Thursday 30 June 2016

'NO TREES?' HE SAID (a poem)

I wrote this originally in April 1982, after a walk through the woods in Wiesbaden, Germany. I brought it back to London and rewrote it listening to Eberhard Weber, and titled it 'No Trees?' He  Said, which is one of the cuts on his album Little Movements. The poem seemed to pick up darkness from the music; also the album cover seemed appropriate. I've changed it a little bit in the past few months, which may reflect the 34 years or may not. I believe this is the first time it has appeared in public.

                                                   for Ulrike Hoffmeister, after Eberhard Weber

Tomorrow we will find
ourselves walking inside
of our cities again.

Today, moving slowly
through the shadows
of trees we remember

too much. There is no
future, you say. The day
is only itself, I say. We

follow muddy trails toward
a sunset our footsteps
tangled amidst the leaves

disappearing, in between
the trees the sunlight
captures us, holds us

closely, while we're still
walking out of the forest,
as if it cannot let us go.

Tuesday 28 June 2016


It's Paris, 1941. Half of France is occupied by the Germans, the other half is run by Petain's Vichy government. The Resistance is starting to take shape, and Mathieu (his nom de guerre) is the lynch-pin of a group that smuggles downed flyers back to Britain. It's Alan Furst territory. 

A Hero In France (oddly, the book was published as A Hero Of France in the US, and changed for the UK. I prefer that title because it speaks of La Patrie in a specific suggestive way) is somewhat different from Alan Furst's novels, which specialised in slow-building, atmospheric stories. This time, almost a reflection of the fragmented nature of this resistance operation, it's a fragmented story, one that cuts quickly between locations and operations. The atmosphere is set in broader strokes, because the pace is faster and the swirling cast of characters come and go—we learn about them quickly and briefly, and we, like Mathieu himself in many instances, don't know who can be trusted and who cannot. The reader is aware of the possibility of betrayal, but many of the side stories remain unresolved: an old flame of Mathieu's is a committed communist working in their group, and tries to recruit him; we wonder if he could be sold out for their purposes. The success of his operation leads the Germans to send a civilian detective to Paris to investigate; we wonder if he will be the bloodhound who finally sniffs out the conspirators. There are French toughs and the usual Furstian mix of shady people of shadowy origins coming in and out of the story. And there are untold stories hinted at or merely seen in passing. This makes it seem slighter in some ways, but this makes for a sense of time getting faster, gathering momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.

It works very well. The episodes build and the tension builds with it, and again you feel Furst deliberately trying to recreate a more individual atmosphere, trying to put you in Mathieu's mind, make you see how well he copes with the ever-changing, always-dangerous world around him. At first I thought this was a somewhat slighter version of the shadowy genre Furst has made his own, but by the time I finished I realised it was more a different perspective on that genre, the protagonist's own perspective. Oftentimes in Furst's work, sides are sorting themselves out. Here, the battle lines have been drawn clearly, and men like Mathieu have a single course to pursue. Because it moves so relentlessly, this is actually a decent place for new readers to encounter Furst for the, ahem, furst time; for those of us who've been with him a long time, it's a fascinating variation on a theme. Perhaps it ends too quickly, with too few wartime questions answered, but it's a compelling tale of heroism. It delivers what the title promises.

A Hero In France by Alan Furst

Weidenfeld & Nicholson £18.99 ISBN 9781474602907

Wednesday 22 June 2016


Jo Cox would have turned 42 today. Before she could, she was murdered by a man named Thomas Mair who, as we heard at the time, may or may not have suffered mental problems, may or may not have been committed to far-right or xenophobic policies, may or may not have yelled 'Britain first' as he pulled the trigger. But Thomas Mair was simply the fatal tip of an iceberg of abuse which Jo Cox received in her short time in parliament, invective and threat addressed to her for what we all know is no good reason. Still some people found rationale or excuse or compulsion enough to make those threats, and now she is dead.

It was only a week since I had sat in the World Service studios for four and a half hours, commenting live on Muhammad Ali's memorial service. What I watched transcended my sadness to fill me with hope and joy; I have rarely felt so proud to be American. Two days later, a man used an assault rifle to kill 49 people and wound 53 more at a gay club in Orlando. Then came Jo Cox's murder. When I heard the news I flashed back more than six years, to the shooting of the Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords while she was conducting a 'Congress on Your Corner' mobile surgery in a supermarket car park. Six people were killed but Giffords, remarkably, survived being shot in the head; her shooter was described as a paranoid schizophrenic, originally judged incompetent to stand trial, but is now serving life in prison. He has never explained his motivation.

Mair, on the other hand, was being portrayed in the media as a loner with problems, at least until he felt compelled when he appeared in court to give his name as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’, which convinced the judge not to brand him a terrorist but to refer him for psychiatric examination, as if Mair’s membership in Britain First and the Brexit referendum tomorrow were trivialities. Meanwhile, in the immediate outpouring of grief for Jo Cox and her family, a memorial appeal solicited donations for her three favourite charities, and a Tory councillor in her native Yorkshire tweeted his anger that her death was being used for political purposes by the Remain campaign, and falsely characterising the Leavers. As if to prove his point he made an obscene suggestion as to what he might be donating to Jo Cox’s memorial.

Compare that to the portrayal of Omar Mateen, who shot up the Pulse nightclub in Orlando a few days before Cox was killed. In this case of conflicting motivations, there was little doubt in the media’s collective unconscious that Mateen was, unlike Mair, a terrorist. I could place photos of the two men side by side and give you a clue to part of the explanation for this bifurcation.

We feel a human need to try to understand what seems incomprehensible when faced with such events, yet in the times since January 2011 when Giffords was shot, there was also a different sort of need, not just to assess motivation but also to claim identity victimhood, establish primacy within the latest atrocity news cycle. In the wake of the Pulse massacre, it was if the issues were queueing up to be taken the most seriously. At times the debate took on the tone of a television commercial: 'he's a homophobe'. 'No he's a terrorist.' 'Stop! You're both right.'

Omar Mateen chose his target carefully: it was a gay club and he appears to have been a self-loathing closeted gay man. He was also a Moslem and called the 911 emergency hotline just before he died to claim allegiance to ISIS and martyrdom for himself, something that apparently should be done before you undertake your act, not after. He was an abusive husband to his first wife. He was also a child of the internet age, a Millennial to the death, checking Facebook to see if 'Pulse Orlando shooting' was trending online even as he fired his gun.

Are these categories mutually exclusive? Omar Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle to inflict his damage; he had tried unsuccessfully to buy weapons and armour a few weeks earlier elsewhere in Florida; the gun store owner had reported him to the FBI. As with each of the interminable mass killings in America, this immediately became a gun control issue, and almost as immediately the US Senate failed to take even the mildest action at reforming America’s gun laws. It is likely only a matter of time some American commentator or NRA official, should they need more ammo, as it were, in the debate, notes that despite Britain's tight gun control laws, Thomas Mair used a pistol to kill Jo Cox.

It transpired that FBI had already questioned Mateen twice, based on conversations he'd had and people he knew, to inquire he if might be a terrorist. They found no reason to believe he was.. He also worked for G4S, in America viewed primarily as a supplier of security guards, not a major provider of government services as they are in the UK. G4S ran two separate background checks on Mateen. Paradoxically, his gun purchases, despite his history of domestic violence, were likely overlooked precisely because he had no ties to international terrorism, except those in his own mind. Buying guns makes you a proper God-fearing American. Yet in most of British media Mateen remains a terrorist, while Mair remains a lone crazed assassin.

When he wrote The Family, his book about the Charles Manson killings, Ed Sanders coined the phrase 'sleazo inputs' to try to explain what drove Manson and his followers to enter the world in which their gruesome killings were necessary and justifiable. In Manson's case those included the underbelly of LA, the cheap bars and strip clubs, the petty criminals, the religious hustlers, drug dealers, and show biz hangers-on. Having spent most of his life in prison, when Manson was released into the hippie world of the Sixties it was like putting a small piranha into a goldfish bowl.

We've moved on since 1971, but our goldfish bowl, while more exotic, may not be any better prepared for the odd predator. The Mansons of our time need not seek out sleazo inputs in the underbellies of our cities, on the fringes of our lives. Those are beamed into our living rooms and fill our cyberspace. They are amplified by the respectable media, who need sleaze to attract an audience; they are repeated by those who deal in the currency of fear: calling on us to take sides, demonizing those who think or look or act or vote different, encouraging us to be all we can be while staying safe behind wall. They warn us that trouble is always brewing, that we are always under threat. They glorify the power of those who ‘serve’ our society with weaponry, at the same time they insist there actually is no society beyond our self-interest, and that self-interest is always under threat and must be protected. In our world these are not sleazo inputs. They are, simply, inputs. No wonder bodies fall.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that his novel One Hundred Years Of Solitude read better in the English translation by Gregory Rabassa than it did in Spanish. Marquez's novel is more than simply one of the greatest, and most popular, of the Twentieth Century. It opened the door for multiple generations of Latin American novelists to reach out in the world, and it ignited a spread of so-called 'magic realism' which had such a huge affect first in Canada and then in Britain.

Marquez waited three years for Rabassa to be ready to do his translation; he did so on the recommendation of Julio Cortzar. And I came to Marquez via Rabassa just as slowly, and also through Cortazar. 
Cortazar originally became a sensation because his short-story 'The End Of The Game', was the source material for the film Blow Up. I remember finding the short-story collection, in an intriguing Vintage edition, but though I have been scouring my memory I cannot recall which of two motivations brought me to the book. It may have been because of the ferocious debate between two teachers at my high school over the meaning of the final scene on the tennis court ('the meaning is that there IS NO MEANING', one of them shouted, impressing us students no end). But it was more likely that I'd been struck by Paul Blackburn's marvellous long poem 'The Watchers' which I found in an old issue of The New Yorker I read in a doctor's office while waiting for my head to be stitched. I was seeking out Blackburn's work, and he had translated Cortazar's stories.

Either way, I moved from those stories to Cortazar's novel Hopscotch, a dazzling work meant to be read twice, the second time in a different order of chapters dictated by the author. Hence the title. It was baffling but engaging, and its translator was Gregory Rabassa. Even as a youth, with no knowledge of Spanish, I could sense the dexterity of the translation. Later I read an interview in which Rabassa commented that translating the book was 'fun', because Cortazar knew 'humour and pathos are really all the same thing, what should be called love, maybe.'

My copy of Hopscotch was a Signet book, but it led me to a relatively uniform series of Latin American paperbacks issued under Avon Books' Bard imprint, edited by a young Peter Mayer. Ironically, I still like the Signet Hopscotch better than Bard's. These were the days when imprints like Signet, Bard, Vintage, or New American Library issued classics and what would now be ghettoised as 'literary fiction' in mass-market editions that sat on the wire-racks of drug stores and newstands alongside potboilers, science fiction, mysteries and everything else.

They were cheap and portable and they opened new worlds to readers tempted to just a hint of adventurousness. Bard published One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and through them I moved on to discover the likes of G. Cabrera Infante, Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa, Marcio Souza, and Manuel Puig. Many of them were Rabassa's translations: Autumn Of The Patriarch and Chronicle Of A Death Foretold; Jorge Amado's Captain of The Sands, and Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversations In A Cathedral. He didn't do more with Vargas Llosa, partly, he told an interviewer, because 'his English is not as strong as he thinks it is'.

Rabassa chose his projects well. Simply looking for his name as translator would lead a reader to the discoveries of Miguel Angel Asturias' Mulata; Jose Lezama Lima's Paradisio, and Luis Rafael Sanchez's Macho Camacho's Beat. But I'm not sure of exactly how Rabassa could judge such things; he said that he translated as he read a work, rather than reading it first and beginning the translation afterwards.

Although one felt drawn to the exotic nature of Rabassa''s translations, his actual background was more prosaic. His father was Cuban, but he grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire. He studied languages at Dartmouth and Columbia, worked as a cryptographer during the war, taught at Columbia and at Queens College afterward. He died in the unlikely setting of Branford, Connecticut in a hospice where I am sure some members of my family's circle saw out their last days.

Rabassa wrote a memoir, If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents. Remember how he worked, translating as he read? You can see why it worked so well, because in the memoir he reminded us: 'The translator, we should know, is a writer too. As a matter of fact, he could be called the ideal writer because all he has to do is write; plot, theme, characters, and all other essentials have already been provided, so he can just sit down and write his ass off.'

Saturday 18 June 2016


Last week I spent four and a half hours on the BBC World Service's Newshour programme, adding commentary to Muhammad Ali's memorial service, which they were broadcasting live from Louisville. While I was going through my thoughts, some of which I'd posted here, or written for and the London Review of Books LRB Blog, I remembered reviewing the aptly-named Muhammad Ali Through The Eyes Of The World, for the Daily Telegraph back in November 2001, when the film aired on ITV after a debut at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival;  I was writing quite a bit for them on documentary film at that point. Grabsky's film was trying to do the same thing we were trying to do 15 years later, provide elements of context for this great man's life, so I dug up my original draft of the article, which is slightly different from what appeared in the Telegraph on 10 November; it had been cut a bit for space. I found it moving that I'd concluding with Ali's message of peace--it took only two days after his memorial for America to taste murderous hatred again. And I was pleased that although Grabsky did indeed set a high bar, in the wake of Ali's death, there was a great deal of surpassing that bar. But here's what I wrote in 2001...

“I shook up the world,” yelled Cassius Clay on February 25, 1964, after beating Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. “The world changed,” agrees a new documentary, Muhammad Ali: Through The Eyes Of The World.

Ali has already been analysed by heavyweight authors. On film, William Klein’s Muhammad Ali: The Greatest was made in 1974; Leon Gast's exceptional smash hit When We Were Kings, about the Rumble In The Jungle, followed two decades later 1996. Will Smith will impersonate Ali soon in a feature film directed by Michael Mann. With the turn of the millennium, Ali has been acknowledged as the past century’s greatest sportsman. So do we really need another documentary? 

“I asked myself the same question,” says ThroughThe Eyes Of The World's director, Phil Grabsky. “What could I add to the canon? I felt what didn’t exist was a film made for people who weren’t boxing fans, and I thought we could add something for those who didn’t necessarily remember the era.” Judging by the response of audiences when the film opened the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, where extra showings had to be laid on, the answer is emphatically yes. 

Grabsky’s film is built from interviews. Celebrities are a selling point, of course, yet far from stealing the spotlight, stars get transformed into fans when faced with idea of Ali. Richard Harris refused to talk about the Burtons or Oliviers he’s worked with, says Grabsky. “He said ‘that’s just tossers talking about tossers, but I want to talk about Ali, because he’s really significant.' 

“I was fascinated when highly successful people made grandiloquent claims for a guy who, in his own words, ‘beat people up for a living’, Grabsky explains. “Big stars tend to isolate themselves from their communities. Today how many of them would dare support political ideas like Ali did?”

The film speaks eloquently the American apartheid from which Clay emerged, and of his stand against the Vietnam war, but inevitably the boxing footage steals the show. And celebrities may be celebrities, but people from the boxing world not only tell the best stories, but prove the most adept at supplying the wider context. When contrarian author Mark Kram claims Clay ‘didn’t change a thing’, Ring Magazine’s Burt Sugar explains exactly what Ali sacrificed when he gave up his title by refusing to be drafted, and younger boxer Howard Davis explains what that meant to those who followed him into the ring. When critic Stanley Couch characterises Ali’s embrace of ‘a gaggle of lunatics’, the Black Muslims, as ‘insane’, sports writer Dick Schaap says he believes ‘only half-kidding’ that Ali was so malleable he, Schaap, probably could’ve converted Ali to Judaism had he tried. Another sports writer, Jerry Izenberg speaks movingly of how with him Ali transcended the ‘white devil’ message of the Nation of Islam.

Grabsky is balanced and exposes bits of Ali’s dark side, his womanising and his capacity for viciousness in the ring (as when Ernie Terrell refused to call him ‘Ali’). But what stands out is the way he uses boxing footage not only to portray the beauty of the fighter in his prime, but also to show the conscious strategy, the intelligence that lay behind Ali’s seemingly natural ability. Yet this footage has its own dark side, as we see Ali’s incredible ability to absorb a punch, popping back up after killer blows from Joe Frazier and Henry Cooper, the punishment he took long before 'rope a dope'. 

Today, the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee is bloated by Parkinson’s Disease, his spark as lively as ever but his ability to speak almost gone. Grabsky reveals that towards the end of his career, Ali fought while taking thyroid medicine which robbed him of the very last shreds of his ability. Yet Ali regrets nothing. One friend speaks for the audience: “he doesn’t regret it, I don’t know why I do.”

For Ali always came back. Izenberg reminds us that when he won his draft case in the US Supreme Court, the ultimate ‘beat the man’ verdict; the stand which had made him a hero to the young, now made him the idol of ‘the limo crowd’. Did he really change the world? Like the JFK assassination, or the Beatles’ invasion of America (and don't forget the Fab Four made a pilgrimage to Ali’s camp before the first Liston fight) Ali helped usher in the Sixties; but forty years later he still makes a difference. Were there any doubt about his importance, you could see the man Presidents beg for autographs visiting the World Trade Towers, living his role as America’s leading Moslem, standing up for peace. 

Is there still more to say about Muhammad Ali? Grabsky convinces us that there is. But this film has set the bar just a little bit higher for the next one.

Tuesday 14 June 2016


This graphic novel is an origin story of sorts for the Unwritten series, built around Tommy Taylor, a children's book character, and Tom Taylor, son of Wilson Tucker, the writer of the Tommy Taylor books, who has disappeared. Taking off on the Harry Potter series, they have referenced Potters' borrowed fantasy archetypes, and here, with Wilson Taylor placed in the fore, they go even further into the idea factory from which these tales are generated. Yet in its mixture of the writer's life and neuroses, and the parallel father/son relationships in 'life' and in the Tommy Taylor world of magic, this comic plays with the darker areas in which the protection of fantasy shields a child's own life. It's full of stories within stories, and the shadowy way in which the fantasy tale reflects the writer's own life, and the two Toms come together, is a shifting metaphor for the whole creative process.

In the previous post I discussed Sidekick, which plays with super-hero tropes, and referenced Alan Moore as a starting point for such explorations. In a sense, the Unwritten is part of a second strand which does similar things, but in a vein of fantasy which can be traced back to Neil Gaiman and The Sandman. Writer Mike Carey worked on a number of Sandman projects, which makes the link obvious; we can see it also in Mike Willingham and Mark Buckingham's Fables, in which fairy-tale characters take on 'life'; not surprisingly Vertigo has published an Unwritten/Fables crossover, which I reviewed last year here (follow this link).

The Ship That Sank Twice draws you in from the start, with Wilson Taylor's efforts to find a story blending into the original tale of the ship, and a lost baby delivered by Leviathan to the wizard Tulkinghorn, who runs a school for young wizards. But the sunken ship holds a secret which is desperate to escape...

What makes this work so well is the deftness in switching between the Potteresque school, the horror-movie type evil, and the story of Wilson Taylor and his son, which has its own aspects of horror about it. Peter Gross's art (he's credited with layouts, and the collaborators on both art and finishes use line, tone and colour to reflect and indeed set mood) moves just as deftly as Carey's script. In fantasy, emotional realism is essential, and they bring that home well. It's a wonderful dark story well told.

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor And The Ship That Sank Twice
by Mike Carey & Peter Gross
Vertigo/DC $14.99 ISBN 9781401229771


'After all, they're just sidekicks.' Life changes for Flyboy when the Red Cowl is killed during a victory parade. Once the sidekick to a super-hero, Barry Chase now finds himself unable to transition to hero himself, and his life descends into a pattern of loss he can't overcome with 'dreamstarter', or with a change of identity and city. Sidekick is an audacious twist in the kind of meta-comics we've seen since Watchmen, in which writers untangle and examine the conventions of the superhero comic and use their innate contradictions as the basis for their stories.

The point of sidekicks was always pretty obvious in comic books: to attract the even younger audience and provide a fantasy outlet for them. Over the decades we saw some revision taking place, most notably first in 1971 when in Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' famous story, 'Snowbirds Don't Fly' the Green Arrow discovers his sidekick Speedy is a junkie. Then we saw iterations of the Batman/Robin relationship. In real life, millionaires and wards are not all that common, and in real life youngsters grow up. And in this sense, J. Michael Straczynski's script translates second-banana stories from movies or comedy or music into the super-hero world, and does it with panache.

Flyboy's decline is almost shocking. His attempts at reinvention are first pathetic (robbing a jewellery store in order to solve the crime) and then almost doomed to hubristic failure. And finally, in the shock revelation that turns the story around, his final growth into a full-fledged 'adult' super-hero takes the twisted shape that's been molded through the story. It's a neat piece of writing, not least for the fact that it ends on a 'to be continued' which makes perfect sense.

It's complemented well by Tom Mandrake's art, which tries to combine some of the 'innocence' of golden age styles with the steroid dynamism of the modern era. Mandrake is best on expressing bursts of emotion, often in extreme close up, Chase/Flyboy's despair, self-pity, anger, grief, in essence a full run of adolescent reactions to life, jump off the page, and finally become something more. It's as dynamic internally as in the external action, and that's rare.

Sidekick, written by J. Michael Straczynski art by Tom Mandrake
Image Comics $12.99 ISBN 9781607068617

Monday 13 June 2016


Sometimes it's hard to keep track of where you stand with Sebastian Bergman. Or Rolf Lassgard, who plays Bergman on TV, and who is thanked by the authors for his inspiration in creating the character he plays. The Man Who Wasn't There is the third of the five novels in the Bergman series; there have been two TV series of two 90 minute episodes each, and honestly sometimes I can't remember whether I read a scene or saw it on the screen. This is now also the third novel translated into English, but the English titles of the last two have been styled to remind people of Stieg Larsson: the Swedish title of this book, Fjaellgraven, translates literally to 'The Mountain Tomb', and honestly, the English title may be a better one, apart from having been used recently by the Coen brothers! Of course titles aren't the real confusion with TV adaptations. The bigger problem is that for the reader it becomes increasingly difficult not to see Lassgard's face in the role, and sadly it is correspondingly difficult to actually give most of the other characters any kind of real life of their own. 

And the lives of the characters in the Riksmord elite murder squad really do form the crux of this story. Six skeletons found in a grave in the mountains of northern Sweden bring Riksmord onto the scene, and the story moves relatively slowly for a long time, partly because there are few clues and partly because we are dealing with the lives of these people as much as the deaths of the victims. The main narrative drives comes from two neatly parallel stories: Sebastian is actually the father of his colleague Vanja, something she doesn't know, and she is off to the US and an FBI training course. Meanwhile, an Afghan refugee has contacted Swedish television's investigative unit, still looking for her husband who disappeared years ago, leaving her and their two sons without a word. But although the reader knows there has been an assassination-style killing in the mountains, that investigation seems to be going nowhere.

It seemed as if this novel was very self-referential. There are the crummy meal details, like in Larsson. Bergman has lost his wife and daughter in the tsunami, which reminded me of Johanna Sallstrom the actress who played Linda Wallander in the TV series, who lost her own daughter and later killed herself. Co-writer Hjorth did some Wallander screenplays. And of course Lassgard played Wallander: some people prefer his somewhat grumpier Wallander to Krister Henriksson's more sparkling version (no one I'd trust seems to prefer Branagh) and it occurred to me that there is a certain brilliance at work not only in Bergman, but in the team.

Because most Swedish series are big on teamwork, going back to Martin Beck and his Swedish version of the 87th precinct. The working together is generally rational and practical, as Swedes think they should be, and their relations may be problematic, but there are problems that everyone cooperates to resolves. But Bergman is no Beck or Wallander. He is a profiler, supremely empathetic, which makes him an effective, if heartless womanizer, but he's also conniving and nearly sociopathic. Within his group we have naked ambition, suspicion, and in Ursula a sort of female Bergman who has left her marriage and now wants a break from her lover, Torkel, the one character who would seem to fit the classic Swedish template and seems overwhelmed as a result. It's as if Hjorth and Rosenfeldt are deconstructing the basic structure of what has become known, for marketing purposes, as Nordic noir, and perhaps inserted a little psychological noir into the mix. And it's not just the Riksmord squad; we see similar signs of maladjustment in the media and in the immigrants—perhaps it is that the strictures that held Swedish society together are indeed falling apart, and it's affecting the Swedes most of all.

This is fascinating, but nevertheless I was getting bored; on p.337 a chapter began 'When the team gathered on Monday morning, they quickly established that nothing much had happened.' At that point I formulated the theory above and went and retrieved the book at the bottom of the wall against which I had thrown it. Only to discover a few pages later a hole in the plot. It's not serious, it seems to exist merely to facilitate some information about the villains of the piece, but (without giving away a spoiler) it refers to a DNA test which we have never learned was ordered, because why would they check bodies we already had learned could not have been those found?

But at that point, it was like firing a starter's pistol, and we got to the real story very quickly and from there it moves. Like many Swedish works (and indeed Icelandic) we learn there are outside forces at work, and these are presented in a chilling fashion. It builds to a car-chase kind of climax of the kind which suits TV adaptations, and perhaps that is where the problem with the novel lies: it is as if the description which needs to be added to fill in the characters just isn't enough, as challenging to the genre as it is. The core story is waiting to get out and be filmed in 90 minutes. Having said all that—there is an epilogue which sets us up for the next 90 minutes, and honestly, I can't wait.

The Man Who Wasn't There (Fjallgraven) by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt

Century Penguin £16.99 ISBN 9781780894584

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Saturday 11 June 2016


My obit of Gordie Howe, Canada's 'Mr. Hockey', is in the Daily Telegraph today, with a lovely photo; you can also link to it online here. Because it's considerably curtailed from what I originally wrote for them, back in 2014 when it looked as if Gordie was going to die, I am posting my original copy below; you can read that instead. I changed the line about Bobby Hull to 'next great winger' because he did play the left side.

When I saw Gordie had died I contacted The Daily Telegraph because I'd done his obit for their stock about 18 months ago. The Daily Telegraph had apparently done an edit of it back then, but got all twisted trying to explain ice hockey as if it were quantum physics. They asked me a number of questions and then asked me to do an edit of their rewrite, which was awkward as I haven't done anything for the Daily Telegraph for a year now. This was because they eventually spiked a couple of obituaries they had commissioned from me (the poet Mark Strand, which you can find here; and the football great Chuck Bednarik; I did a longer, more complete version of that for my column, here). In both cases, they went to the spike because they hadn't been used in a timely fashion; in both cases the Daily Telegraph decided to not deign to honour me with payment for the work they had commissioned. So I stopped working for them. But they had paid me for Gordie's obit for stock, and unlike them, I felt I should live up to my part of the bargain, and rather than refuse until they compensated me for what they owed me, I said I would I did the edit. Since no good gesture goes unpunished, they flipped much of the my rewrite back anyway.

Howe's refusal to quit life eighteen months ago was a mark of his indomitable strength, and it was sad that he passed away only to be overshadowed by Muhammad Ali's funeral. I was in the BBC World Service studios doing commentary on Ali's memorial last night, for four and a half hours, and during that time I mentioned Howe, and how although he represented the Canadian ideal: hockey's mix of graft, hard work, and toughness,along with some grace, innate modesty, a sense of doing the right thing and exceptionally sharp elbows. He was arguably the greatest in his sport, certainly during the pre-Gretzky era, but his impact was not worldwide, transcendent, the way Ali's was. Of course neither is hockey, and no team sport exposes a man's inner self the way boxing does. This is not to take anything away from Gordie Howe. Look at Keith Olberman's personal reflection of Howe here. It tells you a lot about Howe the man; it's heartfelt, and I understand why it is.

Because, as I said in the obituary, after he finally retired from hockey Howe worked for a while for Howard Baldwin's film company. So did my old friend Steve Berman. But I didn't know that until one night in London sometime in the 80s, I think, when my phone rang and it was Berman calling from LA, in the days when trans Atlantic calls were still a Big Deal. 'Guess who was in my office today?' he said, with no preamble. 'Clint Eastwood?' I guessed. 'Better than that.' 'Sigourney Weaver?' Rae Dawn Chong?' 'Nastassja Kinski?' 'Nope better than that....Gordie Howe!" And Berms proceeded to tell me about Howe's visit, either coming to or from the golf course, with exactly the same tone of awe you hear in Keith Olberman.

A few notes. I actually coined 'The Howes That Gordie Built' myself, when I wrote an article for one of the Advocate papers about the family's coming to Hartford, but the Daily Telegraph attributed it to 'the press'. Who knows, someone in Houston might have done it years before me. I would have liked to mention that just as Gordie suffered a near-fatal injury playing hockey, so too did his son Mark, the best of the Howe sons on ice. Howe's near-miss resulted in the NHL's adoption of the quick release goals that get dislodged so often in modern games. I would have liked to write a little about Howe's appearance honouring Jean Beliveau: in the piece I mention Maurice Richard and Howe being Canadian 'fire and ice', but Howe and Beliveau were in many ways two of a kind. The NHL certainly thought so: when they retired after the 1971 season, the league waived the normal waiting period, and they were inducted together into the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 1972.

There was another parallel to be drawn to English sport with Howe, which thinking of Richard brought to mind. The French Canadian player in those days was supposed to be more full of finesse, more fiery, less steady and predictable, maybe not as good at the graft of hockey. It reminded me of the way English commentators would describe Gallic flair and temperament in rugby and even football commentary, which also reminded me that, in English football where flashy 'skill' (pronounced 'skeh-ull') was regarded with great suspicion, and things like 'work-rate' and 'bottle' (pronounced 'baht-oohl') were what won matches. I'm reminded of Conn Smythe's famous dictum in hockey: 'if you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice.'

I also went and looked up the Gordie Howe hat-trick (a goal, assist, and fight in the same game). Gordie himself registered exactly two of those in his career, according to official stats (Brendan Shanahan is the leader with 17, though Rick Tocchet had 18 if you count playoff games). But I suspect Howe did a lot of mixing up that was never actually whistled a penalty, or maybe called as a roughing minor, not a fighting major. I recall a Bugsy Watson story about checking Howe in his rookie year, taking the puck from him and skating the other way thinking 'that wasn't so hard'. Until he realised Howe was skating right behind him, and the blade of Howe's stick was right under his nose. I write about Howe's wrists below (the Telegraph had a deucedly difficult time figuring out what a wrist shot was) but Watson knew all about them, and knew a broken nose was just a flick of the wrists away. He 'lost' the puck back to Gordie. 

Gordie is of course, as I said, in the Hockey Hall of Fame and also the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Order Of Canada by the Queen. And when the new bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario is opened in 2020, it will be called the Gordie Howe International Bridge. RIP...

The ice-hockey legend, Gordie Howe, who has died aged 88 was Canada's version of Stanley Matthews. That is assuming Matthews had been lucky enough to play with two of his sons, and dominant enough to be nicknamed 'Mr. Football'. Howe was 'Mr. Hockey'; arguably the greatest right-winger of all-time. Generations of Canadians idolised him; Wayne Gretzky, who grew up to break Howe's scoring records, treasured a picture taken when he was a 12 year old pee-wee star alongside the great man. Howe trumped all other greats with his longevity, playing in five decades; debuting in the National Hockey League aged 18 in 1946, and playing final match in 1980, aged 52, on a team with his sons.

More importantly, Howe epitomised the values Canadians see in their national game. A smooth but not flashy skater, Howe applied himself fearlessly to hockey's relentless physical grind. His graft was rewarded by goals scored by quick-snapping hockey's finest wrist shot, faster then many players' slapshots, but without the windup slapshots require. He was ambidextrous, and using a flat-bladed stick, was equally effective with either backhand.

Born on a farm in Floral, Saskatchewan, Howe grew up in Saskatoon where his father was a day labourer. When he was five, his mother gave him a pair of hand-me-down skates and hockey became his obsession. He played on ponds all winter and shot on dry land the rest of the year. His family was poor, and he suffered from malnutrition; when his growth spurts began doctors recommended chin-ups to counter a calcium deficiency. The exercise, coupled with what he called 'tossing concrete' on building sites with his father, gave Howe a distinctive build: narrow sloping shoulders leading to powerful forearms and steel-band wrists. In juniors he was so dominant he got a try-out with the New York Rangers at 15, but he signed at 16 with Detroit Red Wings, playing with their junior team in Galt before making his professional debut at 17 with their minor league affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska.

The following year, 1946, he arrived in Detroit, assigned jersey number 17. He fought so often fans created the 'Gordie Howe hat trick', meaning a goal, assist, and fight in the same game. Howe actually did this only twice in his career; but his reputation prevented most players from even challenging him. The next season, Howe switched to number 9, because the lower number guaranteed him a bottom berth on Pullman trains. Coincidentally 9 was also worn by Maurice 'Rocket' Richard of Montreal's Canadiens, already the league's best right wing. For a decade Richard and Howe were Canadian fire and ice; a rivalry begun in Howe's rookie season when he knocked out the French-Canadian star with a single punch.

Howe teamed with centre Sid Abel and left wing Ted Lindsay on what became known, in tribute to Detroit's car industry, as 'The Production Line'. In the 1949-50 season, they were the league's top three scorers, but in the Stanley Cup playoffs Howe's career was nearly ended when he fractured his skull crashing into the rink's dasher boards. Emergency surgery drained liquid to relieve the pressure on his brain; doctors warned he might be permanently impaired. But Howe recovered quickly enough to appear at the match in Detroit when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup title. They won three more in the next five seasons, with Howe winning four consecutive most valuable player trophies. He won six in all, led the league in scoring six times, and was named its best right wing 12 times.

Howe played his last season for Detroit in 1970-71, moving to the front office after a contract battle with owner Bruce Norris, who accused Gordie's wife Colleen of manipulating Howe's demands. Colleen had got Gordie more money in his last contract, but a wrist injury limited his effectiveness and he was  finally convinced to retire. Colleen was a force in her own right; she started a junior team in Detroit so her sons could get top-level training. In 1973, when the upstart World Hockey Association arrived to compete with the NHL, the Houston Aeros shocked hockey by signing Mark and Marty Howe straight out of juniors, and bringing Gordie out of retirement to join them.

The Howes That Gordie Built won the WHA title in each of their first two seasons. In 1974 all three Howes played on a WHA select team against the Soviet nationals. Bobby Hull, arguably hockey's next great winger, gave up the 9 jersey in a show of respect; he wore 9 because as a kid he'd idolised Howe.  Howe was the leading scorer in the contentious series which the Soviets won; before it began Soviet coach Victor Kulagin complained publicly that Howe's selection, aged 46, was an 'embarrassment' to the game. Early on, Howe set up a goal for son Mark, then retrieved the puck from the net and flipped it with his stick over the Soviet bench to Kulagin. Later in the series, when a Russian defenseman slashed open Mark's ear, Howe sent a puck into the corner for him to chase, then checked him so hard he fractured his arm.

Howe ended his career with the Hartford (Connecticut) Whalers, one of the WHA teams absorbed into the NHL when the leagues merged in 1979. His last goal came in the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs against Montreal. Fittingly, it was a backhanded wrist shot. He retired the league's all-time leading scorer, even without counting his years in the WHA.

In retirement he worked for Whalers' owner Howard Baldwin's film business, and as a popular spokesman. Colleen ran the family's business, trademarking 'Mr. Hockey', 'Mrs. Hockey' for herself, and even the name 'Gordie Howe'. In 1997, Howe took a shift with the minor-league Detroit Vipers, marking his sixth decade in professional hockey. Coleen Howe died in 2009. Howe began showing signs of dementia, and suffered a series of strokes. He spent his last years moving between his children's homes. 

Gordon 'Gordie' Howe born 31 March 1928 Floral, Sask.
Died 10 June 2016, Toledo, Ohio
Wife Coleen Joffa m. 1953 d. 2009
Survived by four children: sons Mark, Marty, Murray daughter Cathy

Tuesday 7 June 2016


Sunday night I went to see The Boss at Wembley. It was about as nice a night as London allows, beautiful weather, easy access, and with 80 some odd thousand like-minded people (actually, many far more single-mindedly Bossy than I was) it was an excellent time. It helped I was with three of the Americarnage Gang of Four, Gnat Coombs and Hollywood Dan Louw (literally just in from the Stockholm marathon and proudly exposing his blisters to the crowd) and muchas gracias Senor Gnat for the tickets.

It was the third time I've seen Springsteen. The first was still the best, at Tanglewood in the Berkshires in August 1975, just before Born To Run broke, just before I moved to Montreal, and just before Annie's and my brief romance was over. I wrote about it last year (you can find that here) when I dug out an old poem to mark the 40th anniversary of Born To Run. It was the best not just because I thought I was madly in love, and we'd gone spur of the moment, and it was outdoors in the mountains; there was an intimacy among the 1,200 or so people there, who shared a knowledge of something great that most of the country didn't really know about. It's still special, and The Wild The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle may still be my favourite Springsteen album.

The second time I saw him was at Wembley in 1985, on July 3rd. I flew to America on the Fourth of July that year, and I suspect the Fourth would have been a bigger thing and better show, but it was still pretty good. Again, I felt it was far more intimate than a stadium show had the right to be, even though my company was nowhere near as compelling as Annie and Bryan, and the seats, high and to the side, meant you couldn't really see the stage, saw only one and a half screens, and heard everything echoing back as if on tape delay. I pretty much resolved then not to go to any more stadium shows, and for 30 years I didn't.

But this one was much better than 1985. The technology is, I suppose, better, and once you got used to the sound it was fine. We were on the field; lined up on our own 10 yard line with the stage in the opposite end zone, meaning you could see the little figures on stage, but you needed the three screens, like watching a TV in a showroom window from across the street.

What's different is the Boss, at 67, is more frenetic, and in better pumped-up shape (& perhaps a little bit scapel'd), than 30 years ago, and the band is, if anything tighter and more versatile. It's great to have Soozie Tyrell fiddling, though every time she got a closeup I thought of Beverly Sills! Violin has always added a lot of texture to the band; I recall Suki Lahav from the 1975 WMMR/Main Point concert which is one of my all-time favourite records, bootleg and all. And it was funny to see Nils and Steve each going for second place in a Keith Richards look alike contest! And I kept watching Max Weinberg, looking at lyrics on a IPad teleprompter as he pounds the skins, and thinking he doesn't need amplification. Interestingly, I read an interviw with Suki Lahav, who returned to Israel soon after leaving the band, and she said Max didn't like being behind Bruce while drumming, in the drummer's usual position, because he couldn't see/hear the words of the song, and he wanted to see what Bruce was singing because the words influenced the way he drums. So that was a problem  solved by technology.

They sounded great, they interacted with the audience with a spontaneous quality, and they played through a huge catalogue of songs, all of which have a Springsteen similarity but which cover a lot of different textures. And changing contexts: 'Tougher Than The Rest' was played as a tribute to Muhammad Ali, and you can't do much better than that, great one to greatest.

Which is the interesting thing, because this crowd was not just people like me out to see a figure from their past. It was not like watching Duran Duran because you loved them when you were a teen and now you're old and they're old and you're both going through the paces. This crowd was made up of people from their teens to, I dunno, older than me, and they all had their favourites from different eras, and many of them could not have come to the Boss long before the previous decade. When I was 20, there weren't many recording stars from 40 years before we were listening to--people who were hot in 1931. But it's different, and has been since the Sixties, maybe even since the Fifties. Again, technology is part of that, but there is a sort of Golden Age of rock which seems to attract and open new ears in every new generation.

As well as turn the original old generation into kids again. Check out the S.E.G. on Iron Mike in the photo on the right.  Do I look Born In The USA or what?

Of course, we have aged. I started to leave after the first encore ('Jungleland') because I had to get a train home, and it was Sunday in Britain, and the last train leaves earlier, and there was a replacement bus service one of whose drivers had nearly taken his bus into a low railway bridge was I was coming back from the BBC that morning. So I played safe and managed to get home before midnight and walk the dog. But the sax solo in 'Jungleland' started to take me back, maybe because I was out of the crowd, and there is a sense where I find the collective experience overkill, and Jake Clemons wasn't playing his uncle's stuff note for note, but the sense of continuity being the thing that mitigates against time passing struck me strongly.

Then people started coming up to me and shaking my hand, or congratulating me, and I thought they might be NFL fans, but they were saying things like 'Feel The Bern' and I realised it was because of my  T-shirt (not my Terryville, Connecticut Lions Fair hat). Thanks folks.

I walked alongside the stadium as they played 'Born To Run', and again the sax solo launched me into reverie, and I stopped and listened. I went back 40 years and 2,600 miles and one old love and one best friend and I don't know how many scratched LPs and awkward record players and Lord knows what else. They started playing Dancing In The Dark and I walked away listening to that, which pushed me back to the 80s again. I missed some more encores, including Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, which I would have pleased Gnat by singing along to. When the changes came uptown, indeed.

Monday 6 June 2016


It's the California primary! The Democratic party's nominee for President seems all but decided, with the votes of party insiders making the crucial difference. The insurgent faction of the party is being told to stand-down, to allow a candidate they see as part of the very problems they are protesting get down to battling a Republican candidate seen by many as a figure of revulsion. Yet the insurgents battle on, hoping that a big win in California might open up the party's convention, and their candidate might win were it contested. Ah, you think, Bernie Sanders' position is hopeless and he ought to quit before Tuesday's vote? But it's not Bernie Sanders I'm talking about, it's Bobby Kennedy. And today, of course, is the anniversary of his assassination in Los Angeles.

The analogy is not perfect, because it was not only Kennedy competing against the party's anointed candidate, he was competing also against fellow insurgent Senator Gene McCarthy. In those days primaries were few in number and not crucially important; even in some states that held them, the primary vote did not even bind the convention delegates who were chosen in the traditional manner, by each state's party 'machine'. Party delegates got to travel to the convention, carry signs, wear red and white and blue clothing, sing and cheer, and do what they were told by their state party chairmen. It was democracy in action.
Hillary Clinton, the party's presumptive choice now, is a good match for Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey, the eventual Democratic candidate, while Richard Nixon was many things, but not many of them resembled the snake-oil hucksterism of Donald Trump. And it's highly unlikely that the eventual choice of a Democratic candidate this year will involve assassination or riot.

The 1968 Presidential race, like everything else in America then, was chaotic. Protests against the Vietnam war were reaching massive scale; the black inner cities were erupting in a series of riots, and the progress of de-segregation in the South, despite President Lyndon B. Johnson's steering the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress, was desperately slow. American politics itself was in a period of profound change, which Johnson recognised as he signed the Voting Rights Act into law: 'there goes the South.' he said. The Democratic Party had been maintained by an uneasy alliance of big city Northern machines and labor unions with so-called Dixiecrats, Southern segregationists whose states had, for a century, continued to fight the Civil War and ignored the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Johnson's landslide win over Barry Goldwater in 1964 had been based on his continuation of the legacy of John Kennedy, and the portrayal of Goldwater as a right-wing fanatic whose finger was not to be trusted on the nuclear button. The famous TV ad of the little girl picking flowers before a nuclear explosion ran only once, and didn't mention Goldwater by name, but it didn't have to. But Johnson's refusal to 'lose' the war in Vietnam saw him escalate the conflict and the American presence in it. In February 1968, Johnson watched TV news anchor Walter Cronkite report on Vietnam, highly critical of our involvement. 'If I've lost Cronkite I've lost Middle America,' Johnson told his aides. On March 12, in the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy's army of college students and anti-war activists emerged with 42 per cent of the vote. Johnson 'won' the state with 49 per cent, but the McCarthy faction had also lured 20 of the 24 delegates available. For a sitting President, this was a disaster.

Sensing LBJ's vulnerability, four days later Bobby Kennedy entered the race. Many McCarthy supporters never forgave RFK his opportunism; they pointed to Kennedy's similar behaviour in appropriating a Senate seat in New York, when everyone knew the Kennedys came from Massachusetts. Years later, Hilary Clinton faced similar accusations when she traded in her Chicago Cubs baseball cap for a New York Yankees one while winning a Senate seat in her newly-adopted state.

On 31 March in a speech suspending American bombing in Vietnam, LBJ shocked the country by announcing 'I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party to run for President.' I was in my last year of high school; just turned 17. I leaped from my seat in excitement: it was as if we had driven Johnson from office.

Vice President Hubert H Humphrey now became the presumptive nominee, with the backing of party bosses. Known as 'the Happy Warrior,' Humphrey, a textbook 'liberal' and party loyalist, was trapped in his support of the Vietnam war. He did not contest any primaries: in some states 'favourite son' candidates stood on behalf of delegations controlled by the party machines. And the battle between the insurgents became fierce. Kennedy's civil rights record helped him with minority voters, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April; he had the charisma and the Kennedy name to give black voters hope. Plus McCarthy was no tireless Bernie Sanders; lacking the drive to take his campaign on the road, his appeal was more to reason. Even so, going into the California vote McCarthy had won four primaries (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Oregon) while Kennedy had taken two (Indiana and Nebraska), though McCarthy would take New Jersey and Kennedy South Dakota on the same day as California. Only in Oregon, Indiana and Nebraska had the two gone head to head.

But California on 5 June was the big prize and when the vote was counted Kennedy won with 46%, to McCarthy's 42. Despite having taken far fewer popular votes around the country, he now led McCarthy in committed delegates (393-258) though Humphrey and his surrogates still had a comfortable lead. Then in the early hours of 6 June, after a victory speech and a cry of 'on to Illinois' Kennedy was shot dead at the Ambassador hotel.

McCarthy would win Illinois, but the Democrats were now split into four pieces, and the insurgents' delegates won in primaries would never have been enough to out-vote Humphrey's, even had they been united. Perhaps Kennedy, riding a wave of primary support, might have convinced the convention that he had a better chance of defeating Nixon. But by the time the convention opened in Chicago on 26 August, Kennedy's support was split, only some of it sticking after Senator George McGovern picked up his standard. The Dixiecrats, who could back LBJ but were more suspicious of HHH, were facing challenges on the floor to their own delegations, many of which were still segregated. Meanwhile, outside the convention, the Youth International Party (Yippies) and Mobilization Against The War were organising a festival which soon turned into a riot, triggered when Chicago police beat a man who'd lowered the American flag in Grant Park.

The ensuing scenes of violence shocked America, as Chicago police seemed to run amok, even assaulting press on the convention floor. When Abraham Ribicoff, Senator from my state, Connecticut, rose to nominate McGovern, he said that with a man like him as president 'we wouldn't need Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago'. The television cameras caught Chicago mayor Richard Daley, hand cupped like a megaphone around his mouth, shouting at Ribicoff, and lip readers claimed he yelled 'sit down you Jew bastard'. In the end, Humphrey won the nomination by a wide margin, and went on to lose the election to Nixon, by a narrow margin in the popular vote but a wide one in the electoral college. This was thanks to Alabama governor George Wallace, running as an Independent, winning five states in the South away from Humphrey. Nixon's 'southern strategy' had been born, and soon the so-called 'solid south' would switch from being solidly Democrat to solidly Republican. Humphrey's only chance would have been a success in the Paris peace talks being held with the Vietnamese. But in what became known as the first 'October surprise,' Nixon's team, with help from Henry Kissinger, sabotaged the negotiations, promising the South Vietnamese they would get a better deal once Nixon was President. The Vietnamese were surprised when it turned out they were lying.

I still recall some former McCarthy supporters refusing to support Humphrey, arguing a Nixon win would bring the country to its senses. Instead, four years later, McGovern won the nomination as a result of a more democratic primary-driven process which he had been chosen by the party to develop. Even so, despite the deepening of the Vietnam quagmire, and the Watergate burglary, Nixon beat McGovern in a landslide even bigger than Johnson's over Goldwater just 8 years earlier. The country had turned full circle, but many would say the worst was yet to come.

Almost 50 years later, the process has been democratized even further, to the point where independent voters who don't identify as Democrats have a say in the choice of candidate. This may be unfair to the party faithful, or it may be a better gauge of how a candidate will fare in November with the independent voters who decide national elections. This is why the party bosses still hold the so-called 'super delegates' in the hole, to ensure an insurgent like a McGovern, whom they believe will lose, or worse, believe might win without their support, cannot get the nomination. The system, deeply entrenched, is designed to work, and after California Hillary Clinton seems likely to be declared the nominee. A Sanders shock in California, however, might persuade some super-delegates to question Hillary's electability, and consider whether the Democratic convention should actually be an open affair.

There has not been a seriously contested party convention since the Republicans in 1976, when Ronald Reagan narrowly lost a challenge to incumbent (but unelected) President Gerald Ford. Ford would go on to lose the election to Jimmy Carter, but much as I searched for parallels between them and Clinton/Sanders, I defy anyone else to find them either.


Sunday morning I appeared on BBC World Service's Weekend programme to discuss Muhammad Ali. You can link to that on the IPlayer here, it's the first item on that half-hour segment, and it's very good.
I just wish I'd finished that Louisville story by mentioning Ali's story of throwing the Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, which he later admitted 'might' have been apocryphal.


1. When We Were Kings is the title of a superb documentary film about the Rumble In The Jungle, Muhammad Ali's classic battle with George Foreman in Zaire, where he regained the heavyweight crown. The title is fitting, because Ali's fame began in the ring, and it was a time of giants in boxing's most glamorous division. George Foreman said that he, Joe Frazier and Ali were like one person; they had been forged together in the public imagination, but there were also Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Henry Cooper, Ernie Terrell: men over whom Ali needed to triumph to establish himself, and men who now shine in his reflection. Watch the moment Foreman falls in the film: at ringside the writer George Plimpton is frozen in drop-jaw disbelief, Norman Mailer is already beginning to celebrate. Boxing has always drawn great writers; there is no more telling display of character, no more naked revealing of what is happening inside a man's heart, than that time in the ring, and writers and film-makers have always known that.

2. Muhammad Ali was the most important sportsman of the Twentieth Century, and would have been even had he not become the most transcendent, become a symbol for battles of conscience, for racial justice, for people far removed from power, for religious belief, for so much else. He was unquestionably the most-recognisable human being in the world; he could go virtually nowhere without being mobbed. But it started on a smaller scale. When he burst on the scene after winning his Olympic light-heavyweight gold in Rome, he brought something new to sport: showmanship and self-promotion. He carried the trash-talk of the playground and the braggadocio of the professional wrestling ring into the arenas of 'legitimate' sport.Ali's style coincided with the rise of sports television: it was the beginning of the time when sportsmen stopped being paid as competitors and began to realise TV turned them into entertainers, like movie stars. This did not mean Ali was embraced immediately or automatically. To many 'traditional' sports fans, mainly whites, he was a loud-mouth, he was uppity, he needed to be put into his place.

3. From 'I Am The Greatest', a poem by Cassius Clay: 'The fistic world was dull and weary/with a champ like Liston things had to be dreary'.
I once wrote about Sonny Liston, who before Clay might legitimately have been considered the baddest man on the planet, saying 'his only skill was hurting people'. The white audience faced severe problems trying to decide if they should root for Liston, a thug who'd learned his boxing in prison, to be the one to shut 'the Louisville Lip' up. Not that they doubted he would; he was a 7-1 favourite. Cassius Clay had irritated people calling Doug Jones 'an ugly little man' before their title eliminator in Madison Square Garden, which Clay won by decision. He spent the build-up to the fight entertaining celebrities like the Beatles (his win over Henry Cooper a few months earlier had already made him a star in Britain) who flocked to Miami; he called Liston a 'big ugly bear' and seemed so hyper at the weigh-in sportswriters claimed he was scared to near-death. Clay's victory in February 1964 shocked the world. Soon after, he announced his conversion to Islam and his name-change to Muhammad Ali. When he won the rematch with Liston in Lewiston, Maine, delayed and moved to its unlikely location because boxing politics had already stripped him of the WBA version of the title (for agreeing the rematch, rather than facing the WBA's top contender) the surprise was such that many still believe Liston took a dive, falling to the famous phantom punch.

4. Floyd Patterson may have been the first black 'white hope'. Ali beat Patterson, who had been destroyed twice in short-order by Liston, mercilessly; when the fight was stopped in the twelfth round, he had carried 'the rabbit', in order to inflict extra punishment on Floyd. It was partly for using his 'slave name' Cassius Clay, and partly because Patterson was promoted as the 'credit to his race' boxer the establishment wanted to see win. In a strange way, the beating Floyd took from Ali restored some of the respect he'd lost in his two losses to Liston, returned his place among champs. Patterson had first lost his own championship to the Swede Ingemar Johansson, then re-gained the title; my father, whose parents were Swedes, was a Floyd fan because of that. The generation gap was already apparent in our house in late 1965. Ali then beat four white fighters in a row within the space of six months in 1966: Canada's George Chuvalo, Cooper and fellow Brit Brian London, and Germany's Karl Mildenberger. By the time he'd finished, my dad was an Ali fan. Even when Ali fought the guy deemed the latest, perhaps last, Great White Hope, Jerry Quarry.

5. 'I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.' 
When Ali was called up for the draft in 1966, he had to be reclassified 1-A. He'd originally been judged 1-Y, fit to be called up only in times of 'national emergency' because his IQ was measured at 78, which put him in the bottom 16% of Americans; the army didn't take anyone from the bottom 30%. 'I said I was the greatest, not the smartest' he said at the time. He would belie that statement many times in the next few years. Clay was not a good student; he never was a reader. But he absorbed things he thought were necessary to learn, like a sponge, and his ability to separate what he needed to learn from what he didn't was superb. He had the charisma to make people, interviewers, great writers, all feel he was talking on their level, probably because they were more eager to be understood on his. And he could recycle old tropes, jokes, stories, and make people feel they were brand new.
     As anyone who went through the process knew at the time, draft boards are not elected bodies, nor civil service, they are made of up of local grandees who rarely sent their own sons off to war. Many people thought the timing of Ali's reclassification by the Louisville draft board, when he was already 24, was more than coincidence, because it happened just afer his contract expired with the ten influential Louisville millionaires who originally backed him, and they saw the Nation of Islam's Elijah Muhammad taking control of the fighter.

6. 'No Viet Cong ever called me nigger'
I write the N word here because that's what Ali said, and because how can anyone who wasn't alive at the time understand fully the depth of anguish and honesty in what he was saying if they don't hear the lash of the word? Ali failed to step forward for induction into the army in April 1967 and almost immediately had his New York State boxing license withdrawn, and was stripped of his titles. In June, a jury took only 20 minutes to convict him, and the case went to appeal and eventually to the Supreme Court. Here's how he explained it: 'what should I shoot them for? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me, they didn't put no dog on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father....How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.' This made my decision to be a conscientious objector, and face the consequences, so much easier.

7. In 2014 I wrote Ernie Terrell's obituary for The Guardian:
Ernie Terrell, who has died aged 75, lost his heavyweight championship to Muhammad Ali in the infamous 'What's My Name?' fight, one of the most brutally cruel displays in boxing history. In the build-up to their match Terrell insisted on calling Ali by his 'slave name', Cassius Clay. This tactic had backfired for Floyd Patterson in an earlier loss to Ali, but because Terrell also held the WBA belt Ali felt was his, Ali was infuriated. He called Terrell 'an Uncle Tom nigger' and said 'I'll make him eat those words, letter by letter'.

     The unification fight was held in February 1967 in the Houston Astrodome, where 37,000 spectators made it the biggest indoor boxing crowd ever. In his pre-match poem, Ali talked of knocking Terrell out of the stadium in the first round: 'The ref is frantic/Terrell's over the Atlantic/Who would've thought, when they came to the fight/They'd see the launch of a coloured satellite!' 
      For 15 rounds Ali taunted Terrell as he inflicted as much damage as he could. He thumbed Terrell's left eye, and later pushed it along the ring-ropes, leaving Terrell nearly blind. By the twelfth round, Terrell was simply covering his face, and in the thirteenth Ali landed a stream of unanswered punches, but referee Harry Kessler never stopped the fight. Terrell nearly lost the sight in his eye, and was never the same fighter again. Ironically, only two months after the fight, Clay was stripped of both his titles.
      (Terrell) remained philosophical about his beating...saying, in 2009, 'We were fighting...I bore no animosity. What he say, all that, don't count. That was his way of promoting the fight'.

8. The cover story of the April 1968 issue of Esquire Magazine was called 'The Passion of Muhammad Ali', and the magazine cover created by George Lois and shot by Carl Fischer, is often considered the greatest of all time: a homage to Mantegna's 'Martyrdom Of St Sebastian', Ali in his white trunks penetrated by arrows. The issue hit the stands just as President Lyndon Johnson announced that he 'would not seek, nor shall I accept' the nomination of his party for President. It was easy to think we, young people protesting the Vietnam Nam war and the ongoing problem of racial prejudice, had won. Easy, but as it turned out, delusional.

9. While banned from boxing, Ali toured college campuses giving lectures. Sometime I believe in the spring of 1970, before the Invasion of Cambodia, shootings at Kent and Jackson State, and the student strike, I was in a packed crowd at the brand-new rink at Wesleyan, listening to Ali, and hanging around afterwards to applaud as he left by car. I honestly believe that absent Ali's visit, the lacrosse team, of which I was a part, would not have been the first group on campus to vote to join the strike. There is a clip from around that time on You Tube where Ali faces down a young critic, telling him that white folks are the enemy, not the Viet Cong. 'If I die, I'm gonna die right here fighting you,' he says. We believed him, and we somehow believed that 'white folks' didn't include us.

10. From 'I Am The Greatest' a poem by Cassius Clay: 'This kid fights great, he's got speed and endurance/If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.'
If Ali had never become a public figure outside boxing, never revolutionised the way we saw sport, never set sportsmen free to be entertainers, he would still be an iconic figure based on the major fights he fought after his return. The enforced absence from the ring cost him some of his speed: few opponents had been able to hurt him with solid punches before. The three fights against Joe Frazier, the Rumble in The Jungle against George Foreman, the two split decisions against Ken Norton, are all engrained in my memory. Some of them I only heard on the radio, but I've since watched them over and over again, and can see the relentless Frazier plowing forward, head down, left arm low and cocked to deliver the hook that caused so much damage. I now watch the Rope A Dope strategy against Foreman and think about the courage, the intelligence, the risk Ali took. And think mostly about the long-term damage those big fights inflicted on The Champ.

11. In 1976 I was a press liason at the Montreal Forum during the boxing finals, at which both Spinks brothers won gold medals. Leon Spinks' win over Cuban Sixto Soria was the greatest amateur bout I've ever seen. In 1978 I watched Ali retake his title from Spinks, on closed circuit at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. It was the result I wanted, but I took no joy from it. Ali would be nearly 40 when the fifth and final loss of his career, a difficult-to-watch unanimous decision against Trevor Berbick finally convinced him to retire. He refused to believe what he thought possible might not be.

12. From 'I Am The Greatest' a poem by Cassius Clay: 'Then someone with colour, someone with dash/brought the fight fans running with cash.' 
Clay understood from the first what he was doing, and in his poem he refers to himself as a new kind of fighter, to boxing's 'New Frontier'. He claimed to have based his style on the early TV wrestling star Gorgeous George, but it's more likely he was copying 'Classy' Freddie Blassie, the self-proclaimed 'King of Men', who was big in the Louisville when Clay was young. In 1976, Ali took part in a fight with the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki, and brought Blassie in as his manager. Watch them on the Tonight Show, guest-hosted by MASH actor McLean Stevenson. Blassie says Ali has 'the fastest feet, the fastest punch and now he's proven he's got the fastest brain too...because he hired me.' Although Ali claimed it was going to be a real fight, that was never Inoki's idea, and when Ali got to Japan negotiations as to how the fight should be scripted broke down; neither guy would do a job for the other. So we saw Inoki lying on his back in the fight, using his feet to keep Ali away; easily the least edifying moment of Ali's career. He was born to be a boxer and a performer. He became the latter through the former.

13. In 1988, working for ABC Sports, I was in Pesaro, Italy, broadcasting a middleweight title fight between Sumbu Kalambay and Mike McCallum. The night before the fight I stayed up late with the promoter Bob Arum and with Angelo Dundee, Ali's legendary trainer. I don't think I've ever heard anyone describe someone in the way Angelo did; it was somewhere between respect and worship, like a follower who had been blessed in ancient times to fight alongside a demigod. And it was sincere. I learned a lot about boxing on that trip, but I never did discover whether Angelo actually sliced Clay's gloves to buy time in the first fight against Cooper.

14. At the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 I was in charge of host broadcast coverage of basketball at the Georgia Dome. The bane of my life was any game with the US Dream Team II, because my fellow broadcasters and journalists would desperately try to get into broadcast/press seats, not working but just to see the superstars. But before the game with Angola, Ali, who of course had lighted the Olympic torch to open the games, arrived courtside. The Angolans broke off their warmups to crowd around, followed by the Dream Teamers who rushed out of their locker room to join them. Here were the world's biggest superstars turned into fan boys just like the rest of us. I walked casually down to court side, fan boy myself, just to admire the admiration.

15. Today I woke to the news Ali was gone, and listened to tributes and watched my memories gather and soar. I rummaged through some boxes and found my copy of Cassius Clay's 45, 'I Am The Greatest', b/w 'Will The Real Sonny Liston Please Fall Down'. It's more than half a century since I first heard it. This is a DJ copy I won in a college competition; on the single as released the flip side is Ali singing 'Stand By Me'. The sleeve is a bit worn, and I don't have a record player anymore, so I couldn't play it. I just looked at the pictures on the sleeve and heard the voice in my head, clear as it was when I was 12. 'This is the legend of Cassius Clay/the most beautiful fighter in the world today. He talks a great deal and brags indeedy, 'bout a tremendous punch that's incredibly speedy....If Cassius says a mouse can beat a horse, don't ask how, put your money where your mouse is...if Cassius says a cow can lay an egg, don't ask how, grease that skillet.' The world that brought that character into the spotlight no longer exists, and a great part of the reason for that is Muhammad Ali. But the shadow of those things that drew Ali to the spotlight outside of the ring, those most American clouds of race, of war, of rich and poor, still lingers over the country. It's a different country, in part because of Ali, and he was The Greatest. Grease that skillet.

Saturday 4 June 2016

NOTE: I wrote this on Saturday, and it appeared Sunday at in Ireland. You can link to that here. It was billed somewhat misleadingly as a 'list of some of the landmark moments' in Ali's career, which obviously it isn't, so I thought I'd repost it here, with my original subtitle. You can also find a version, deftly shortened by London Review of Books, at the LRB Blog here. Over the weekend, there were so many great obituaries and reminiscences, and so much great writing about him while he lived, it wasn't for me to follow those who knew him. But everybody had their own responses to Ali, and these were some of mine.