Friday, 18 October 2019

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Elijah Cummings, recent foil (and thus, inevitably, target) of Donald Trump as head of the House Oversight Committee, was online at the Guardian yesterday, and is in the paper paper today. You can link to the online version here. It is pretty much as I wrote it; a couple of literals snuck in, but they also edited it nicely to make clearer his children and relationships. There were a couple of other stories. One I left out because I didn't see it as relevant, which involved the murder of his nephew at college in Virginia. Another was the mini-scandal around his debts, including on taxes, at one point in his life. The source I was reading attributed it to ill-health, which I thought might have some relevance given his poor health in the last few years, but another source mentioned his child support payments, which led me to dig out his first wife and the parentage of his three kids. I left the debt out, but as I said, I thought the piece in the end explains his children well. One of his daughters was also in the news when it turned out she was using Cummings' congressional car while driving for Lyft, which isn't quite at Hunter Biden levels of scandal, but did get a lot of press.

Last summer I posed for a picture in my Baltimore Elite Giants shirt (they were a team in baseball's Negro Leagues, and the Elite was pronounced ee-lite) in support of Rep. Cummings when Trump was attacking him, and the city of Baltimore, in which I worked one summer and which I liked immensely, because, even though it was still more or less de facto segregated, it was a real city. Cummings strikes me as an old-fashioned machine kind of politician, although the machine has changed as it constituent parts have changed, and one who, when he had his opportunity on the bigger stages, didn't let that constituency down. RIP

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

DANIEL SILVA'S ENGLISH SPY

The English Spy is the first novel by Daniel Silva I have read, but it is instructive in revealing some of the secrets of his immense popularity in spy fiction. The story begins with the detonation of a bomb aboard a yacht, which kills an English princess, part Diana part Kate, and sparks a massive investigation. The early signs lead English spy chief Graham Seymour, engaged in an ongoing feud/battle with the head of MI5 who is his former boss, to enlist the help of the Israelis, who have identified the killer.'He's an old friend' says the head of Mossad. 'Of yours, or ours?' asks Seymoure. 'Of yours', Uzi Navot replies. 'We have no friends.' Which means Silva's Gabriel Allen, the art restorer about to become head of the Mossad, comes on board. And because they are chasing after a former IRA bomb maker turned international terrorist named Eamonn Quinn, the two men turn to Christopher Keller, an assassin who once knew Quinn while he was infiltrating the IRA on behalf of the British.

From this beginning flows an international game of cat and mouse, a plot that is so inventive it was surprising Quinn, who appears to have structured much of it, does not get enough credit for the brilliance of his plan. And of course, it all points back to Ireland, recalling the past killings and betrayals that are the mark of international spies and assassins.

Allen, in many ways, is the English spy of the title; or perhaps it's Keller, and the two make an interesting pair, one which seems to have been set up for the future (note: I have not read further, or indeed back, in the saga, of which this is the fifteenth). In Silva's world the English are the civilised masters of the game, the Israelis are the harder edged forces having to deal with a more violent reality. Allen is the exception; the Israeli who to all extents and purposes is the very model of a modern MI operative. Their opponents, Irish or Arab, are almost universally evil, a lesser breed. And the Americans are the bulls in the china shop, blundering, unsophisticated, unreliable. It's an interesting world view. It's the sort of stuff I used to see businessmen reading in the business class lounge at Dusseldorf airport.

The story comes down to personal face to face violence. There are two former Russian sleeper agents involved, there are hints of lost love, and all the while Silva's new, Italian wife, is about to give birth in an Israeli hospital. The resolution makes sense, although there is a coda which is appropriate enough, but seems somehow forced, given the nature of Quinn and Keller. There is nothing fancy about Silva's prose, but he keeps the plot moving at a good pace and, as I said, the plot is immensely satisfying.

The English Spy by Daniel Silva
Harper Collins £8.99 ISBN 9870007552337

BREXIT: A MODEST PROPOSAL My suggestions via Arc Digital

I've written a piece for Arc Digital suggesting an easy way to make the current conundrum over Brexit something more bearable, entertaining and successful for all concerned. The piece was recommended to readers on Medium, in their World section, and they have provided a link by which you can read it and laugh without necessarily having to subscribe there, though that's not a bad idea. You can find that link here....happy reading

Monday, 30 September 2019

JOSEPH WILSON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Joseph C Wilson, the former US Ambassador who went to Niger to investigate whether Iraq was trying to buy uranium, and discovered that, contrary to the Bush administration's claims, they weren't, is online on the Guardian's website now. You can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it. Having to condense the whole business and combine it with Wilson's life made for little excess to cut away! I was amazed at the relatively easy the road to entering governmental service seemed to be for both Plame and Wilson. It might have been nice to expand the whistleblower motif to today's situation, where the case for keeping secret the identity of the CIA whistleblower re Trump's Ukraine phone call  is reinforced by the Plame Affair. I also would have liked to have more detail about the Wilson/Clinton relationship; I wonder who would play Clinton in that movie. I've never seen Fair Game but I might have to now after seeing the still the Guardian printed: it's interesting how much less serious Sean Penn and Naomi Watts look than their real life counterparts, and how it's actually Plame who's flattered by the actor portraying her.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

BIG GAME: LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FOOTBALL FAMOUS

There is an interesting moment in Big Game when author Mark Leibovich mentions he had been reading 'an old book about the NFL, The League, by David Harris. It's a throwaway (the book is not mentioned in the index) because he's identifying where he first heard the story of Mark Davis' bar-mitzvah (Davis, son of Al, is now the Raiders' owner). Big Game is a strange book, because it basically cannot do what it purports to want to do, which is examine the NFL in the 'dangerous times' of Donald Trump, but in essence that is exactly what David Harris' book did, in 1986, which hardly makes it an 'old' book. Harris already saw the NFL in decline, and wrote about the way the business functioned as it became a sort of corporate monopoly. The NFL has prospered exponentially since then but Harris was also prescient in the very sense that Leibovich wants to examine, the sense that the league is a mirror and a signpost for American society. In the end, however, his book turns out to be more a part of that mirror than a signpost toward a better future.
The book instead is a sort of corollary to Leibovich's main gig writing from Washington about celebrity the New York Times magazine, a Sunday colour supplement that celebrates celebrity at the same time it bemoans its pernicious influence. Given that the book was written at the time Donald Trump (himself a frustrated NFL owner) was attacking the NFL (which is heavily dependent on its exemption from government monopoly regulation) this created a perfect storm for Leibovich to investigate, if not exploit. Which is odd also in the sense that, to an American audience of football fans, there will be little that is new, while to a British audience, much that needs to be explained is left for the American audience that already knows the stories. He admits he doesn't always cover football, which makes him somewhat similar to his New York Times colleague who covers horse racing but is next to him in the Super Bowl press box because, well, this is the New York Times.

Leibovich is a Patriots fan too, which puts him in the centre of the Ballghazi scandal, which is not really the best way to approach the structural truths about the NFL. Instead he tries to draw a metaphoric connection between the Patriots, Bob Kraft, Tom Brady, Bill Belichicks and Trump (not a difficult connection so far, as the three Pats are Trump 'friends', and Kraft at least was a major donor). It takes him until election night, and watching future ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson, to make that connection, and he decides he has grown 'weary of the … moral agonizing that surrounded the game'. It was as if he had just discovered NFL owners, as he puts it, 'with few exceptions, lean Republican'. The way Gronk laying out for a pass may be said to be 'leaning' just before his body smashes against the turf. He concludes that 'for consumers of football, politics and life in America, this had been a brutal season.'  Before you say 'no shit Sherlock', he never has really explained whence that brutality comes.

So what you get is really Lifestyles Of The Rich And Football Famous, which is somewhat revealing and sometimes entertaining, but never really on message. Unless the message is that the NFL is, for its owners, a different sort of big game, which would contradict the book's subtitles, since the times don't seem that dangerous to them, especially as the money continues to roll in. Like F Scott Fitzgerald, he's discovered the rich are different from you and me, and he's sharp enough to realise that Commissioner Roger Goodell's selling of the NFL as a liberation for the boring workaday lives of average Joes, is a sham...like a sort of reality TV.

But he admits that he is also a fan, and he seems to be seeking solace of his own when he interviews Tom Brady for a NYTimes Magazine profile, and Brady, while seeming perfectly pleasant in a business-like way, misses the chance to befriend him. All of a sudden he's lost in a sort of limbo where the celebrity life-style of the marketing TB12 conflicts with his idea of the game, and it's no fun to read about his difficulties with access—it reminded me of Richard Hoffer's book about Mike Tyson, where Don King is boycotting Sports Illustrated because they are part of the Time Warner empire alongside HBO, and Hoffer can't get any access, and all the best lines in his book are quotes from boxing beat writers. Then again, Leibovich can't fit that into the bigger picture: it's not easy, like when he deals with owners. But he does write very well and movingly about his own father, who was dying at the time, beyond trying to link the event to Brady's parents.

He's very funny about the owners as they parade around meetings with their latest trophy wives or girlfriends (and Kraft's deflations at a Florida massage parlor just down the road from Mar A Lago would have been more grist for that mill) like richer protologists at a proctologist convention, and the very best scene in the book comes when he spends some time interviewing Jerry Jones in his private bus, drinking Johnny Walker Blue from giant Cowboys 24 oz plastic stadium cups. Jones leaves him passed out in the trailer.  It's Jones who has the best line in the book: “Do you think the (TV) networks pay these rights fees to broke dicks? With their asses hanging out?” But sadly, he never talks to a network exec, or a former network exec without a skin in the game.

There is a constant irritation in the book when you realise it's been pieced together from various separate interviews (composted, too, meaning the use of off-cut material from earlier interviews) as characters get reintroduced, one, Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz, at the heart of Ballghazi (aka Deflategate) twice within the space of five pages. And there are insights like 'pie is delicious' which seem less than revelatory. But perhaps the real problem is, as Leibovich says, “football is football, angst is for writers”. Perhaps a contrast of the real angst of football with the faux-angst of 'protecting the Shield' and keeping the cash flowing might have been more instructive.

BIG GAME: The NFL In Dangerous Times
by Mark Leibovich
Harper Collins £16.99 ISBN 9780008317614

Thursday, 29 August 2019

FOOTBALL IS UPON US: MUCH MORE MIKE

The NFL season is rapidly approaching, and I've done a couple of deep previews of it. The first. which I wrote at the beginning of August, has just been published in The American magazine here in the UK. You can read it in print or online; go to this link for details. It picks all the divisions and also previews the four games in London this fall.

Then this week I did another, more detailed, preview for Betfair: grouping teams by Elite, Contenders, Dark Horses, Pretenders, and Forget It. Where did your team get slotted? Check it out at Betfair here. There will also be a Betfair video podcast up next week just before the season starts.

And of course if you're really hard-core and want complete run-downs you can go to my patreon site right here and read my off-season run downs of each team. They're done division by division, with looks at the full roster. There will be a feature or two next week before I start picking every game of the season with my Friday Morning Tight End column--67% right last year.


Monday, 26 August 2019

JIM BOUTON: THE LAST WORD

Although I'd recorded the interview with Matthew Bannister a month ago, my appreciation of Jim Bouton has just been broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Last Word. It's a wonderful show: it begins with Peter Fonda and ends with Bouton: two icons of Sixties rebellion, of counter-culture, from different ends of the American spectrum. You can listen to the show on BBC IPlayer (actually now rebranded Sounds! to appeal to those too young to seek out obituary programmes) with this link . Fonda leads off the show; my bit is at the end, starting around 21 mins. The rest of the show is as interesting as usual, but I do love the way Fonda and Bouton play off against each other.

In case you missed my story at Arc Digital, going into more detail, you can link to that here.

Monday, 19 August 2019

NICK BUONICONTI: HIS FOOTBALL LIFE

Nick Buoniconti was unique in being a player from the era before free agency who is remembered a being crucial and beloved by fans of two teams. Nowadays we are used to players who move from team to team, often at their peaks, often collecting rings along the way. Previously, talented players were moved only when their original teams either thought they were on the decline or suffered a personality clash. Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams to the Eagles and a title. Sonny Jurgensen from the Eagles to the Redskins, and beloved by both sets of fans. Some moved toward the ends of their careers (coaches like George Allen specialised in picking them up) but their peak at their new clubs was short (think Sam Huff, NY Football Giants to Washington). Buoniconti went to from the Patriots to the Dolphins when he was still at his peak, and stayed there for another six seasons that brought two Super Bowl titles and of course the only undefeated, untied season in NFL history.

He went to Notre Dame, who recruited him out of Springfield (Mass) Cathedral High, which had produced Angelo Bertelli, the Irish’s first Heisman winner. He played both ways, at guard and linebacker/middle guard, but was overshadowed on the line by big tackle Myron Pottios. He was considered undersized for the NFL. Which wasn’t an exaggeration; he basically played at 5-11 220. He wasn’t much smaller than someone like Lee Roy Jordan, but southern players had the reputation of being faster harder hitters.

He wasn’t picked in the NFL draft, and went to the Boston Patriots in round 13 of the AFL draft (pick 102 overall). The Pats might have taken a flyer on him because as a former all-stat player from Massachusetts, he was relatively local. Mike Holovak was the head coach and Marion Campbell might have been the guy to see the potential for him at linebacker. Remember the original 4-3 defenses often had middle guards simply step back and play off the line; Bill George is sometimes called the first, Huff was another. In an odd front, the nose guard basically played a read and react game; if you watch Buoniconti you’ll see how that transitioned into playing MLB.

Buoniconti;s instincts were perfect, his pursuit relentless, but he also had ball skills; he intercepted 32 passes over his career. Dolphin fans might compare him to someone like Zach Thomas, especially if he hadn’t been pumped up to carry more weight, smoother in his drops and better with his hands. London Fletcher might be another good modern comparison.

In 1963 he played in the AFL All-Star game; the next four seasons he was also first-team all-AFL. In 68 he played only 8 games (second team all-AFL), but someone on the Pats , probably owner Billy Sullivan, felt he was on the decline, and he was traded to the Dolphins in 1969, for LB John Bramlett and Q, B Kim Hammond. Bramlett was a decent player but Hammond, the key to the deal, never made it. Nick, meanwhile, was again first-team all AFL.

The Dolphins were acquiring some of the core of their great teams: they traded for Larry Little in 69, and in 1970 for Paul Warfield and of course head coach Don Shula, each of whom cost them a first-round pick (they were fined for ‘tampering’ with Shula before his Colts’ contract had expired). With Bill Arnsparger as the defensive coordinator, Buoniconti became the perfect middle linebacker in what became the 53 D: with an outside backer used as a rush end. When I consider one of the starting OLBs on that team was Doug Swift, against whom I played when he was dominant at D3 Amherst, but who had previously been cut by the CFL’s Alouettes, it gives me huge respect for the quality of the coaching and the smarts of that D, and Buoniconti was its core. Don Shula once said that after their 1972 season, when he and Arnsbarger reviewed the film of the season, they found only 11 mental errors all season. That was 11 from the whole defense.

It was also finally his chance to play on a winner. His three varsity years at Notre Dame under Joe Kuharich had all been losing seasons—Kuharich never was able to recreate his success at San Francisco, about which I wrote a few months ago, anywhere else. The Pats went to the AFL championship in 1963, where they were smashed by the Chargers, then lapsed into mediocrity.

Buoniconti had gone to law school while he played for the Patriots, and after retiring he was for a time a lawyer. He acted as an agent for baseball players (Boston fans needed to think twice about his representing the Yankees’ Bucky Dent) and he was for a time president of the US Tobacco Company—who secialised in the smokeless tobacco which caused mouth cancers; he was a leading figure in trying to dismiss such studies.

But the fulcrum of his later life came in 1985 when his son Marc, playing linebacker at The Citadel, suffered a spinal cord injury and was left a quadriplegic. He set up a charity, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and became a public spokesman. Later in his career he would turn to media and present Inside The NFL, where his analysis of games was just as sharp as it had been as a linebacker.

Buoniconti himself began showing signs of CTE in his later years, and he joined the campaign to limit youngsters to playing flag football. He donated his brain to CTE research at Boston University. HBO made a documentary, The Many Lives Of Nick Buoniconti, which aired this year. His life is a catalogue of the high and lows of the sport,
just as his career was. And he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as well as the team halls of both the Patriots and the Dolphins.

Friday, 16 August 2019

ANDREAS NORMAN'S SILENT WAR

Many of the greatest writers of espionage fiction have been fascinated by the idea of betrayal, and the ways in which its being stock in trade for a spy means it must necessarily become part of the personal lives of those involved in the great game. It is the essence of John LeCarre, but he is far from alone in building on E.M. Forster’s famous dictum about having the courage to choose friend over country.

For starters, a spy must keep his or her work secret, which means having secrets, lying, to those you supposedly love. And of course, because they are practiced liars trained in deception and, by definition, believers in ends justifying means, it is no surprise that this paradox rears its ugly head frequently.

But few writers have put it at the centre of a novel quite the way Andreas Norman has in The Silent War, which opens with the head of Swedish intelligence in Brussels, Bente Jensen, being passed files which reveal a British programme of torture carried out at a secret site in the Middle East. This will put her at odds with the Brussels station chief of MI6, Jonathan Green, and the scene is set at an embassy reception in which quick glances and a partner absent for just a short while begin a tale in which every relationship is never quite what it seems.

What makes it work is the way the personal morality gets in the way of the larger issues of political morality, and it is odd that Norman, a former Swedish diplomat, is most cutting in the relationship of Green and his MI6 friend and colleague with whom he is at least nominally competing for a deputy directorship, Like honourable schoolboys, theirs is perhaps the most telling and coldblooded in the book.

What doesn’t quite work is the nature of Jensen and Green’s past, of which there are hints but no definition—it seems personal from the start, but it doesn’t go that far. Green’s operation in Syria and his final efforts to contain the leaked documents add action to the story, but the real action is what takes place behind the scenes. The book is best when it is focused on betrayal, and in the end, those who are the best at it are the ones who gain the ultimate victory.

The Silent War by Andreas Norman
translated from the Swedish by Ian Giles
Riverun, £20, ISBN 9781784293628
published 5 September 2019

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

THE WOODSTOCK JAZZ BAND THAT WASN'T: THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY

Looking yet again at Woodstock for its 50th anniversary, I was struck by the full lineup of musicians who played – those who missed the cut for the movie have assumed a sort of ghost form in the public memory. What jumped out at me was that you could have formed a nice ECM-style trio there.

Tim Hardin lived in Woodstock, and because he was there the organisers apparently wanted him to open when scheduling acts were showing up late because of the traffic jams. But Hardin had two longer journeys to make that day: first he was a junkie and second he suffered from stage fright. It is not inconceivable those two conditions were related.

He played with a band the first day that included Ralph Towner on guitar and piano and Glen Moore on bass. A year later, those two would found Oregon, which preceded the jazz-rock fusion with a kind of acoustic, eastern-influenced jazz that prefigured both ECM and, at the other end of a similar spectrum, the new age mood music of George Winston. Towner’s Solstice band included Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek and was a regular on my turntable as I wrote the poems of my master’s thesis.

Hardin’s use of jazz musicians wasn’t unusual. His album Tim Hardin 3, the year before, had included Mike Manieri on vibes, Warren Bernhardt on piano and Eddie Gomez on bass (as well as warning, in the liner notes, about the bells drummer Donald McDonald was wearing being audible! But I remember Bernhardt explaining once that because of nerves and being strung out, Hardin would rarely play as rehearsed, missing beats, adding things, and there was often as sense of their being out of time with him. This is also how his set at Woodstock was described, and it’s a shame, because the band also included Richard Bock on cello: Hardin was way ahead of his time in bring a wider palette of sounds to what had been 'folk' music: another  junkie Tim, Tim Buckley, was doing something similar too.

Arlo Guthrie played the next day and his drummer was the late Paul Motian, another of the mainstays of ECM but someone who had already played with Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett before a brief stint with Arlo that included the festival. Interestingly, he would go on to play mainly with guitarists in small group situations, including an amazing trio with Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, and wonderful stuff with bassist Charlie Haden.

Towner, Moore and Motian would have been a fantastic trio. I’m not sure if there would have been a smooth way to fit David Sanborn into that group, but of course he would go on to a huge career in jazz fusion. At Woodstock he was still playing in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s horn section, with Gene Dinwiddie and drummer Philip Wilson. I’d maybe float them bassist Jim Fielder, one of the overlooked great rock bassists, and trumpeter Lew Soloff from Blood Sweat and Tears and make them some sort of fusion group. 

It's not surprising that google reveals little in the way of pictures of back-up bands from Woodstock. It would have been nice to illustrate this exercise in building fantasy band lineups from 50 years ago...

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

DON WINSLOW'S BORDER

NOTE: This is the 1,200th post to this blog since I first posted a review of George Pelecanos' The Turnaround in July 2008. I like that symmetry, in part because I have written about Don Winslow often, going back before this blog, and I have been pleased with the way he has taken his career, much as Pelecanos did, from insider's favourite to major best-seller. As you'll see from this review, his success is well-deserved.

I was partway through The Border, following along with the battles between cartels and gangs to fill the power vacuum left in the Mexican drug trade, when I found myself, trying to keep track of who is a cousin of whom, and which section of Mexico they control or wish to control, wishing for a list of the characters, the kind of thing you would find at the start of an epic Russian novel. And it occurred to me at that moment that Don Winslow's War On Drugs trilogy, of which this is the final volume, is a crime fiction version of War And Peace.

No, Don is not Tolstoy, but as the scope of the narrative widens in his story, he manages to do the most crucial thing any epic novel needs to do: balance the stories of its main protagonists on the wider stage with the stories of those affected by what happens on that stage. The Border is balanced finely between Art Keller, the agent who has battled through two novels and 40 years against the Sinaloa Cartel and its rivals and successors, and the newly-embattled drug rivals. Keller, the rebellious, uncontrollable agent, is now head of the DEA, and mired in the Beltway politics which have always been at the heart of the failure of drugs policy. Meanwhile Mexico is breaking out in full-scale warfare between rival drug lords, with the body counts threatening Keller's always tenuous position.

Meanwhile, a new administration is taking over in Washington, a property developer turned reality TV star, whose son in law deals with laundered money. You may see the possibilities for conflicts of interests arising. This plot strand attracted plenty of attention in America, for obvious reasons, and Winslow to some extend has become a visible spokesperson against 'The Wall' as well as on drug policy. It speaks to his intimate knowledge, gleaned from agents and from journalists, and one thing his writing makes clear is how dangerous a profession being a journalist is among the cartels in Mexico; The Border is dedicated to dozens who've sacrificed their lives.

For Keller, whose fight against the cartels has cost him a family, the new job includes a new turn in his relationship with Dr Marisol Cisneros, herself physically a victim of drug violence. Keller has always had at least a foot in both worlds, now he has his entire existence there. But beneath that story, Winslow works the other end of the drug world: the cops and dealers, the junkies and those who try to help them, the refugees fleeing for safety to El Norte, their trip dangerous along the way and difficult once they get there, because you cannot follow the progress of the war without being aware of the lives torn apart on its battlefields. This is epic writing at its layered best, and at times the personal becomes almost unbearably tragic, even as the large scale violence seems unbelievable, except that its real.

As impressive as The Power Of The Dog was in 2005, it was impossible to conceive then that, 15 years later, the story would have been continued through two more novels, each getting better, more nuanced, more textured even as they grow more epic. Sadly, this trilogy may have concluded, but the drug wars, the border crisis, have not.

The Border by Don Winslow
Harper Collins, £20, ISBN 9780008227531
note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

THE MOON, MANSON & MUSIC: THE SUMMER OF 69

I've done a long essay on the Summer of 69 and the Age of Aquarius, the Moon, Manson and Music, which has just gone up at Medium. You can link to it, without joining, here. Please do, and if you like it, give it a clap...

Monday, 5 August 2019

THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT BEING EARNEST: A VERY ENGLISH STORY

In today's Torygraph we learn that Boris Johnson went on an Oxford Union debate beano to the USA in 1986. In the team of four was also the incoming head of the NHS, Simon Stevens. Over to theTelegraph:

"Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, has been the centre-Right president of the Oxford Union, employing his waggish charm to cultivate loyal 'stooges' hanging on his every word. Simon Stevens, on the other hand, was from a Birmingham comprehensive, a member of the Labour Club and was far more earnest in his approach to student politics."

What more does a Telegraph reader need to know. As Kate Fox (and George Mikes before her) has pointed out, one of the first principles of Englishness is the importance of not being earnest.

But it gets worse: when they debate the Yanks, the debating styles were, according to the third member of the Four Englishmen of the Apocalypse,, Angus McCullough (now) QC, "glaringly different...the English relied on being entertaining, there was no greater sin than dullness, while the (Yanks were) seething with facts and statistics but tended to be turgid.

Oddly enough, however, the fourth member of the team was one Frank Luntz a double-ringer in that he was an American and also a graduate student, having already received his degree from Donald Trump's alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Luntz is now, of course, a leading political pollster, and frequent pundit on the BBC (obviously unconnected with that time at Oxford).

The article says Luntz is said to 'speak regularly with the Prime Minister*'. Although it identifies Michael Gove as one of the Stooges, it does not confer that honour onto Luntz. Note too, in the picture above which accompanied the article, Boris is actually dancing with his future first wife, Allegra Mostyn-Owen, but the paper declines to remind its readers of that.No need to be turgid.

ROBERT MORGENTHAU: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Robert Morgenthau, the long-time district attorney for New York County, is in today's Telegraph, you can link to it online here; it is behind a paywall but you can do various deals with them. If you have the paper paper, note too the obit of Marcel Berlins, whom I knew as the crime reviewer for the Times, and who was always a welcome sight at book launches and the like. It's a excellent tribute to a fascinating erudite polymath.

My piece on Morgenthau is basically as I wrote it. The only thing missing was a slight mention of how, as DA for Kings County, he was able to transform the office into one that had the same remit as his previous post as US Attoryney for the Southern District of New York has enjoyed. He other words, he expanded its reach, particularly in terms of financial crime, often stretching the boundaries of jurisdiction with great effect. I alsoassumed his straightforward approach to nepotism would appeal to the English, though I refrained from saying that.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

KEITH LINCOLN & THE CHARGERS: A TRIBUTE

It's hard for anyone now to get an idea of what the San Diego (nee Los Angeles) Chargers did to football in the early 1960s. Keith Lincoln's death at 80 reminded of that, because Lincoln, along side Lance Alworth, were the glamorous face of the exciting Chargers team, with their lightning bolt uniforms and helmets and Sid Gillman's passing concepts, that seemed to shine a bright sunny light on football. They were both movie-star handsome, and had the Chargers stayed in LA I don't doubt they would have been offered acting careers: if Merlin Olsen, Roman Gabriel and Fred Dryer of the Rams, could, why not?

Lincoln played for the Chargers from their second year, 1961, through 1966, when they were probably the best team in the AFL. And boasted a number of my favourite players. Their defense had the original Fearsome Foursome, before the LA Rams stole the term: Ron Nery, Bill Hydson, Earl Faison and Ernie 'The Big Cat' Ladd. The first game I ever saw Faison he wreaked havoc from the end position; I was in awe of him from then on. I had already watched Ladd wreak havoc in the wrestling ring. Their O line had the best pair of tackles in the NFL in Ernie Wright and Ron Mix 'The Intellectual Assassin'. Mix, the first of the dominant tackles from USC remains one of the top half-dozen or so of all time (see him, 74, leading Lincoln in the picture bottom right. The tight end was Dave Kocurek. Alworth, known as Bambi, would be the third receiver on the all-century team, alongside Jerry Rice and Don Hutson. They had Jack Kemp, then Tobin Rote and finally John Hadl at quarterback. Hadl and Alworth, with their single-bar helmets, Alworth wearing 19 and Hadl 21, were cool beyond words. And they had Paul Lowe at halfback, which meant Lincoln (6-1 215) nominally played fullback, and the two shared carries.

The Chargers 1963 team, who beat the Patriots 53-10 for the AFL title, were probably the best AFL team until at least 1966. In fact they would have been a tough matchup for the NFL champion Bears. Lincoln was the MVP of that title game. He rushed 13 times for 206 yards and a TD. He caught 7 passes for 123 more yards and another TD. The total yardage record was broken with the aid of overtime by Ed Podolak, the rushing mark by Eric Dickerson two decades later. He also completed an option pass for 20 yards.

Lincoln came from California, but went to Washington State as a quarterback. He was soon moved to halfback, where he held school records for rushing and punting, and threw for 511 yards and 8 TDs on options. He would have been, just a few years earlier, a single-wing tailback. His nickname was 'the Moose of the Palouse,' Palouse being the farming area encompassing the southeast part of Washington and parts of Oregon and Idaho. After his career he moved back to Pullman, eventually becoming an alumni director.

In 1964 the Chargers lost to the Bills (and Jack Kemp, whom Gillman had let go by trying to sneak him through waivers) and Lincoln was knocked out of the game by Buffalo line-backer Mike Stratton. It was a swing pass, and Lincoln had bobbled the ball when Stratton laid him out with a hit often likened to Chuck Bednarik's on Frank Gifford, the AFL's 'hit heard round the world'. Lincoln left the game with bruised ribs, though a week later he came back to take the MVP trophy home from the AFL All-Star game.

The Chargers success seemed to flip on that moment, but really it was a combination of things. Gillman lost his defensive mastermind, Chuck Noll, to the NFL's Colts, who became a great defensive team in the late 60s. Al Davis, another Gillman assistant, was turning the Raiders into an upstate version of the Chargers, with even more emphasis on the deep game. The Chiefs and Jets were building strong teams. But Gillman also had an edgy relationship with some of his players, especially those who wanted more money. Ladd and Faison both held out and were traded to Houston; they were both becoming less effective due to injuries. Lincoln wanted out too; after an off-year in '66, in 1967 he was traded to Buffalo even up for all-league defensive end Tom Day. He had an excellent season with the Bills, rushing for 'only' 601 yards but catching 41 passes for 558, a 13.6 yards per catch, and five TDs. But he was hurt in '68, released by the Bills and played briefly for the Chargers again before retiring.

Lincoln was first team all-AFL in 1963 and 64, and an all-star for five years, 62-67, except 1966. That twice all-league/five all-star record matches up well with the 'official' all-AFL team, which has Clem Daniels (2/4) and Lowe (2/2) as first-team running backs, and Abner Haynes (2/3) and Cookie Gilchrist (3/4) but not Lincoln. It' a tough call, especially because both Cookie and Lincoln were both fullbacks, but I'd be tempted to list the two as my first-teamers. I like to imagine them together on the same Buffalo team. But I think Lincoln is really only a border-line Hall Of Famer, especially because, like baseball's Roger Maris, he's remembered for one big game above all else.More likely he will remain in the Hall of the Very Good, and first teamer on the all glamour football squad. And he will remain in my mind as part of the most exciting football team of my youth, and the kind of All-American triple threat football player who doesn't seem to really exist, without the hype, these days.

And I was somehow pleased as well as touched to discover that Lincoln is survived by two sons, named Lance and Keith.

BELFAST, BOXING & EAMONN MAGEE: MY MEDIUM/LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS ESSAY

Last November I was commissioned by the London Review Of Books to write a long essay on The Lost Soul Of Eamonn Magee, a biography of the Belfast boxer. As I filed the piece, the book was joint winner of the William Hill prize for sports book of the year, which I thought might get it into print quickly. As it happened, I got the proofs of the story, very nicely edited, in March. But it got bumped from its scheduled publication then, and when I checked on it four months later, was told it was now out of date, and with summer holidays at the paper about to begin, it was killed.

The story itself is certainly not out of date: whether you consider it about Magee himself, about boxing in general, or about Northern Ireland and the society and culture in which Magee grew up. So the essay is now up at Medium, you can link to it here. Read it and if you like it, please give it a clap.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

THE BREXIT OUROBOROS: BORIS JOHNSON, TRUMP & BREXIT

I've done another Brexit piece for Arc Digital, this one about Johnson's ascendancy to No. 10 Downing Street, his relation to Trump, and the future for Britain and Brexit. Just a few small topics. You can find it here. The ouroboros title went by the wayside, but it was all I could do not to call it the Ouroboris, the worm that eats its own tail. Which is basically what Britain is doing via Brexit. And Boris. Give it a clap if you enjoy it.

I actually has a paragraph comparing Johnson and Trump to King Gorice and Goldy Bluszco (you can guess which one is which, I hope) from E.R. Eddison's Worm Ouroboros, until I realised that if no one would know what ouroboros meant, even fewer would have read Eddison's fantasy novel (now you know!).

Monday, 29 July 2019

ROBERT CRAIS' DANGEROUS MAN

Isabel Roland is a bank teller, and one of her customers is Joe Pike. Pike, as ever, is a quiet enigma, but Isabel and especially her colleague Dana both think he's hot. After Pike leaves, Isabel goes to lunch, and as she hits the sidewalk, she's forced into a car and two men drive away with her. But Joe Pike had just got into his car across the street, and he's seen what happened. It was quick, but it didn't feel right. A few blocks later, at a light, Pike disables the men and rescues Isabel. Before he did, the men had told her 'we know your secret.' Which is more than she does, but it's enough to get Pike and Elvis Cole involved with some ruthless killers

Last year when I reviewed Robert Crais' The Wanted, I concentrated on the personal stories underneath the fast-paced thriller; contrasting stories of parents and children as well as two entertaining if cold-blooded killers. Dangerous Man is even faster-paced, a relentless series of track-downs and races against time which meant I was able to literally recapitulate the 'page-turner' and 'unputdownable' critics' cliches, because I read the book the day it arrived.

It's different from The Wanted, except perhaps for the beachside gunfight that climaxes the chase. Again there is a parental angle, but it's simply background. The villains don't have much in the way of personality, it's a bigger crew working for a second crew working for an anonymous villain off-stage. But after I finished Dangerous Man, I happened to watch the pilot episode of the overlooked Stephen J Cannell TV show Wise Guy. Elvis Cole had referenced himself to Jim Rockford (perhaps Cannell's best, see my obit in the Independent) at one point in the novel, and it occurred to me that Crais, who started writing TV crime shows during the Rockford era, had written this scene by scene, in what would have been an epic Rockford episode, if Rockford had come up with a partner like Joe Pike. The movement between the scenes, which buffers the fast pace, the relaxed dialogue even as the pressure intensifies, and the now-expected confrontation with federal marshals who are looking for the same killers, who tortured one of their retired colleagues at the start of their quest that roped in Roland.

You'd think Joe Pike is a bit too old for Isabel Roland, and she's a bit too much of an innocent civilian for him, but the strange prospect is also fun to consider, jarring as it is to hear the young tellers refer to Joe as a 'studburger' or 'manmeat on a stick'. With the right casting, this would be a hell of pilot for the Elvis and Joe Show. But I am more than content to have the story between covers, because how these days how many books do I simply sit down and read to the end before getting up? Not too many.

Dangerous Man by Robert Crais
Simon & Shuster, £16.99, ISBN 9781471157615

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

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

MIKE MIGNOLA'S WITCHFINDER

Mike Mignola's Witchfinder is an unsurprising offshoot of his Bureau For Paranormal Research and Defense. Sir Edward Grey has been knighted for his role in saving Queen Victoria from a cabal of witches, and in the first volume of this series, In The Service Of Angels, he is working for the government investigating a series of bloody killings in London. Whatever is doing the killing is linked to an archaeological expedition that found one of the seven lost cities of the Hyperborean Age, and as Grey digs deeper he encounters a secret society, the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra, who may be allies of a sort, or enemies.

In supernatural detective stories, the suspense revolves around first discovering what the danger actually is, and then in how to defeat it. Grey, interestingly, is as much acted upon as actor, and Ben Stenbeck's drawing of him emphasises this: he is not easily surprised, but he does seem very cautious. Which helps this story work well, because it is the surrounding cast which is more interesting: think back to the prototypes like Fu Manchu, and how Nayland Smith is as much as anything a catalyst for the real horrors or sometimes wonders they encounter. The most fascinating of whom is Miss Mary Wolf, a psychic whose visions put the story into perspective. The other thing which works well is Stenbeck's evoking of the Victorian era; we've seen it so many times it risks being cliched, but he finds nice little touches to make it new.

What intrigues me most about the story are the references to other cases which Grey has already encountered, which, like the throwaway mentions in Sherlock Holmes, illuminate only slightly, but pique the curiosity. Given that much of Grey's backstory remains hidden to the reader, that curiosity is strong.

But it isn't answered in the second volume Lost And Gone Forever, written by Mignola and John Arcudi with art by John Severin. Since the story is set in the American West a year after the events of the first volume. Severin was a great artist of westerns in the Silver Age, and he brings the same sort of background perspective to the story that Stenbeck did to Victorian London; the details are both realistic and revealing. The story itself is a bit less focused: Grey is tracking a Lord Glaren from London all the way across America, and arrives in Reidlynne, Utah, where there is something strange at the church, and the locals don't take kindly to questions. He's rescued by a Bill Hickock type named Morgan Kaler, who's accompanied by a backward youth named Issac (there was a similar character in Service Of Angels, Grey is good with the simple-minded) who is older than he appears.

There is also a white woman named Eris leading a group of Indians intent on some sort of revival of their gods and a full spectrum of spectres, including Glaren, wolves and various spirits. It's a full story, perhaps too full, and Kaler in particular might have been fleshed out a bit more. It would be too much to say Grey works better, by definition in Victorian England, but he and his antagonists here seem to be on different planes.

By the way, there's a short story at the end of the first volume featuring another witch-hunter, Henry Hood, in 1667. It's a nice six-pager, but the interesting thing is the presentation of Hood, who reminds me immediately of Robert E Howard's Solomon Kane, still to my mind the best of the witch-hunter characters.

Witchfinder: In The Service Of Angels by Mike Mignola art by Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse Books, £13.50, ISBN 9781595824837)
Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi art by John Severin
(Dark Horse Books, £13.50, ISBN 9781595827944)

Sunday, 21 July 2019

BORIS JOHNSON, FINTAN O'TOOLE AND ROGER BARLOW: LITERARY EXEGESIS OF AN ALTER EGO

Fintan O'Toole, whose essay about Boris Johnson, titled 'The Ham Of Fate' (in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, you can link to it here) goes full Gore Vidal in a literary exegesis of Johnson's only published novel, Seventy-Two Virgins (2004). O'Toole calls it, generously, a 'somewhat un-flattering self-portrait', but that is all part of the 'Boris' shtick, public schoolboy humour combined with the famed self-deprecation which, as any student of George Mikes would recognise, is actually a celebration of the innate superiority of the English, or at least the English upper-class, over those of lesser character who insist on speaking honestly, straightforwardly or worst of all, as O'Toole quotes Kate Fox reminding us, earnestly.

O'Toole's coup de grace is an analysis of Johnson's dropping in of the Greek word 'akratic' to describe his protagonist. Johnson uses it alongside describing a 'thanatos urge', or death-wish to those of us who didn't study Greek at Eton. But most educated readers would recognise 'thanatos', which makes 'akratic' worth O'Toole's analysis. He explains that 'akrasia', according to Aristotle, is the opposite of control, a  weakness of will, incontinence, a person who, O'Toole summarises, 'knows the right thing but cannot help doing the opposite'.

The 'studied careless' of those English upper-classes Johnson (from, as O'Toole notes, a rather bohemian bourgeois background) apes leaves messes for others to clean up. He is of course both 'genuinely clever' and 'quite self-aware', and in the familiar tracing of Johnson's indecision over his stance on Brexit (choosing the one with the clearer, but risky, path to leadership) or his mendaciousness as a Brussels journalist ('he understood a vivid lie is more memorable than the dull truth'). Read the article, because O'Toole is equally sharp tracing of Boris' efforts to re-invent himself as a bumbling, betraying Churchill is part and parcel of the worst, and the comparison to Trump and America (remember, Boris was born in the US and a dual national, until the Americans invited him to remember to pay the taxes US citizens owe).

But there was one small bit of literary criticism he missed, which I find irresistible in the lack of subtlety of its sub-conscious revelation, and not exclusively about Johnson's private life. His alter ego in Seventy-Two Virgins is named Roger Barlow. Roger is British slang, still used (especially by the upper classes) to mean penetrative sex or by extension, so to speak, being dominated to someone else's advantage, as in 'he was well and truly fucked by that'). Roger, then, with the Bar set very Low: does that not describe perfectly both the 'romantic' Johnson as well as the political one?

APOLLO 11, NEIL ARMSTRONG, JOHN STEWART & THE MOON

Since this blog takes its title from a song by John Stewart, the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings might be a good time to recall another Stewart song. I was reminded of this while listening to the penultimate episode of Moon, on BBC Radio 4, a dramatization of the Apollo 11 mission taken from the transcripts of the communication on the spacecraft and with Mission Control in Houston. As the crew prepare for the lunar landing the next day, they are having their dinner, and oddly enough Stewart's song 'Mother Country' plays in the background.

The next day, of course, in the evening our time on America's East Coast, Neil Armstrong would set foot on the moon. The event came during tumultuous times, in the midst of assassination, war, demonstration, and the peak, perhaps, both of American dominance and Sixties revolution against it. But Stewart, who had travelled with Bobby Kennedy working on his campaign, and wrote songs about that, was struck by the accomplishment and the hope, the giant leap for mankind, of the moment. This is his song, 'Armstrong'. And thanks to the same technological push that got us to the moon, you can listen to it on You Tube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvQq3NQN1E8


Saturday, 6 July 2019

THE HEFTY LEFTY: JARED LORENZON

I was saddened to hear of the death of Jared Lorenzon, 'The Hefty Lefty', former Kentucky and New York Giants quarterback, aged only 38. His nickname suited him well: he was oversized for a QB, never in great shape, and threw with his left-hand. He was a pretty good player, though, and in a way it's sad his legacy will be built around his weight.

You know players by their nicknames; legendary players often attract more than one. Ted Williams was 'The Kid', “The Splendid Splinter” and “Teddy Ballgame”. George Ruth was 'Babe', “The Bambino” and “The Sultan Of Swat”. Now these are not always real 'nicknames', in the sense that they were coined by sportswriters and hung round the necks of the players: I doubt any of Ted's teammates ever called him “Splinter”. In fact, 'Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, 'The Yankee Clipper', was called 'Dago' by his friends. But the most fitting of those names usually stick. And they are usually, but not always, affectionate.

The Babe was never called 'Beer Belly Babe', not even in an era of derogatory nicknames in baseball, which boasted guys like Fatty Fitzsimmons, Leo the Lip, Tomato Face Cullop, Schnozz Lombardi, Losing Pitcher Mulcahy, Ducky Wucky Medwick, KiKi Cuyler (he was a stutterer) and Grandma Murphy.

Lorenzon, who was listed at 6-4 280 pounds with the Giants, didn't mind The Hefty Lefty. It had a certain ring to it, and wasn't insulting. The sportswriters came up with The Pillsbury Throwboy, which is clever, but trying to hard (for my non-American readers, Pillsbury were America's biggest millers—you can see their huge facility on the Mississippi when you're in the Twin Cities—and their mascot was a pugdy character made of dough, a sort of American version of the Michelin Man, called the Pillsbury Doughboy). The media also tried The Abominable Throwman, The Round Mound Of Touchdown, Mobile Agile Hostile & Hungry, and the other one I thought worked, though it's an inside joke “He Ate Me”.

It was a bit much, especially since Lorenzon was a pretty good player. I saw him when Gnat Coombs and I went to Giants pre-season camp for Channel 5 in 2007, before they appeared at Wembley and won Lorenzon a Super Bowl ring. I had experienced a similar feeling before: when I stayed around UCF in Orlando after a Claymores/Rhine Fire scrimmage, to watch their team practice. 'Who's that D lineman throwing the ball?' I asked. “That's our QB, Daunte Culpepper”. Lorenzon was even bigger, though not in as good shape. He was a bit like Byron Leftwich as well. But where Culpepper had a pretty tight delivery, and Leftwich a very long one, Lorenzon's was anything but consistent. Partly this was because as he put on weight, he threw less with his lower body and partly because he was remarkably athletic (he'd been an excellent high school basketball player, a good baseball player, and Mr Football in Kentucky his senior year) and wound up throwing on the run a lot (the fact Kentucky was usually overmatched against D lines in the SEC didn't help). He spent four years with the Giants, and Eli Manning credited his help, as a pass rusher in practice, in developing his escapability, which served him well on the famous helmet catch by David Tyree.

I liked the fact that Lorenzon wore number 22 in college and high school; more quarterbacks should follow in the footsteps of Bobby Layne, John Hadl and Doug Flutie. He played his first year at Kentucky for Hal Mumme, who developed the 'air raid' offense, but I don't think he was a perfect fit for that. Though if you remember Shane Boyd from NFL Europe, Lorenzon played ahead of him.

After the Super Bowl year the Giants cut him. He was cut by the Colts in 2008 and saw his team, the Kentucky Horsemen, in Arena League 2 fold in 2009. He retired and started coaching at his old high school. But in 2011 he came out of retirement as the General Manager of the Northern Kentucky River Monsters of the Ultimate Indoor League. He soon went back to playing, and was named the league's MVP. He became the first player I know of to go from MVP of a league to being its commissioner, but again he left the desk, and in 2013 played for the Owensboro Rage of the Continental Indoor League until the team ran out of money and folded before the end of the season. Look at these leagues and teams this way: If Justified had a football league....

In 2014 he went back to the River Monsters, who were now also playing in the Continental League. You have to imagine him, probably pushing 350, in the kind of tacky gaudy unis those teams wore, scrambling like the Lorenzon of old as they won they first game, against the Bluegrass Warhorses. His play became a brief sensation (is there any other kind?) on the internet. The next week, he was scrambling again, versus the Erie Explosion, and when he was tackled he broke his leg.

In retrospect, that was the worst thing that could have happened. Not only was his football career, such as it was, ended forever, so to was his mobility and exercise, and his weight ballooned quickly. He did some local radio, he sold 'Throwboy' Tee-shirts, he made you-tube videos about his efforts to lose weight, which went over 500 pounds at its peak. ESPN made a short film about his efforts to lose weight, and he was down to around 400 at one point.

He died from kidney and heart problems, exacerbated by an infection, which may have been down to kidney failure. Obviously his size put great strain on his body. It's so easy to suggest other scenarios by which he might have been more successful early, been put under the care of dieticians, even had a fuller NFL career. Go back and look at his college tape and think about how he might have played in an environment where he wasnt under constant pressure, or if Mumme had stayed four years with him (he had three head coaches in four seasons). Watch some of the later videos: he's a personable, sincere kid, even into his late 30s, never acting like someone whose body is being pushed to its core.

But Lorenzon will always be the Hefty Lefty, and for a short time, that was a hell of a thing to be.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

AN ACCEPTABLE LOSS: A Slow Burn Political Thriller

An Acceptable Loss opens with Elizabeth 'Libby' Lamm arriving for her first day teaching at a prestigious Chicago university, being met by demonstrators whose placards talk about death and genocide. Lamm is former security advisor at the highest levels of the government, and through flashbacks we see her involved in a major decision about Middle East policy, arguing with her boss, Rachel Burke, a senior politician, to whom she is counseling caution. Lamm is now living alone in a large house, has no computer, no email, no phone. Each night she works by the light of one lamp, writing in longhand on yellow legal pads. Although she has been brought in by the head of the department, many of her colleagues and staff are stand-offish. She is also being stalked by a student, Martin, who seems increasing obsessed with her.

From this beginning, writer/director Joe Chappelle has structured a timely political thriller, whose presentation, a slow drip of flashbacks and minimal exposition, builds up to some surprising conclusions. It's an intelligently shot film: with a contrast between the warm colours of the campus, the empty shadows of Lamm's life, and the darker, harder colder colours (much of it in washed out balck and white) of her history in power. But its the structure of the movie that is the challenge, because information is deliberately withheld, even relatively simple facts, so that you spend time wondering exactly what position Burke held, and holds. It is revealed, as is the history of Lamm's involvement with events that have sparked the protests and reactions, but it does come slowly. It's also got elements of science fiction film, an alternate history story, in which little references to events that remain unexplained take on signficance, and it's interesting to consider those flashback sections, and their style, in reference to sf film, which makes a certain amount of sense given Chappelle's background in sf and horror (including the TV series The Fringe--he also directed episodes of The Wire).

Once things start to be revealed, the pace picks up, and as you might expect the story turns into a thriller of sorts, with protagonists on the run, the government closing in on them, and an ending full of twists. It works exceptionally well: the payoff final 15 minutes put what has come before into context, and if we have been concentrated too much on Lamm's seclusion and loneliness, the personal story now makes chilling sense. The ending contains a couple of surprises, though one is telegraphed, and the final one is almost a cliché of conspiracy thrillers. But it leaves you contemplating the slow-build up that preceded it, and rather than exciting, you realise you have just seen a thoughtful film.

Of course the movie is built around Libby, and Tika Sumpter's playing is almost strong enough to carry it off. She seems to have internalised the character's withdrawal, and perhaps overplays her underplaying, if that makes sense, but especially in the scenes with her father (Clarke Peters) a newspaper editor whose career appears to have been stymied by her actions, she shines. Ben Tavassoli as her stalker is full of smouldering intensity, without any moderating control, which makes an almost comical contrast with his 'sensitive' gay roommate Jordan (Alex Weisman). There's also a nice little cameo scene-stealing by David Eigenberg as a drunken professor who calls out Lamm at a cocktail party.

But the real star is Jamie Lee Curtis as Burke. And at this point a few small spoilers will introduce themselves into the review, so stop if that would bother you.

We don't know Burke's position in the flashbacks—but it turns out to be Vice President, to a President (Rex Linn) who was a college football coach, who for example has no idea where Homs is when they are discussing Syria. She is obviously the adult in that room. Before we learn she's the VP, I was measuring how close to Hillary Clinton her performance was, perhaps she is indeed Secretary of State, but of course the administration, prima face, is Republican. Nevertheless, I think Curtis gets a good bit of the Clintonian dichotomy of care and ruthlessness which made her such a divisive candidate. But the presence of the good ol' boy president means we could think of Lamm as a Condoleeza Rice characater, or indeed, in the way her intelligence is, in the end, used, and the way in which she lets herself be compromised, also a Colin Powell. It might be a mistake to read too many direct parallels into the story, but even the suggestion is enough to make it resonate with the present day.

In the movie's real time, Burke is now the President, and the Clinton paradigm is even more telling, and here we see her Chief of Staff, Adrian, who was once Lamm's lover and now has risen with his boss, as a key. He's played with the kind of menace that defines such characters and Jeff Hephner does a good job with it. In one of the film's last twists, it mixes character with conspiracy, personal and political chillingly well.

An Acceptable Loss, like its title, is ambiguous (its original title, The Pages, was much less effective) and refers to many losses. Although many will find the opening sections too slow, or the final act too short, or not chasey enough, in the end those ambiguities stay with the viewer long after the film finishes, and to be thinking about them means it has been successful.

An Acceptable Loss is available on Digital Download from 15 July

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

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

HENRY PORTER'S WHITE HOT SILENCE

Three years ago, former MI6 agent Paul Sampson was hired by his old employers to track down a 13 year old Syrian refugee who might possess key data about an ISIS attack on Europe. He met and fell in love with aid worker Anastasia Christakos while tracking Naji Touma, and the three of them were rescued by in Macedonia by billionaire Denis Hisami, who owed Sampson a huge factor for finding his sister's fate.

Now, their affair having burned out, Anastasia is married to Hisami, and she has been kidnapped in Italy and disappeared. The motive does not appear to be ransom, but something else that involves Hisami's money and investments, and the operatives he hires to track her down bring Sampson on board, though he would be impossible to keep from joining the search anyway. And he needs to, because all of a sudden, Hisami's American empire is under threat, and he's being accused of being a Kurdish terrorist in his past life.

As with Firefly, the novel that detailed the pursuit of Naji Touma, the core of Henry Porter's new thriller is a chase with multiple pursuers who may be as much in conflict with each other as with the kidnappers. Like the previous book, White Hot Silence does pick up its pace as the various agents near each other, while in the background the question of who and why keeps the reader guessing. It's a complicated tale and like its predecessor it does allow for a little deus ex machina from characters who just happen to be in the right spot with the right talents, and a certain randomness in exactly which mobile phones can and can't be traced instantly, but everything is moving so fast that hardly matters. What matters more is the resourcefulness of the characters, not least the kidnapped Anastasia and the now more mature Touma, who is a computer genius of the first order. And of course, what will happen if Paul does find Anastasia. When it all comes together in Estonia, the denoument contains a finish as suprising as it is logical.

But beneath all this action, Porter is making a very serious serious point, which ought to resonate with readers in Brexit Britain at a time when, as I write this, Tory leadership contender Boris Johnson's links to the American nationalist strategist and former Trump campaign savant Steve Bannon have been revealed and attracted virtually attention in the mainstream media. What follows might be a bit of a spoiler...

Anastasia's kidnapping has been arranged to prevent Hasami's revealing money laundering taking place on behalf of right-wing, Russian-backed, populist nationalist groups around Europe. It would be nice to have had the operation explained more fully by
one of the characters nearer the top who needed to play Bond Villain, but the task is left to one of the actual kidnapping thugs, Kirill, an ex FSB interrogator who wants to discuss Huckleberry Finn with his captive.

As Kirill explains to Anastasia: “now Americans have lost their ability to see good or bad.They've turned on their country, their greatest enemies are their fellow citizens—imagine that! They are fearful; they see plots where there are none, their information is corrupted and no one is able to form a sensible conclusion about best interests of people. And now we watch them abandon principles of Constitution. It's like a dream for us.

The people are soft and idle and now they cannot tell difference between up and down. It was not espinoage that destablised the US. It was the vanity and weakness of its people. We played on their weaknesses and they did the rest. Same in UK.”

It was nice Kirill threw in those last three words, in case we missed his vodka-fuelled point, and he doesn't need to throw in lots of details for us to be able to connect the dots.
Porter was making similar serious points in his earlier novels, about terrorism in Empire State (2003) and the roots of the new Russia in Brandenburg (2005), which was set at the fall of the Berlin Wall and featured a young KGB colonel named Putin. Both those books featured Porter's previous spy character, Robert Harland, and Harland makes his reappearance as the story reaches its climax, as he has just happened to retire to Tallinn, where he can provide some of the deus ex machina mentioned earlier. In any event, it is nice to see him back.

Harland is another link to MI6, and one of the most interesting of White Hot Silence's subplots is the return of Sampson's MI6 nemeses, Peter Nyman and Sonia Fell, agents who seem to have a different agenda, and in this case seem to be working their own game. It's another good thing Paul has his own extremely friendly MI6 source. Nyman and Fell's game ought to be part of the sequel to this novel, because there is much left unresolved, not least the futures of Paul, Anastasia and Denis Hisami. One wonders how much current affairs might impact that one.

White House Silence by Henry Porter
Quercus, £16.99, ISBN 9781787470804

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

Thursday, 20 June 2019

THE CAPTOR: THE ORIGINAL STOCKHOLM SYNDROME ON FILM

NOTE: This review contains some small spoilers

In August of 1973 a Swede called Jan-Erik Olsson, having skipped out on his temporary release from prison, stepped into a bank in Stockholm's Normalmstorg,originally pretending to be American, and, armed with a sub-machine gun, took four people (three women, one man) hostage. He demanded money, a getaway Ford Mustang, and the release of his former cell-mate, Clark Olofsson. The hostage crisis lasted six days, most of which the captors and hostages spent in a bank vault: the authorities had given Olsson what he wanted, but refused to allow him and Olofsson to take the hostages with them when they left. Finally, when the captors surrendered, the hostages protected them as they left the vault together, they refused to testify against them, and seemed to have identified with them, if not been seduced by them. This phenomenon stunned the Swedish authorities. A Swedish psychologist coined it Normalmstorg Syndrome, which the rest of the world now calls Stockholm Syndrome.

I paid particular attention to the story at the time because I had just returned to America from my first visit to Europe, much of which time had been spent meeting my relatives in Sweden. I noted at the time that Olofsson was kept in Kalmar Prison, which is just across the Olandsbron from where many of my family lived and I remember wondering then and wondered now exactly how they got him up to Stockholm so quickly.

Canadian writer/director Robert Budreau went back to a contemporary account in The New Yorker as the basis for his screenplay, and his version, originally called Stockholm when it premiered at Tribeca last year, but was retitled The Captor (neither title is great, to be honest), is a slimmed down version of a story which plays somewhere between farce and thriller, comedy and tragedy. It recalls Dog Day Afternoon, another film based on a real 'robbery' which took place a year before the Normalmstorg one, where the real purpose of the robbery wasn't simply to rob a bank. There's that sense of the robbers being in over their head, that the emotions behind their action overpowers the logic of the situation, and this is what Budreau works on to 'explain' as it were, the nature of Stockholm Syndrome.

In The Captor, it's less a collective feeling born of a long stay in a confined place under horrible conditions, and more of two individual love stories. The obvious one is between Olsson, here called Lars Nystrom (all the names were changed as many of the people involved are still alive) and played by Ethan Hawke and one of the hostages, here called Bianca and played by Noomi Rapace. The story puts Lars in contrast to Bianca's boring husband, and it's not too subtly shown that Lars' plan to shoot her, while she wears a bullet-proof vest, is a sort of climax, as it were, of their growing attraction. But there is also the relationship of Lars and his partner, here called Gunnar and played by Mark Strong. It's a strong enough bond that the police chief accuses Lars of being 'queer' and Bianca later asks him if he 'loves' Gunnar.

This focus renders the other two hostages almost superfluous, which is a shame because Bea Santos as Klara in particular tries to convey feelings about what is going on, without much scope for that. We wind up seeing the bonding between the five (the number of captives has been reduced from the actual four captives) which comes about primarily because they come to believe that the kidnappers care more about their safety than either the police or the politicians, who have bigger points to make with them as the pawns. The key scene is a phone call between Bianca and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who chilly detachment contrasts sharply with Lars' undirected passion.

What saves this conflict of themes, between a love story and a syndrome story, from sinking the film is the quality of the acting. Once you realise Hawke is playing a Swede playing an American playing a Swede, it all makes sense, and he does a tremendous job of bringing out Lars child-like energy and lack of judgement. Rapace is brilliant, able to convey building emotion and internal conflict with small looks behind the oversized glasses which were the fashion in Sweden in those days. Strong has to be the straight man for Hawke, but he carries off an ambiguous position well (he had been offered his freedom if he 'mediated' a solution--eventually Swedish courts found Olofsson not guilty and he was released from prison). There is also a star turn by Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl (cousin of the Norwegian explorer) as police chief Mattsson. He plays a role which is sometimes even farcical and sometimes brutal with a precise control that reminded me constantly of Max Von Sydow, who would have been cast in that role had a Swedish version been made at the time, a la Dog Day Afternoon. His performance is the real anchor against which the chaos of the hostage situation plays.

In the end, of course, the captors were captured and the captives protected them so the police could not hurt them. Olofsson and his family later became friendly with Kristin Enmark (the 'Bianca' hostage who talked with Palme) and he went back to a life of crime. Janne Olsson married one of the many women who corresponded with him while he served his prison sentence, also returned to crime after his release, but when he decided to surrender to Swedish authorities discovered he was not wanted for anything. He and his family eventually settled in Thailand.

The film ends cutting between Bianca with her family on the beach, as if longing for something else, and a scene of her visiting Lars in prison, and with him in one of the rooms reserved for conjugal visits. The room has been referenced earlier in the film, but here their distance and silence suggests the longing is not for Lars at all, and one recalls her asking if Lars loves Gunnar. Hawke's character seems as confused about life as he was about bank robbing and hostage taking.

The Captor (aka Stockholm) is on release today

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