Thursday, 22 June 2017

LARRY GRANTHAM: MEMORIES OF FOOTBALL

Larry Grantham died this week. He was a linebacker for the New York Jets, who joined the New York Titans out of the University of Mississippi in 1960 and played with them through 1972, including, of course, in Super Bowl III. He was one of of only seven players to play through all 10 seasons of the independent AFL with the same team. He was an all-star eight times, and five times all-league, though his reputation suffered because he was a standout in the early days of the AFL, when the overall league wasn't as strong. It's the reason why guys like Earl Faison or Jon Morris aren't better remembered and why the best runners and receivers from those years tend to be undervalued. Grantham was recognised by the Pro Football Researchers Association, who named him to their Hall of the Very Good. But he was a bit better than very good.


In fact, the Jets' victory over Baltimore in that game brought the AFL into a sort of parity with the NFL,and the Chiefs win over Minnesota the next year cemented it. Joe Namath of course was that game's MVP, because he was the QB and because he 'guaranteed' the win, but what is often overlooked in Namath's brash guarantee was the fact that he was not breashly self-promoting. He was stating what he thought was obvious, that the Jets were the better team. His coach, Weeb Ewbank, had coached the Colts, and he knew it too.


But the Jets did not win on the strength of Namath's arm. They won because they had a good offensive line, and could control the ball behind the power running of fullback Matt Snell, And they had a fine defense which could shut the Colts down, and Larry Grantham was the key guy on that D.  He had been a playmaking star in the early years of the Tutans (while Wahoo McDaniel got the publicity) but Weeb and defensive coordinator Walt Michaels saw what they had in Grantham, and used his smarts and anticipation to bring out the best in the strongest part of their team. Grantahm called all the signals on the field. They got good pass rush from Gerry Philbin and Verlon Biggs, and their secondary, which included Johnny Sample, who had won the 1958 NFL title with Weeb and the Colts,  had a big game with four interceptions, two by Randy Beverly. The Jets held the Colts, who were 18 point favourites, to only 7 points. They didn't need Joe Willie to win.


Grantham was switched to linebacker because he wasn't fast or big enough to play tight or split end, nor big enough for defensive end. But he had been undersized at end even in college; he was quick enough to avoid blockers, he could run with receivers, and he could set against runners. He was also everything southern football players were in that era. Grantham was under-sized; he was listed, probably generously, at 6-0 210, but he had been a two-way end at Ol' Miss. And he was tough.
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In 1959 I was just starting to become hooked on football beyond the Yale games I'd been going to in the Bowl since I was five or six. I'd watched the 1958 NFL championship with the men, not the kids, at a family gathering, and I knew my dad had played in college against the Giants' Andy Robustelli. I believe 1959 was the first year I encountered a Street & Smith's Annual, probably bought for me by my grandfather, and began to follow the colleges. And I can clearly remember reading the accounts and seeing the picture in the papers (and probably in Sports Illustrated or Time as well) of the LSU-Mississippi game that year.

I remember often playing 1959 Mississippi (and 1960 Washington with one-eyed Bob Schloredt at QB) in the Sports Illustrated football board game, with Seth Davis in the College of Letters when we were at Wesleyan. Ole Miss played a split-T roll-out offense with four different QBs! Bobby Franklin (later an NFL DB) and Jake Gibbs got most of the time; Gibbs would take over in 1960 and go on to catch in the major leagues for the Yankees; he must've had a strong arm but the Rebels rarely threw the ball; Gibbs attempted 94 passes all season. Doug Elmore was a sort of designated passer, while Billy Brewer was a runner who also played as a DB in the NFL. Grantham was third on the team in catches with 10, while Johnny Brewer played TE in the NFL for ten seasons. Their big runner was fullback Charlie Flowers, and they had a 6-4 runner/receiver named Bobby Crespino at halfback, both of them had NFL careers. Their backups were Hoss Anderson and Cowboy Woodruff. Really. But the biggest name on the team may have been tackle Bob Khayat, who had a longish NFL career as a kicker; he was dating Mary Ann Mobley, who was Miss America, in fact for two years running America's Miss came from Ole Miss. Khayat would go on to become chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and help bring it into the 20th century, before the Tea Party allowed at least a partial retreat.


It was as big a rivalry as any in the country, absent, at that time, Yale/Harvard and Army/Navy. And it was big because both teams were undefeated, and both coaches, Paul Dietzel at LSU and Johnny Vaught at Ole Miss, had built dynasties. Plus LSU had the country's best player, Billy Cannon. He had been third in the Hesiman voting as a junior and would win it as a senior. LSU won that game at home in Baton Rouge in monsoon conditions on Halloween. The score was  7-3, the TD coming on an 89 yard punt return by Cannon. You can see the tape of that run on You Tube; it's amazing. In the photo, that's Grantham, number 88. Mississippi allowed only 21 points on their way to a 10-1 season: only two offensive TDs all season. I didn't realise it at the time, but conditions were so bad Vaughn actually punted on first down from deep inside his own territory (that was not the one Cannon returned).


Ole Miss had a 4th and goal shot, but had their 'passing' QB in the game, and failed. The win took so much out of LSU they lost the following week at Tennessee, and handed the SEC championship to an inferior Georgia team. But LSU and Mississippi met in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl. Mississippi still could not play games against integrated teams (state law prohibited it) so it was a natural for the Sugar Bowl. That law stopped Gibbs and Khayat from taking their SEC championship baseball team to the NCAA tournament. But Dietzel had to be talked into the game because obviously he had more to lose. Ole Miss won the game easily, 21-0, immediately after the game Cannon signed a contract with the Houston Oilers of the brand-new AFL; odds are the deal had already been done beforehand. Cannon gained only eight yards rushing all game; Grantham was assigned to spy him and hit him on every play.


I mentioned Grantham was a typical southerner. In those days the South seemed like a separate country and the Civil War seemed still fresh in everyone's minds. Yankees might as well have been foreigners. Southern teams were smaller, quicker, and hit harder. They played bowl games with de facto home field advantage against bigger teams from the north who struggled to adjust to the heat. They often had the benefit of southern referees too. But of course in that Sugar Bowl, it was Ole Miss' defense, led by Grantham (this was still both-ways football) that dominated. They finished the season 10-1, but the national championship went to 11-0 Syracuse, with Ernie Davis and Gerhard Schwedes, who beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl. You could argue that despite only playing in the segregated SEC, Ole Miss had a tougher schedule, but Syracuse had beaten two other ranked teams, Penn State and UCLA. Johnny Vaught got his title the next year, with a 10-0-1 team. Mississippi hasn't had one since. Those legendary college coaches seem a different breed than today's chief executives: they were tough. Vaughn in his career was 6-7-1 against Bear Bryant, and not many did even that well. But for a five year period between '59-'63, before the SEC started to integrate, Vaught went 43-2-3, his teams built around smaller Mississippians like Grantham.


Grantham came out of retirement to play one season with the Florida Blazers of the WFL in 1974, but it's as a Jet (and a Titan) he shall be remembered.   Later in life, as his medical bills mounted up, he put his Super Bowl III ring up for auction. When he was younger he had done fund-raising for a drug charity called Freedom House in New Jersey; they raised enough money to win the the auction for the ring, and the auction house handed it back to Larry Grantham, along with the money raised. It was what he deserved. He died in his native Mississippi. 1959 was a hell of year for old time college football. 1968 was a hell of a year to usher in the modern era. Larry Grantham was an unsung hero of both, and I remember him fondly.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

STEPHEN FURST: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Stephen Furst, immortalised as Flounder in Animal House, is up on the Guardian online. You can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper sometime in the next few months.

If you believe, as I do, that most of life's situations can be explained or solved or at least papered over by quotes from Animal House, Kent Dorfman becomes a central existential figure. I was pleased that the G left in my quotes of Flounder's dialogue, especially 'You can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes. You fucked up. You trusted us'.

Three of my favourite, less famous, Flounder moments are: when we see him and his roommate, Larry Kroger (Pinto), in Donald Sutherland's English class. Flounder appears to be taking notes: the camera looks over his shoulder and he's drawing jet fighters blasting away, like a little kid in school.  Then's there the time Flounder walks in on a card game, sidles up to the table, and asks 'you guys playing cards?'. And finally that tremendous reveal when we see his high school sweetheart who has come up for a visit, and she is lovely. It forces us to look at Kent Dorfman in a whole new way.

Otherwise, as I say, it was interesting that Furst recapitulated Flounder over and over, but also used parts of that character in his most successful roles. He rarely was given the chance to branch out, however, into villainy, which I think would have been interesting. There's a comparison to be made to Wayne Knight, who played Newman in Seinfeld after playing Numa in JFK.

Furst acted in, wrote, directed and produced an awful lot of films that were derivative from other movies. He must have had a good idea of what could sell, especially as a TV movie, and he was probably, as an actor, just big enough for roles in those B pictures and TV movies. But as I say in the piece, there were some interesting exceptions. And I have to say I've never seen Atomic Shark, though I think I might have to now.

As often happens, my closing was edited out of the piece. Here is the last graf as I wrote it. I think Mohammad, Jugdish, Sidney, Clayton and Lonny would have liked it.
 
Furst died at home in Moorpark, California, of complications from his diabetes. He is survived by his wife and sons. As tributes poured in, one actor posted the video of Flounder, in his undercover agent raincoat, watching the chaos Delta House and his marbles inflict on the college's annual parade. Furst's smile fills the screen. 'Boy is this great,' he chortles.

Monday, 19 June 2017

DON WINSLOW'S IRRESISTIBLE TOUR DA FORCE

Detective Sergeant Denny Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task force. He is the King of Manhattan North, or the king of kings, leading their blue-uniformed knights as he and his three-man crew enforce their domination over the neighbourhood, 'Da Force' battling with the gangs to protect a population that sees them as part of an occupation force. It's a never-ending battle, and it's one in which he and his crew have become very wealthy making compromises as they do business in their nominal fiefdom.

Dope is the currency of these streets, dope and guns, and you can't run the streets if you don't deal in that currency. Malone is from Staten Island, from a family of Irish cops and firefighters. He went on the pad bit by bit, and now he controls, or tries to control the money he and his partners think of as feeding their families. But he's left his family, and now is involved with a black nurse who's a recovery junkie; a nod back to Heywood Gould's script for the film Fort Apache: The Bronx, perhaps, and Rachel Tictotin's take as cop Paul Newman's nurse girl friend.

There is much that is familiar in Don Winslow's superb novel, especially those steeped in the lore of the NYPD and corruption. The stories of Frank Serpico, Bob Leuci, and Sonny Grosso will ring familiar; books like Robert Daley's Prince Of The City; Philip Rosenberg's now-overlooked Point Blank, much of the work of Richard Price. But The Force stands with any of them, maybe even rising above them. Winslow's writing carries this book to new heights of plumbing these depths. He has written about Manhattan before, the New York of the Fifties, in the wonderful novel Isle Of Joy, but this is something on a different level and vaster scale, something six decades more intense.

Winslow deals, as you must with the moral ambiguities. In fact, morality is the greatest danger in Malone's world; having fixed moral lines creates problems which are not covered in the cop's catechism of violence. In the world Winslow portrays, almost everyone has a moral failing; cops, lawyers, politicians, preachers, feds, judges, DAs, journalists. Yet they all profess to a moral code; something you see strongest, oddly enough, in Malone's stoolies.There is another force too, besides the NYPD and Da Force; it is the one Malone senses around himself and his fellow cops, a force field that is about to be tested beyond his comprehension.

You understand this because of Winslow's writing. He is inside the mind of Denny Malone, each choice, each rationalisation. You see every other character, from the equally corrupt head of the other Task Force to the wives and children of the cops, from Malone's perspective, how they compete for his attention, his loyalty, his soul. And Winslow builds Malone's perspective brilliantly. He gets things wrong; misjudges key people, which he realises too late. The book proceeds at a rush, fast-paced, pounding movement, taking the reader along with the visceral excitement and triumph of Malone's world, the building speed as his skates over and around the mounting dangers.

And when those dangers begin to turn on him, the pace of the book slows down, and the reader begins to feel the squeeze just as tightly as Malone does. There are twists and turns as it proceeds, but events around Malone are gathering pace just as they slow him down and narrow his perspective down to one of survival. In the end, it is a story of morality, of a moment where Malone followed his deeper feelings; 'he still fucking cares. Doesnt want to. But he does.' as Winslow puts it. So it's also a story of redemption, that part of the catechism which Malone knows may well be impossible.

Winslow's superb drug novels, The Power Of The Dog and The Cartel, were big and powerful, but sprawling and detailed. The Force is something different altogether, big and detailed, but tightly controlled, brilliantly written, simultaneously thrilling, sad, and memorable.

The Force by Don Winslow
Harper Collins, £18.99, ISBN 9780008227487

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


Sunday, 18 June 2017

GRENFELL TOWER AND THE HOUSING CRISIS

The privatised management company that 'ran' the Grenfell Tower estate on behalf of the cash-strapped Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea saved themselves £5,000 by using flammable cladding on the building instead of the flame-proof stuff. This small but venal illustration of the subordination of people to profit will be talked over much, as well as repeated refusals by Parliament to legislate for safety in rented accommodation. These questions should be more important than whether Theresa May lacks the bottle to face the public she appears to fear, when she thinks about them at all. She is the head croupier in a system designed to drain the poor for the benefit of the rich, and Kensington and Chelsea just happens to be one of those boroughs where the extremes of rich and poor meet, if not rub shoulders.

There are eight bands of poll tax, sorry council tax, in the borough. They are based on valuations set in 1991. The lowest is for houses (or flats, I will use the term houses here) up to £40,000; the highest for all properties over £320,000. The value of the cheapest property in the highest band is eight times the value of the most expensive in the lowest band. The tax paid in the highest band, however (£2124) is only three times as high as the lowest band (£708). An incentive to buy high.

But the average house price in Kensington and Chelsea right now is £1,371,000. It was $1.2 million in 2014, when the London average was £400,000 and the national average £200,000. The median in London has increased from £87,000 in 1996 to £462,000.

Two things are obvious. Property is a great investment. Those empty luxury buildings that are unoccupied are owned by (often foreign) investors, many of those from countries where personal wealth can be, shall we say, volatile; they are appreciating steadily and rapidly, while the property taxes on them are negligible.

Second, because those taxes are negligible, local council revenues are far less than they ought to be, even taking into account cuts instituted by national government starting in the Thatcher years. Councils rush to privatise services they've already cut back, and get out from the 'burden' of paying employees and giving them pensions. They close libraries, they turn off street lights (at least out here in Tory-controlled Waverly), they ignore safety concerns in high-rise buildings and try to clad them to stop offending the good taste of the wealthy who are forced to look at the buildings each day.

In the election campaign, one of the Labour party's proposals was to tax off-shore assets and income. When they costed their manifesto, they estimated the income from this tax, then cut that estimate in half, to allow for the idea people right re-patriate their money rather than face the tax. When the Institute for Fiscal Studies did their costing of the manifesto, they allowed zero income from this tax (thus creating a spending deficit) by assuming all the off-shore money would be repatriated.  Which of course would increase normal tax revenue, but no matter.

A starting point on treating the residents of social housing fairly might be to indulge in a re-rating of council tax, increasing the number of upper bands to make the tax much more progressive. It might include the imposition of an abandonment tax for buildings left empty. It might also reconsider (though this would be a decision for Parliament) placing the responsibility for property tax on the owner, not the renter, of a property.

Some of that revenue might be dedicated to building new social housing, on a more human scale. British city planners ought to be studying Jane Jacobs, not Andreas Gursky. The starting point for the housing crisis in this country was the Thatcher government's decisions to sell council houses, without provision for replacing them, while making it easier and cheaper to own multiple properties, and rent them out.

A rethink of housing policy is not really complicated. This is not a problem without a solution; it is a problem lacking a will to enact the solution. The part that will be made to sound complicated will be where the money will come from to enact such policies. The answer is that the money is staring residents of Kensington and Chelsea in the face, in the shape of empty properties owned for investment, in the shape of buy-to-let properties, and in the shape of owners getting a huge break on property taxation from local and national governments who are their friends, and don't really have time for those on the other side of the tracks. Or the Westway.


Sunday, 11 June 2017

THEIR FINEST (TWO) HOURS, (OR ERAS?)

WARNING NOTE! This review contains spoilers. If you do not want to hear about melodramatic twists before you see the film, which is reasonable enough as it is good enough to go see, then don't read the following until after you've been to the cinema. If you do read it, then don't blame me.

The other night I took my 13 year old son to see Their Finest, an enjoyable enough romantic film about making movies in Britain during World War II. Movies about movie-making tend to be fun; everyone enjoys playing with the business, and playing versions of themselves which audiences are quick to recognise. Actors adore the period costumes, and cherish the ability to chain smoke with impunity on camera. There's nothing particularly new about it, apart from the fact that the story centres on a young woman who is forced into screenwriting, as it were, and then being turned slowly into a movie pro, but that is, in itself an fascinating take.

What's most interesting about the film is the way in which, despite the modern theme, and the implicit ironic distance the film-makers enjoy, how closely their effort mirrors the movie being made about Dunkirk. It's almost like a compulsion.

For example, early on we see the interference of the government in the film that's being made. The bureaucrats have their contradictory demands, and the film has to be twisted to fit those, even to the point of inserting an American character, to be played by an actual American airman flying the RAF (which makes an interesting factual/fiction ambiguity) who's a walking hunk but can't act. Sort of a prototype Arnold.

But Their Finest was produced in part by the Welsh government, which is why Welsh locations stand in for the Devon coast, but also why Catlin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is Welsh. It's no problem, except that Arterton's Welsh accent comes and goes, but obviously that's exactly the kind of decision that the movie faced.

We don't get many looks into the actual process of movie fakery, though a lovely moment with a matte shot turning the beach into Dunkirk is wonderful, reminiscent of one of the great movie-movies, The Stunt Man. What we do get, however, is a film whose basic structure mirrors, as if unconsciously, the film-within-a-film that's being made in the Forties. We know, for example, before she does that Catlin's marriage to her artist husband is doomed, because not only doesn't he paint her, but they have none of the passionate moments we expect from love interests. This was easy to read Hollywood code from the Thirties onwards; think of Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind.  If you recognise it, it takes some of the energy from the eventual reveals, but it didn't for my son, who was amazed I could predict the inevitable moment of betrayal. It's also interesting that, to get him out of the war, they give her husband a war injury from fighting in Spain; I would have thought that his fighting there would make him suspicious to the war ministry, and that such suspicion might be enough to keep Catlin from getting a job.

It's also very much a vehicle for Arterton, who, accent apart, dominates almost every scene she's in and is very very good.. The best parts are the easy ones, for Bill Nighy hamming it up as a ham actor, for Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory as his agents, and Rachel Stirling who's very good in a classic wise-cracking 'pal' role, though it's given a slight update. Cameos by Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons work because they play Forties so well, more because their sorts of characters haven't changed that much since then anyways. What is strange is that none of the younger actors seem able to match her, not either of her love interests nor any of the people playing the younger actors and crew.  It's very much old fashioned in that way, though in the Forties you might see more character from the character actors.

The major throwback of the film, however, is it's melodrama. The Blitz is a time for that, and after the film I was talking to Nate about the English people I'd known who'd lived through the Blitz, and how, as Stirling's character tells Arterton, they felt like life was more intense and they needed to live for the moment. Paradoxically, given the horror, it was really the best time of their lives. Hence we expect some shocking deaths, like Marsan's, which occurs offstage. But we aren't really prepared when Arterton's true love, the screenwriter played by Sam Claflin, dies in a Blitz-caused accident on set.

At that point I had just been thinking how stereotypically Hollywood this all was. Girl meets Boy, Girl Loses Boy, Girl Gets Boy. But I was watching as they finally embraced, and it took place in front of a prop train (third class, no less) and I thought immediately of Brief Encounter, and had already jumped ahead in my mind to his enlisting and going off to war in a tearful farewell. That might have been more in keeping with the Forties tone.

Instead, he's killed by the equivalent of Girl Gets Boy, Boy Gets Hit By A Bus moment. 'What is this', I said, 'Truly Madly Deeply: The Prequel'? It was AN easy way to get some tears and sympathy, when quite honestly, the tears in much of the rest of the movie flow more organically. But then, in the very next scene, Claflin comes back as a ghost and speaks to Arterton. As a ghost! It WAS Truly Madly Deeply, but I suspect the producers assume that film is as obscure as those of the Forties to their audience.

I waited for my own little emotional touches. I felt sure she'd be surprised by a credit at the end of the movie, or maybe by a tribute to her dead writer partner. Perhaps I am too sentimental. Instead, the movie ends with her finding her determination to go into the movies, much like Rose's freeing her boat's propeller in the Dunkirk film, because Erroll Flynn could do it.

This shouldn't take away from the fact that it's an enjoyable film, moves well, features a fine star turn, and left the less critical audience in my town (and my 13 year old, by far the youngest person there) happy. I would have liked the original book title better though. Their Finest Hour And A Half. It's better for the play on Churchill's words (which might pass most of the younger audience by) but maybe because the film itself is two hours long they felt it would be false advertising.



Friday, 9 June 2017

JACK O'NEILL: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Jack O'Neill, pioneer of the wet-suit and founder of the company that grew into a major world-wide lifestyle clothing firm, went up at the Guardian online Wednesday. You can link to it here.
It ought to appear in the paper sometime soon. It is again pretty much as I wrote it; the only change I regret was the excising of the notice that Marjorie, his first wife, also predeceased him, in 1972.

The story of the fight over who 'invented' the wet suit was a fascinating one, difficult to reduce to one paragraph. There isn't really much question that Brandner, who had also worked on the Manhattan Project, was the first one there, but he was working on diving suits. Whether O'Neill, like the Meistrell Brothers, was aware of Brandner's work or not remains an open question. But literal invention apart, there's no question O'Neill was a constant innovator.


BRITISH DEMOCRACY & BREXIT: A BLEARY-EYED REPORT

The take-away from last night's election is dysfunction: and not just the Tories using the ballot box to try to solve short-term internal policies. The problem is assuming the nation is behind Brexit, when in reality the nation remains divided. The problem is assuming Brexit is the only issue, when social policy played a big part.

May with a 'majority' in Parliament based on 36% of the voters, asked for a mandate to move ahead with her own dream of hard Brexit, whose details she would not share with the voters, as if this were a yes/no referendum II.

Yet both major parties accepted the country's 52/48 split on a yes/no vote on an issue of massive complexity and huge constitutional change as 'the will of the people', when in truth it was a chasm in the British populace. The young, who justifiably felt the greatest loss after the Brexit vote, apparently made their presence felt yesterday.

But because the British electoral system is totally dysfunctional, a 42% vote couldn't give May a 'majority' much less a mandate, nor could the rest of the opposition cobble together one (though their popular vote--Lab/LDP/Green/SNP/PC-- would constitute an absolute majority).

You can hear Europe laughing. And after the scare tactics of the Tories and their press about Jeremy Corbyn's 'links' with the IRA, the terrorist-backed Irish tea party of the Democratic Unionists now hold the balance of power in the Disunited Kingdom.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

DENIS JOHNSON: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the writer Denis Johnson went up at the Guardian online Tuesday; you can link to it here. It ought to be in the paper paper sometime soon. The obit is pretty much as I wrote it, so there isn't much to add. I still recall reading Angels when it first came out and feeling ambivalent, as I did about Raymond Carver and much of what was being called 'Dirty Realism' at the time. It was odd too how much Johnson came to resemble Carver as he aged. It struck me that the writing, while often beautiful, was sometimes gilding what should have been a more gritty lily, and it struck me too that this sort of 'realism' was dirty only from a certain perspective, one that was very insular, literary, and creative writerly.

This of course was Johnson's background for much of his career, after the decade lost to drugs. It seemed that the dissolution and despair he wrote out was sometimes moving and shocking in its description, but often, as I hint in the obit, self-pitying. It was a Holden Caufield kind of world view, turned adult in a harsher world than the one Salinger could have imagined. I didn't get far into Tree Of Smoke; one of Johnson's strong points was being able to be concise in his best, most crystalline images. And other was, as I pointed out, his appropriation of the tropes of genre fiction which provided a sense of structure in books that cried out to be road novels. Those qualities seemed less present in Tree Of Smoke, but paradoxically, it was his most honoured book.

The style I am describing was particularly good for the screen. Hit Me is worth seeking out: Johnson's ability to create telling scenes, the strongest point of his writing, shines here, and the screenplay's structure provides that kind of framework I thought helped him out. I may seek it out too, to watch again.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

AND YET YOU CHOOSE TO LIVE HERE or ENDURING UNNECESSARY HARDSHIP: AN ELECTION MEDITATION

When we were younger, agitating for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, we used to have 'love it or leave it' thrown at us as a discussion closer. As it turned out, I did leave it, though not for lack of love for my country, and eventually I settled in Britain, where I have lived for forty years, and am a citizen (or, until recently, a 'subject') of the United Kingdom. The latter title seems more appropriate today, as we face an election to confirm, indeed, if the media are to be believed, rubber-stamp by acclimation, a minority government which asks for its minority of voters to give it an even larger majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Today's arguments are conducted in the more hermetic setting of social media, but they have grown almost as fierce as they were back in the Sixties. Which was confirmed to me the other day on facebook, when I was shocked to find a friend, with whom I've have the same arguments during the 2015 general election and the 2016 Brexit vote, but intensifying each time he wraps himself in the Union Jack, finally calling quits to discussion by saying 'and yet you choose to live here'.

Which admittedly is a little less excluding, albeit less catchy, than 'love it or leave it'. But I wouldn't let it lie, pointing out that indeed I had chosen to live here, unlike his own lucky self, fortunate to have been born a citizen of the country he loves so blindly. That was a riposte, not a reply, and I found myself wondering why I feel such despair in the face of this election, and why that translates into such disparagement of the country in which I chose to live. Was I creating the flag-waving antagonism I now felt? or was it the Union Jack-wrapped myopia itself that inevitably generated such antagonism?

My friend challenged me: “name me a country that values talent and ability more -- we may be far from perfect, but the days of the posh twit are significantly on the wane.” Well, I started naming countries of which I have some experience or some very good idea of their societal structure, which seem to value ability more. Canada, Australia, NZ, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, probably France, even my native USA. Then I realised such information was useless. His challenge was built on Little England false modesty and faux self-deprecation, distilled perfectly to a Mrs. T. I summed up his English world view that brought us Brexit: "we are far from perfect but it is a truth universally acknowledged that no one else in the entire world is better."

When I came here in 1977, following my English girlfriend who'd refused to spend a second winter in Montreal, I found Britain still endearingly backward in many ways, and I discovered George Mikes' loving dissections of the English, in particular the telling and still accurate perception that there is nothing an Englishman loves more than 'enduring hardship', and the kind of hardship that gives him the most satisfaction enduring is 'unnecessary hardship'.

The Britain I came to was civilised and caring in its bumbling ways, but this was also a Britain whose National Front was bleating hate, backed by one in seven English voters in the 1978 local elections. The rise of Mrs. Thatcher subsumed the NF at that time, but now, after 40 years of Thatcherism from both major parties, their descendants have been assimilated into our mainstream, skinheads replaced by Faragistas and Britain has become a meaner country., rallying around calls of fear and hatred.

Its caring side has also been tossed into a giant rubbish bin of greed, where need has been subordinated to profit. Everything has its price and nothing has value unless it hands the apparatchiks a dividend. Avarice promotes division, and a society where people's basic welfare takes the very last seat on the privatised bus service, is not a society at all. But that was Mrs. Thatcher's point, 'there is no society' and it was the point of Offshore David Cameron, whose 'Big Society' was the next-best thing to no society. When Cameron said 'we are all in this together', by 'we' he meant 'they' and by this 'this' he meant 'that mess we are leaving them'.

Every facet of life is poisoned by this. I came here and stayed here by choice, and I've lived here long enough to maybe adjust to enduring unnecessary hardship. But my son, who was born here, and considers himself English, didn't grow up with that old-time ethos of tug your cap and endure. He's been told there's a brighter future, but at the same time constantly being asked to trim his expectations.

Twenty years ago, when my mother died, I found the letters I had written her from London in 1972, when I visited Britain for the first time. 'I could live here' I said more than once, little thinking that five years later that would be a real possibility. In fact, I moved to Montreal in 1975 and was considering that my adopted home when female circumstances intervened.

When I became a British citizen, I felt pleasure that it had come to pass. I watched the portrait of the Queen, whose eyes seemed to follow you as you took the oath. I was, according to mayor, the only new citizen who sang the national anthem without looking at the words we had been provided. 'It's not the most complicated song in the world,' I told him, though I probably should have added for safety's sake, not to be thought a subversive, of course it is the best national anthem in the world. I was happy then that as a UK citizen all of Europe was now open to me, as well as my young son. Now, when I look at the possibilities that will be taken away by Brexit, when I look at Britain snowballing downhill into American-style pay for play education and health systems, both of which used to be free here and both of which are hugely expensive over there, I despair. With the likelihood that our twisted electoral system will fail yet again to reflect the need of the electorate for change, I wonder if it's time to go home. Then Donald Trump comes on the news. This would be enduring unnecessary hardship indeed, and born an American, I am not genetically predisposed to it. But I fear even the British are going to find their endurance tested should the election polls be correct.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

JOHN GRISHAM'S CAMINO ISLAND

John Grisham has, as I have written before, the knack for keeping the pages turning. He does this by creating a protagonist whose character gives you reasons to be sympathetic, and then immersing that character into a plot where the other characters are drawn thinly, but to emphasise their potential danger. Camino Island begins as a caper novel, where the target is the F. Scott Fitzgerald collection at Princeton University: the original manuscripts of his five novels. The heist is pulled off, but with the efficiency of Donald Westlake as Richard Stark, if not the gritty prose, things go wrong, and the authorities bust half the crew.

The action then shifts to the world of rare books, and a struggling novelist, Mercer Mann, about to lose her creative writing lecturer's job at a university and unable to get a second novel underway after the underwhelming attention paid to her first. By coincidence, she happens to have spent her childhood summers on Camino Island where, by coincidence, there is a rare books dealer who is being investigated by a firm employed by the university to get the manuscripts back.

And the surviving thieves, who sold their haul off on the cheap, now want to re-negotiate their deal.

At times you see things building up to a Lionel White or, yes, a Richard Stark denounement, bringing all these folks, and maybe the FBI, together in the sleepy beach town. But Grisham is more interested in the activities of Bruce Cable, the rare books dealer whom Mercer is supposed to be getting close to, and his own world of writers' tours and an exotic open marriage with his antique dealer wife. Because what this story is, in many ways, is the education of Mercer Mann. Not necessarily to the ways of crime, but to the ways of the wider world. In that Cable and his wife seem less characters than instruments of instruction, and the other eccentric writers in the Camino Island community are there for contrast. There's a lesson for would-be writers here, about that world, and although Mercer becomes enthralled with her work as an agent, it takes second place to the bigger lesson, which is about isolation and knowledge.

This is an off-beat kind of thriller, with just a touch of Fitzgerald around its edges. Grisham is an acute enough plotter to keep you waiting for something, and whether he manages to deliver enough to justify it depends on a lot on how much you can sympathise with or believe in Mercer Mann.


Camino Island by John Grisham
Hodder & Stoughton, £20, ISBN 9781473663725

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

Saturday, 3 June 2017

THOMAS H. COOK'S TRAGIC SHORES

Note: This review appeared last week, in a somewhat different form, in the TLS. It had been shortened from the original edited version, where it had been improved greatly by some reordering and a change of focus, which I appreciated greatly, because this is a deeply-layered book that provokes often conflicting reactions. The printed piece is locked behind the TLS paywall; I recommend the new-look paper if you are interested. But I thought I would offer you the chance to chance my original version, improved by sensitive editing, which I think get further into and closer to the heart of a moving book.
Thomas H. Cook is one of the finest crime writers in the world. His protagonists tend to be observers; his books are often set in the world of their memory, dealing with the dead and the past. Stories tend to become clearer gradually, like a photograph developing, and his style, while displaying gothic overtones, is measured and straightforward. “My characters are fighting inevitability”, he told me once in an interview. “The sense that life is not designed to live up to our imaginations. Instead it’s incredibly cruel.” There is an autobiographical touch; in two of his novels, characters are writers who have specialized in travel to dark places. One of them is a man who has lost his son, kidnapped as he waited in the rain for his father to pick him up from school; the father, caught up in his writing, had forgotten the time.
Tragic Shores begins with a prologue, Cook's visit to Alcazar, where in 1936 the commander of the fortress refused to surrender to Republican forces, then listened over a telephone as the commander of those forces murdered his son. Later in the book, Cook tells the story of waiting in the rain for his mother to collect him after school. He refuses the offer of a lift from the mother of a classmate. 'Get in, Tommy, I won't hurt you,' the woman says. 'That's what they all say,' the young Cook replies.

On the surface, this is a journal of “dark travel”, to places where human cruelty and tragedy have left their marks, where they remain a living presence and have not, as Cook puts it, “retreated into history”. It proceeds from Lourdes to Auschwitz; from the leper colony at Kalaupapa to Hiroshima; from Cambodia’s Year Zero to New York’s Ground Zero; from New Echota, capital of the Cherokee nation before the Trail of Tears, to the site of massacres in Ghana; from Machecoul in Northern France, where Gilles de Rais, the West’s first recorded serial killer, preyed on local youths in the fifteenth century, to the cliffs of Okinawa from which Japanese parents threw their children, then followed them to their deaths, rather than face the atrocities they believed the Americans would visit upon them. At Verdun, being told “no one comes here anymore”, Cook ponders the “well of forgetfulness” into which so many lost lives have sunk, and attempts to pull those memories back into the light.
It is not schadenfreude; he does not seek comfort from the fact that the tragedies visited on others have somehow passed him by. Yet, this might seem an unattractive basis for a travel book. Indeed, much of the description can seem mundane in the face of such overwhelming emotion. Cook, his wife Susan and their daughter Justine try bravely to become travellers absorbing new places, rather than tourists carrying their own worlds with them. But many of these sites rest uneasily with the tourist trade; watching the mothers of Cinco de Mayo in Buenos Aires disperse after their weekly demonstration for their “disappeared” relatives is not the only scene that provokes a sense of disconnection.. But the more everyday the picture, the more intensely the reader perceives Cook’s real intent, which is easy to miss even though he states it clearly in the first line of his prologue: “I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life”.
After touring a small hall dedicated to the Apprentice Boys of Derry commemorating the siege of the city in 1688–9, and the origins of the staunchly Unionist Protestant association, his guide offers a hand, saying, “we’re not bad people”. When Cook takes the hand, responding “most people aren’t bad”, it sounds like a wistful warning, recalling his mother's long-ago advice. This is the central dilemma with which Cook wrestles, the reason why he immerses himself in the darkness, the question of why, if most people are not bad, so much evil seems to define their lives.
Oddly enough, in this worldwide compendium of human misery, a hint of an answer comes from a tragedy visited on birds. It is perhaps the saddest tale in the book, sad because of its seeming inevitability. The extinction of the heath hen on Martha’s Vineyard followed, not evil, but the requiste callousess of humans, when a century ago a forest fire destroyed the preserve in which they had been protected from human agency. Most of the female birds died protecting the nests they would not abandon; the last male disappeared a few years later in 1932. His disappearance speaks to a sense of selflessness with which Cook, with a novelist’s sense of climax, intended to end his book.
But soon after his visit to Martha's Vineyard, his wife took ill. Susan Terner died before this book was finished. Before she died, she admonished Cook to remember the “value of knowing”, and though the heath hens had brought the book to conclusion, he still needed to explain what that knowledge meant.
The Cooks had visited the tomb of Abelard and Héloïse in Père Lachaise, the graves of Elvira Madigan and Sixten Sparre in Landet, Denmark; two sets of lovers who ended their own lives when faced with society's refusal to allow them their loves. But that sense of despair finds contrast at the jumping point on the Golden Gate Bridge, where thousands of suicides have taken their last steps, when a passerby seems pleased and relieved to see him walking back from the spot. In that man's relief, Cook senses “life’s ultimate gimmick”, the “selfless, anonymous care” that persuades humans to live. It is altruism, an engrained instinct to protect the wider nest. That is the light which the dark places have revealed. Tragic Shores is not tragic at all. It is a love story, and a hymn to our ability to go on, in the face of the ultimate darkness.
Tragic Shores by Thomas H. Cook
Quercus, £20.00, ISBN 9781849163262


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

H.B.LYLE'S IRREGULAR

By now just about the only character in the Sherlock Holmes canon who hasn't had his or her own detective series is the Baskerville hound, and I'm sure someone's considering that one as we speak. We've seen all sorts of Holmeses over the years, and with the recent book, the fringes of Baker Street are being combed for characters. It is hard to generate something new in such an avalanche of well-worn tropes, but H.B. Lyle has managed to do that quite cleverly in The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy, a first novel starring Wiggins, formerly the head of the Baker Street Irregulars. Wiggins is mentioned twice in the canon; the third time Watson either gets the name wrong or maybe there's been a change at the top. But now Wiggins is an adult, he's back from fighting the Boer in South Africa, and in the Tottenham Outrage of 1909 (which did happen) the policeman murdered is his best friend. Which leads him, eventually, into a partnership with Captain Vernon Kell, heading up a newly-formed Secret Service, primarily to stop the war preparations of the Hun.

One of the reasons the story is fresh is the way it blends Sherlockian exploits with the kind of stuff we see in Erskine Childers. The pre-war era is a perfect setting for the kind of dime novel derring do that we find here, and Lyle's story is a classic mix of Russian anarchists and German Teutons. It provides a perfect contrast, as you might guess from its subtitle, for the Colonel Blimps of the British government, except perhaps for Kell's Sandhurst contemporary, the self-serving and ambition head of the Board Of Trade, Winston 'Soapy' Churchill. In that sense Wiggins might be seen to be a prototype Harry Palmer.

And class plays a huge part in the story, both in the blindness of the British establishment, and in the relation of Wiggins and Kell. Kell meanwhile has his own troubles at home, with his suffragette wife Constance, who proves not only an effective agent, but is probably the most intriguing character in the novel, particularly when she is dealing his her husband's naivete, especially about men of the 'Grecian Persuasion'. Wiggins meanwhile is drawn to a Latvia laundress, Bella, while his partner in the Irregulars, Sal, reappears in his life and his friend's wife appears to disappear. Lyle is good on backstories, and even the cameo by Holmes rings true.

If at times the plot is mechanical, and if the horseback finale seems designed with the development of a TV series, that's not a fatal flaw. Yes, agile readers should have seen the identity of Arlekin, and they will realise who von Bork is when he reappears, as he must surely do. The climactic bomb seems somehow anti-climactic, its mastermind somehow less committed than we might have thought. But it's an enjoyable read throughout, and fits nicely and without awkwardness into this crowded sub-genre.

The Irregular: A Different Class Of Spy by H.B. Lyle
Hodder & Stoughton £17.99 ISBN 9781473655379

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

Monday, 29 May 2017

ROGER MOORE, MONACO GRAND PRIX, THE SAINT, AND ME

Like many of my generation in America, my first exposure to Roger Moore came in the TV series Ivanhoe. This was shortly after Richard Greene had played Robin Hood on the small screen, and I'm sure it was an attempt to echo the success of that show. The two actors had much in common, particularly their spectacular good looks, and, absent Moore's later bonanza from Bond, their careers were similar in lots of ways, with action movies their main staple.

But it was when Moore appeared as the Saint that I was hooked. It was the first of a group of British shows that eventually made it over to the US, followed by Danger Man, The Avengers, The Prisoner; all of which seemed more inventive, stylish, and smarter than most of our own fare. Looking back at old episodes now, I can see the bare-bones nature of most of it, the crazy accents of English actors, and the formulaic nature, but imagine my thrill when I moved to London, and walking from our flat to Regent's Park walked by the block of flats where Templar's Volvo sports car would pull up when he came home.

Moore was excellent as the Saint, a role that has defeated most of the actors who've tried it (Louis Hayward and George Sanders really being the only exception. Moore's Simon Templar is pitched close to his James Bond, with a certain irony, and less tongue in cheek: there is also the occasional sense of a ruthless presence which Sean Connery brought to Bond, but Moore ditched for that role.

Before Bond, there's one Moore role of which I have only a vague recollection, except that it wasn't very good. He played in a TV movie called Sherlock Holmes in New York, with Patrick Mcnee as Watson, John Huston as Moriarty, and Charlotte Rampling as Irene Adler. You can see why I would have watched. I looked it up and the supporting cast included Gig Young (another I've seen mentioned as a proto-Bond), Leon Ames, Jackie Coogan and David Huddlestone. There is also Moore's son Geoffrey, billed as Scott Adler, which must have been his playing Irene Adler's son, by Holmes, but sadly I can't remember that either. Roger Moore certainly wasn't designed to be Sherlock Holmes.

The Saint to me was his defining role, but of course it was Bond who came to define him. I recall Moore's reply when asked if it was true Ian Fleming wanted him as Bond from the start (which was highly unlikely, as Dr No. predates The Saint). 'Fleming didn't know me from shit,' he laughed. 'He wanted Cary Grant or David Niven.' That was Fleming's image of Bond, although Connery actually captured more of the actual character Fleming wrote: especially the cruelty and the sado-masochism  behind the stories. Connery remains unquestionably the best Bond.

But Moore marked a turning point for the role, which was to take it totally tongue in cheek. Right down to his name, with its built-in double-entendre. Where Connery's Bond had been holding his own against the somewhat bumbling Yanks (Felix Leiter & Co), Moore's Bond was a celebration of Brittania well before Cameron and UKIP appropriated it. It made life impossible for those actors who followed, and, like Piers Brosnan, tried to walk the character back toward Connery. They surrendered, and in Daniel Craig created a new Bond, pure Little-Englander, a Nick Hornby character with muscles, playing Texas Hold Em, not Chemin der fer. Moore's grace and sense of irony was lost completely.

I encountered this once, when I met him while working for ABC Sports at the Monaco Grand Prix. This may have been the same year I met Joan Collins, but I don't think so. That's another story, anyway. My function was to sort out problems, of which there were many, with the organisers, so on the Saturday I was in the pits as we got ready to film Jackie Stewart's tour of the course: driving round it with a camera and sound man in the back seat. Why we did this every year was beyond me, since the course never changed, but every producer thought he would bring his own personal touch to it, or maybe get something new from Jackie, who was both a lovely guy and a consummate pro who had probably done it to death the very first time, but always added something about different cars or drivers or weather to try to make it new.

We were just about ready to go when Jackie spotted Roger Moore across the pit area, going into one of the hospitality areas. I know Roger, he told me, he'll do this with me. Can you go get him to do it?'. This was the best idea anyone on the show had had all week, so I went off to the tent, introduced myself to Mr. Moore, and explained. Of course, I'd love to, he said, and we walked back to the car. I may have mentioned The Saint and how much I'd liked it. More than once. Roger and Jackie were old friends, maybe from living in Switzerland (note, the photo above right is one I believe was taken years later). They greeted each other, Jackie explained again, and Roger said of of course again. Then, looking at me and giving just the sort of raised eyebrow I remembered from The Saint, he went straight over to the driver's seat and got in. Jackie got flustered, nearly apoplectic, as he tried to explain he was doing the driving, not Roger, that's what he was here for, he was the driver, and so on. There was a lot of snickering going on which didn't burst into full laughter until Moore got out of the front seat laughing away himself. I just wish we'd been taping it.

Every obituary I saw remarked how much he enjoyed life and with how little seriousness he took himself and his career. It could not have been made more clear in that one sunny Saturday in Monaco.


Friday, 26 May 2017

JEREMY HUNT: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE TURD KIND

I had finished the morning's writing and was just about to stick the banana bread in the oven and, on this glorious summer day, take my dog for a walk by Swan's Barn, when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and standing in front of me in the bright sunshine was the Health Minister, the Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt, MP for Surrey SW. Oh, I thought, as I struggled to keep touch with reality. Where is Michael Crick and a Channel 4 TV crew when you really need him.

The conversation began normally enough. Can I ask for your vote? Can I answer any questions? he said. Why are you killing the National Health Service? How can you continue the unfairness of austerity? Why are you making such a farce of Brexit? Why are you coming after my pension to feed your city friends? I replied. Anything I can do to keep you out of Westminster I will, and I looked over to the Dr Louise Irvine National Health Action party flyer in my front window.

To be fair, and unsurprisingly, Mr Hunt was not fazed, and wanted to 'answer' me point by point. When he started in on 12,000 new nurses, I asked if they were going to build new food banks for them, then pointed out that with 1% per year, 30,000 nurses were disappearing overseas or being driven back to Europe, which left a net loss on 18,000. He acknowledged we were going nowhere and bid a gracious farewell. My dog by then had got bored and dashed out the door, and three of Hunt's half-dozen or so advance team were worried, especially when Rufus chased after the MP for a sniff. One asked me if he bit? No, I said, he's trained to flush out vermin, not attack them.

As I finally put the bread tin into the oven, I experienced what the French call 'l'espirit d'escalier', when you think too late of what you should have said, inspired perhaps by either Emmanuel Macron or the third series of Spin. It's a similar phenomenon as the English laughing at Saturday night's jokes during Sunday's lie-in. I could have pulled out my best Dick Van Dyke accent and said 'oi, you're that Jeremy geezer what 'as the talk show on telly'. I could have offered him tea and stalled him for an hour to slow down his campaigning. I realised I should have kept my discussion with Mr. Hunt local. But as fate would have it, as I put Rufus on the lead and walked out the door with him, Hunt was coming back down the side street, so I went to unload my specific broadside. He made a joke about the dog being on the lead for his protection, and I asked about our local hospital, run by Richard Branson, with facilities under-utilised because they cannot be sub-leased. Ah, he said, we're taking that away from Virgin, he said. And giving it to whom? I asked and he began to say how they wanted to take back the NHS into public hands as only 8% of it was privately held. We began arguing again, and he went into job creation and growing economy and everything except strong and stable, and I soon as I said the magic words 'Naylor Report' he bid me adieu.

He actually seemed to enjoy this; he's got the right training and demeanour, all head boy at Charterhouse. I later discovered that, as the son of an admiral, the taxpayer paid his way at Charterhouse. He would have started there right about the time I became a British taxpayer. Can I have my money back, please? The cooler he remains, the more frustrating it is to argue with him. He's almost affable, in the way people used to insist Shrub Bush was, only Hunt is obviously much smarter. How far below the surface the affability goes is something not hard to estimate from the effects of his policies. And remember, it's not for no reason that the Tories have kept him, like Bojo the Clown and Doc Fox well in the background nationally. The camera, and questioning tougher than mine, reveals a lot he doesn't give away in person.

You have to give him credit for that, and for being out on the doorstep, and being so well organised and well-funded with his team of locals and flacks to help cover the ground. It's an area naturally inclined, like most of exurban England to vote Tory, only moreso, and you can see Hunt as a darling of the party faithful. You have to admire the work he's putting in, especially when his best opposition here is National Health Action, who don't have the organisation, nor the funding, and despite the Progressive Alliance, can't draw on Labour or the LDP for that. Because even with the Greens standing down from the ballot, and some local endorsement of Irvine by the other two parties, it is still a long uphill battle to unseat someone who got 60% of the vote last time (and UKIP took another 10%). But still he's out there working, which is impressive. Frightening, but impressive. I came to the conclusion that, although I've appeared in a Compass/Progressive Alliance promo video, which you can find here, I need to do a lot more. And then I realised I had never mentioned the Dementia Tax to Hunt. Which now worries me in a couple of different ways.

thanks to Michael Goldfarb for the title....

THOMAS H COOK'S TRAGIC SHORES: THE TLS REVIEW

My review of Tragic Shores, Thomas H Cooks memoir of 'dark travel' is in the current issue of the Times Literary Suuplement. You can get a taste of it if you link here, but the rest of the piece is behind a subscription paywall. Or you can buy the paper. There is an outstanding article about Marsden Hartley by Patrick McCaughey, as well as a number of other pieces that will keep your attention.

Thomas is one of the very best crime novelists in America, and as I have written before, works in a manner that is almost sui generis. It is a style that suits his subject here very well, indeed, as he, his wife and daughter travel to those dark places, from which they draw a certain amount of life. More on that later...

The piece as published is notably shorter than the one I originally wrote. I did a rewrite to change the emphasis slightly and re-order it; then it was cut for space and a couple of key points lost. I will post the original up here some time in the future.

Monday, 22 May 2017

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S SHADOW DISTRICT

When the body of a woman is discovered in wartime Reykjavik's 'shadow district', suspicion falls on American soldiers, who have brought changes to the social life of the Icelandic capital. So the investigation is handled in tandem, by an Iceland cop, Flovent, and an American MP named Thorson, a Canadian solider seconded to the Americans because he actually speaks Icelandic. Murder investigation is literally a new thing for the Icelandic police, and they are still feeling their way around an investigation; Thorson, of course, is a soldier not a detective.

In modern Reykavik, a 90 year old man is found dead in his bed. A few days later, when an autopsy reveals he was suffocated, and the police investigate, all they find are some cuttings from that murder case in World War II. At which point Konrad, a retired police detective, is asked by his former colleague Marta to, unofficially, take a look.

The underlying theme behind Arnaldur Indridason's novels, explicit in some like his first in English, Jar City, has always been the uneasy conflict between traditional Iceland, a society sealed almost hermetically for centuries, and modern Iceland. His detective Erlendur loves to eat horse head; his colleague Sigurdur Oli loves all things American. Indridason wrote a stand-alone contemporary thriller involving Americans and Nazi bomber lost in 1945; the cold war figures in Draining Lake. World War II was the catalyst for this change, and that is the engine which powers this exceptional story, as its two strands grow closer and intertwine. And the connections are not what might at first appear to be.

The Shadow District takes us back to a society that seems more like Ibsen, if not Dickens, than the modern Iceland in which Erlendur worked, and it's significant that Konrad is a retired cop, someone who still has a foot in the past. It's not even that he is a typical Scandi 'depressive detective' the way Erlendur was so brilliantly drawn. He's a quiet old man, trying to connect the past and the present. There's more than a hint of Conrad too in the way the story plays out, as it very quietly becomes more and more dark, with twists and shocks, as well as the sadness of the years that passed between crime and punishment. Indridson is easily the finest of the contemporary Nordic crime writers, and though the label 'Nordic Noir' is slapped on anything written north of Schleswig-Holstein, this comes closer than most to living up to it. At any rate, it's one of the finest crime novels of this or any year.



The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridson
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781911215059

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

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The 1,000th POST

According to Blogger, this is the one thousandth post I have made to Irresistible Targets. I have written about my antipathy to creating stories based on numbers that happen to end in zeroes: Trump's first 100 days, the 50th anniversary of this assassination or that Summer of Love,  but it keeps hacks in business, and I am nothing if not willing to grab an easy hook.  I reckon a thousand posts works out to somewhere short of a million words over the past nine years, and pondering that I realised that this is something like a novel a year, were I inclined that way.

Of course not all the writing has been specifically for the blog: many of the pieces posted have been published elsewhere first, and some I have given to others to republish. Sometimes, I publish a link with my notes on my own writing, occasionally that runs longer than the piece itself.

According the Blogger I have had almost 634,000 page views, which would average out to 634 per post.
The viewing figures are usually lower than that per item, which I don't understand, but I am sure there is a good explanation for it. Still, the work is reaching some people, and I know from the viewing figures of pieces I've written for literary magazine blogs that 600 is actually a pretty impressive number.

But it doesn't quite seem impressive enough to justify blog for blog's sake. I feel like I'm back in the fanzine world I wrote for occasionally in the early Seventies. So as I have done at various other milestones along this blog's way I have a couple of questions to pose.

First, should I continue? I will confess that in past few months I have had trouble writing, unless I am on a paying deadline. I have a paper stuck to the wall in my office with what I thought were good ideas for feature pieces and a list of reviews to write because I have been invited to screenings or sent books, and they have not been written. I find myself back in the place I was more than 20 years ago, when my MLB job left me and I went freelance, sending stories off unsolicited and selling some of them (while seeing a few appear, with a few changes of course, under other bylines...welcome to London hackery.) I take this mini- writers block as an unwillingness to commit fully to retrace that path. I also take it as recognition that the editors I pitch to, and their audiences, are shall we say, younger than they were or I am, so sometimes I am speaking to a soft wall of incomprehension.

Now I do want to write those stories, and my inclination is to do that if only for myself and the small coterie of the IT faithful. But here is question two: how best could I 'monetize' as they say, Irresistible Targets. I tried once with Google ads: when the total reached something like £20 I tried to collect, and the process of 'validating' myself with them defeated their paying out to me, as I assume it was intended to do.

I could re-launch IT on another platform (different blog, website) which might allow for contributions. I could set up a paywall website, though that seems counter-productive. I could put a paywall on a website including IT, which might allow for subscribers to my sporting wisdom, particularly during the NFL season.

Any suggestions, advice, encouragement or support would be welcome from you, the readers. I first set up the blog thinking it would be a good way of increasing my 'exposure' as all the people who offer you the chance to contribute for free to their money-making outlets tell you is beneficial. I went back today and looked at my first post (you can do that too, here) and recalled I had actually started THREE blogs: one about art, one about sport and other amusing pastimes, and this one intended to be primarily about crime fiction. At least I wasn't insane enough to continue on those paths! I do recommend my art coverage though, the blog was called Untitled (Reflections... , though most of the pieces I have added here at IT over the years.

While IT has created some exposure, it has not translated into anything beyond itself. Is there a good way to move beyond that, or should that be reward in and of itself?

Or, since 1,000 is supposed to be such a nice round number to mark an accomplishment, I could just leave it there.

Friday, 19 May 2017

ROGER AILES: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Roger Ailes went up at the Guardian online last night (link to it here). It is pretty much as written, but trimmed down somewhat; I wrote it on short-order, as it were. Had they given me more time, I would have made it shorter, to paraphrase Pascal (apparently; thanks to my friend Linda Arnold for pointing out he got there first).

One thing that should be noted: Ailes did not create Fix News; he created it as it now is, and he persuaded Rupert Murdoch to make the key business decision that propelled it forward: paying cable networks (which are generally monopolies in their areas in free market America) to carry Fox News. Instead of cable companies paying Fox per viewer, as was the case with most channels, Fox paid them to put the channel on air. Without that manoeuvre,  Fox News might have languished because cable operators figured CNN (and MSNBC) were all their subscribers needed.

This was an obituary, and not political analysis, but I would have liked to show a little more clearly the ways in which his influence is still felt, not only in the USA. In the UK, when we discuss the impact of Lynton Crosby on British politics, the chatterati always trot out his 'dead cat at the dinner table' quote. But years before, Ailes had explained what he called the 'Orchestra Pit' tactic: "If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says I have a solution to the Middle East problem and the other guys falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?" His faith in the shallowness of media was rarely, if ever, proven wrong; in a way the greatest irony of his career is that it began when he challenged Richard Nixon's assertion that television is a gimmick, yet he proved over and over again how right the Trickster was.

And of course when you watch Theresa May campaigning, as per Lynton, to small carefully selected crowds, answering vetted question from carefully selected journalists (Crosby trusts British journalists to be as clueless as Ailes felt the general public were in America), and repeating 'Make Britain Great Again', oh, wait, it's 'Strong And Stable' it's as if Ailes were driving the battle bus.

Which is not to lessen the impact he had on America. You can see it watching the coverage of Trump: television tends toward simplifying issues into a dichotomy: good/evil, black/white, but Ailes turned TV news into a zero/sum game. Viewpoints have their partisan networks (as long as they make money: post-Ailes MSNBC has danced around trying to place themselves at various times as opposition or not, 'liberal' or not) and the once-major network news programmes stand afraid to 'take sides' lest they alienate their shrinking audience, which is even older than Fox's. But Ailes brought them the attitude that fear attracts people to the safety of their screens: crime and natural disaster, once reserved for the local news in areas they affected, are now the stuff of network news, balanced by entertainment info-nuggets to keep you watching. Like most of those who influenced the true baby-boomer generation (born say 1946 through 53-4) Ailes was slightly older, and recognised the resentment at the heart of the majority of that generation who felt abandoned by the cultural changes that came as a result of various liberations.

They were not liberations Ailes fancied: he was very much of that previous era, and his harassment problems were very much an aspect of that. His America was Ronald Reagan's dreamy fantasy of 1950s television shows, stay at home moms in dresses and aprons, the relations between boys and girls being one of power and forbidden fruit. Because that was what he grew up in, and observed from a house-bound perch.

There is an exceptional bio-film to be made here. Would that Sidney Greenstreet were still alive to play the older Ailes. Young Roger is truly a sad story; when he bit through his tongue his father had to drive him in a panic to Akron, as Warren had no doctors able to deal with it. Ailes nearly died, not for the first time. His relation with his parents nevertheless seems distant, perhaps he was too much a burden, a disappointment. That he channeled this into creating a world that you could link to his childhood imagination, one in which those with power, like himself, were protected from all harm, is a powerful image.

None of this was new. We'd known the essence of the game plan ever since Joe McGinnis published The Selling Of The President in 1969, but we've pretended that the game plan doesn't exist, and the Beltway punditocracy has no reason to admit that it does. Political commentary in America now is all about performance art, the way politicians appear to deal with things. It is never about issues, because it doesn't understand those issues, and the last thing people who do understand what issues really mean want is for their audience to share that understanding.


Tina Brown tweeted yesterday that Ailes was a great producer and raconteur, and it was wrong to judge him solely on the sexual harassment charges. I agree. He should be judged on the impact the things he produced: political candidates (Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and behind the scenes, often with Giuliani, Trump) and political news. Though he was built like Goering, his legacy may well be as an American Goebbels, though luckily not in the service of a dictator.


Thursday, 18 May 2017

COOKING CAPPELLETTI: CHEF BOY AR DEE AND THE CIRCLE OF LIFE

I was in need of some comfort food. Still a bit dizzy and nauseous with what I hope was just a bout of Menieres (because it will go away if that's what it is) and tired from writing 1,500 words on Roger Ailes for the Guardian in three hours with a pounding headache. To paraphrase Pascal, I'd have given them a thousand words, but they didn't give me enough time.

Anyway, not much in the icebox as I'm off to the US next week. So I boil some store-bought cappelletti and drain them, a dab of butter and some pepper. Toss in a couple of teaspoons of store-bought red pesto. A splash of Healthy Boy thai chili sauce, a dash of Lousiana hot sauce, and some chopped salad tomatoes. Then grate some parmesan cheese over the top. Perfectly comforting.

Then I realise that this looks an awful like the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli that came out of a can, which many of my young friends (or their mothers) took for Italian food. My mother would not allow such stuff in the house. She always made her own spaghetti sauce, and very well too. She may have been Jewish, but she grew up in a neighbourhood with lots of Italians, always made spaghetti or ziti (same sauce) on Wednesdays and fish on Fridays and even pronounced minestrone to rhyme with 'bone', like those Neopolitans in West Haven did.

I am starting to realise that life is indeed a circle.