Thursday, 17 January 2019

SOREN SVEISTRUP'S THE CHESTNUT MAN

A woman's body is found, missing a hand, one morning outside her suburban Copenhagen house; found after her son rose, made himself breakfast, and went to the neighbours when his mother wasn't there to take him to school. The case is assigned to Naia Thulin, single-mother, youngest detective on the homicide squad, and unhappy possessor of a new partner, Mark Hess, recently returned to Denmark by Interpol, for reasons unexplained but which, given his uncooperative personality, she thinks she can understand. But the murder takes on a different importance when the sole clue, a child's chesnut man left near the corpse, gets connected to the disappearance, a year earlier, of Kristine Hartung, the young daughter of Rosa Hartung, a minister in the Danish cabinet. Now, just at the point Rosa is returning to work, Kristine's fingerprints are found on the chestnut man. The only problem is the man who confessed to Kristine's kidnap and murder is serving his sentence in prison.

The intricacy of The Chestnut Man's set-up is built upon masterly in this gripping twisty thriller from Soren Sveistrup, creator and writer of the ground-breaking Danish crime series The Killing. And there are similarities between that show and this, Sveistrup's first novel. Particularly in the close attention paid to the parents of crime victims, but also in the way that few characters are what or who they appear to be, which is the main device for raising suspicion and keeping the plot twisting away.

There are also some of the familiar Scandinavian tropes--an emphasis on children, on early abuse, on the failures of the state to identify or cope with it. There is the relatively ordinariness of political figures, and the way their own bureaucratic battling is mirrored by other situations: familial and also within the police, and the way family and work impinge on each other is mirrored starkly with Thulin's own situation. As the story opens, Thulin's boss, Nylander, is desperate for more detectives: he blames the growth of new departments, like the one battling cyber-crime. His only consolation is the addition of Hess, a cop no one else seems to want; meanwhile he doesn't know that Thulin has already applied for transfer to cyber-crimes.

I was also struck by the familiarity of the chestnut man motif. The Danish non-confrontational equivalent of conkers, the chetnut men are made of twigs and nuts. The idea of leaving them besides the crime recalls other thrillers, say Jo Nesbo's Snowman--and interestingly it was Sveistrup who wrote the screenplay for the film of Nesbo's novel. It's not just Scandinavian: CJ Tudor's Chalk Man, for example, and I suppose you might trace it back Thomas Harris, but in general the more innocently bizarre the killer's signature, the more chilling the killer's crimes.

The strong point of the novel is the relationship between Thulin and Hess, which progresses slowly and with its own twists, but works best because of the strong contrast in their personalities. There is lmost the sense they are presented as character sketches for actors: leaving some bits to be filled in by interpretation: some of the supporting cast are more fully drawn, but less interesting. Sveistrup runs the story well: the plot moves like that of a series, but never creaks nor barely stretches credulity; the guessing game is fair (and I came close, but no chestnut), and there are the by-now requisite multiple conclusions, which in this case grow progressively more upbeat until the final one appears to set the stage for a sequel. Which ought to be worth waiting for.

The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup
Michael Joseph, £12.99  ISBN 0780241372104

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

Friday, 11 January 2019

LOVIN' MOLLY AND LEAVING CHEYENNE, REVISITED

I reckon that I first saw Lovin' Molly probably in 1974 or 75, but maybe a bit later. I might find the exact date if I look though my old notebooks, wherever they are. I do know that I had already read Larry McMurtry's novel Leaving Cheyenne, on which it is based, before I saw the movie.

The story is a sort of West Texas Jules and Jim. Gid Frye (Anthony Perkins) is a stiffly upright young man, working on the ranch owned by his demanding father (Edward Binns). He and his best friend Johnny McCloud (Beau Bridges) are both in love with free-spirited Molly Parker, who loves them both. The novel is told in three sections, twenty years apart, each narrated from a different character's point of view: Gid in 1925, Molly in 1945 and Johnny in 1964.

Watching the movie again, I could almost feel my first responses to it, which I don't think have changed very much in the 40-whatever years since I saw it, and I also remembered the book even more clearly. The film is touching at its best, awkward at its worst. It never does feel real, never gets the sense of its location. It's too close, too clean, too colourful. Too many interiors where you don't sense the feeling such a romantic tale should lead to.There are a few shots to show Molly's beauty, and one or two where director Sidney Lumet does manage to engage with the wider landscape: there's one where the now-ill father looks out over his land and commiserates with Gid over Molly's marriage to a third boy, Eddie. 'A woman's love is like the morning dew; it's just as apt to land on a horse turd as a rose'. I remembered that line verbatim from the novel.

Which is the other big shortcoming: the drive of the movie comes from the characters, and from their dialogue, and all of that comes from the book. But the movie itself doesn't really manage to set up or build to its key points, its biggest conflicts and its most important actions are almost throwaways, or else telegraphed and then dismissed quickly. That seems to me to be a lack of feeling for story-telling from the screenwriter/producer Stephen Friedman, who also produced The Last Picture Show, the second hit movie made from a McMurtry novel (the first was Hud, from the novel Horseman, Pass By). The next hit wouldn't be until Lonesome Dove. The screenplay really works only when they are speaking, and the many forshadowings and mirrorings are lost in the shuffle. And I do think it would have been better to have called the movie Leaving Cheyenne. Or at least Loving Molly. Note McMurtry didn't feel the need to drop the final g in the novel's title, and replace it with an apostrophe, which the film makers did in a Hollywood way that seems very condescending. if only to get the song from which the title comes into the film to help explain what it is doing. Because as much as it is a film about love, it is more a film about life, or rather death: there are five deaths in the story, and as always love and death set the courses of our lives.

The casting doesn't quite work, though it tries to. The first story is the longest section, and because the ages are right works best. Anthony Perkins young is less jarring than I felt when I first saw it: he works hard, literally, on the farm and in some ways seems more real than Beau Bridges, who never seems to get dirty as a cowboy ought to. I remember being captivated by Blythe Danner's performance as the young Molly then, and maybe not as much now, though she's still more fun than Gwyneth Paltrow. Twenty years on, Perkins is a bit too rigid, Danner's still OK, but Bridges seems to be in his own character. Neither of the males ages very well: they try the creaky walk without success, and Danner's 1964 is heavily made-up. I also had forgotten that Susan Sarandon was in the film; her role is small but crucial, as the woman Gid marries, who proceeds to fulfill his father's warnings about marriage. 

But it's a tribute to McMurtry's writing that enough of this story remains to make the whole think work, and make it moving. Or movin'. I suspect modern audiences might feel ambivalent about Molly's sort of 'premature' feminism, but it rings more real than that of, say, Fried Green Tomatoes. And it speaks more clearly within its Texas setting, which is what is lost in the filming, that sort of dry-sand Baptist community in which the rules are set for some.

I recalled the film's end verbatim, because it was again taken verbatim from the book, as Johnny thinks back to the first scene which Gid had narrated, and recalls it from his point of view, and regrets just two things: not seeing Gid's face when he surprised the two of them, and not having a Kodak to take a picture of Molly's face as she waited on the school house steps. Such regrets are what we all have, and in his way Johnny is lucky to have so few. It occurs to me that I am just about as far removed from my original viewing of the movie as Johnny is from his remembrance of that election day when he and Molly met at the polling station early. In my own narration, like Johnny's some forty years later, I find that the film, though not as moving as the book, touches via memory some of those very regrets from the first time I saw it, and those from the years that have passed since I did.

Now, when I die Take my saddle from the wall
Put it on the pony Lead him out of his stall
Ride her out, Old Paint, I'm leaving Cheyenne
And goodbye Old Paint, I'm leaving Cheyenne

NFL BLACK MONDAY & THE TERRIBLE 20: MY PATREON ROUND UP


Alongside picking the Wild Card weekend last week on my Patreon site, I also wrote the following essay recapping the seasons of each of the 20 teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs, and getting a headstart on the coaching carousel. Later today I will be posting a very long column at Patreon, analysing the coaching changes so far, addressing the question of racism, predicting who might get the two jobs still open, and of course giving a run down and making my picks of all four Divisional Round games. If you'd like to get current, you can subscribe at patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte and get more background essays as well as picks of the season's final three games, including the Super Bowl. So here's last Friday's first post:


Black Monday is when the guillotine blade falls for coaches, and one-quarter (ie, eight) of the NFL's jobs seem to change each year. The main point being, not improvement, but blame. If you want improvement, you might make a move like the Browns did in midseason: a risk, but one that worked (and note they identified the offensive coordinator as part of the problem and fired him too) or maybe like the Packers did, which didn't improve anything but signalled something. I don't know what. Aaron Rodgers didn't look any more unhappy. It occurs to me that many of the same things being said about Ben Rothliesberger in Pittsburgh might well be said about AR.

But Black Monday really ought to be rebranded as Blame Monday. When I look at the six head coaches fired Monday, I don't see any whose performance screams 'this is not fair', except perhaps Steve Wilks in Arizona, who probably deserved another year with Byron Leftwich in the hope Steve Keim could put some talent around Josh Rosen. And that is the nub of the problem, because when I look at those six teams I see six who could have and should have fired their GMs before even considering what to do about the coaches. Only one, Miami, actually did, letting Mike Tannenbaum go and promoting Chris Grier, son of ex-New England personnel guy Bobby, but the problem in Miami is that owner Steve Ross is the interfering type, and wants a GM who can be influenced. Which is why Miami is what they are (as with all these points, see below).

If you can give me a reason why Keim, Jason Licht or Mike McCagnan should still be making decisions for a football team, please do. Obviously John Elway is safe in Denver for Elway reasons, and Mike or Paul Brown is safe in Cincinnati for Brown reasons, but unless those three guys were actually ceding personnel decisions to their fired coaches, which we all know they weren't, why are they still getting to choose another coach. Or hire consultants, as Licht did, to choose one.

I would add two more GMs to that list, Bruce Allen in Washington and Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville (or is it Tom Coughlin? Or is that the problem). Allen's locked to the Dan, but Jacksonville's problems are endemic, and 2017's season now looks like an outlier (and after all, was only 10-6 plus a 2 game playoff run). But let's start our rundown of non-playoff teams with the team that reminds me of Graig Nettles famous quote about the Bronx Zoo Yankees: 'when I was a kid I wanted to either play baseball or join the circus. With the Yankees I got to do both'.

Pittsburgh (9-6-1): Professor Tomlin's Fun Bunch strikes again! The Steelers by all rights should be in the playoffs—many people, including myself, had them as pre-season Super Bowl contenders, but the Killer Bs were struck by whatever it is that's decimating the bee population around the world. For all that James Connor gained the yardage LeVeon Bell might have, he wore down as the season progressed (think Jalen Samuels might have got just a few carries earlier in the year, Mike?) and of course Antonio Brown's hissy fit when he couldn't wear JuJu's MVP tutu kept him out of the season's last game. Which turned out to be academic but had the Browns won in Baltimore we would have enjoyed the soap opera around whether AB would play in the Card round. Which I think he would have: he's a prima donna but he's OUR prima donna being the Professor's thinking. Here's the thing though: Tomlin's approach means he has not backed himself into any corners with AB: Pittsburgh can't afford to release or even trade him ($21m plus cap hits for two years) so they need to take a Boston Red Sox/Manny Ramirez approach: “that's just AB being AB” because the bed is made and AB is fully tucked in.

Tennessee (9-7): Crossroads for rookie coach Mike Vrabel, who could go the Jeff Fisher/Mike Mularkey/Ken Whisenhunt perpetual near .500 contender route, or perhaps build on the team's success this year. They were better defensively than I expected: Romeo Crennel did a nice job with a talented bunch, but offensively they will have decisions to make re Marcus Mariota, and it was odd how few big plays they got from Dion Lewis, which shows yet again the way the Pats scheme to get the best out of their parts, and why they are almost always willing to let them go.

Minnesota (8-7-1): Changing offensive coordinators was a short-term fix, but the emphasis on the run didn't help the pass game get better; in fact it seemed as if the ways DiFillippo schemed Thielen and Diggs open disappeared quickly, and the Vikes became easier to defend. Mike Zimmer's D hit a wall late in the season as well: if you can deal with his rush packages, you can beat them too easily. Their loss at home to Chicago was disappointing, more for the way their offense ground to a halt than anything else. Was Kirk Cousins THAT much better than Case Keenum? In some ways, yes, but they are going to need to rethink their offense in the off-season. It's worth noting here that the six highest-paid QBs in the NFL were Aaron Rodgers ($33.5m), Matt Ryan ($30m) Kirk Cousins ($28m) Jimmy G ($27.5m) Matt Stafford ($27m) and Derek Carr ($25). None of them are playing any more this year. This tells you two things. One: a starter playing well during his rookie QB salary capped contract is the most valuable commodity in the NFL and two: Cousins needed to throw for more than 131 yards last week.

Cleveland (7-8-1): FIRED (MID-SEASON) HUE JACKSON If every firing were so straight-forward, every team would do it every year they were losing. It's hard to say whether interim coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was the reason for the turnaround, because the defense played well all season, but the offense, minus Hue and Todd Haley, blossomed under Freddie Kitchens, with Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield both blossoming. This creates a dilemma for the Browns: Williams' track record as a head coach is disappointing, while Kitchens has never been a head at any level. A lot of people will want to take over here, because the talent level is so good, and I think bringing in any offensive-minded coach (eg: Mike McCarthy) over Kitchens would be a mistake. I doubt Williams would stay on as DC if they hire a more neutral type (Jim Caldwell is being considered) but on paper at least, if Williams stayed, that would be the best idea—though in reality chemistry is a fragile science.

Landover DC Beltway Bandits (7-9): Jay Gruden did a pretty good job considering Josh Johnson is no Colin Kaepernick. The Skins seemed to be the most injured team in the league, yet their offense held together, and their defense played hard despite a questionable secondary, and of course the late-season release of DJ Swearinger—though you don't hear anyone complaining about a culture of indiscipline under Gruden minor. As I said above, it's Bruce Allen who ought to carry the can for the depth-free Skins, although he gets some points for a defensive line built in the past couple of drafts. I tried to understand the Alex Smith signing, but was he really any more effective than Josh Johnson Off The Street, and will they try to keep Johnson away from the San Diego Fleet next month? Or will they let him go and do the Right Thing and sign Colin Kaepernick?

Atlanta (7-9): The blame fell on the assistants, which is the other way out I didn't discuss at the start. I expected Steve Sarkisian to be fired; despite the idea that Calvin Ridley had helped solve their red zone problems early in the year, they were never as consistent as they ought to be, and Tevin Coleman was not able to be the every down back he had to be with Devonta Freeman's injuries. Marquand Manuel getting the chop was more of a surprise, as he goes back to Seattle days with Dan Quinn, and frankly, their D played no better or worse than in past years, which, considering the injuries was a positive. Sometimes it's not the quantity of but the quality: losing Deion Jones and Keanu Neal early was a blow Atlanta never seemed to recover from, though Damonte Kazee, drafted as a slot corner, proved effective as a strong safety.

Miami (7-9): FIRED: ADAM GASE Who do you choose, Tannehill or Tannenbaum? Or neither. You could try to argue that when Tannehill was healthy, Gase's teams were competitive, and with Brock Osweiler they weren't, and you can also argue Tannenbaum had a penchant for  older over-paid stars who couldn't be coached into a couple more years of excellence because Bill Parcells or Rex Ryan wasn't coaching them. Which is why it seems Rex Ryan even though Tannenbaum is gone. And Rex got to the playoffs with Mark Butt Fumble. Remember it was Rex's father who said “"QBs are overpaid, overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished." What did Ryan Tannehill ever do to him?

Carolina (7-9): What looked like a Norvgasmic offense at the start of year floundered on Cam Newton's injured shoulder and the seemingly perennial problem of finding receivers.  Devin Funchess again under-achieved, though DJ Moore is a keeper for next year, though next year Greg Olson is not going to be back. They have decisions to make with injured/aging defensive stars like Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers, Luke Keuchley and Dontari Poe, as well as center Ryan Kalil for years their best and sometimes only decent O lineman. GM Marty Hurney's second draft should be a challenge. Christian McCaffrey had a hell of a year though, considering he was the only weapon teams needed to account for the second half of the year.

Green Bay (6-9-1): FIRED (MID-SEASON) MIKE MC CARTHY: Joe Philbin sure made a big difference. I think they need to let Aaron Rodgers decide whose offense he wants to play in, which would appear to be Josh McDaniels', but I kinda doubt JMcD is going anywhere, unless Bill Belichick tells him he has no plans to retire anytime soon, or Tom Brady says he does. The Packers, small-market as they are, and again being lumbered with the pre-Reggie White tag of not being a place urban free agents want to go, ought still to be a welcoming destination for a coach, especially with Rodgers in place. If Rodgers wants a QB innovator they could look at Kliff Kingsbury (who's barely older than AR), or maybe Baylor's Matt Ruhle, though being a great recruiter for a second-tier program, as Ruhle was at Temple as well, may be too close a match. He also isn't an offensive guru, being a defensive coach and an O line coach for a year under Tom Coughlin. Maybe Rodgers will consider Adam Gase, whose rep as a 'QB Whisperer' is based around a year of 'coaching' a good season out of Peyton Manning. Gase is like the Bill O'Brien of the other 44 states.

Detroit (6-10): I predicted the firing of Jim Bob Cooter a couple of weeks ago, because this year the short-pass game seemed to regress as if Matt Stafford pulled his head back into Cooter's shell. With Carro-On Johnson injured, you'd think they'd try to open things up, but of course trading Golden Tate made the pass game one dimensional, as he was their best short receiver. I suspect Matt Patricia will grab some ex-Pat offensive guy looking to take better advantage of Stafford's arm; I wouldn't be surprised if they draft or sign a slot receiver. The upside, the ceiling of all this, of course, is perpetual Tennessee Titanism. Fun Fact: the Lions went 9-7 under Jim Caldwell in 2017.

Denver (6-10): FIRED: VANCE JOSEPH: John Elway wasn't going to fire himself and no one else was either. He hired Joseph to be what Tom Boswell in a baseball context called a 'Peerless Leader' type: the square-jawed leader of men. Boswell said that archetype often stand firm while chaos swirls around them, doing nothing about it, which kind of describes Joseph's game management, but it's very hard to think that if he had just been a tougher ramrod Denver's season would have been much better. It was Elway who decided Case Keenum was the answer, and though he had an impressive draft (and landed Philip Lindsay undrafted, which I cheered) they seem to build their D as if a Manning were going to be building big leads, or a couple of ace rushers would do the job, when their secondary was a key to Von Miller's success. How Chris Harris comes back from injury is a big question, but the idea they are interviewing defensive guys like Vic Fangio and Chuck Pagano tells you something.

Buffalo (6-10): The Bills were sort of like Carolina lite, except Josh Allen isn't the passer Cam Newton was, and they don't have a Christian McCaffrey, but their receivers are a similar mismash and Brian Daboll may not have jumped onto that bandwagon. Defensively they were tough all year, but the Pats' ability to push them around and run on them was a revelation late. I'm not sure Sean McDermott has a long term plan for getting better, and I'd predict he gets closer to a hot seat next season.

Cincinnati (6-10): FIRED: MARVIN LEWIS The idea that Hue Jackson might be next in line for the job is funny. Lewis went 16 season with the Bengals, ended with a winning record, the most wins in team history, and an 0-7 playoff mark. His teams were stocked with behavioural problems and character issues, but he avoided for the most part the Tomlin-out of control label in large part because everyone knew the Brown family were signing these guys with character issues because they were good value risks. One thing to remember, if you're a GM (or a coach, who should be given a sign-off on such moves) when you draft a guy with issues, you can't be surprised when he has issues, and if you don't know how to control them, you shouldn't be paying him the big bucks. I'm talking about you, Giants, not just the Steelers. Remember when the Pats brought in problem children like Corey Dillon (Bengals) or Rodney Harrison? Or Randy Moss, who had the huge season and then was dropped when the shine wore off? Vance Joseph, the peerless leader of Denver, appeals to the Bengals but I wonder if Eric Bienamy, latest Andy Reid assistant to get in the spotlight, might get a job here: he played in Cincinnati, and he's a strong players-type coach, not an offensive innovator. But the Bengals mediocrity is almost endemic: I trace it back to the Carson Palmer situation, when they were a team trying to compete with the Colts and let their best hope of doing so simply leave.

YOUR (?) Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): The Jags put the blame on Nathaniel Hackett and fired him during the season. They were 3-8, with seven straight losses, and went 2-3 the rest of the year, with Todd Milanovich calling the plays and Cody Kessler starting at QB. Who thought that was a good idea? In those five games the Jags scored two touchdowns, one a Dede Westbrook punt return and the other a Leonard Fournette one yard run. Putting less than 10 points per game on the board means your defense has to be better than the Bears 85 or Ravens 2000 or Bucs 2002 if you are going to win. Yes Blake Bortles was bad, but who thought Cody Kessler gave them a better chance of winning? Who thought so after one week?

But the moment that may wind up defining the Jags 2018 season was Leonard Fournette, injured, and TJ Yeldon, in uniform, sitting together chatting on the bench for the whole of the their loss to Houston. How much did they have to talk about? Tom Coughlin vented about it afterwards (maybe someone might have broken up the gab fest by, maybe, playing Yeldon?) and in the best traditions of Coughlin and NFL punishment, Yeldon is certainly not coming back. Fournette has had guarantees in his contract voided for 2019, which means he might be on the trading block, as if Carlos Hyde were the Future in Florida. Remember, the Jags led the NFL in rushing in 2017, playing Tom Coughlin run the ball and play D football, so it's a little surprising Tyrone Wheatley, the RB coach and Pat Flaherty the line coach brought in this year to improve pass-blocking in particular, were both fired. Fournette's injury-pagued season certainly had a lot to do with their ills, but an inability to get good QB play had a lot more (and even in that famous Super Bowl win over the Pats in week two Bortles' scrambling and yards after the catch on throws were the key factors).

And the Sacksonville D of 2017 was very good, but its quality was exaggerated in retrospect. Turnover luck was a factor, and big sack totals in a couple of games against teams with bad O lines and/or QBs was another factor. Penalty luck came into it too, as it usually does against teams which play aggressive press-man coverage with corners, and hang-on coverage by linebackers.  Perry Fewell, another ex-Coughlin assistant brought in to work with the DBs, was also fired; as I said above, the Jags' D had nowhere to go but down, and you can look at indiscipline there, as Tony Boselli did every week on Gnat and my's Talksport radio coverage, but really? If discipline is your worry, do you fire the position coaches? The Jags may be the best example in this whole sorry catalgoue of blame dodging: the three men responsible for building the roster, for choosing the players, for setting the tone, for planning the games, the three men at the cutting edge of this 5-11 season have jettisoned almost everyone beneath them. Is this the British army in World War I? Send the soldiers over the top into withering fire, and execute for cowardice the few officers who survive.

New Jersey Giants (5-11): Say, didn't you used to be Odell Beckham? The Giants thought they were a couple of pieces (Saquon Barkley, Nate Solder, Will Hernandez) away from a playoff run. Great as Barkley was, do you wonder if moving on at QB might have been a better move? The G men were competitive in many games, like the meaningless season finale against the Cowboys, though they couldn't close games out. Maybe Beckham makes a difference, and Eli is better with defenses playing the deep threat. Maybe a team with a great running back (with 88 catches, a rookie RB record for whatever that is worth) learns how to protect a lead? Maybe their D springs back to life? Maybe Pat Shurmer puts it all together. The Giants like to believe in maybes.

Tampa Bay (5-11): FIRED DIRK KOETTER: Koetter is another guy whose firing is hard to argue against, as he's had his chances, and he fired his former mentor Mike Smith as DC, not that it made a difference. But GM Jason Licht is the guy who traded up in the 2016 draft to take a kicker (!) Roberto Aguayo (!) who was out of the league quicker than Ryan  Leaf (while Kevin Byard, Yannick Ngakoue, James Bradberry et al were still on the board. Licht announced he was hiring a headhunter company to help in the search for a new head coach; are you kidding me? Koetter ought to be in demand as an OC somewhere, or maybe an HC back in college; I wonder if Todd Monken helped himself with the early season success with Fitzy; after that bubble burst Jameis Winston had arguably his best year.

Santa Clara 49ers (4-12): Monken was Nick Mullens' coach for a couple of years at Southern Mississippi, which is interesting to me, though irrelevant to the Niners, who could be good with Jimmy G back next year (no knock no Knick Mullens, who will be valuable as a really low-cost backup but might also bring a decent draft pick if they deal him now while his stock is high). The Niners have pieces to build around, the core of a good defensive front, and can improve their roster. Arrow is probably pointing up for them.

Raiders Formerly Known As Oakland (4-12): John Gruden's strategy this season seemed to be to make the team look worse than the one he took over was, in order to make what he hopes will be his improvements look even better. With Reggie McKenzie squeezed out, hiring Mike Mayock as GM isn't as silly a move as it seems: Gruden will be making the decisions and what he needs is a scout, and of the media guys Mayock is one of the best. Of course note I said of the media guys. They have cap room, they have draft picks, they have Jordy Nelson resigned for another year, and they don't have a place to play. Do you really think London would flock to eight games from this outfit? On the plus side, they could use Walter Raleigh as a Raider mascot.

Newark Airport Jets (4-12): FIRED TODD BOWLES Bowles had four years to succeed with the Jest, but how GM Mike McCagnan keeps his job is beyond me. I said before the season that hiring Jeremy Bates as offensive coordinator wasn't the best thing, and despite promising play from Sam Darnold, their offense was never consistent. Not that their defense, Bowles erstwhile speciality was either. But this situation might be a perfect one for Adam Gase to walk into, though I am not convinced he instantly creates a top offense here.  I do like the idea of AFC East coaches rotating around, as they always seem to (even Belichick came to NE from the Jest) to provide familiar fodder for the Pats inevitable stroll to the division title.

Arizona (3-13): FIRED STEVE WILKS: This is harsh after one season, with an injury-ridden club who have allowed themselves to be bled of talent, especially on defense, and who thought that Sam Bradford was the answer. Firing Mike McCoy and letting Byron Leftwich take over as OC was a bold move that had a good immediate effect, and it might have been worth giving Wilks another season to let that play out with Josh Rosen. GM Steve Keim has restocked the defense to a decent level, though not what it might have been, and he ignored a number of needs. Rosen may pan out, Christian Kirk was a good pick, and you might question some of the play-calling. But the lack of talent probably isn't Wilks' fault, and he shouldn't have been the one to pay the price. Rosen may want to apply for hazardous duty pay if he thinks Keim is going to build an offense around him.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

BREXIT, TRUMP, AND HISTORY'S HAND: MY ARC DIGITAL ESSAY

I've written a piece for Arc Digital on Brexit from the point of view of a dual national American living here in Britain, and lamenting my inability to look with schadenfreude at my adopted country from the point of view of an American, because when I look at America from the point of view of a Brit (or even an expat Yank) I see something just as horrific.

I should point out that schadenfreude, and indeed angst, with which I end the essay, are both German words happily emigrated into the English vocabulary, and neither is likely to be invited to leave the OED if and when we cut our ties with the EU.

In fairness, the piece wound up being less about my own personal dilemmae, and more about a history of Brexit for Yanks and others who remain unaware of it, and a pointing out some parallels between the world of Brexit and the world of Trump. You can link to it (Arcdigi publish on Medium) right here. Many thanks to editors Bonny Brooks (who suggested the topic) and Berny Belvedere.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

JOHN FORD'S THE SEAS BENEATH

In need of some antidote to being forced to sit through Love Actually on Christmas Day, on Boxing Day I settled in to watch something I'd never seen before, John Ford's 1931 submarine drama, The Seas Beneath.

Actually, to call it a submarine drama is an exaggeration. It's set during World War I, and the US Navy is sending a 'mystery ship' toward the Azores, a three-masted schooner which disguises a modern cannon and some machine guns, in order to lure U-172, the Germany's most effective submarine into a trap. The mystery ship is also towing along a submarine, for which it is playing the tethered goat.

The story, after some sea-going scene-setting, takes place in a small Spanish port, where the crew of the mystery ship and the officers of U172 are both in town. The bar scenes are right out of a pulp novel, but what makes it interesting is that the exotic dark-haired Spanish singer (Mona Maris) and the owner are both working for the Germans. Maris lures innocent Ensign Cabot into her clutches, slips him a Mickey Finn, and confirms that he is a Naval officer, not a merchantman. Meanwhile, the American captain Bob Kingsley (George O'Brien) has met lovely blonde Anna Marie, who just happens to be the sister of Baron Ernst von Stueben, commander of the U-172 (the bloody undersea Red Baron) and the fiance of his first officer. After the two meet cute, O'Brien proceeds to the same bar as his ensign, where he winds up sitting at the next table to the first officer, who immediately recognises the Naval Academy ring O'Brien is wearing. By this point, the whole mystery ship cover appears pretty much blown.

After a bit of excitement, which results in Cabot being killed, Anna Marie cast adrift with some local sailors in a lifeboat, and OBrien realising she is a German spy, the U boat homes in on the mystery ship. Then it gets a bit tricky. U-172 surfaces, and with its cannon hammers away at TMS. But the American cannon, earlier extolled as the most modern beauty, remains out of range of the sub. So our suspense is built on whether the Yanks will sink before they get a shot at the sub. Repeatedly.

But here's the thing. Why does O'Brien wait to release HIS submarine to sink the German? Once they have it at the surface, it's fair game regardless of whether it's in range of his cannon; worse, if his cannon were effective the sub's obvious response would be to dive and become a more difficult target for the Americans. I spent a lot of time trying to figure this one out and could not.

Not to give too much away, but it then appears the German officers are all going down with the ship, but it turns out none of them are. And despite declaring their love, Capt. Bob and Anna Marie go their separate ways, patriotism and all that.

It's not vintage Ford, but it does have its moments. There are a number of actors and tropes that will show up in Ford's later films (not least script writers who are Navy men) including the young sailors drinking milk in the bar, and Chief Petty Office 'Guns' Costello (Walter C Kelly in the Victor McLaglen role complete with tall tale bragging). The name Guns reminded me of Ward Bond as Chief  'Boots' Mulcahy in They Were Expendable. That's another film about small boats playing a big role, of course. The physical link between the two films is Harry Tenbrook, who plays Winkler (uncredited) in this one, and then plays a rare credited role as 'Squarehead' Larson, the former cook on USS Arizona, in They Were Expendable. He wouldn't play another credited role until he was Cookie in another naval story, Mr. Roberts, a decade later.

George O'Brien was a former sailor, who apparently was boxing champ of the Pacific Fleet during World War I. He was a key part of the first two of Ford's cavalry trilogy, playing Major Collingwood in Fort Apache, whose wife (Anna Lee) refuses to call him back when his transfer comes, knowing he has his honour to redeem, and Major Allshard in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, who sends John Wayne's Capt. Brittles to escort his niece and wife East. He's also a Major in Cheyenne Autumn, which was his last film.

Nat Pendleton is easily recognisable, although uncredited, in his usual Palooka part. You'd have to look harder and faster than I did to spot Ford's brother Francis is a bit part. But you will probably recognise the Baron, played by Henry Victor, who is the strongman in Freaks, and is Schultz, the assistant to 'Concentration Camp' Ehrhardt, in To Be Or Not To Be.

But the women are probably the most interesting facet of this sea story. Marion Lessing is Anna Marie, and I am sure her performance signified more in 1931, with its very stagey quality, than it does now, but she isn't really that sort of archetype you'd expect would get to O'Brien. Mona Maris, an Argentinian who had some interesting parts in B movies and serials, is much more 'modern' as Fraulein Lolita (not kidding), a mix of Dietrich and Raquel Torres maybe. This is pre-code, of course, and she is pretty obviously more than a singer/dancer, willing to do anything for a price.And, with a heart of gold: she has a nice moment when she kisses the passed-out ensign she has just betrayed.

This was probably more exciting then than it was now, and it would probably have been a great story for one of the adventure pulps. It holds up well enough as a B picture, and there is enough of Ford's touch to make sure you aren't bored, even while you're trying to figure out what Bob sees in Anna Marie or why that sub doesn't just attack U-172 when it's got the chance! It's a better love story than Love Actually, actually.

Friday, 4 January 2019

J.D.SALINGER & THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: THE FRONT ROW ANNIVERSARY

I was on BBC Front Row last night, with host Samira Ahmed and Erica Wagner, to discuss the 100th anniversary of the birth of JD Salinger, and his most famous creation, The Catcher In The Rye. You can link to the show here, the Salinger discussion starts about six minutes in. I've written about Salinger here before, when I appeared on The Strand after his death, and talked about my reaction to the book when I read it as a precocious 15 year old, who'd already read Look Homeward Angel, Lolita, and other books that dealt with adolescents in other ways. You can find that essay, written almost exactly nine years ago, here . It might be an idea to read it first.

I made the same mistake then that most readers did, and do, which is to assume The Catcher In The Rye is a story about Holden Caufield as a badly-adjusted teenager, when really it is a story about his looking into his parents' world, as if he were a child who already had experienced it. It has, in effect, been adopted as a classic for being something it on the surface is, but underneath is not.

Our discussion last night was fast-paced and never quite gave me the chance to say this fully, and say that the most important thing I now take away from the book is that it is an expression of loss of faith, something that comes up often in Salinger, and reflects among other things his war service. I now see Catcher as a sort of allegory about that loss of faith, and a picture of adults confronted with and passing on that loss of faith. As I said on the programme, I think it was the way readers leapt upon Catcher as a precis of teenaged, rather than adult, angst that may have led, at least in part, to Salinger's so-called reclusiveness; not just a reaction to becoming a sort of celebrity which was something not everyone sought in those days, but a celebrity recognised for perhaps the wrong reasons.

I mentioned Hemingway twice, which was probably once too much, but his influence on Salinger was huge. They met in Paris during the war, and then when Salinger was in the middle of the most harrowing time on the front in Germany, he and another would-be writer took a jeep and visited Hemingway who was nearby on a reporting assignment, and of course carrying a supply of champagne.

You see Hemingway in Salinger's beautifully clean style, in the wonderful way he shows rather than tells what's happening in a scene. This is especially clear in the short stories, which are my favourites. 'A Perfect Day For Bananafish', in which Seymour Glass seems a remarkably Hemingway-esque figure, like his characters holding in feelings which Salinger only hints at through action, and then, like Papa, giving in to that loss of faith or whatever and killing himself. It reminds me strongly of 'The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber', though of course the reasons for death are very different.  'Uncle Wiggly In Connecticut', which I also mentioned, is similar, reinforcing the reason 'Banadfish' is so moving: Salinger's women are far more real than Hemingway's. The plaintive end of the 'Uncle Wiggly', 'was I a nice girl?', to me echoes everything behind Holden Caufield in Catcher. 'Uncle Wiggly' was made into the film My Foolish Heart, which you only need watch once to understand why Salinger never allowed another of his stories to be filmed. The story 'Uncle Wiggly' is more outwardly playful with its imaginary friends and real cruelties, and its women and children are the focus. Which of course leads us to 'For Esme--With Love and Squalor', which was discussed in detail in the programme; it sets out the whole idea of loss of faith quite simply, and with Esme creates a young character who has innocently already absorbed it.

The moment where I started to speak, just as Samira moved on to the next item, was when I wanted to say I actually remember reading the New York Times Magazine piece by the 18 year old Joyce Maynard, then a student at Yale (of course) titled 'An 18 Year Old Looks Back At Life' when it came out in April 1973. I was just turned 21, less than three years younger, and about to finish university a month later, after going through the turbulence of protest and college-change, and I said at the time 'where did they find this female Holden Caufield? In my previous essay, I said it rang false, . It made it ironic in the extreme that Salinger might recognise in her that same sort of absence of a faith, a centre, and be so attracted to it. From today's point of view, we might consider him preying on her, but there may have been that real connection lying behind it.

I would also have liked to say that Salinger was writing Richard Yates, dissection of the American Fifites, in its conformity and comfort, after two decades of depression and war, and he was well before Richard Yates, and better, too. Or refer to Holden Caufield's ghost in the 1945 story 'The Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise': reading that reminds you of Holden's brother Allie, and it is Allie's death that is the moment you can identify Holden's own crisis of faith...Allie dies of leukemia in 1946, but whenever I think of that I think of the war in coded terms. If you read my earlier piece, you'll see I wondered if Salinger had somehow cut off the adult part of his talent, but that bothered me, and having read on since then, I think it's much more that he wrote his adult perceptions into the story--and created in Holden Caufield a character who was a product of those perceptions, and of what Salinger feared was their effect on his, and humanity's souls.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

BBC WORLD SERVICE WEEKEND: NEWS, SPORTS, ARTS AND I READ A POEM

Happy New Year! I was a guest on the estimable World Service Weekend programme Sunday (30 December), talking about the usual smorgasbord of news and feature items with the great Julian Worricker as host and the Chinese artist and commentator Aowen Jin. It was a fast-moving and very interesting two hours, as it always seems to be; one of the programmes it is really a pleasure to do.

Being the BBC, the programme is almost impossible to listen to easily on the BBC IPlayer, whose radio section has been re-branded 'BBC Sounds', and programmes broken up into nuggets for the archive. For the moment, you can hear our two hours in three slightly-bigger-than-nuggest slices.

The first may be found here although we guests appear after the 0630 bulletin, 27 minutes into the show. At which point I talk about Steve Ditko, Richard Wilbur, and my trip to the bridge from which John Berryman jumped in St. Paul. We then move on to tariffs, to the age of consent in France, my own choice of story--1968 as a bumper year for 50th anniversaries, and that day's upcoming election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The second is here, and covers the hour between 0700 and 0800. The highlight is probably the story of Syrian refugee Hassan al-Kontar, who lived for months in Kuala Lumpur airport, rather than be deported back to Syria. Strangely enough, it was the feel good story the end of the year show really needed.

I talk a bit about sport at the beginning; Colin Kaepernick and a protest different to 1968's (but I should have mentioned very much in synch with Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman in Mexico City in 1968) and much more, including the building of massive cultural centres in Taiwan.

I also get to read my poem 'January Then, February Now', which I discussed in the first segment. I have always enjoyed reading my poems publicly, but I haven't done that very often --the last time was a London Magazine benefit reading ten years ago or so--but this was my first radio broadcast. I've listened back and it sounds good; more importantly, my own evaluation of it makes sense. Many thanks to Julian and to producer Junaid Ahmed for making room for it.

The final half hour, 0800 to 0830, you can link to here.  The major story is the Bangladeshi elections, but sadly no one offered predictions (mine would have been fairly close, both in terms of result and of alleged manipulation of the vote--a topic which would have dragged me back to the American situation, where election fraud is a hugely underreported story, while virtually non-existent voter fraud remains an issue promoted by Republicans and parroted by the major media. I get to switch from sport to a quick analysis of China's growing influence in both 21st and 19th century terms. I was pleased to get that point in.

And finally, there is a piece of humour in church, which allowed me to do my Jesus as standup shtick:
'I'm Jesus, I'm here all the milennium, don't forget to tip your waitress'.

It's a fine show; give it a listen.