Thursday, 29 November 2018

OSSIPEE LAKE HAIKU

When I was a boy, from ages 7-10, I spent my summers at my great-uncle Andy's boys camp on Lake Ossipee, in New Hampshire. As an adult, I would visit my uncle Jack and aunt Jane at their cottage on the other part of the lake (it was Jane's family's cottage; they had met when Jack canoed past one day, a counselor with some young campers,
and spotted her on the shore.) For a few years I would always manage to visit in early September, when the lake was quiet, the nights were cool, and the pine needles were thick on the ground.

This is for Jack and Jane...
 
OSSIPEE LAKE HAIKU

Pine needles fallen
Soft scent of past beneath my
Stepping silently home

Thursday, 15 November 2018

STAN LEE: MY OFF THE BALL TRIBUTE

Tuesday morning I appeared on Off The Ball radio in Ireland, where I often discuss NFL and other American sports, but this time it was to talk with hosts Ger Gilroy and Eoin Sheahan. You can listen (and watch) that conversation here. A lot of it touched on things I wrote last month in my article about the artist Steve Ditko,  "The Amazing Spider Man and the Incredible Ayn Rand" which appeared in the Autum 2018 issue of Jewish Quarterly (sadly no link to the complete article).

There's not a lot really to add, without tracing Stan's history within the comics industry, but the key point was the change in comics which the Marvel revolution brought about. Almost immediately, in one sense, as DC were fairly quick to update Batman and go 'relevant', famously, with Green Arrow, behind the scripting of Dennis O'Neil and artwork of Neal Adams. Stan started a move to more mature work which would accelerate -- often in graphic novel format -- at the point where the comics industry became more diffuse, and at least part of it began aiming at an adult market. Some of which were the now adult and prosperous kids who had read Marvels in the Sixties.

The feud between Stan and Ditko was in one sense the feud between the Sixties and the Fifties, between the traditional comics market and a new one, between teenagers and adolescents. Stan won, obviously.
And in the long run we now have major motion pictures whose sensibilities are very much still those of Lee in the late Sixties, very much still emotionally the same Spider Man and X Men or whatever.

Stan wasn't necessarily the best writer of comics--he had a tendency to flowery kind of amateur dramatic dialogue--O'Neil and Roy Thomas were the two most notable of the writers who began as understudies to Stan, O'Neil moving to Charlton and then to DC when editor Dick Giordano moved from Charlton.
But the tenor of their work was formed by the enthusiasm for story-telling and faith in the medium Stan Lee had. Lee was also a remarkable self (and Marvel) promoter, and being a devoted reader of Marvel in the Sixties was very much like being part of a club, an Our Gang mentality that was a link to that adolescent enjoyment. Plus his heart really was in the right place: that photo above comes from Stan's Soapbox, which appeared in the comics: that one was the famous screed against bigotry which has received a lot of attention now he's died.

I really was 15 when I bought my first comic, and I was right, it was Avengers 28. I was a scholarship student at the local prep school, I had read Crime & Punishment, Look Homeward Angel, No Exit and the like in my English classes (and more at home: that was probably the summer I read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings in one week). I was playing football, and soon would be starting at defensive end (at 6-2 175) on a team with 19 and 20 year old post-grads. And I was pretty much addicted to comic books. For better or worse, it formed my next six years, probably depressed my grades, definitely made my coaches distrust my toughness, and certainly helped me resist full maturiosity. Thanks Stan.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

MRS MAY, MR BECKETT AND THE BREXIT ENDGAME

"The negotiations for our departure are now in the endgame," said Mrs Theresa May on the evening of 12 November, at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in The Guildhall, a suitable occasion to celebrate the kamikaze-like devotion to a display of the splendor of British (or English) sovereignty. It came a day after the ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the end of "the war to end all wars". The BBC Radio 4 Now Show was more perfectly ironic in describing the Remembrance Day ceremony as honoring the lives of hundreds of thousands of Englishmen who gave their lives in defense of Brussels.

But it was odd that May should choose a word recalling Samuel Beckett's play to describe the negotiations which would stretch until three in the morning that very morning, and which appear to offer very little to anyone. May's genius has been to divide her own party into three factions, one more than plagued Offshore Dave Cameron, which means that every aspect of the Brexit debate is now 'covered' by BBC by presenting all three sides of the Tory party: 'Irish Jake' Rees-Mogg and the errrggghhhh group of hard-line No Deal Brexiters; the Remoaners led by the latest opportunistic Johnson, JoJo, the one who gave Toby Young a job regulating university students, until someone noticed; and May's backers (the hapless Damien Green in the BBC Radio 4 Today knees-up I heard a few days ago) for whatever piecemeal 'deal' she manages to get in the end, hampered by the fact that Michel Barnier and the EU play chess while she plays Chequers. Put May, Mogg, Green and JoJo together and you could stage a production of Waiting For Go Now.

In Beckett, and much of Theatre of the Absurd, life is meaningless, and we cope with the existential anguish that knowledge produces by engaging in rituals that create a sort of meaningful structure for our existence. As metaphors for May's Brexit Britain, you could much much worse.

Keping that in mind, the endgame, as it were, of Endgame is instructive. Watch Clov's final speech again; you can find Michael Gambon's version here. "You cried for night - it falls. Now cry in darkness"

Monday, 29 October 2018

RAGNAR JONASSON, THE SHOTS INTERVIEW: I'M BLESSED WITH HAVING THIS STRANGE COUNTRY TO WORK WITH

I interviewed the Icelandic crime writer Ragnar Jonasson in Rekyjavik not so long ago: the interview is up at the online UK crime fiction mag, Shots. The interview coincides with the launch of his novel The Darkness in paperback; I reviewed the original launch of the hardback here, back in March. It is a stunningly original deconstruction of a crime novel, probably the best I've read this year. I was very surprised to learn that it is the first of a three-book series; his rather more old-fashioned 'Dark Iceland' mysteries had not prepared me for The Darkness, and the idea that he could work backwards with the character is an equally original idea. You can link to the interview here.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

GIRL: DANCE AND GENDER AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Is there any gender role more stylised than a that of ballerina? Lara is 15, and has been accepted into one of Belgium's leading ballet schools. But only provisionally, because Lara is well behind the other girls, most of whom have started their pointe by age 12. Lara didn't start then, because at 12 she was still a boy. And now, trying to make up lost time, she is further hindered by the fact that her body is still a boy's.

Lara has begun hormonal treatments, and will have surgery when she is older, but she still tapes down her penis when she dances. She has the dual pressures of a new school, as her father as moved her for her ballet, and the dance. And of course, she is about to turn 16, and needs to deal with sexual curiosity and urges.

One of the beauties of Girl, which won both the Camera d'or for first film, and the independent Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, is the way Lara's reaction to this overwhelming combination of stresses is presented: she is given her headway, and the audience is drawn along with her. She hears the warnings from all sides. A doctor promises more intense treatment “if you're evolving enough”; a dance teacher tells her “some things can't be changed, right?” She has a wonderfully supportive taxi-driver father (her mother's nowhere in sight) but not surprisingly, he (a good performance by Arieh Worthalter) has to struggle to try to understand the deep pull of feelings that Lara must cope with every day. But he, like us, has to remain distant from what is inside Lara. And no matter how often the doctors and psychologists tell her she is already what she is, she seems not to believe them. And of course dance merely reinforces that disbelief.

Despite there being, in effect, two movies going on here: a dance film and a trans film, director Lukas Dhont handles this with great subtlety, because he realises just how tightly entwined those two roles are. Director of photography Frank van den Eeden does a fine job of shooting in different tones for the different moments, the different stresses. There is extensive use of mirrors: the way dancers scrutinize their own movements, poses and bodies; the way Lara watches expectantly for the changes in her. It's all blended in to the story of her dance: this is a young teen aware of her own gender identity, not yet sexual, but attempting to become what she is by becoming the most idealized perception of what she is, and the most difficult to achieve. 'You make this so hard on yourself,' she is told, but it is as if she is aspiring to some sort of idealised, fairy-tale image of the girl she is and wants to be, and something has got to give.

That is why the dance story sits at the centre. We watch as she undergoes the torture of the toe: as she unwraps her bleeding bandages, and we realise the power of her desire to be what she is, and the metaphor for the difficulty of doing that. It is the very definition of the classic ballerina story, told in terms of everyday existence as well as on the stage.

The fulcrum of the story is a birthday party with the other girls in her class, where she is humilated by being asked to show her penis. Her body, which has never sweatted while dancing, suddenly begins to; the taping of her genitals has also caused an infection which will interfere with her treatment. The effort to dance, to stay thin, to have that girl's body, is exhausting her. And she meets a boy.

The resolution of this dilemma will strike some, as it struck me, as overly melodramatic; though it is predictable from the instant the scene starts, but metaphorically it works, in that there is only one way that Lara will be Lara. The film's final scene also seems a bit too pat, too slick, too upbeat: it is like a shot out of a commercial, but again its metaphoric point has been made. Lara is Lara: what has become of the rest of her dreams can be intuited, but has been left open.

As Lara, Victor Polster is brilliant: there is a scene when her young brother calls her 'Victor' in spite, to hurt her, which is some ironic comment, but he catches both the will and the frustration of Lara: she is never in doubt about what she wants, but she is an innocent, who needs to take steps, not ballet steps, for herself. Polster and Dhont have created a character audiences will cheer for, will suffer with, and in the end may well understand.

GIRL (Belgium, 2018) directed by Lukas Dhont, written by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens
UK distribution: Curzon/Artificial Eye

Friday, 19 October 2018

JIM TAYLOR: FULLBACK, PACKER

When the news came that the Packers' great Jim Taylor had died aged 83, the first message I got was from a Philadelphia friend of mine. 'You can get up now Jim, the game's over,' it read. That was a reference to the 1960 NFL championship game, the only playoff game Vince Lombardi ever lost. The Packers were driving, but with about 20 seconds left Bart Starr couldn't find a receiver in the end zone, and dumped the ball off to Taylor, who broke a couple of tackles but was then wrapped up by Chuck Bednarik and Bobby Jackson. Bednarik sat on him for 12 seconds until the clock ran out, then gave Taylor the famous quote.

Jim Taylor was a winner and Jim Taylor was tough. Those two things defined him and I'd put the second one first. His face looked like it was chiseled out of stone: a crew cut topped rectangle with a flat nose and powerful jaw. He was a huge college star at LSU. I can remember seeing Billy Cannon star for them when I was young, in his Heisman winning season, but in 1957 when Cannon and Taylor shared the running duties, it was Taylor who was the focus of opposing defenses. He was drafted by the Packers, but didn't come into his own until Lombardi took over the team, and paired him and Paul Hornung, another Heisman winner. When you think of the power sweep you think of Hornung (or Donny Anderson or Elijah Pitts) running behind the two guards, Fuzzy Thurston (63) and Jerry Kramer (64) and Taylor, but the Pack also ran it the other way, with Taylor the ball carrier. He was also a receiving threat out of the backfield, a hard guy to tackle one on one in the open field.

His good fortune was to be a part of that Packer dynasty, whose greatest ability was to be able to separate themselves from good teams like the Colts or Giants or later the Cowboys when it mattered most. They had talent, but the talent grew because they fit and played Lombardi's system to perfection. In a sense, the idea that players on great teams tend to get overvalued (see all the Packers from that era in the Hall of Fame) also means they get undervalued as individuals as time moves on, and the numbers of that era get lost in the bigger shinier numbers of the present day.

Jim Taylor was also hampered by being only the second-best Jim to play fullback in his era, behind Jim Brown. But look what happened in 1962, when Hornung was suspended for the season for associating with gamblers. Taylor ran for 1,474 yards and19 touchdowns (in 14 games) and that was Brown's only season not leading the NFL in rushing. The Pack beat the Giants 16-7 in the NFL championship game on a frozen Yankee Stadium surface with the temperature at 17 degrees F (-8 C) and the winds at 40-50 mph. Green Bay's D ( led by game MVP Ray Nitschke) forced five fumbles.Taylor ran 31 times for only 85 yards, scoring the only TD (guard Jerry Kramer, subbing for an injured Hornung, kicked three field goals). Taylor, who it turned out was suffering from hepatitis and had lost 15 pounds in the week before the game, took a beating, mostly from Giants' MLB Sam Huff. He bit through his tongue and required six stiches on his elbow. Steve Sabol, whose father Ed had bought the film rights (a key step to becoming NFL Films) recalled the intense violence and profane trash talk between Taylor and Huff. Watching the game on black and white TV as a kid, I can recall it and a 60 Minutes segment called 'The Violent World Of Sam Huff as if they were one thing.

Fullbacks were not just blockers in those days. I recall, besides Brown and Taylor, John Henry Johnson, Nick Pietrosante (a local guy from my area), Johnny Olszewski, Jim Nance, Cookie Gilchrist and the likes: guys operating from two-back sets who did a bit of everything—think Larry Csonka as maybe the last great example of the genre.

Taylor was known as the kind of runner who would seek out potential tacklers and run through them, rather than try to avoid them. 'Jim Brown will give you a leg and take it away,' Lombardi said. 'Jim Taylor will give you a leg and ram it through your chest.' He was old school all the way, exactly what we thought of football players being when I was a kid. It makes me remember why I hesitated for an instant as a 13 year old high school freshman about which sport I was going to be given the kit for. But only for an instant.

Taylor played one best-forgotten season for the Saints in his adopted home town of New Orleans, then ran a business on the docks there. He didn't place much store in the modern game, which probably won't surprise you. As he said to Bob McCullough in My Greatest Day In Football, “Forget all that talk, I like action. Today’s athletes, they’re just full of so much conversation instead of keep your mouth shut and just do your job. I don’t even watch a game.” I would watch a Jim Taylor game any time.

Note: This feature also appears as a bonus at my football site: patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte, where I preview all the week's games as well as write the occasional feature.  If you're interested in football, check it out...

Thursday, 18 October 2018

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S DARK SACRED NIGHT

Night shift detective Renee Ballard is typing up her report on her investigation of a woman found dead, after days in her bathtub, earlier that night, when she notices a stranger going through the file cabinets on the other side of the detective bureau. He's Harry Bosch, and when Bosch goes off with the shift commander, Ballard isn't convinced by his explanation. A quick examination of her own and she knows Bosch lied about what he was doing, and her curiosity is piqued by what his real motives were.

It's a brilliantly understated introduction of the two detectives Michael Connelly brings together in Dark Sacred Night. When I reviewed Ballard's debut, The Late Show, last year I wrote that “Ballard is too good a character not to reappear soon, and Connelly is too good a series writer not to draw Harry Bosch into her orbit,” and so it happened. I Interviewed Michael at Waterstone's Piccadilly on that book tour, and when I asked about comparisons between the two, he said he thought of each in terms of one key word: for Ballard 'fierce' and for Bosch 'relentless'. He repeats those definitions in a short introduction to this novel, which describes his decision to tell the story primarily separately, letting us see each character through the other's eyes.

Connelly does this so well the introduction is barely required. It's sometimes overlooked, in the depth of the Bosch characterisation, just how strong the police procedural element of his stories is, and with Ballard working her night cases while joining Bosch in his relentless probing into a cold case murder. That is the killing of Daisy Clayton, the runaway daughter of a junkie Bosch met in Two Kinds Of Truth, while working undercover on the prescription opioid trade; and the mother/junkie is now living in Bosch's house. Bosch also has another cold case warming on the burner for his employer, the San Fernando PD, the assassination of a Latino gang leader a decade and a half before. Connelly mixes these stories like a magician, but the aim is not to distract, but to put the reader more fully into the mindset of the characters. The pace is as relentless as Harry, and you are left wondering, above all else, how either her or Ballard ever get any sleep.

This is what keeps, and always has kept, Connelly's work above mere gimmickry, and it comes from his understanding of those personalities he has defined in one word. As doggedly as either of them, he builds their characters through the work they do, indeed the work by which they would probably define themselves. Interviewing Michael, I asked about some of the parallels I found between them: the loss of one parent, the absence of the other; the living in a metaphorically isolated location with a tremendous view: Bosch's of the city, Ballard's of the ocean, a view that is always the same but always changing. It is not surprising that they should be drawn together, that cases should be solved, that one would save the other's life, and that there might be some tragedy and sadness involved. This is what Connelly and Bosch have always been about. If, in the end, their 'formal' agreement to work together again seems a little bit too light or contrived, it is already something to look forward to. And I would not be at all surprised to find Mickey Haller being the agency that brings Bosch and Ballard together again. In the meantime, this is a must-read detective novel, for this or any year.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
Orion £20 ISBN 9780857826374

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

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

THE GIRL WHO TAKES AN EYE FOR AN EYE: MORE MILLENNIUM

This is David Lagercrantz's second novel continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, and I like it better than its predecessor The Girl In The Spider's Web. Titling is not always a strong point in the series, however, and title of the present volume is every bit as clunky as The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.

I thought Spider's Web was interesting primarily in the way it seemed to try to transform Lisbeth Salander's much commented-on status as an anti-heroine into something more like an action hero. In that sense, it was closest in feel to The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second of Larsson's books, which had her as the almost lone protagonist, seeking her revenge on her father. That worked because it made such a change from the almost classical whodunnit structure of Dragon Tattoo, just as the third novel, Hornet's Nest, restored Mikael Blomkvist to the lead, while Salander lay in hospital, until the courtroom drama which is the climax.

Lagercrantz seems to have gone back consciously to the formula of the first volume, in which Blomqvist is an investigative journalist, and the third, because for much of this one Salander is in prison, getting her chance to kick ass in that environment, with both fellow prisoners and with the warden. It's a weakness of male authority figures. It's also an awkward kind of mix, but just like the template of Dragon Tattoo, the story is linked to the past of a very wealthy family and to a disappearing child. These tropes come on top of the continuing ones about siblings—Salander's sister who's now her arch-enemy/rival, and about secret government programmes designed, it would seem, specifically to ensure Salander gets abused in the interests of national security. In this case the programme is one about twins, which means the main story and Salander's again overlap.

We know that Larsson intended the Millennium series to extend to ten volumes, like Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Beck, and we can almost see Lagercrantz plotting out the links, overlaps and connections which can see Blomkvist and Salander drawn in. And we know Larsson, like many other Swedish writers, was concerned with government abuse of police powers, and the creation of an over-watching secret state, so we can also see how the sketching out of that template can keep the story moving. The problem is that all of this, to five volumes, occurs predominantly as either backstory or the working out of backstory, and backstory on a grand scale as well as one involving Salander.

Lagercrantz can write better than Larsson, but he sometimes doesn't seem to have the knack for narrative drive—these can be separate things, as anyone who follows along voraciously say, a John Grisham story whose writing often jars, can attest. Lagercrantz has the habit of re-introducing characters, even main characters, constantly—explaining who they are and what they do, as if he were influenced by critics whose main response to Scandinavian crime is to marvel at how difficult the names are to pronounce. It's like getting constant footnotes instead of the usual dramatis personae in the front pages of a Russian novel.

But in the end, he gets the story to pay off, and it has a marvelous coda which is pure Salander, though a side of her we've never seen on the page before; it alone was worth the path through the novel, though that was never a problem in the first place.

The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye
by David Lagercrantz
Maclehose Press, 2017 £20.00 ISBN 9780857056405

Thursday, 4 October 2018

HUMAN INTERFERENCE: A POEM

In honour of National Poetry Day, let me offer a poem I wrote thirty years ago, just after my birthday, in Geneva. The event it depicts had just recently happened to me, right down to the pigeons jumping on the carriage at Baker Street and off at Edgware Road, where we were being held. It didn't take much revising, and was published in my 1989 Northern Lights pamphlet Homage To Gibbon and then, after some delay, in Tokyo, in the summer 1990 issue of Edge: International Arts Interface. Both times I misspelled Edgware, adding an e, which was appropriate enough given the magazine's title. It is reprinted here for the first time with the name of the station spelled correctly. I've tried out a few other small changes.  TFL, or whatever they call London Transport these days, no longer uses the phrase 'human interference.' 


HUMAN INTERFERENCE

A few pigeons exit the car at Edgware Road.
The platform seems to soften & melt as
We finally pull away. The walls of the tunnel lose
Their blur, become clear as we come to a stop.
We sit. After a while faces move into focus,
Take on expressions, search the car for room or air
Or pigeons or something to read. Eventually
A disembodied someone talks. A person
Has fallen in front of the train. We will have to wait.
London Transport regret this delay, which they say
Is the result of "human interference".
We get in the way.
Many of us are already late.
We are getting later all the time.


Wednesday, 3 October 2018

DOTTER OF HER FATHER'S EYES

Mary Talbot's father, James Atherton, was one of the world's leading Joyce scholars, and when she was growing up his work took precedence over most other activity in their home. Alternating charm and anger, he drew out Mary's affection, then rejected it brutally. For the adult Mary, a chance encounter with an old ID card of her father's brings back a line from Finnegan's Wake, 'my cold mad feary father' and from that line comes this book.

Dotter Of Her Father's Eyes, another line from Joyce, has at its centre the tragic life of Joyce's daughter Lucia, and the parallels with their lives. There are the obvious ones: the father first struggling to support his family, both men as teachers, while doing creative work of great importance. The daughters relegated to the background, especially in Lucia's case where her younger brother received most of the encouragement. Both wanting some creative life of their own, and finding huge barriers of missing expectation in their paths.

Lucia Joyce spent years dancing, but at key moments of her possible career she would be held back by both her parent's traditional view of a woman's place—one strictly followed in the Joyce household, and a betrayal by Samuel Beckett, her father's secretary, more in love, in the end, with Joyce's work than his daughter. But the revelation at age 24, at just the time her dance career had finally crashed, that her parents were not married, that she and her brother were bastards, triggered something within Lucia. As if the radical modernist who was an upholder of prim bourgeois Irish Catholic propriety turned out to be a hypocrite all the while, at his daughter's expense. Lucia's behaviour became more erratic, suicidal, addicted to Veronal, and eventually, after the occupation of Paris ended, she was committed to institutions, where she died, on Mary's father's birthday.

It's a very sad and very dramatic story, and the parallels are never that strong or complete—though Mary's first dream was also to be a dancer. The nuns at her school are a close enough substitute for Nora Joyce, their strict disapproval aimed at filling her with low aspirations. The crucial difference is that Mary manages to break away from her father's hold, which Lucia was never able to do. She earns her PhD, still trying at 30 to impress her father, and at least partially succeeds. But she also, almost stumbling into the relationship, finds a husband and family of her own, and her husband is the artist who drew this book. And when her father dies, and she hears from students and Joyce scholars about his brilliant teaching, and sees her brothers carrying the coffin, laughing (which shocks her mother-in-law even as we think of Finnegan one last time) it is as if a circle has been broken. The ID card prompts memory, and the academic teams up with her comic artist husband to produce a work of great honesty, filled with pain and some hope. But at heart it is really, in the dizzying world of Joyce's imagination and language, a memoir grounded in dreams of dance and dancing reality, the legacy of our lives as we all emerge from shadows.

Dotter Of Her Father's Eyes
by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape £14.99 ISBN 9780224096089

Sunday, 30 September 2018

BODYGUARD AND ITS TWISTS

I was going to put a spoiler alert at the top of this page, but since according to media I am the only adult in Britain who didn't watch the final episode of Bodyguard last Sunday and then spend all day Monday chatting about it on the metaphoric water-cooler that is social media, I don't feel I have to bother. So let me say that I was both disappointed and relieved that Julia Montague's death didn't turn out to be hoax, which would have been daring but also a twist too far. Of course writer Jed Mercurio, having killed off his lynch-pin character, had to twist like Chubby Checker to try to keep things interesting and watchers' brains spinning.

Keely Hawes' departure left a hole to fill which was not quite filled by the Ipad filled with 'compromat'. As an aside, I think 'Compromat' ought to be the name of the next TMZ-style website that comes along. But an Ipad can't do what Hawes does, like stand in the doorway playing with herself. Theresa May and Amber Rudd, eat your hearts out.

At that point the focus of the story fell directly on conspiracy, and DS Budd's personal life dropped into softer, if still monomaniacal, focus. Which is sort of good, because the need of Richard Madden's performance to extend to a second dimension is thus minimised. Madden has the poker face required of a bodyguard. He has the determined poker face required of a cop/soldier on a mission. He has the puzzled poker face of a victim of a conspiracy. And he has the pained poker face of a suffering war veteran who's seen too much. And the frustrated poker face of the damaged husband trying to deal with wife and kids.

In the final episode we got all those faces at once in the key scene, an extended etude on the theme of defusing a bomb, which includes a bizarre march across the city to his flat, with his estranged wife by his side so no one will shoot him. The problem is bomb diffusing stories, always cliched in suspense terms, have basically two outcomes. You snip the wire and....bam, you're dead. Or you snip the wire and you're not dead, then you can jump over the convenient wall all the cops have conveniently retreated far enough away from to make escape convenient. But without it you would have missed Madden walking through the streets with a bloodied face in a serape, like the Man With No Name, rather than the Man With No Expressions.

OK. So far so good. But from the moment Julia was killed, we, knowing we had a conspiracy, knew it had to involve some combination of political plotters (either to install Julia as PM and/or to oust the PM) MI5 plotters (to install Julia with her surveillance friendly bill) or police plotters (to avoid Julia and MI5 taking away their own repressive powers?). That last one never made much sense, but it could also have been a combo platter of two or even all three, something signalled by the stern expressions on the big time police women (Gina McKee as the Met's counter-terror chief and Pippa Heywood as the head of the protection unit where Budd is placed), and the close and cynical cooperation between Mike Travis, minister for counter-terrorism (played by Vincent Franklin as if he'd wandered in from the Labour cabinet in A Very British Coup) and MI5 director Stephen Hunter-Dunn.

The Bodyguard Award for Over-Acting By A Character With A Hyphenated-Surname went to Stuart Bowman as Hunter-Dunn. His facial contortions started out as mere Dudley Nightshade, but by the final episode they were the most serious distorted human visage seen in this country since Keira Knightly was unhinging her jaw in A Dangerous Method.

But there had to be a BIG TWIST, so instead of political conspiracy we discover that the bombings were the result of actual Islamic terrorists, working hand in hand with gangsters, who kind of entered the scene late in the story, except that the Home Secretary's assistant, who got fired early, was apparently hooked up with them from the start. It sounded like the Kennedy assassination, if you actually want to believe that the killers were either Cuban terrorists or the Mafia. And as with the Warren Report, Mercurio's big problems here are many.

Presumably all the fuss from MI5 (and Michael Schaffer, their teflon hit-man, whose face is almost equally silent-movie snarling as Bowman's) is simply to get their blackmailing material back. So why is Travis on their side here? Does he not suspect they might have eliminated Julia? Would he not worry, unless he were part of their plot?

Nadia Ali (Anjli Mohindra), as the suicide bomber Studd, I mean Budd, talks out of blowing up a Virgin Train loo, makes a nice turn at the end, but I wonder if Mercurio had seen and remembered the similar scene in Patriots Day? Regardless, the flip of Nadia begs the questions of (a) why she didn't detonate her bomb on the train in the first place, but more importantly (b) what kind of terror organisation uses its main builder of insanely complicated explosive devices as a suicide bomber? The answer to that latter is question is, of course, none. The people sent to blow themselves up are disposable. Besides, she was apparently the contact with the gangsters (how, is never explained) and the gangsters were also the Islamic terrorists' main source of income (not, say, the Saudis). So blow up one and cut off the other. Plus she remembered the name of Budd's childrens' school? Just so she could launch a terror attack there, and so Mercurio could misdirect our attention toward the people who in the real world would have been the only ones to know that school. He told her that? Was he trying to bore her into not detonating the bomb?

And why has these brutally efficient gangsters bothered to corrupt the head of the protection unit? They anticipated they might someday want to kill a home secretary? One they already had someone working for? The protection unit is not responsible for anti-crime activity, yet Pippa Heywood was apparently feeding them intel enough to live in a pretty posh house for copper standards in London. What about her intel was so valuable?

The cops themselves are interesting, Ash Tandon as Deepak Sharma and Nina Toussaint-White as Lousie Rayburn do their own sort of twisting duet, switching places in the do we believe Judd or don't we believe Judd sweepstakes, even, at the end, when it should be obvious. What is also interesting, and I found the most convincing part of the drama, was the sheer Robocop/Starship Trooper mindlessness of the armed police--a military force of occupation so focused on their methodology it seemed unlikely in the extreme not one of them would shoot Budd dead, and even more extreme no one would order the shot, if only to nip their terrorism and treason problems in the Budd, so to speak.

The British audience disliked the happy-ish ending, calling it (of course) Hollywood, ie, we wrote it and produced it this way for our audience, but don't blame us, it's the Americans' fault. I disliked the real flaws in flipping the story right at the end, whether for the need to add those final BIG TWISTS, or whether we didn't want to show MI5 or Met anti-terrorism units as being traitorous. I know which scenario would be more believable to me. It wasn't like Kevin Coster and Whitney Houston, with Keely Hawes singing at Tory Party conference while Madden looks on admiringly. But I do wonder why they did not use the great Dawn Landes song 'Bodyguard' as their theme.


Saturday, 29 September 2018

JOHN SANDFORD'S GOLDEN PREY

John Sandford's Lucas Davenport is one of the enduring action heroes of the crime genre, his books coming in somewhere between police procedurals and action thrillers, usually including elements of
both. Davenport himself is on the outside pretty unassuming, but reveals more and more hidden talents in each book. This is demonstrated perfectly in a very entertaining opening sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but establishes Davenport's skill, his investigative freedom (due to circumstances arising earlier in the series), and the demeanor that allows people to think they might take advantage.

Golden Prey deals with the robbery of a drug cartel counting house, down in Biloxi, Mississippi. Among the bodies left behind is a six-year old girl, whose grandfather was one of the counters. Davenport gets on the case, and is joined by a pair of FBI agents, while the cartel also has its people on the case, and are tracking Davenport's efforts by tapping into the police communications computers. It's not just Mark Zuckerberg who's a threat to world peace and privacy. The cartel's pair includes a woman whose specialty is torture, and as they track the thieves she gets her results from their relatives and friends, using power tools.

What makes the book work is the portrait of the criminals. Garvin Poole is the shooter who committed the robbery, a careful bad man who lives quietly in Dallas constructing custom guitars with his girlfriend Dora Box. Sturgis Darling is the planner, and lives an even more respectable life on a farm. Their organisation is formidable, and their no-nonsense approach to the business reminds one of the crews Parker set up in the Richard Stark novels, less the penchant for killing. Given the three different chases taking place, Sandford keeps it all moving--and ends it with the kind of action a Jack Reacher novel might offer, a full scale shootout around an art museum in a tiny Texas town, in which Darling suddenly turns into an action man.

By this time the cartel has set another pair of tracker/killers on the scent, and they wind up with Box and Kort, the power-tool specialist, in the RV. This is one of the best casts of characters I can remember, three sets of killers and a trio of cops, and their eccentricities keep the story moving as quickly as the action. Oddly enough, there's a sort of happy-ending finale, as Lucas and the FBI miss a few bits of the cash. But no one can be perfect. Although Lucas stretches the case, when he plays one of the FBI agents, a tall woman called Rae, in one on one basketball. She's played at the University of Connecticut, America's top women's basketball programme. Lucas played college hockey at the University of Minnesota. Not many hockey players good enough to play big-time college have a lot of cross-over time for hoops, and women players at the top level are pretty damn good. Lucas is older too, and though he has a strength advantage, I found following the game a bit Bobby Riggs. But that's the name of the game: Lucas may not be all-seeing, but he is almost all-conquering.

Golden Prey by John Sanford
Simon & Schuster, £8.99, ISBN 9781471177057

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

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

9/11 AND MY TEAMMATE MOLE

I've written an essay, actually re-writtten it from one which appeared 17 years ago, about my friend  and teammate Blake, whose personal tragedy is never far from my thoughts. When I started editing the Northern Lights poetry pamphlets, and wrote the first one, I dedicated it to him, never dreaming this kind of an essay would ever need to be written. It's up at my Friday Morning Tight End column, an extra that you can read without subscribing. But if you like it.... patreon.com/posts/21366316

PUTTING THE RACE INTO SPACE RACE: HIDDEN FIGURES (AND THE 'GO AND NO GO' CONDUNRUM)

I finally saw Hidden Numbers, and liked it a good deal. What is best about it is the way it reinforces the pain of the world of segregation with the same under-stated sense of daily living that those who lived with it experienced. We see clearly not only the ever-present fear, of stepping out of line, the constant de-humanizing by relegating people to second-class status, but also the debilitating effect Jim Crow had on the white people imposing it on their fellow citizens, the way they take their privilege for granted, recoil at the slightest stepping over that (usually) unseen line, and at the same time think of themselves as friendly, decent Christian people.

We saw this first-hand when I was an 11-year old kid and we took our first-ever family vacation to Washington DC and encountered segregated facilities at, of all places, the Washington Monument. Washington himself was a slave-holder, of course, but I didn't make the connection then. I asked my dad to explain 'whites only', and then asked 'but that's wrong, isn't it?' and when he said, 'yes it is but that is how they do things down here' he got cold-eyed by some guy, who I guess backed down from taking his racist grievance any further.

That is the strong point of the film, established from the start by contrasting the easy camaraderie between the three friends and the unspoken fear when a white state police officer stops to investigate their broken-down car. The power relationship is set from the start. This marks the subtly of the approach, culminating in the moment Katharine Johnson's confirmation of the figures John Glenn wants her to confirm before he will head into space are delivered, and then the door closes in her face. Glenn's character is an exemplar here: early on he extends himself to greet the Langley black women;  he is the first to accept Johnson for her talent, but he's also shown as a complete team player all through his launch into space.

All three of the leads are good, if perhaps a little too glamorous in their 60s retro looks, with Taraji P Henson exceptional as Johnson, whose math genius is essential to NASA's success. Kevin Costner's beneficent white man isn't too overdone--I wondered if his one-man integration of the ladies' rest rooms wasn't still unlawful in Virginia, and why it wasn't reported. It seems odd that neither Costner nor his scientists would have any idea of what an IBM computer was; I probably did and I was 10 years old. It was also interesting that the filmmaker's show an engineer who's a Polish-Jewish immigrant survivor of the Holocaust, but never mention Werner Von Braun, head of the space programme, whose V2 rockets were built with Nazi slave labour. But overall, it's a sort of Disneyfied version of the story, but not simplified like some of their sports films, and told, as I suggested, with restraint that parallels the restraint of its principals.

But one non-racial flaw jumped out at me, so important it's not just a quibble. Katharine Johnson's task was to calculate the 'go/no-go' point for Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. The angle of this departure from its elliptical orbit needed to be perfect: a little too much and the capsule is incinerated by the heat of re-entry, too little and it goes off into space, outside earth's gravity forever. This gets hammered into our consciousness repeated. So why then does the movie make the go/nogo moment occur long after Glenn has re-entered earth's atmosphere and survived the intense heat, as if it was an instant before releasing his parachute? This is such a major error, so obvious, and also loses the drama of hitting the go/no go precisely. Do they think we weren't paying attention to the science stuff? Or weren't they? Baffling.

It also appeared to me that Kevin Costner was both in the Langley labs and mission control in Florida at the same time, but movie stars can do anything. Maybe he found his own go/no go point. But what sticks out about this movie is the way it delineates the way people were forced to cope with an unjust system of institutionalized bigotry, and not just cope with it, but triumph within that broken system. That it is telling the story of these three real women makes it all the more successful.

Monday, 3 September 2018

ECHOES OF RIOTS, ECHOES OF AUGUST (1968)

The essay that follows is a sort of companion piece to one I wrote in March, 'Hey, Hey LBJ, What Did You Do 50 Years Ago Today', to which you can link here. There is, I think, much more to be said about those tumultuous years in the late Sixties, not only about how and why they succeeded or failed, or how they have been misinterpreted, but also about what they have to say to us who lived through them, and what they might say to young people today. I'm sure more essays will follow, but for now, here's a memory of that summer...

At no point in my life did it ever occur to me to congratulate myself for living through August 1968, but somehow I have now I managed to 'survive', to use the more self-sensitive 21st century term, its fiftieth anniversary. Anniversary remembrance is symbolic, triggered by nothing more than mathematical convenience (years ending in zeroes) which appeals to our senses of order. But August 1968 was not about order, but chaos. As Chicago Mayor Richard Daley explained, on 29 August, after his cops had run riot through protestors at the Democratic Party's Presidential Convention, “the policeman isn't there to create disorder, (he) is there to preserve disorder”.

The Chicago convention riots may have been the high-water mark of political counter-culture in an America (the cultural high would come a year later), which was built around by two great political issues: civil rights at home and the war in Vietnam abroad. The latter was driving a new spike through the liberal political establishment which had already begun to re-order itself in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in 1964 and '65. Disaffected racist Southern 'Dixiecrats' still rallied to LBJ's waging of the war. But at the start of 1968 the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive suggested to America that LBJ wasn't 'winning' the war, and in February trusted news-anchor Walter Cronkite returned from Vietnam confirming that was the case. “If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America,” Johnson said. 

In March, on my seventeenth birthday, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy came close to defeating incumbent President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. On the last day of the month, Johnson realised his candidacy would divide his party, and announced he would not stand for re-election. My teenaged self, thinking I was now part of a triumphant revolution, celebrated. But the celebrations were premature, and short-lived.

Four days later, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and riots in cities across the country left 46 people dead. Protest increased. Columbia University students occupied campus buildings; but that paled in the face of French students sparking a general strike joined by some 22 million workers. Meanwhile, Robert F. Kennedy was trying to unify the opposition to LBJ's designated successor, Hubert H. Humphrey, whom many McCarthy supporters treated as an opportunist carpet-bagger. Yet in the same way King had, just before his murder, specifically linked the issue of civil rights to American conduct in Vietnam, so RFK seemed to be rallying King's constituency to anti-war coalition. Then, on 4 June, as he celebrated winning the California primary, he too was assassinated. Riots didn't follow immediately, but it's not unfair to see those in Chicago as a delayed by-product of that assassination, bringing white kids out on the streets the same way Rev. King's killing had brought out the black population in the cities.

August began with Nixon winning the Republican nomination, and new Defense Secretary Clark Clifford raising the number of US soldiers in Vietnam to its peak, 541,000. We watched again as European dissent get more real than ours; Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring. Surely there was something more we could do.

Thousands flocked to disrupt the Democratic convention, to stem the Humphrey tide that would ensure Johnson's war continued. But this was America; concrete action and coalition-building was subsumed into political theatre which played better on television news. Inside the convention, the winning of primaries proved to be less important than the wishes of the party bosses who ran the smoky rooms; the big party chief was John Bailey, from Connecticut, who'd given my grandad his marching orders for one term in the state legislature. Frustration overwhelmed those outside the convention hall, and then Daley unleashed the police. The cops, taking out their own frustration against what they saw as spoiled long-hairs untrue to their country, made the fatal mistake of including the reporters covering their attack among its targets.

Inside the hall, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, a Bailey protege from Connecticut, stood up and excoriated a lack of democratic process which led to “Gestapo tactics being used in the streets of Chicago”. Ribicoff was also Jewish, like my mother, so we watched him with a special pride. He had responded with great grace to a letter I'd written him when I was 12, asking about appointments to the Naval Academy. That was a much different me, I remember thinking, just as Mayor Daley was caught on camera cupping his hand round his mouth and shouted at Ribicoff. We lip-read what he screamed, which wasn't difficult. At least the 'you Jew bastard' part.

Protest had failed. August was over. Immediately after the Chicago riots, I was off to university to play football. My music was changing, with LP records and FM radio. I went off to college with the Spingfield's final album, with The Band's first, with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield's Super Session. Those old compilations of two hits and filler which kept pop music profitable were yesterday's news, though Otis Redding's History, James Brown Live At The Apollo and Aretha Now had made the cut. John Coltrane's Impressions had somehow cracked my consciousness, which was ripe for being expanded. My hair, under the football helmet, grew. Eventually I managed to jump onto the running board of the sexual revolution. In was September 1968. Surely whoever won the Presidency would hear the collective cries of so many of us seeking an end to racial discrimination, an end to the folly of the Vietnam war.

History can tell you how that turned out. The trial of the Chicago Eight protest leaders would become America's greatest example of political theatre of the absurd. Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey, helped by his 'October Surprise' which sabotaged LBJ's peace talks with North Vietnam in Paris. The Democrats would make new rules, increasing the importance of their presidential primaries, which would lead to George McGovern, who had led the Kennedy delegates after Bobby's killing, to the nomination. Nixon would defeat him in a landslide, despite the clues provided by the early Watergate reports. The Vietnam war would continue until it was lost; Nixon would continue until he was lost, and resign. The Dixiecrats would defect full scale to the Republicans, and a few years later Ronald Reagan would begin the shift of America's political paradigm to the right, as prophesied from jail by Nixon's campaign manager and Attorney General, John Mitchell.

It was still a great time to protest, especially within the protective walls of a small liberal arts college. Especially because even there you found chaos, division between black and white, left and right, straight and hip. It was obvious this would not be a French-style movement for change. It was also a safe time to lose oneself to the cultural revolution, but after Woodstock the following August, that too began to crumble into what became known as the 'me' generation. By 1970 even students, at Jackson State and Kent State, were being killed. Lives were there to be got on with. Some of us would be lucky enough to try to continue to protest. Eventually I even voted for a presidential candidate who won. It took decades. But back in August 1968 (was it really 50 years ago?) I would have told you change was in the air. Almost everything still seemed possible, especially if you were 17.

Friday, 31 August 2018

BIG NFL NEWS! PREVIEWS! & SIGN UP FOR FRIDAY MORNING TIGHT END

I've been writing a Friday column on the NFL for something like 20 years, and for the past 13 on nfluk.com have picked every game of the season. Now I'm launching that column on its own on Patreon, as both a weekly chat about the NFL and of course a continuation of my pickapalooza. You can link to it here: all will be explained, including how to subscribe. First pick comes up Thursday--first column next Friday. Be a patron!

In the meantime, I did two season previews this month. First, three weeks ago, I wrote for the American magazine. It's a nice thing to subscribe to, hard copy or online, if you are a Yank here, especially a short-term expat. But because they're such nice folks, they've given me a link where you can sample the column, pound the link here. There's a section on London's International Series games too.

Then this week I did a more complete preview for Betfair, for whom I will also be writing a weekly betting column each Friday, with a best bet, value bet, and outside bet. This one's a bit more detailed on each team, slightly different from the American's version, as I changed my mind about some things, and I will change it again, just you watch! Here's the link to that one. So if you like what you read in these previews, get over to Patreon and make the Friday Morning Tight End column happen! Thanks.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

HARLAN ELLISON: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY AND A REMINISCENCE

I met Harlan Ellison once. It was at an sf World Con in Washington in 1973. I was working in DC at the time, and had a great time. But at one point, maybe on my way to liberate the swimming pool with Michael Gorra at some early morning hour, I walked into an elevator containing Ellison and two young women. I was a fan of his, and I smiled and said hi, but something in my smile, or maybe just my size, irritated him, and he started in on some riff about a goofy mid-western farmboy. The women giggled, I just smiled and said see ya when the elevator reached the ground. I thought it was a little strange, but I'd heard he was aggressive and combative and I just wrote it off to a severe case of Little Man Disease. And he had a pipe, which was a sort of 50s 'longhair' thing--think Hef at the Mansion.

Early this July, 45 years later, I did a brief write-though for the Daily Telegraph of their obituary of Harlan Ellison, adding some details I thought pertinent, some slight interpretation, and a little bit of redirection of the original. It took a long while for the version to reach print (in fact, it came while I was on holiday in Iceland), which I just discovered a few days ago when I checked online. You can link to that obit here, (the online version is behind a paywall).

One of the things I concentrated on for the Telegraph was trying to explain why Ellison's primary work was in the short-story, and this was what I came up with:

      "The short story was his m├ętier...they reflected the bright flame of his angry personality, an emotional  impact that was hard to sustain over greater lengths".

That was my experience reading him. When I first came to his work as a teenager, through those mid-60 short story collections, I found them powerful. Yes, some were derivative of mainstream writing, especially Nelson Algren, but some others of the same people were all read growing up. But they were also, in a sense adolescent, in their rage against the way the world was: his characters were often losing in battle to forces beyond their control.

While I was looking for the Telegraph piece, I followed a link to an interview Ellison did with The Comics Journal back in 1979. It's a long rambling airing of insults and feuds, and many of his opinions and rants read like stuff you would have found in some fanzines back in the days when I was reading them. Obviously when he wrote he exercised more control. But one quote jumped out at me:

     "I swear to God just one day I'd like to get up and not be angry. Just one Goddamn day in this life I'd like to arise and not be fucking pissed off at the world."

I didn't need the confirmation, but it was striking to see it out there so plainly. I thought back to that encounter and breathed a sigh of relief I hadn't made anything of the bluster I'd received. I also thought how important that anger was to the energy of his stories and the physical power of his best writing.

Some of my adds for the paper were also about 'speculative fiction' and Dangerous Visions: those two anthologies were central to my own sf reading. I noted in the obit that by the time Again, Dangerous Visions appeared, five years after the first volume, its innovations had already become commonplace in the genre. The paper left out mention of Christopher Priest's book about his story which Ellison bought for The Last Dangerous Visions but wouldn't allow him to use when that book failed to appear (one interesting question: will it appear now, courtesy of his estate?). I would assume some of the introductions are missing; Ellison was a fascinating editor (including of himself) in the sense that his intros to stories are often as interesting, if not more so, than the stories themselves.

I filled in details about the famous Star Trek feud. It may be that work in forgettable serial television used up all of Ellison's 'long form' fiction, but I may in a minority in finding 'The City On The Edge Of Forever' good for Star Trek but less than monumental. Most of his other episodic work I don't remember; I was young and they were mostly fluff. The film of A Boy And His Dog remains excellent, and deserving of more attention.

I'd still recommend those story collections, including and perhaps especially the non-sf Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled (a title much less daring nowadays) which had a beautiful cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, who also did the covers and illos for the two Dangerous Visions volumes. You'll like I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream or The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World or Paingod And Other Delusions, and you may wonder why you hadn't read him before.

By coincidence, I had picked up a copy of Ellison Wonderland, which I'd never read, a few months before Ellison died. This was lucky because it provided some explanation about the import of Dorothy Parker's review of Gentleman Junkie to his career, but I didn't get very far through the stories. They vary in quality, sometimes seeming like drafts of Twilight Zone episodes, sometimes seeming like sharp allegories of the society and mores of my youth, sometimes hitting real emotional nails directly on their hearts.

For me, Ellison opened up doors toward writing that challenged me just at the point I was discovering sf. He wouldn't quite move past that with me, but I would dip in and out of his writing for decades. The thing that does stay with me is the wonderful ease and conversational style he was able to maintain in his essays, and the way that flows into his fiction, though forged very much through anger. I truly hope he rests in peace.  

NEIL SIMON: MY FRONT ROW TRIBUTE (and MUSING ON THE MUSE)

I went on BBC Radio 4 Front Row last night, forming part of an odd couple with Samira Ahmed to discuss Neil Simon. I am sure Samira saw me as Oscar, as played by Walter Matthau, but there are worse thing. Apparently on Today the previous morning, my old friend John Lahr had pointed out Simon was not a major playwright, in the sense of Arthur Miller, say, and there was some consternation that this issue needed to be dealt with. But overall, the brief segment was intended to pay tribute to very good comedy writer. As you can hear if you click here to find the episode on IPlayer, I compared Simon to Alan Ayckbourn; not only a very funny playwright, but one whose humor is often built on the reactions of staid, secure people to the changing mores around them.

Hence my mention of Prisoner Of 2nd Avenue, which given that it deals with recession, unemployment, crime and malfunctioning government in New York City, might be considered the socially darkest of his plays, though he tris very hard indeed to keep that darkness under control with recognisable husband/wife Jewish humour. It starred Peter Falk, one of the actors who did very well by Simon, and vice versa, but the film, which was directed by Mike Nichols (who could spot the darkness) starred Jack Lemmon (and Anne Bancroft, whose husband Mel Brooks also wrote for Caesar) in a role you might see as a pair with Save The Tiger. Though I always thought it should be shown in a double-feature with Death Wish.

I won't summarize the rest of my talk, have a listen. But I will mention a few things I didn't get in. One is how Simon will be remembered: if Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street isn't a lasting legacy I don't know what is. Had we gone deeper into the relevance stakes I might have noted Larry Gelbart, another alumnus of Sid Caesar's show, got points for MASH, though its social comment was much stronger in Robert Altman's film.I didn't mention Simon's Laughter On The 23rd Floor, which came after he'd won the Pulitzer for Lost In Yonkers and is maybe his last major work. It's his reminiscence of those days writing as part of a team; it exists as a TV movie, though if you're really interested in that era the movie My Favorite Year is more entertaining.

I might have made a comparison of The Odd Couple to Hemingway's Men Without Women - it's certainly about the difficulty of male life in a world of changed mores about divorce. I wished I had seen the original Broadway production of Barefoot In The Park, with Elizabeth Ashley opposite Robert Redford. She would have provided some necessary spark that Jane Fonda, who got the film role because her name wasn't Jane Smith, didn't.  I mentioned his funny Agatha Christie parody, Murder By Death, but loved Peter Falk as The Cheap Detective. Colombo anyone? I wonder if a discussion of Simon the screenwriter as maybe being superior to Simon the playwright might be in order. Take The Goodbye Girl, which he wrote for his then-wife Marsha Mason, and re-wrote when Robert DeNiro and Nichols left, replaced by Richard Dreyfuss and Herbert Ross.

Yes much of his work is slight, some of it repetitive, lot of it centered on the inevitable struggles of Jewish New York life, especially in the wider scene, such as the Eighties trilogy, of which Biloxi Blues may be the most interesting, if somewhat cliched entry. But he could write funny, and that is not to be frowned upon. Writing funny for an entire play, or movie, as opposed to a comic sketch, is a rare talent, and Simon had it.

What was especially frustrated was to be sitting in the studio during the discussion of 'the muse' and inspiration. I was bursting because I wanted to interject--at one point Louisa Buck was talking about our image of the muse and I wanted to ask her, is there any middle ground for women between muse and femme fatale, something she said after the show she was trying to get to. Similarly, as Matt Thorne made trenchant points about the changing nature of muses in modern society, it occured to me that it was an equivalent of the death of God: our muse is now more within ourselves rather than an inspiration granted by a figure beyond us. In that area between inspiration and obsession, but perhaps no longer a muse. Or in Neil Simon's case, amuse.

Friday, 17 August 2018

ROBERT CRAIS' THE WANTED

Devon Connor hires Elvis Cole because she's found a Rolex and wads of cash under her teenaged son's bed. Tyson Connor goes to a special school, has troubler socializing, is a gamer. But checking into the watch, Elvis soon discovers Tyson is part of a trio of kids robbing houses in wealthy LA neighbourhoods. Kids who aren't too sharp about keeping their identities hidden. Which is a shame, because there are two other men after them, who want back something they've stolen. And these guys are not as kind nor gentle as Elvis Cole.

With The Wanted Robert Crais has written a pretty straight-forward thriller, with Elvis and Joe Pike working in a deadly race against a pair of cold-blooded killers, with the LAPD lurking somewhere off the pace as well. It's fast-moving and beautifully constructed, and it works perfectly as a race against time and against villains.

But because it's Crais, the novel is far more than that. Take the title. Yes, these kids are wanted, by the police, by Cole, by the criminals hunting them. But it's also a story about kids and their parents, the kids who are wanted, like Tyson, and those who aren't, like Amber, the would-be glamour girl who's part of the burglary trio.

And because it's Crais, the characters become people who involve the reader. It's easy to take sides, to identify with the kids under pursuit, even with their flaws. It's easy because Elvis Cole's point of view has always been one of empathy, of compassion, of understanding, even when his understanding is incomplete. It's where he differs somewhat from the police, and where he differs from the villains.

Though in this case, the pair of Harvey and Stemms are two of Crais's most entertaining creations. They have the kind of insouciance and sarcastic world view that we remember from Elvis in his very early days, only the way it's directed into the off-hand horrific is absolutely chilling.

A watch-craft plot moving smoothly on its gears. A tense chase and finish. Characters who make you care. And a pair of villains actors would metaphorically kill to play. Crais has not yet been served well by Hollywood, but if there were ever a novel that cries to be turned into a screenplay (and then have the producers butcher little things like character) this one is it. It reminds you just how good Robert Crais has been for how long. How good? One of the very best.

The Wanted by Robert Crais
Simon & Schuster £14.99 ISBN 9781471157486

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 16 August 2018

ARETHA FRANKLIN: AMERICA'S NATURAL WOMAN

It's not surprising. Aretha Franklin did one, maybe two or three, of the greatest versions of the Star Spangled Banner I'd ever heard. My memory tells me it was in Detroit, at the Cobo Arena, before the Thomas Hearns/Dennis Andries light-heavyweight title fight, which was on ABC, for whom I was working, though I think I was watching back in London. I recall our announcer Jim Lampley calling it a world record. I found a recording of it on you tube, you can listen to it here. I thought she had a piano round her neck, which she doesn't. The piano playing is almost discordant, partly the acoustics, maybe the piano, or maybe she wanted a Monk-like effect, not pretty, but jarring. It wasn't as long as I recall, and the video cuts out before I can hear Lamps. But I did find another video, Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby, doing the anthem at the 1991 NBA All-Star Game; if you listen closely you can hear my Screensport commentary, saying it's the best version I've heard since Aretha's. And as I say, you can listen to several more great renditions.

I bring this up because it seems appropriate that we listen to Aretha do the National Anthem, because she did it more than justice, and she represented so much of the nation, and the fight of black people, the fight of women, the fight of almost everyone one step or more removed from the American Dream. And she was also part of our American Dream, the great singer with the string of hits, who took her place in the public eye seriously, even when it hurt her.

I remember playing Otis Blue when I first got a record player. The big attraction was his hit 'I've Been Loving You Too Long'. He covered Smokey's 'My Girl' brilliantly, some British band's 'Satisfaction', William Bell's 'You Don't Miss Your Water', BB King's 'Rock Me Baby' Solomon Burke's 'Down In The Valley', and three songs by the recently-killed Sam Cooke: 'Shake', 'Wonderful World' and 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. Some of those names meant nothing to me at the time, but they soon would. He also sang a song he'd written, called 'Respect'. I may have been a little to young to understand fully, but it was a a song of pleading by a man who was doing what he thought was everything for his woman, and all he wanted was some respect for that.

It was probably only a year later that Aretha Franklin's version burst out on the airways. It was a different song, a different point of view, a different delivery. This was a woman issuing a wake-up call, asking for something --not like Otis asking for something he was stunned and hurt he didn't get--she expected against expectation to get. It's one of those automatic choices when people ask for covers better than the original, not just because it is so powerfully sung, but because she pulls every ounce of pain and meaning from the song.

It was her second number one R&B chart single. The first was 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)' which had 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man' as the B side. Her mainstream success with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic records was immediate: 'Respect' was number one in the pop charts too. Look at what followed, 'Baby I Love You', '(You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman', 'Chain Of Fools', '(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone' and 'Think': all but Natural Woman (no2) were number one in the R&B charts; all were Top 10 hits in the pop charts. And all before I'd finished high school. Then Atlantic started searching for other material;  her biggest hits were covers, not just songs like 'Spanish Harlem' or the magnificent 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and this was all before I'd finished college.

Her voice touched the soul, the spirit, almost like a physical presence. She sang with joy, even when she was
singing about pain, when that strength seemed directed at areas we all knew we might someday reach, but probably hoped we didn't. And then she would revive us with that incredible sense of life that speaks back to gospel and speaks too of the immense joy of using that gift you've brought out in yourself.

I could link you to any number of her songs, but I surely don't need to. I will remind you, though, that she sang at Barack Obama's inauguration, a moment when I felt great pride in my country. She had also sung at Bill Clinton's; he had grown up with her as I did, and knew her singing spoke to struggle, that she was an icon of civil rights as much as music, saying accept us, not just me, for what we are. And I will give you this link: to when the Obamas went to see the musical about Carole King's early years, and the songs she wrote with Gerry Goffin. King was in the audience, and when the actress playing her introduces 'Natural Woman', Aretha came out, wearing a full-length fur coat, and sat down at the piano and sang it. Watch it here and note King's surprise and joy. And watch the President of the United States moved to tears. As I was when I watched it again, and as I defy you not to be. RIP Aretha Franklin.