Thursday, 25 April 2013

ALLAN ARBUS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Allan Arbus is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here, and should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it. I had traced the timeline of his marriage to Diane more fully--they divorced only after Allan moved to LA in 1969 to pursue acting, and along those lines had also suggested that the world-view which Sidney Freedman espouses acts in some ways as a dialectic with Diane's own bleaker perception of the world, and our coping with it. I'd also mentioned that Allan had met his second wife in an acting class, well before the divorce or his remarriage, and I'm curious about the circumstances under which their marriage failed.

I might have liked mentioning that Diane's brother was the poet Howard Nemerov, and I definitely did mention that the movie Hey Let's Twist actually starred Joey Dee and the Starliters. I definitely want to get a copy of the TV movie Judgement, about the Rosenbergs--I had a vague memory of seeing and disliking it because it assumed their guilt--the issue is more complicated than that--but that could well be one of the other many items about them that I studied in the 70s.

In retrospect, Arbus' portrayal of Major Freedman is perhaps the most memorable of any on M*A*S*H, challenged only by McLean Stevenson's Col. Blake and maybe Ed Winter's Maj. Flagg. As Alan Alda said so perceptively, the depth Arbus provided gave all the characters and their situation more reality. And it was brilliant of the Guardian to get a still from Coffy, with Arbus and Pam Grier, as the art for the piece.


Saturday, 20 April 2013

RICHARD BEN CRAMER: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of the journalist Richard Ben Cramer appeared in the Independent on 30 March, but I somehow missed it at the time. You can link to it here, but because there were a few literals in article, including my listing only five of the six candidates profiled in What It Takes (I left out Dick Gephardt, of course), I've reprinted it below with a few small corrections. Sadly, it appears that piece may be the last I do for the Indy, at least for some time...I've always appreciated them for their willingness to both cover some unusual people and allow me to present their obits while assuming the audience will understand the usually American context.

I've been reading What It Takes lately--it stands up superbly after 25 years, particularly because of its sympathy, its non-judgemental understanding--his one paragraph take on the essential difference between George Bush and Ronald Reagan is alone worth the price of admission. It was also fun to recall that Cramer had wanted to include one more of the candidates in 1988, Jesse Jackson, but couldn't because alone of the contenders, Jackson would not grant him the necessary access. What It Takes spawned many imitators, but by then few candidates would allow the same openess, but mostly because none of those who followed could actually do what Cramer was able to do so well...understand people, and put that understanding down on paper. Were I writing the obit again, I would probably compare it more to The Right Stuff--but Cramer has a sharper, less romantic, conception of the American drive for success than Wolfe. Anyway, here's the piece:

Richard Ben Cramer: Journalist noted for his empathy with his subjects

The New Journalism opened the floodgates for writers of non-fiction to use the materials of fiction. When Richard Ben Cramer produced his landmark study of the 1988 US presidential campaign, What It Takes, it was criticised widely for its perceived lack of seriousness. Reviewers seemed to expect Cramer's 1,000 page study of the six contenders, George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, and Joe Biden, to creak under its accumulated gravitas. Instead they got Tom Wolfe typography and bursts of wild metaphor they'd expect from Hunter S Thompson, blinding them to the fact that, with his energy and empathy, Cramer was able to explore deeply these lives, and uncover the dilemma faced by all of them: the price they needed to pay to achieve their ultimate goal. Today, What It Takes is considered a classic.


Its theme was something Cramer has addressed before, in the showcase article from the famed June 1986 special "The American Man: 1946-86" issue of Esquire. Cramer's profile of the irascible and notoriously private baseball star Ted Williams was both revealing and endearing. Half of Williams' quotes appeared in all capital letters, emphasising his awkward bellow. Asked how old he was, Williams answered 'WELL HOW DO I LOOK?.. HUH? WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TED WILLIAMS NOW?' That provided the story its title, but what made it was Cramer's realisation that what drove Williams' insecurity was the other side of his drive to be the greatest hitter of all time, the best sport fisherman, the top fighter pilot. It was deeply American, and it became Cramer's theme: "He wanted fame, and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man. But he could not stand celebrity. This is a bitch of a line to draw in America's dust."

His own lack of success in sport drove Cramer to journalism. Born in Rochester, New York in 1950, he joined his high school newspaper after being cut from the baseball team. He edited the paper at Johns Hopkins University, where he took his degree in 1971. He fell in love with Baltimore, but after failing to land a job with the Baltimore Sun he took an MA at New York's Columbia School of Journalism, before getting hired on the second attempt by the Sun in 1973. In 1976 he left for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who sent him to Israel, where his reporting from the Middle East won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

He went freelance and moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore, writing for Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated as well as Esquire. His wife Carolyn White was a talented editor who, while he worked on What It Takes, gave up her own work to, in the words of one friend, 'become his Maxwell Perkins'. It took Cramer six years to research and write the book; a heavy smoker and prodigious coffee-drinker, he suffered health setbacks, including phlebitis, pleurisy, and Bell's palsy, before finishing it. It was published to coincide with the 1992 elections; the four-year delay was a factor in its cool reception.

Cramer wrote the copy for The Seasons Of The Kid (1991), a photo-book about Williams based on his article, and with The Choice (1992) began writing and narrating documentaries for America's Public Boradcasting System, PBS. The Battle For Citizen Kane (1995), made for their American Experience series, was nominated for an Academy Award. He expanded part of What It Takes into a 1995 biography of Bob Dole, and in 2001 returned to his theme of the demands of fame with Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life, the first warts-and-all portrait of another American baseball icon.

Cramer returned to the Middle East with How Israel Lost: Four Questions (2004), whose thesis, that Israel was a victim of its own victories, and whose straightforward answers to its four questions, provoked some predictably contentious reviews. His final book, in 2011, was a return to his 1986 article, but by this time the title, What Do You Think Of Ted Williams Now, became an invitation to reflect on time passed.

Cramer died of lung cancer. He is survived by his and White's daughter Ruby, and by his second wife Joan. In a tribute, Vice President Joe Biden recalled reading about himself in Cramer's book: "It is a powerful thing to read a book someone has written about you, and to find both the observations and criticisms so sharp and insightful that you learn something new and meaningful about yourself. That was my experience with Richard."

Richard Ben Cramer, journalist: born Rochester, New York 12 June 1950 died Baltimore 7 January 2013.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

REMEMBERING PAT SUMMERALL

Pat Summerall always reminded me of George Reeves, the guy who played Superman. The resemblance isn't overpowering, though I think it's there, but it's more the demeanour, that kind of quiet authority that you don't even realise someone has until after you've stopped to think about it and appreciate what it is you've experienced.

I'm old enough to remember Summerall as a player, though I won't claim to have ever seen him play end. He was a good kicker for the Giants, though not as good as Don Chandler, the team's punter, who assumed both jobs when Pat left. But he found his place as an announcer, one of the first to make the transition from the football field to the broadcast booth. This was something a few baseball players, most notably Dizzy Dean, had done, in radio, but since New York was America's media capital, and the Giants were New York's team (and a very good one in the late 50s/early 60s) it wasn't a surprise that the glamourous former college stars Frank Gifford or Kyle Rote should move into broadcasting. What was more surprising was that a kicker would. Rote was never a natural, and Gifford relied on his looks and charm. Summerall was something else entirely.

He was good enough looking, but he had a golden voice, not as deep as Ray Scott's but authoritative in a resonant quiet way. People forget he started his career as a colour man, working with greats like Chris Schenkel (remind me to tell you my story about supplying security for the Schenk when we did a Barry McGuigan fight in Belfast), Jack Buck and Scott, one of football's alltime best. Scott had the pipes to match Pat, but that was the problem: you had two guys talking beautifully with each other, but Pat just didn't naturally take to being the show horse.

He found his metier when he was paired with Tom Brookshier for CBS, with producer Bob Wussler. Brookie was outspoken, and Pat was the perfect foil to get the best from him. But after seven years, CBS replaced Brookshier with John Madden, creating probably the best football broadcast pair ever, and maybe the best pair anywhere. Madden brought a new perspective to the booth, a coach's ability to break down plays for an audience, and a creative intelligence that needed to be both indulged and directed. He delivered his words with bombast, and then Summerall would bring us all back to earth, back to down and distance, back to the beauties of the game itself.

Because no one was a better master of the understatement, of letting the game speak for itself, than Summerall. Those of us sometimes unable to do such things appreciate them even more, especially when they're done so well. If you want a snapshot of the difference between Summerall and Madden compare their work as hardware store pitchmen: Pat for TrueValue and Madden for Ace.

They had started to get stale when they were hired away by Fox, after the Murdoch network spent big to take the NFC contract from CBS. The huge deals from Fox (especially Madden) and the move rejuvenated the pairing, until Madden jumped to ABC for Monday Night Football, where he was teamed with Al Michaels, probably the second-best play-by-play man the NFL's had. Madden was again rejuvenated. Summerall retired briefly in 2002, then came back to work with Brian Baldinger, which was a very good pairing; Baldy's only fault was that sometimes he tried too hard to be Madden (and I imagine someone upstairs was asking for that). I caught the two of them on a Cotton Bowl one holiday season, and thought they still worked together well.

We knew Pat was a recovering alcoholic; his face would tell you that if you didn't know it. But I knew a lot of people like that when I was working for ABC, and since, and about most of them you hear various stories. You never did about Pat, in fact, I can never remember a harsh word being said. He seemed to handle himself outside the booth the way he did inside it—with a minimum of fuss and an attitude of respect. He respected his audience, his colour commentators, and the game. That's what came through his wonderful voice on the television screen. He was the best. But when I shut my eyes (and eyes) I can still see him kicking for the Giants.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

THE FIVE BEST BASEBALL NOVELS: THE BROWSER INTERVIEW

NOTE: About a year ago, I did an essay for BBC Radio 4's Open Book, about baseball novels. You can link to that post here, but the IPlayer link has disappeared, so I will try to find my original script and reprint it. 

Shortly after doing Open Book, I was interviewed by The Browser, a literary website, and asked to pick my five favourite baseball novels, something the structure of the Open Book essay hadn't allowed. I went to look at that interview, but it too seems to be suffering from the internet's missing link disease. Luckily, I had the website's rough draft of the interview available, so, with a few small amendations, I offer it here...

Michael Carlson on Baseball Novels


Why do you think that baseball forms the basis for so many great American novels?
In a sense it is because baseball symbolises something that was at one point an idealised version of American life. Today I think it is an idealised version of a fantasy American life which is pastoral, honest, competitive and entertaining. But the more important reason is that baseball recreates the quotidian nature of existence. Baseball is an everyday game. They play one hundred and sixty-two games a year but at the end of each one you win or you lose and then you start over, unlike real life. So it gives you a vast canvas on which to paint an equivalent of real life, but one that is more dramatic each day and builds to a more dramatic climax as the season comes to an end.

What do you personally enjoy so much about the game?
I think baseball is the most interesting game because of its variations on a simple theme. It is almost like an enclosed table game in that you have a very simple structure within which myriad possibilities take place over and over again. It is also the only sport I can think of that puts an individual confrontation into the middle of a team game. Even more so than something like cricket, you have this battle between the pitcher and the hitter which is the centre piece of the game. But within that you also have a team sport. If you look at Japanese baseball, for example, they take the team sport part of it much more seriously than the Americans do and they look at it as a team sport in the sense that we might look at American Football or soccer as being a sport where you have to cooperate with all nine players together. I worked for Major League Baseball for four years and during that time I got a lot of exposure to baseball players and I was constantly fascinated by the depth within the game, the vast amount of information I just didn't know about it.

I know you could have chosen from any number of books about baseball so what made you pick, Robert Coover’s, Universal Baseball Association?
This is my favourite of all the baseball books and I actually think it is one of the great novels of its period. Coover is one of the most interesting but practically ignored novelists of that period. He was writing what we now call metafiction in the 60’s alongside people like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. What I love about the book is the idea that someone who is a rather nondescript and average person uses baseball as a way of elevating himself into being the creator of a universe

For those who haven’t read the book what is going on to allow him to do that?
He has invented a simulation game of baseball --these existed in the days before fantasy sport which is a different thing. Fantasy sport is more or less asset stripping the statistics of the game. But the simulation games existed because baseball is the best sport for them, because it is so well documented statistically. The way they generally work is on probabilities out of a thousand and so in some games you would roll three dice to get a three digit number (a one in a thousand probablilty) and you would then use number charts to get a result which would reflect the baseball statistics. That is what happens in Waugh's game.

Waugh has his own teams and players and when the son of one of the great players of all time comes along as an exciting rookie, Henry – the character-- rolls his dice and rolls his dice again and the charts say something bad happens. And at that point as the creator of the universe he is forced to make a decision! But, I don’t want to give it all away.

Yet as a character Henry is a normal, not very exciting accountant.
Yes. He is someone who goes to bars every night when he is not playing his baseball game. He has a very depressing relationship with a woman who we might describe as a floozy but he lives within his baseball fantasy. The full title of the book is, The Universal Baseball Association Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop and if you look at what J Henry Waugh anagrams into it becomes obvious what Coover is doing by calling him Jahweh which of course is the Hebrew unspeakable name for god. I went back and looked at the original review of the book in the New York Times, by Wilfrid Sheed who was a very good writer himself and he said, Not to read this because you don't like baseball is like not reading Balzac because you don't like boarding houses. Baseball provides as good a frame for dramatic encounter as any. The bat and ball are excuses. Baseball also involves a real subculture, a tradition, a political history that were, in some sense, preordained, …... That the players and fans might be shadows in the mind of a Crazy Accountant up there is not only believable but curiously attractive.”
 
I think he is absolutely right, and idea of God as a crazy accountant makes as much sense as any other. This book most definitely deserves to be read even if you are not a big fan of baseball. There is a mythic element to baseball because in effect it is a pursuit of dreams, but not just the dreams of the player. You can look at it almost as a science fiction novel but it is prescient in the sense that fantasy baseball has taken over the sports fans universe. He is a wonderful writer in complete control of what he is doing.

Next up you have chosen, Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris which stars Henry Wiggin who has been described as America’s best-known fictional baseball player.

Mark Harris wrote four books where the main narrator is Henry Wiggin. The first one was called The Southpaw because he is a left handed pitcher, and they are baseball's oddballs. It's no coincidence the lefty's signature pitch is called a screwball! Bang the Drum Slowly, which I think is his best, is the second in the series. The first three were written in the 50’s and then he came back in 1979 with a book called It Looked like Forever in which the aging Wiggin can't throw as fast anymore, and losing your fastball is a wonderful metaphor for aging.

What is Wiggin like as a character?

He is a bit like someone from a Ring Lardner story. And the tone is very much like Ring Lardner. Ladner wrote stories which were collected as You Know Me Al, letters written by a player to a friend back home. Wiggin's a sort of cracker barrel philosopher, not quite as smart as he thinks. This comes out best in Bang the Drum Slowly. What happens is that his catcher, whose name is Bruce Pearson, is kind of dim witted and his teammates make fun of him. Wiggin finds out that Pearson is actually dying from Hodgkin’s disease and Pearson doesn’t want him to tell anybody. And Wiggin doesn’t break his trust but what he does do is to start to integrate Pearson into the team.

But, the book is not about what the team does, it is about how we deal with life. Wiggin is always playing a card game with one of the coaches called Tegwar and they use it to baffle rookies and newcomers and they teach Pearson what Tegwar is. Tegwar actually stands for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules. There aren’t any rules, they just make them up as they go along and in a sense that is what life is.

What is really interesting is that a lot of baseball novels have been made into movies and there have been a lot of great baseball movies as well, but not that many novels have translated into fine films. This one was made into a movie quite successfully with Robert De Niro as Pearson and Michael Moriarty as Henry Wiggin even though Michael pitches with his right hand! When the book came out it was done on television for the US Steel Hour, (note: which were hour long live dramas, broadcast from 1953-1963) and it had Paul Newman as Wiggin and Albert Salmi as Pearson. I have never been able to find a tape to watch but I think it would be fascinating as well.

For all the reasons you have just given this is widely regarded as one of the best books in baseball fiction.

Yes, it is really entertaining. It’s bittersweet and what I really love are the silly things about it. For example Henry Wiggin’s nickname on the team is “Author” because he has written this book but Pearson is so dim he thinks its “Arthur” and calls him that through most of the book. The book ends with one of the best closing lines in American literature. Wiggin after Pearson’s funeral says, “From here on in I rag nobody.”

Wise words. Your next choice takes us to Mexico with Mark Winegardner’s first novel, The Veracruz Blues.
This book came out in 1997 and isn’t particularly well known. But I like it an a lot and wanted to include it ahead of some of the better known books. It's set in the Mexican League, which was run by two Mexican industrialists, the Pasquel brothers, and in 1946 they had a dream. The brother in charge was Jorge Pasque, and he wanted to go into competition with Major League Baseball. So they started offering big money to steal players from the gringo Majors.

Presumably they wanted to set up the league as a status thing.
Yes it was a status thing and baseball is a big sport in Mexico, not to the level of soccer but it is still big. Winter leagues in Mexico had always attracted Major League players so they decided to upgrade the Mexican League. What’s interesting from Winegardner’s point of view is that the league is integrated like winter baseball was in the Caribbean so you have black players coming down from the States who were Major League calibre players but of course barred by the pre-Jackie Robinson apartheid. And then the white players who jump to the Mexican league get barred from going back to Major League Baseball, for violating the reserve clause in their contracts, and one of them, Danny Gardella filed a law suit against the League which was kind of a pre-cursor to all the antitrust suits that have gone on in the last thirty years or so. He lost his law suit.

What were the reserve clause and antitrust exemptions?
The reserve clause dates to the early years of baseball. In January 1903, the American and National Leagues united to form Major League Baseball. They included a "reserve clause" in their contracts (as had already been National League practice for 25 years), which bound athletes to the teams that first signed them. If they refused to sign a new contract, the old one simply rolled over, and it, of course included a reserve clause too. In effect, players were indentured servants. They could be released, sold or traded, but they couldn't simply sign with new teams when their contracts expired. It was obviously a restraint of trade, but after Major League Baseball saw off the challenge of the Federal League in 1914, Congress exempted them from anti-trust laws, so the reserve clause stood for another 60 years.

Thank you. So the book includes some real life characters?
Yes – Gardella is a character in the book and so is Pasquel. It's based on real events, but narrated by a fictional sports writer named Frank Bullinger, and through him we meet other real people in it including Ernest Hemingway, down in Mexico for the bullfights, or the fishing, I forget which. Hemingway pops up in a lot of fiction these days! Winegardner is really exploring issues of racism and issues of capitalism that make the whole story interesting. There is the whole forced servitude issue that baseball players were faced with in the 1940’s. And you see this effort to get a better deal for themselves using these crazy Mexican tycoons. Mark Winegardner is an interesting writer. Recently he has been doing Godfather sequels which is kind of a hiding to nothing but he does them quite well!

So did the players who went to Mexico and were then barred realise that was a possibility?

They realised it would probably happen but they thought they would be able to get back into the Major League again. And some were older players being offered more money than they were likely to make in the entire rest of their careers. The most famous of them was Sal Maglie who was known as “the barber” for the way he pitched inside and 'shaved' players. He was a pitcher for The Giants. It wouldn't be until the 1970s, when Marvin Miller and the players union got the owners agree to binding arbitration, that they finally did away with the reserve clause, creating modern free agency.

Harry Stein's, Hoopla looks at one of the biggest scandals in baseball history.
This book is really overlooked. It deals with the Black Sox scandal in 1919. But there is a very good nonfiction book called Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof which deals with the same subject. So this book was kind of lost particularly when John Sayles made his film of Eight Men Out which is one of my favourite baseball movies. John Sayles by the way has written a baseball book called, Pride of the Bimbos which is worth reading too, as is Asinof's baseball novel, Men In Spikes.


What happened in 1919?
Some of the players from The Chicago White Sox accepted money from gamblers to throw the World Series, hence the name Black Sox. In the end, despite resevations and second thoughts, and in the face of threats by gangsters, they lost the series to Cincinnati Reds. A couple of years later, after being acquitted in court, eight of the players were banned for life by the new Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The White Sox at the time were considered the best team in baseball by far.

The fix is also one of the themes of W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, which got made into the movie Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe Jackson was the best player on that Black Sox team. Harry Stein's novel is told from two points of view. One point of view is another fictional journalist, Luther Pond who provides the backdrop to the corrupt nature of baseball in those days and the corrupt nature of Chicago in those days. The other chapters are narrated by Buck Weaver who was one of the players on the team. Although he didn’t throw any games himself he was barred from baseball because he knew about it and didn’t tell anyone.

Do you think there is still corruption going on in baseball?
Not game-fixing, but there is the whole issue of steroid abuse, for example. Some things never change within the sport. The money is a lot bigger these days, so gamblers couldn't really afford to make it worthwhile, but remember Pete Rose was barred from the game simply because he bet on games. The cheating that still goes on in baseball is sometimes referred to as gamesmanship. Taking steroids wasn't against the rules of the game, but it is against the spirit of the game (and against the law, of course, without a prescription!). I think baseball is the only sport in America where we still consider the spirit of the game to be important. When the British say, “it‘s not cricket” it is that same idea. No-one would ever say anything is against the spirit of American Football. It’s interesting because if you think of the film, Field of Dreams – there is a speech in the movie which is delivered by James Earl Jones about how baseball stands for everything good in American life. But, he is saying it about a bunch of guys that threw the World Series! So there is certain contradiction that Kinsella and the movie makers never came to terms with and this is brought out by Harry Stein who is something of a contrarian writer. He wrote a very interesting book a few years later about how he became a right wing Republican after growing up a Leftist. And that attitude is what gives this book a certain edge. I like the book a lot; he is a fine writer.

Your final choice, The Natural by Bernard Malamud is a baseball classic which was first published in 1952.

This was a tough call because I decided to pick a couple of lesser known books, so when it came to choosing which one of the real baseball classics to go for it was between The Natural and Philip Roth’s Great American Novel. Roth and Malamud share concerns about Jewishness and Americanism as well. I think The Natural wins it simply because Roth's is a very exuberant book and in some ways an essay about literature. If anyone has readThe Art of Fielding, that draws very heavily on Roth.

Malamud's is sort of a perfect mythic take on baseball in which he plays with the myth of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail.His character Roy Hobbs is a Parceval or Lancelot and he succumbs to corruption. The movie tacks on a happy ending which isn’t there in the book which kills what is a pretty good movie although Robert Redford really is too old for the role although he plays it rather well! The book ends exactly the way you expect those myths to end and he is brought down by his own hubris.

It came out in 1952 and a couple of years later a novel called, The Year the Yankees lost the Pennant came out which became the musical, The Damn Yankees. I think that was inspired by Malamud because it retells the Faust story as a baseball story. But, Malamud’s novel is much richer and deeper than that one. What is also interesting is that Malamud was born in Brooklyn just like Roth was but of immigrant parents. To people in that generation baseball was a major means of assimilation in American culture. You find that in all kinds of writing about the immigrant experience. The way to become American was to learn baseball.

Why do you think that the National Football League has become more popular than baseball?
As I said at the beginning I think baseball reflects an American ideal which is now an American fantasy. Football reflects what America really is.

Which is?
Mechanised, militaristic, violent, obsessive, not pastoral and not relaxed. This has been exacerbated by television and media. Dan Delillo wrote a story called Pafko at the Wall about the famous 1951 playoff game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. The story reappeared as the opening segment of his novel Underworld which is a great book. As a novel itself it would be a great analysis of what baseball means to America. But, he also wrote a novel called End Zone which in effect says that the reason that we are in the Vietnam War is because we love American Football! And oddly enough Robert Coover wrote a novel about Richard Nixon called, Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears? Which was basically about Nixon’s failures as a football player and with his sex life. He was a scrub in college but never quit. He would drive Pat Nixon to dates with other men when he was first trying to date her!

When did football become popular in the States?
College football was always a big thing, but not a pastime, like baseball. Pro football was a fringe thing, in the industrial north, on autumn Sundays. The first big thing was the 1958 NFL championship game, the first to finish with sudden-death overtime. Then the New York Times and CBS reported on 'The Violent World of Sam Huff', the New York Giants' linebacker. It really began taking over from baseball with the Kennedys who were big touch football players, and of course with the advent of television it was discovered that American Football fits the television screen better than any sport.

Do you think there are better baseball novels out there than the ones about American Football?
Definitely. And the reason for that is that although there are some very good novels about football and boxing and some other sports they tend to be more about the sport itself. They use the sport to show the characters of the people in them. But even non-fiction about baseball has more depth. The best baseball novels tend to be about something bigger than the sport. They are using baseball simply as a metaphor for life itself.

Monday, 15 April 2013

ARNE DAHL'S BLINDED MAN

I haven't yet watched BBC4's broadcasts of the TV adaptation of Arne Dahl's novel, but when I read the book a few months ago I was struck by how firmly it was anchored in what I consider the classic Swedish tradition, which flows from Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck, and how consciously it seems to address modern society, while still maintaining its suspense as a police procedural.

The Blinded Man begins with two seemingly unconnected events—a well-planned bank robbery and a hostage situation in an immigration office. The first is unexplained. In the second, we follow Paul Hjelm, whose day begins with yet another instance of missed communicaton with his wife. Hjelm then has to deal with the Kosovar Albanian who's been let down by the system in the only way he can figure out how, by shooting him, non-fatally. For that, he is suspended and investigated for misconduct, but in the meantime he is recruited to join a new elite task force being assembled to deal with the murders of two of Sweden's leading businessmen.

You can see familiar elements already: while Hjelm is not quite as depressive as the popular image of Scandinavian detectives dictates, he is serious, inward, and finds communicating a challenge. Most of the best Scandinavian detectives function within a team—which serves as a microcosm of the society and its ethos in which they function. In Hjelm's case, this microcosm is a sort of rainbow coalition: an almost equally serious woman; an aggressive body-builder, who once in roid-rage turned wife beater; a Finnish intellectual (which plays on some Swedish ethnic stereotypes); a plodding Norrlander called Norlander (which plays on others of the same) and a 'new Swede' of Latin American decent. What is particularly interesting is the way Dahl plays, within the group, on generational differences in traditional Swedish values—particularly racism, and not only in regard to immigration. Perceiving minute differences in their own native society, Swedes have been both open to immigration and felt swamped by it, and this is an important side issue throughout the novel.

Meanwhile, the hunt for the serial killer has a somewhat clockwork feel to it—there is actually an Agatha Christie reference which seems somewhat self-conscious. There are secret societies and a clue built around an obscure jazz tape, Monk recorded live, that would be worthy of Michael Connelly or John Harvey had they ever worked in that fashion. Slightly less self-conscious is the analysis Arto Soderstedt, the braniac left-wing Finn, presents of what makes serial killers in the first place. It's worth quoting: 

'Plenty of magazines in the United States make heroes out of serial killers and mass murderers. It's related to the fact that their society is on the verge of collapse. A widespread feeling of general frustration makes it possible for an entire nation to empathise with extremists and sick outsiders...their disregard for all social rules exerts a strong fascination...we need to ask ourselves what sort of effect this sort of mess could have on the national soul of the Swedish people. There's no such thing as a simple act.'

This resonates within the book's approach to Swedish society, if you go back to Beck the whole idea of serial killing hasn't occured, while in Wallander it is a particularly bizarre crime. But it's also crucial
that both Beck (in Murder At The Savoy, to which I wrote the introduction to the Harper Collins edition) and Henning Mankell's Wallander (in The Man Who Smiled) were brought face to face in confrontation with Sweden's upper crust businessmen—Hjelm faces the same challenges, made more intriguing because the businessmen themselves are the targets.


Hjelm reminds me a bit of Leif Persson's Lars Martin Johnsson (who is a Norrlander himself) in that he's not, as previously suggested, as depressive as a Beck or Wallander or Harry Hole. Hjelm is decent, relatively good with people, but, as with most good Nordic detectives, finds his real battles come within the bureaucracy he faces—and that, again, echoes the society the police are supposedly serving.

Hjelm's relationship with his wife Cilla, however, is pure Beck, though Dahl writes it with more emotion than Sjowall and Wahloo. Here's their marriage, and their lives, in a nutshell: 'Did those few moments in the kitchen draw them closer together? Or had the final chasm opened up between them? It was impossible to say, but something decisive had taken place; they had looked right into each other's naked loneliness.'

These are the things television would find hard to adapt. In some ways, I expected The Blinded Man would find its way to television—more along the lines of the Danish Those Who Kill. The ensemble playing can be managed, and the plot itself works well. As with all police procedurals, the question of reveals, and thus managing tension, becomes crucial. But what made the novel most interesting was the inward-looking part, as with the above, and that would be the hardest to transfer to the small screen. I found The Blinded Man a worthy, if unspectacular addition to the line of Scandinavian police procedurals, and Hjelm potentially a major figure. I will turn to the adaptation with keen interest.

The Blinded Man by Arne Dahl, translated by Tiina Nunnally
Vintage £7.99 ISBN 9780999575689 

Note: This review will also appear at Shots (www.shotsmag.co.uk)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

IN MEMORIAM: ANNETTE FUNICELLO

It was as if Annette had died, at least in part, to provide spiritual relief from the media psychodrama and political point-scoring gush around Margaret Thatcher's passing. That was what Annette did for us, when we were kids, provided a sort of marker toward a different sort of life. Of course, I was about five when I was keen on the Mickey Mouse club—so keen I can recall begging Miss Molloy, our kindergarten teacher, not to keep me after school because it was Mickey Mouse night and my mother wouldn't let me watch the TV if I'd stayed after. It wasn't to watch Annette, and in retrospect I wonder if the Spin and Marty stories were really that intriguing. My memory tells me I liked Gunga and Rama on Andy's Gang more.

But Annette, even then, was a step or two ahead—the older sister (or her friend), the baby-sitter just discovering older boys, the only one of the Mouseketeer girls who actually looked like the girls we knew. She was a Funicello, just like the Bonessis, Montaltos, Volpes, or Aquilinos we grew up with. She came from Utica, not California, though I didn't find that out until I read it in an obituary.

Which was ironic, because it was Annette who became the ultimate beach-bunny in those Disney movies. Uncle Walt had spotted her dancing, and in retrospect we can see both Graham Greene's appraisal of Shirley Temple and a touch of the Humbert Humbert in his appreciation of her. She was remarkably adult in her appeal, even before she astounded us younger males by hitting puberty full-force while we were just becoming aware of the difference in the sexes. Again, I say this recalling that the MMC went off TV when I was seven, so I may be applying some retro-analysis to my emotions when I say forget Darlene and Cubby and all the other goodie-goodies with their names written across their white T-shirts. And don't get me started on the adults. Jimmie? He was the kind of guy our parents should've been warning us about.


The explosion of breasts beneath the 'Annette' was like someone throwing a great switch on the libidos of millions of American baby boom boys. It was probably also the signal that the Mickey Mouse club was about to exceed its sell-by date. How big was the impact? A full decade after their last show, at a Yale football game, the marching band did a tribute to Annette, and in honour of her most lovable attributes formed two circles around two upturned tubas, signifying, as the stadium announcer intoned, 'her big brown eyes'.

By that time, she was another generation's sexpot. Her modest bikinis, and the equally modest Frankie Avalon, were soppy compared to what was happening, and Walt Disney's world-view was getting overtaken by times—it would come back when Annette's generation and the ones that watched her started looking for those comfortable childhood fantasies again.

Annette gave up the industry. Of course she did so to marry her agent—which must've made 'Uncle Walt' jealous. She took being the all-American mom very seriously indeed, and when she came back into the public eye it wasn't as a faux-moralist, like Anita Bryant, but as a spokeswoman and fund-raiser for the disease that afflicted her, muscular dystrophy. In the end, Annette wasn't our pre-pubescent fantasy; she became the kind of mother we watched in the Fifties—not so much on the Mickey Mouse Club, but on Donna Reed, or Beaver, or Father Knows Best. But it's hard not to look at those pictures, with the mouse ears and the bespoke T-shirt, and think about the kind of innocence we like to pretend the world had then.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

HENNING MANKELL'S TROUBLED MAN

Kurt Wallander is 60 years old. He's living in his isolated house with a view of the sea. He's starting to forget things, including one night when he gets drunk and leaves his gun behind in a restaurant. On the home front, his daughter Linda, who followed him into the police, is having a baby, partnered with a Swedish businessman whose father is a naval officer from the old aristocracy. As always with Wallander, he has time to think, especially as he sits out his suspension while the punishment for losing his gun is decided by the odious bureaucratic cop Mattson.

Then Linda's partner's father disappears, and Wallander is drawn into the search—made more personal because Hakan von Enke had previous chosen to share with Wallander the fact that he was troubled, though not the specifics of what it was that was troubling him. Wallander's search eventually involves foreign submarines run aground in Swedish waters, international spying and evasdropping, and even murder. This touches on those keys moments of modern Swedish society—the time of Olaf Palme, and his assassination—which has been at the core of much modern Swedish crime fiction, and which continues to defines the problems of Sweden's view of itself and its place in the modern world. Of course, Wallander's quest is not an official investigation, but that is perfect because it is the detective doing what he has always done best—attempting to solve a mystery, the mystery of human behaviour, the one thing that has always been hardest for him to do.

What develops as he searches for von Enke, and then for von Enke's wife, is something different: it becomes a trawl through Wallander's own past. At times, the devices become a bit strained, as Henning Mankell attempts to cover lots of ground from the past that's been shared through the series, and indeed some that has not. But even if it at times creaks at the edges, the core of it is filled with the rise of emotions, as always restrained and even repressed, in the overwhelmingly Swedish sense, as Wallander and we contemplate his life.

He receives a visit from Baiba, the Latvian woman who was his one true love; he has to deal with Mona,his ex-wife and first love. He is forced to examine himself, and we are given the same opportunity to examine him. It is not always pleasant, but then, it never has been—the reality of Wallander has never been tortured genius, as portrayed by Branagh, or affable insecurity, like Krister Hendriksson. It has been his ordinariness, his restraint, his inability to fit in comfortably with the society he examines as he works. It has been a most Swedish inwardness, made more poignant by the ways in which Mankell has brought the outside world, the modern world, to bear on him. The core of his work has always been Wallander himself, which is what this novel, in its sombre way, celebrates.

For it is Wallander himself who is the troubled man, and his troubles are framed by his past on one side, and his newly-arrived grandaughter on the other. The prospect of tragedy hangs over this entire novel—the reader sits on a sharp edge of fatal anticipation-- but in the end Mankell resolves the Wallander series in exactly the way he has built it over the years, with a simple and, dare I say, Swedish realism or practicality about the nature of our lives themselves. If it isn't optimistic or affirming, neither is it tragic. It is, instead, exactly what it is, and deeply moving, particularly if you have followed the series. This is, obviously, not the place to start reading Wallander—you do not have to have followed the whole series, but the more you know of the man, the more affecting this valedictory novel will be, and the better you will understand Mankell leaving Wallander his last private moments.

Monday, 1 April 2013

TED WILLIAMS: THE LOST GUARDIAN OBIT

NOTE: Tonight I am doing a broadcast on BBC Radio, of the Red Sox season-opening game at Yankee Stadium against the Evil Empire. If you are a Red Sox fan, as I am, you will appreciate the appropriateness of April Fools Day to start the Sox' season, but in the eternal spirit of hope, I thought I'd post this obit, which I recently found in my files, of the greatest Red Sox of all, Ted Williams.

This one was written for the Guardian,with a British audience in mind, as a stock piece for their files before Williams died. But when Ted did finally pass away, on 5 July 2002, the Guardian's news desk thought it was important enough to run a short wire-service piece in the news pages, and the obits desk decided that was enough attention for one baseball player, although, of course, Williams was much more than that. I've left it as I wrote it, except to fill in his age when he died; the Red Sox did finally win another World Series, in 2004, and then again in 2007, but in the process somehow found themselves morphing into the Yankees-lite, anathema to old-school Sox fans like me. I've since written, though the Independent hasn't yet published it, an obit of Richard Ben Cramer, whose tremendous piece in Esquire's June 1986 special issue, The American Man: 1946-1986, is one of the best profiles ever written (you can link to it here). Look at the picture of Ted in the follow through of his swing.  That's the Ted Williams I will always remember, though I never actually saw him play.



TED WILLIAMS was born in 1918, the last year the Boston Red Sox won baseball’s World Series. That winter, the Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, where he became the game’s greatest star, and launched a dynasty of Yankee championships that continues to this day. Boston fell under the so-called Curse of the Bambino, which not even stars as great as Williams were able to overcome. Now Williams has died aged 83, and his Red Sox are still without another championship.

Williams was America’s real-life John Wayne: baseball prodigy, war hero, record-holding fisherman. How many men could make reasonable claims at being the world’s best at three different things? He embodied a masculine image which became deeply unfashionable, yet in recent years a society which lavishes huge rewards on mediocrity came to re-evaluate his accomplishments, understand, and even embrace his uncompromising personality. What was brash in a youngster becomes loveable in an aging icon. In this he came to symbolise Boston, where he was destined to play tragic hero: the young god whose hubris was repaid by the denial of World Series glory with his cursed Red Sox. 

Williams epitomised some classic New England values, working with dedication to become prodigiously skilled at his craft. Using a narrow cylinder of wood to hit a baseball bearing down at your head at speeds above 95mph is arguably the single most difficult task in sports, but no one made it look easier than Williams. Ruth may be the sport’s greatest player, but for pure hitting talent, Williams is the only man who could argue he was Ruth’s better. He could also sacrifice. Although he was accused at one point of dodging military service (he was his mother's sole support) he eventually lost much of his baseball prime to military service. And he was loyal. Despite his feuds with the Boston press, the so-called 'knights of the keyboard' he despised, and despite his love/hate relationship with Boston's fans, he played all 22 seasons of his career with the Red Sox.

But Ted never possessed another New England trait: self-restraint. He never learned the grace, the taciturn style, the faux-worldliness, of New York’s glamorous Yankees like Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. He debuted for the Red Sox in 1939, a 21 year old rookie calling himself “the Kid”. He resembled Wayne playing the Ringo Kid, tall, lean, and impossibly handsome: a combination of youthful innocence and lethal skill. He could count the stitches on a baseball hurtling at him, and uncoil his slender body like a finely-wound spring to make contact with it. Great players demand multiple definitions: soon they were calling him “The Splendid Splinter", later he would add "The Thumper".
 
His perfectionism contrasts with cricket’s equally obsessive Geoffrey Boycott. Like Boycott, Williams waged a career-long battle with the press, who accused him of placing individual success above his teams’ goals. When Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau shifted his fielders to pack the right side of the diamond, Ted refused to alter his technique and hit the opposite way. It would have stopped him taking his perfect swing. But unlike Boycott, Williams was exuberant in his abilities, generous with his chosen art to both teammate and opponent. His childish glee as he danced around the bases after winning the 1941 All-Star Game with a late home run earned him yet another nickname, “Teddy Ballgame”. “Jeffy Cricket-match” lacks the same ring. But Williams steadfastly refused to compromise for acceptance: he wouldn’t wear ties and he couldn’t pander to public relations, he never had an empathy for those who lacked the absolute sense of security his ability gave him.

Williams’ came by obsession naturally. His father abandoned his mother, a fanatical organiser for the Salvation Army. She in turn left him to his own devices; he haunted San Diego’s sandlots, hitting baseballs whenever he could persuade someone to pitch them. He was already playing semi-pro while still a high-school star, and at 18 turned pro with the San Diego Padres, then a top independent minor league team, in the Pacific Coast League, who eventually sold him to the Red Sox.

In 1941 Williams became the first player in almost 20 years to hit over .400 for the season. Where three safe hits every ten at-bats (.300) is considered excellent, the .400 barrier is regarded as nearly impossible. Before the season’s final day, Williams’ average stood at .3995. He refused his manager’s offer to sit out the final two-game double-header to protect his average, which would have been rounded up to .400. Instead, he stroked 6 hits in 8 at-bats, raising his mark to .406. No one has reached .400 since. Typically, however, 1941 was also the season DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, and the Yankee Clipper captured the Most Valuable Player award. The two engaged in a triumphant reunion tour fifty years later, still New York chalk and Boston cheese. But by then, both they, and America, had learned to relish the contrast.

Williams’ career statistics fall short of many of the game’s greats, mostly because he lost five peak seasons to wars. He was so skilled a Marine fighter pilot that he was forced to spend World War II as an instructor. Recalled to Korea, he flew as John Glenn’s wingman. The future astronaut, Senator, and “right-stuff” test pilot called Williams the best combat flyer he had ever seen. 
 
In private Williams, whose ne’er do well brother died at age 39 of leukaemia, was a driving force behind the success of the Jimmy Fund, the Red Sox “pet” charity for children’s cancer research. In public, he used his induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame as a platform to call for the inclusion of Negro League stars, denied by segregation their chance to play in the majors.
But if baseball was his obsession, fishing was his passion. He retired to Florida where he could indulge himself with deep-sea fishing, where he held a number of world-record catches, and was equally adept with a fly rod, the same vision, coordination and patience that made him a great hitter of baseballs made him a great caster of lures.

Aged 38, and slow afoot, Williams still batted .388. Two years later, he retired. John Updike chronicled his final game in a famous New Yorker magazine essay, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”. In his final at-bat in Boston’s Fenway Park, Williams hit a home run. After he took his place in left field, he was replaced, allowing the fans the chance to give him one final ovation. He trotted back into the dugout, without tipping his cap, and disappeared. Despite prolonged cheering, he never returned. As Updike explained, “Gods do not reply to letters”.