-powerful, with assets everywhere in America. But it gets even worse when Brody arrives in Getttysburg walking stiffly through town in a casual outfit of baseball cap, windbreaker, and slacks that appears to again be too small for him, as well as brand-new, starched and ironed. And he walks with a prissy kind of stiffness which would make him stand out in any small town, unless it were the set for a remake of Invaders From Mars. I thought maybe this was somehow a sort of character comment, a cunning reference to Fifties paranoia, or to his inability to adjust to civilian life as a spy, but I suspect the reality is that either Brody is more comfortable in uniform, whether Marine or politician, where he can be as stiff as he likes, or Lewis is more comfortable in British casual wear.

Then, as he tries to change a flat tire without a jack, and chase his passenger through the woods in a rainstorm, which winds up in his having to kill him with the patented TV neck-breaker while he talks to his wife who's wondering why he's not at the speech. Watching Lewis trying to balance these elements of his it occurred to me what I was seeing was a 21st century version of I Led Three Lives, the Fifties TV show which starred Richard (no relation) Carlson as Herbert Philbrick, 'citizen, communist, counter-spy'. I recalled mentioning the show as one of a number of examples when I wrote about Homeland's first series last year (link here). But now the parallel was more direct, although in this case, Brody has only two lives, I thought with some disappointment.

That disappointment lasted only as far as episode four, in which Carrie hands Brody the ulitmate hotel bar pick-up rejection: just as he's about to embrace/strange Carrie agents burst into the room, and this CIA version of the Murphy game sees him led away with a black hood over his head, headed to Gitmo or some safe house torture chamber.

So the stage is set for Brody to be turned—whether by persuasion or by the sort of combination of therapy and drugs that has been so ineffective with Carrie—into a real Herbert Philbrick. He's the war hero who's been turned by Al-Queda who can now operate as a double-agent, thereby doubling the risk, and, as Philbrick discovered, making even the simplest daily tasks fraught with suspicion, deception, and of course danger. The possibility is then open for the CIA, knowing that Carrie is a head case and has already been involved with Brody, assigning her to be his handler, which will add an element of the 'will they-won't they' dilemma so beloved of American television morality, and it leaves the continuous question, which was never a problem for the audience following Richard Carlson, of whether or not Brody's latest conversion is real.

Complicating the issue will be Brody's Marine ex-buddies, the most demented of whom is convinced (correctly) Brodie played a part in the murder of his fellow convert to Islam, the sniper Walker, and a burgeoning sub-plot of romance between Brody's daughter and the son of the Vice-President, which raises the worry that the need to keep a teenaged audience interested by showing them versions of themselves, which so plagued 24 that it quickly became unwatchable, could well take over the show. I can see Abu Nazir sending the Teen Terrorists to the US and infiltrating them into Sidwell Friends School.

I Led Three Lives was a paradigm of the Red Scare during the death-throes of the McCarthy Era. Homeland is threatening to become exactly the same thing—with the hugely exaggerated threat of the enemy within being overcome by the increasingly harried misunderstood hero. Lewis does a great imitation of Richard Carlson worried he won't be able to find a pay phone in time to let the FBI know where and when the cell meeting is where the latest secrets are about to be passed on to Moscow. Beneath the flash of the plot, the twist of Brody's being a successful politician and a legitimate Moslem/terrorist (which thus far in Homeland appear to be the same thing) and of course the distinct pleasure we take in watching Clare Danes go all psycho every week, Homeland is, at heart, an old paradigm come home to roost, I Led Three So-Called Lives, under the guise of My So-Called War On Terror.