Sunday, 31 January 2016

CRIME VAULT LIVE EPISODE 5: A GRAND FINALE

The fifth and final episode of our podcast The Crime Vault Live is now up. You can download or listen to it (and the previous four editions) at The Crime Vault website here or at ITunes here. It's a great listen, our guest is Alex Marwood, who's a fascinating interview; it helps that her novel The Darkest Secret is a definite winner. The reviews include new novels by Robert Crais, Chris Brookmyre and Gerry Seymour; discussion of lots of film and TV; the genre's game-changers; the passing of one of those game-changers, William McIlvanney, and the year's best-seller list and its domination by women crime writers. All killer and no filler.

Sadly, this will be the last in this series of Crime Vault Live podcasts, as Little Brown's Crime Vault website hasn't renewed our commission. They have been great to work with, from the moment Harry da Producer and I first discussed the idea with Mark Billingham; as Mark's publishers they were very supportive and we owe them a lot of thanks, especially the energetic Alexandra Cooper who was our point person at LB. I'm sure LB will continue to offer audio at the Crime Vault, so keep your eyes on the website. Meanwhile Harry and I will look to take the format elsewhere, because the response from many of you has been great, and the magazine-style format is one I hope we can continue, so keep your ears to the ground.

In the meantime, the upside will be more reviews up here on Irresistible Targets; in fact I may have to revisit some of the things we talked about in the five episodes of the podcast, just for those of you who didn't listen.

In case you haven't looked yet, our special guests in each episode were (1) Martyn Waites aka Tania Carver (2) Val McDermid (3) Ian Rankin (4) John Harvey (5) Alex Marwood. A pretty impressive group...enjoy!


SIGNE TOLY ANDERSON: THE BLINK OF AN EYE, IN MEMORIAM

Signe Toly Anderson, the original 'girl singer' (see below) from the Jefferson Airplane, died Thursday, the same day as her bandmate Paul Kantner, though inevitably her death received less attention. Anderson (Toly was her maiden name) sang on the Airplane's first record Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, which is a remarkably good album. It's not quite the same sound as Surrealistic Pillow, which followed with Grace Slick on vocals. Slick's lead vocals were a big part of what made the Airplane, and especially 'Somebody To Love', so much of a hit, but with Anderson the band did more intricate harmonies and her voice blended in beautifully with Marty Balin's and Kantner's and Skip Spence's (in the early days). Although there was more blues and folk in that album, it was as much a foundation of the San Francisco sound as the record which followed; less psychedelic but I loved it when it first came out, and it's worth a listen now. If you find the version with extra songs not included, and a couple of 'uncut' versions, you'll hear more and better Signe.

Anderson left the band because she had a young daughter, and wanted to quit the road. She tells a great story about a trip to Chicago with the Airplane, you can link to that interview here, it's a great listen. The airplane were the house band at the Matrix, where he husband was the bartender, and the first night they played word of mouth reached Ralph Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle. Gleason came the very next night, wrote about them, and the rest was history. Gleason would go on to the same thing nationwide in his Rolling Stone column for many musicians. It's a shame that era of cross-generational fertilization via newspapers doesn't really exist any more.

Anderson arranged her leaving with time enough for the Airplane to hire Slick, and for Bill Graham, who was also their manager, to make arrangements; they did their last concert with her on October 15, 1966 at the Fillmore; Slick took over the very next night. Apparently a tape of that concert surfaced and became a CD in 2010, it includes Balin announcing that 'the girl singer' was leaving the band. I found her signature song 'Chauffeur Blues' from that concert on You Tube, you can link to that here. The sound's not great, but her voice rises above that, and you can hear Jorma and Jack clearly around that voice.

She survived cancer in the 1970s, but it had returned well before the time she did the interview. I was still listening as wrote this, and she's incredibly positive. You can see why her bandmates loved her so much. She ends by telling the interviewer 'Hey, just be happy. Remember...everything you say there's someone listening. Make sure it's nice...it's gentle. And love the people you love because, you know, it might just be the blink of an eye'. The blink of a very teary eye now.

Friday, 29 January 2016

BASIC TRAINING: A POEM FROM ARTS COUNCIL of GB NEW POETRY 4, 1978

I came to Britain 39 years ago, in January 1977. Over the period of a week in May that year I wrote the poem below. In December I sent it to the Arts Council of Great Britain, for their New Poetry anthology. It was accepted and published in New Poetry 4, in November 1978. The anthology was edited by Anthony Thwaite and Fleur Adcock; from their response to me at the launch cocktail party, I suspected it was Fleur, who asked me about my (non-existent) military career, who had selected my poem. She was the first New Zealander I had ever met. She was also very encouraging, and I left the event feeling I'd turned a writing corner.

Being me, I was never able to parlay that feeling and an appearance in a major anthology (other contributors included John Mole, Gavin Ewart, Anne Stevenson, Roy Fuller, CH Sisson, Peter Redgrove, George Mackay Brown, TV's Tom Paulin and many other established names) into anything bigger. The networking was likely going on around me. And I was very happy with the £15 fee and copy of the book published by Hutchinson, which I rediscovered in a file cabinet while moving this year.

The poem eventually found its way into a small collection called Neutron Bomb, published in an American magazine called Tel Let, in Illinois. Looking at it now, it's very much atypical of what I was writing at the time. In fact it's kind of a coda to my first-ever published poem, which appeared in the New Haven Register when I was 17. I've made a couple of small changes; 40 years on I suppose I'm allowed to try that. One of them is adding the formality of capitalizing the start of each line.

BASIC TRAINING

Thus we innocents, who had never before
Seen so close a war, found ourselves
In trees, dangling upside-down to test

If our helmets would hold to our heads,
If we too could hang on. And in our eyes
The trees angled down from a ceiling

Of earth, not falling, but threatening
The sky, busy pouring itself out of
The picture. Only the pressure of our

Insteps on bark alerted us to
The presence of fantasy. And only
The chin straps sliding down to our throats

Cued gravity to drop us, one by one; leaves
Somersaulting to ground, where we stood
Exultant, dizzy, in strange erect forms,

Gravity realigning the world in our eyes,
The proper sight of those fallen men
Unharmed by a distant vision of war.


Wednesday, 27 January 2016

STEPHEN HUNTER'S SNIPER'S HONOR

At their best Stephen Hunter's novels of Earl Swagger, and then Bob Lee Swagger, have been grounded in a sort of historical realism, with the Swaggers playing hard-jawed stoic heroes. Sometimes, less successfully, they've borrowed tropes that reminded us of Hunter's other career as a film critic, specialising in violence. Occasionally, Hunter can seem like a small-calibre Tom Clancy, with his obsessive detail about ballistics.

Sniper's Honor combines elements of all three facets of Hunter's work, for better or worse. Much of it tells the story of a Russian woman sniper, called the White Witch by the German soldiers she torments. A reporter friend of Swagger's has discovered her in an old Russian picture magazine, and he gets involved with her in trying to find out what became of her, as she simply disappears in the middle of the war. The story moves to the Ukraine, to battling partisans and the Nazi SS, and out of that grows a connection to a more modern story, of plutonium making its way around the world.

Hunter evokes The Terminator in his epigraph, and sees the story as Swagger reaching out to the White Witch across time, but truthfully that is the least convincing part of the story.
Our aging hero has picked himself up out of his country retreat enough times; his family has been understanding beyond the call; his endurance is remarkable. And when it's done over a crush, or a feeling of professional respect across genders, somehow it falls short as motivation. But the story moves well, Hunter does manage to ratchet the suspense in both time lines, and there is a twist which works on a sentimental level, though it seems almost as unlikely as a similar one in Steig Larsson. You'll see, because if you like Hunter's work you will read it. Bill Clinton arrived in London once carrying one of Hunter's novels as he got off the plane; I sold a review to the Telegraph based on the photos of that arrival. I was already hooked on the writer, it should need less than a president to hook you too.

Sniper's Honor by Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, $9.99, ISBN 9781451640236


Sunday, 24 January 2016

DAVID BOWIE: CELEBRATING THE DISPLACED SELF

The outpouring of reaction to David Bowie's death surprised me, though it probably should not have. The papers gave it somewhat less space than George Harrison received (front page stories, full page obits), but if anything far more columnists and feature writers tripped over each other to give their own versions of his universal importance to them. I discussed this briefly on the Americarnage podcast (show 203 at americarnage.co.uk) but it's worth a deeper examination.



It's in the adolescent/teen years that music has its deepest hold on most people, and that music stays with them all their lives. The columnists and other opinion makers now are of a generation that grew up with Bowie, in the Seventies, rather than the Fifties and Sixties music I reference so often, which was the music of the columnists and editors when Harrison died.



But that didn't explain the emotional impact, beyond the media. One friend of mine, who hit her teens in the early seventies, told me yesterday she burst into tears when she heard the news and was crying all through the day-- and this chimed with the response that inspired my first reaction, as I said on Americarnage, which was to consider what made Bowie so meaningful to them, while it was nothing of import to me.

The music I grew up with was directed outward. It was aimed at trying to navigate and solve and fight through the problems kids encountered growing up. Originally much of it was being written by adults aimed at kids. But even as the younger generation took over the production, even at its rebellious peak, it was music aimed at coping with the world outside, and maybe changing it, of coping with the ways it would come down on you.

David Bowie's music was doing something different: it was dealing with equipping the vulnerable self to cope with the vicissitudes of that world by escaping it. Bowie's music encompassed the showmanship of adopting new identities, many of them extra-terrestrial, showing there were ways of creating a new you with whom you might feel more comfortable regardless of what was going on outside your room. It was a way of protecting yourself against the ways the world came down on you. It also suggested freedoms to be different from the world well beyond those of the generation before.

It wasn't the music per se. Many commentators wanted to cast Bowie as a revolutionary or innovator musically, but he really wasn't, and that wasn't where his influence lay. My friend Cynthia Rose, for whom I wrote at City Limits some 30 years ago, dug up an interview with Bowie she did in 1983, and she said in its introduction that 'when he achieved profundity it almost always occurred by accident or as a result of his long, usually misunderstood, relationships with three major sources: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Robert Fripp.' This is not to minimise his talent (though I'd add Brian Eno to that list of his influences); he made pop songs with catchy hooks and often fantastical themes; as an example of that, he gave Mott the Hoople their best song (the only one I ever paid any attention to); and he had a distinct flair for the dramatic tied to a moment in time. Even his final, darkest record was timed to his own passing. When he did the words for Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays's 'This Is Not America', a song I listen to often, given that I live in Britain, he sung them with his voice that was actually most effective in the lower registers, and gave the song an uncertainty and depth that the lyrics don't immediately suggest, and which Pat Metheny Group's own versions, while often more attractive instrumentally, often lack.



I said on Americarnage that Bowie's influence lay in the adoption of identities, and Cynthia made an interesting point, comparing him to dandies and pointing out how the original dandies, who confronted society, mutated into the Noel Coward or Cole Porter versions, 'men who sought to sell the world placebos for its deepest needs...demonstrating that the displaced self could celebrate, rather than solve, its losses.' She pointed out how he was 'merchandising other people's 'explorations of the isolated heart and mind', offering 'conceits of style' because he was, at heart, 'conventional'. And remember, Cynthia wrote that more than 30 years ago.



It chimes with what I said on Americarnage, and the range of Bowie's work, particularly outside the music world, reinforces that. He did telling, though not transcendent, work outside music, in a way moving with the times but also moving on from image-oriented music into fields where he could play with that image and often work against it.



Where Bowie's influence might well have been greatest is in the people who followed and borrowed from him. What is Madonna, after all, if not a David Bowie for the next generation, and there is a major essay to be written on the way she provided girls with a female equivalent of the androgynous male with whom they could identify their angst.  I think of George Clinton, Parliament and Funkadelic, as a sort of ironic parody of this, all Mothership and Garry Shider in diapers, with more than a hint of suggestion to the audience to question the placebo they're being handed. Maybe they were the way my generation could interpret Bowie.



Perhaps it's all just generation gapping in the end, perhaps it's just my being a curmudgeon not getting what the next generation gets instinctively. It's an almost inevitable progression, though, from the adoption of a new form of music to the adoption of new identities on stage, to the acting out of science fiction and the emperor's new clothes on stage. But that's not what he was being mourned for. Maybe combining Iggy Pop and Robert Heinlein was an innovation, but it was his understanding of alienation that lay behind what was covered up by the glitter; that was Bowie's real achievement, and what brought so many people to honest tears when he died.


Sunday, 3 January 2016

KEVIN JACKSON'S CONSTELLATION OF GENIUS

My favourite book of 2015 was Kevin Jackson's Constellation Of Genius, which was published in 2012 but being me I only caught up to it this summer. It's subtitled 1922: Modernism And All That Jazz and it is basically a diary of a year which Jackson says was the start of a new age. Or rather, Ezra Pound said it, calling it year one 'post scriptum Ulixi' or after the writing of Ulysses. Of course, Pound's new epoch soon was subsumed in his enthusiasm for Mussolini, but that's a different constellation. In his introduction Jackson acknowledges that what we think of as modernism actually arises over a period of time that begins nearly two decades earlier, but his view is predominantly literary, and predominantly Anglo-centric, and 1922 therefore makes sense, bracketed as it were by James Joyce's Ulysses and T.S. Eliot's Waste Land. 1922 was also the year William Carlos Williams published Spring And All, revolutionary in its own way, but it passes without notice here.  

But the book is not designed as an argument; it is an unfolding of a year presented as an outflowing of ideas, and as such becomes a joy to follow. It created a dilemma for me as a reader: did I keep it handy to simply dip into bit by bit, entranced by its surprises and welcoming its invitations to make connections and consider our perceptions of art, or should I just surrender to the momentum of the calendar, and read along in a flurry of excitement? How many books do you read these days that create excitement? The same sort that reading Ulysses for the first time did, or Hemingway's In Our Time, which remains to me his finest work (along with some of the other early stories).


Not that these were being read widely in 1922. Having grown up studying them, seen them as if displayed behind perspex, we forget the nature of the world they started to overturn. That is why I said Anglo-centric, even though Joyce is Irish and Eliot and Pound are American. Here's a home-grown English modernist, Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Jackson, about Ulysses

and Tom [Eliot} great Tom, thinks it on a par with War And Peace! An illiterate, underbred book, it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw? But I think if you are anaemic, as Tom is, there is a glory in blood”

This puts the problems of literary modernism into a nutshell. Growing up in the Sixties, in America, my perception of Eliot was coloured by his bastard offspring, the 'New Critics', and the coded interpretations of modern reference that entailed, their clinging on to the elitism of a sort of upper-middle class experimentation. I mentioned William Carlos Williams' 1922 book going unmentioned here; Williams himself noted, when he read The Waste Land it 'set me back twenty years'.

In my upbringing, the world of Elliott and Woolf was being overturned by the Beats, the Black Mountain Poets (though Charles Olson's personal mythology needed as many footnotes as Eliot's) and a new freedom of language and, yes, raw expression. Eliot seemed a Yank who had gone 'over there' and not come back, as Frost or Hemingway or Cummings had; moreover he had adapted the protective colouration of the old world, a reversal of classic American 'going native'. Yet to those whose colouration he adopted, the raw savages were 'self-taught working men'. But it was amazing to me, when I moved to Britain in the late Seventies, to discover how important Eliot was still to the older generation of artists, how liberating his work, which I considered constricted, actually had been, and still was to them, and I revisited it through a new perspective as a result.

In light of this, Ezra Pound, whose influence wound up being far greater in America, and who is in many ways the central figure in Jackson's book, gets short shift. He was the mover and shaker in the literary world of London and Paris, but more important, and what doesn't receive notice here, is the way Pound absolutely transformed The Waste Land. His editing on it was immense and made it something it would not have been otherwise, a challenge to both language and formal constraint. The line from Eliot through the Imagists to the poets I mentioned earlier, proceeds directly through Pound, and I would argue only because of him.

But as I said, this is not a book of argument, it is one of connection. And as I followed its progress through the year, I thought of the photos of the great artistic experimenters of that era, the bohemians, the surrealists, the modernists, and how they are always posed formally, in their suits and collars, or at least neckties; how this was a world whose boundaries they were knocking down while still remaining at least on the surface tied to them. I wish Jackson might have included more about actual jazz, though I'm not convinced 1922 is a crucial year. I reviewed once, for the Spectator, Philip Larkin's writings on jazz; it occurred to me that his adulation of the early twenties and Louis Armstrong, and his ultimate disdain for almost everything that followed, was a form of fetishism for the liberating sense that music brought him in his youth, a freedom from the strictures of his upbringing.

And that was what I kept coming back to, how revealing this book is about the world that was being changed or at least challenged by modernism. Again, I call on Woolf, commenting on the death of Kitty Maxse, thought of as the model for Mrs. Dalloway, who fell down a flight of stairs. 'Still it seems a pity Kitty did kill herself: but of course she was an awful snob'. Ms. Pot does not seem very modernist at all. I may have connected with Constellation Of Genius because it took me back, as much to the England which I encountered in 1977 as it did to 1922, an England that was in many ways far closer to the world 50 years earlier than it is to a world only 40 years later. The book sits by my bedside still, and I still dip into it. The best of both worlds. Again, how many books rate such a position?

Constellation Of Genius by Kevin Jackson
Windmill Books, £9.99, ISBN 9780099559023

Friday, 1 January 2016

START THE YEAR: A MOMENT OF WISDOM FROM MY SON

Cooking pancakes for Nate this New Year's morning, and right after giving me 'pinch, punch first of the month', he asks me 'when we die, the world won't remember us, will they?' So I explain to him about the few people who might be, at least in the short term, remembered, and the fewer who will be remembered longer, not necessarily for good. Then I told him that we all have worlds we make around ourselves, where we will be remembered, even when the things, like books and poems and articles and show tapes and blogs, have disappeared. And in one of those places, someday, he will tell his children about their grandad they may have never met, and maybe tell them how he learned to make pancakes from me. And he said 'never mind, dad'....