Friday, 2 October 2020


 I've written a modest proposal about Trump and Covid-19, which is available on Medium. Use this link and you can by-pass the paywall -- though Medium allows you five free stories a month anyway, and I'm unlikely to write four more!

Thursday, 1 October 2020

NURSERY RHYME: A Poem for National Poetry Day

To celebrate National Poetry Day, here's a poem I like a great deal. I wrote it for Tanya one night in Plymouth in September 1990, almost exactly thirty years ago. It it still on the paper on which I typed it up back in London and unchanged since then. But it never felt like something to submit (and I was getting away from publishing poetry anyway). Now I think it could have gone somewhere.  




Before we go on

We shall have to decide

Which things are important

& which we will hide.


How much we can live with

& how much without;

Equations like these are

What love's all about.

& once we have weighed

Every point in each hand,

We'll listen & talk, but

We won't understand


That balance & logic

Are just symptoms of

A different disease,

But not symptoms of love.



Maybe the most surprising thing about North Dallas Forty, which is still the best football movie ever made, is that Mac Davis was so perfect playing Seth Maxwell, the glamorous quarterback of the North Dallas Bulls. Davis was a singer/songwriter from Nashville, whose only acting experience had been doing sketches on his own variety show (which also featured Gabe ‘Kotter’ Kaplan and Loretta ‘MASH’ Swit) a few years earlier. But he fitted the role of an easy-going good ol’ boy with a fierce will to win—a part patterned on Dandy Don Meredith, who reportedly was offered the role himself, just as the Bulls were the Dallas Cowboys and coach BA Strothers was at least in part Tom Landry (Strothers was played by GD Spradlin, who made a career playing inflexible authoritarian figures; two years earlier he had played a basketball coach somewhere between John Wooden and Bobby Knight in One On One, a good movie spoiled by casting Robby Benson as the basketball star; you’ll remember him as Senator Geary in The Godfather).

The recognisable figures in North Dallas 40 made sense because the novel upon which the film was based was written by Pete Gent, a wide-out cum tight end for the Cowboys. The book is darker than the film, which is simpler in its battle against authority—the Gent character is called Phil Elliott, played by Nick Nolte, who loves the game but dislikes the regimented bullshit around it (boy did that ring a familiar bell with me) and it’s the relationship with Seth which is the cornerstone of the film: Davis is his best friend, but he gets along with everybody, and he is also canny enough to realise his value to the team and he will not let anyone get in the way of that. Kind of like Cap Rooney in Any Given Sunday, there’s a youngster waiting in the wings; though in this case it is a Born-Again Christian QB who fits the God America and Cheerleaders in Hot Pants image of “America’s Team”.

Davis was from Lubbock, Texas, so he knew his football, and he knew how the hometown hero thing would play. It’s a winning performance that should have led to a better career, but he had to wait four years for his next movie, which was the execrable Sting 2, and his later roles were in TV vehicles. Part of the problem was that easy-going aura, which made him excellent as a variety and game show host, but which in ND40 hinted at some depth—I always thought he would be perfect for roles as likeable-on-the-surface villains, but whosever lack of vision couldn’t see that probably did him a disservice.

But acting was really a sidelight. Davis is best known for writing a number of songs which became hits for Elvis Presley, the most famous of which is “In The Ghetto”. He looked a bit like Tony Joe White, who was in many ways the last and best of the ‘next Elvis’ contenders, but he was a cleaner version, which is why he had that variety show in the mid-Seventies. As a performer, he was a bit too pop-country, but as a song-writer he reminded me of Tom T Hall or Hoyt Axton, or at least he did once I heard “In The Ghetto”. This is an unusual song for country music at the time, and really in general, because it tells a story that’s specifically out of the country universe, and it is unapologetic in its empathy, in its implicit blame, and in its sense, perhaps a little to resigned, to the cycle of pain and violence that the ghetto creates and perpetuates. Davis wrote a number of other excellent ballads, and he sang them well, but I haven’t heard any which match the sadness of “In The Ghetto”, and in many ways I like his own, more folky version, at least as much as Elvis’ more powerful, orchestrated take.

Take a listen. And take a look at North Dallas Forty. In many ways Any Given Sunday is just a jazzed up version of that original, but most of the same themes are there. It was directed by Ted Kotcheff, a Canadian who had made The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz but who basically fell into journeyman work after this, and though he, Gent and producer Frank Yablans are credited with the screenplay, Nancy Dowd, who wrote Slapshot, contributed uncredited script-doctoring which I think is pretty visible. Like her film, this one is about more than football. And watch Steve Forrest as the owner, Charles Durning as the assistant coach, and most of all Bo Swenson and ex-Raider John Matuszak as the linemen O.W. and Joe Bob. Matuszak has the greatest line in any football movie, screamed at Durning when, after a loss, the assistant coach is berating them for not studying ‘tendencies’ closely enough. “Every time I call it a business, you call it a game! And every time I call it a game, you call it a business!”

But let’s leave the last words to Seth Maxwell, as played by Mac Davis, trying to instruct Phil Elliott: ““You had better learn how to play the game, and I don't mean just the game of football.” 

NOTE: I wrote this for my football Patreon page: Friday Morning Tight End. If you like it, you'll get a lot more subscribing there: 

Sunday, 20 September 2020


I found this double-review in my files, which was originally published in my Books on Film column in Crime Time, when that was still a solid-body magazine. It appeared in issue 15, in November 1998. The Jim Shepard novel was new; it had been titled Nosferatu when it had been published in America; Faber added the 'In Love' bit to juice it up. Curtis' book was a substantial reworking, based on new information, of his 1982 biography with the same title; I assume it was re-issued to coincide with the release of the excellent film Gods & Monsters, with Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave, adapted and directed by Bill Condon. I would not be surprised to learn that Shepard's book had some impact on Steve Katz's screenplay for the 2000 film Shadow Of The Vampire. Stranger things have happened.

James Whale killed himself in 1957. He was found floating in his swimming pool like William Holden in Sunset Boulevard, and like Gloria Swanson in that film, he was a one-time Hollywood big-wig whose time had long passed. He had not directed a feature film since 1941, a mere decade after Frankenstein made him famous. Before that, starting with Journey's End in 1930, Whale had a six-year run which also included Waterloo Bridge, The Invisible Man, Bride Of Frankenstein (in my eyes, his masterpiece) and Showboat, successes all, during which he was one of Hollywood’s best paid and best regarded directors.

Hollywood was an unlikely resting place for a boy from the Black Country. Whale was a blast furnaceman’s son, raised in a strict Methodist family in the slums of Dudley. As a boy he studied art, but it was as a prisoner of war in Germany that he discovered the theatre. Returning to England in 1918, he began in the provinces, eventually turning to directing and scoring a huge hit on stage with Journey's End, starring a young Laurence Olivier, and showcasing Whale’s brilliance at atmospheric staging..

Whale’s good fortune was to tour America's stages with Journey's End precisely at the point when Hollywood needed stage directors to guide them though the transition to talkies. Whale grasped quickly how camera movement and editing could work with set design to tell a story. Even today, one is struck by the sense of movement in Whale’s best films, which highlights their cinematic economy.

Whale’s decline in Hollywood has often been attributed to discrimination against his open homosexuality. But James Curtis takes pains to point that Whale’s own ease with his sexuality led to general acceptance in the studios. His decline might better be explained, at least in part, by his difficult reputation, especially his tendency to go over budgets and schedules, not least, in par,t by insisting on breaks for tea during shooting.

Whale then spent a decade painting and occasionally directing theatre. In a late fit of mid-life crisis, he abandoned his partner, producer David Lewis, in favour of a series of toy boys. As his health failed, he seems to have realised that, perhaps for the first time in his life, he had sunk into caricature, and he took his own life. It was James Curtis who finally reunited Whale and Lewis, after the latter’s death in 1987, placing their ashes together. This biography is his second act of kindness to a great director.

Horror movies and homosexuality also go together in Jim Shepard’s novel about the German director F.W. Murnau. Born Friedrich Lumpe, Murnau was a “sensitive” provincial boy sent to school in Berlin, where his schoolmate Hans Ehrenbaum introduced him to both art and society. After taking his new name from the town where the boys consummated their relationship, he and Hans entered Berlin’s theatrical world, under Max Reinhard.’s pre-war Berlin resembles Whale’s Twenties’ London: with Conrad Veidt (best known here as Major Strasser in Casablanca) serving as his young Olivier, and Murnau, like Whale, revelling in the discovery of this exotic, creative and rewarding demimonde.

Hans’ death in the Great War haunted Murnau all his life; he had betrayed Hans with a mutual friend and suspected Hans sought death deliberately. This haunting underpins Shepard’s story, and the sense of Murnau using the vampire Nosferatu as a metaphor for his own unhappy sexuality carries far more credence than similar theories about Whale and his filmic monsters.

Shepherd is best during the filming of Nosferatu and Murnau’s other masterpiece, The Last Man. The emotional apex is actually metaphoric, when the brilliant cameraman Karl Freund finally discovers a gyroscopic process which allows the camera to move. This freedom seems to be the only one Murnau ever found in his life.

Murnau’s career in Hollywood was unsuccessful; he spent much time in the South Seas, including a doomed attempt to collaborate with Robert Flaherty. By this point, Shepard seems to rush the story, perhaps because the bright light of California washes out the expressionist shadows of Murnau’s life. Shepard returns to the past to show, touchingly, how the sensitive boy never recovered from the loss of his soulmate. Murnau was ill-suited for survival in Hollywood. With his latest Filipino houseboy at the wheel, he died in a car crash in 1931.

James Whale: A New World Of Gods and Monsters by James Curtis: Faber 1998 £14.99 

Nosferatu by Jim Shepard:  Faber 1998 £9.99

Saturday, 29 August 2020


It's hard to explain exactly why I seem to be writing more in traditional verse forms. I think it had something to do with writing the obituary, and re-reading, my college professor Richard Wilbur, though I can't claim what I do is anything like his work. It seems I sometimes try to stick to the forms, and play with rhymes, while trying to keep the verse in the breath and rhythms of speech, rather than strict meter, something of the continuing influence of Charles Olson and his Projective Verse theories which have influenced me since the late Sixties. Or, as Robert Creeley put it, 'form is never more than an extension of content' which I took to mean the poem takes its own form, and you just try to keep up with what it is doing. I could be very self-analytical and point out how the rhyme scheme changes after the first verse, just as the position of the two people in the poem does, but that might ruin some MA thesis.

Anyway, this poem (and another, currently lurking as Wishful Thinking II, but searching for its own title) was structured from pages of notes I found in a notebook from 2001. I gathered a number of putative stanzas, unfinished quatrains, couplets, and even some single lines, and then put them together into two sonnets. This one came from notes all done at the same time and place, and seems to have more structure as a result, but it fell together when I found a couple of lines from 2013 which
fit eerily into those that were heard 12 years earlier.

The song by Ralph Towner I was listening to as I wrote the current poem, but I am sure I was playing it in 2001 as well....

                                         (after a tune by Ralph Towner)

As you or I might try to say,
This empty night does not require
That we express even slight desire.
A breeze might blow us either way,

Together, apart, it's all the same,
Though you proceed as if they were
Distinct, thus called by different names.
And we still linked, not sliding further

Away. Confusion's just a slight delay
Til things are supposed to work out well.
You pay no notice to what I say.
What you say, well, I’ve no way to tell

What a single word means; your eyes are blanks.
You insist someday I'll tell you thanks.

July 2001, St Jean de Luz/2013 Haslemere

Friday, 28 August 2020


My obituary of the New York journalist Pete Hamill is in the Guardian today; it went up on the paper's website ten days ago (18/8). You can link to that here. The piece was edited down considerably, because I over-wrote it and decided to let them sub out what they preferred to. What went mostly were the stories, which I felt were crucial, or at least entertaining and revealing, but in some cases would not have necessarily been so to British audiences, or the G's audience, whatever. Maybe I was also being too sentimental. As I ended my opening graf: "Only the most sentimental of cynical journalists could write, as Hamill did in Downtown: My Manhattan (2004) “The wanderer in Manhattan must go forth with a certain innocence, because New York is best seen with innocent eyes.“Jimmy Breslin would not have said that.

I also wanted to do some explaining about the New Journalism, though I can understand very well why this was a distraction. This graf was cut completely: "Although Hamill was credited by the literary editor Seymour Krim with coining the phrase ‘the new journalism’, unlike Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer or Gay Talese whose work appeared primarily in magazines like New York or Esquire, he was first a newsman, working to daily deadlines. Like his friend and competitor Jimmy Breslin, he was an Irish kid from the outer boroughs in love with words, but Hamill’s journey from high-school drop-out in Brooklyn to lionised star of Manhattan’s newsrooms was unique."

I wrote about his delivering the Brooklyn Daily Eagle when he was boy, and how the 1963 newspaper strike helped create 'new journalism' by sending daily writers to magazines where they had more time and more space to write. His year in Europe for the Saturday Evening Post was spent in Barcelona and Dublin, which might well have had something to do with the subject matter of his first novel, A Killing For Christ

Back in New York I wanted to tell the story about the circle that gathered at The Lion's Head, in Greenwich Village, which included Frank McCourt, whom, as I mentioned, Hamill claimed borrowed the idea for Angela's Ashes from his A Drinking Life. I also included one of my all-time favourite journalist stories about the Lion's Head, "where once he and the Newsday columnist Jack Newfield were asked to name the three worst humans of the 20th century. On the backs of their napkins they scribbled identical lists: Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who moved the baseball team to Los Angeles in 1958."  I tried to interweave the careers of Hamill, Breslin, and Newfield--in the photo above that's him and Newfield at an editorial meeting when they were running the New York Post from the South Street Diner (the name of the diner got lost in the Guardian copy)--but the inter-weaving, the back and forth between papers, got too complicated.

It seemed appropriate at that point to mention politics, both then and new. "He and Newfield were both friends of Bobby Kennedy’s, and worked on his 1968 presidential campaign. When Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, Hamill was at his side. Hamill was a solid liberal in those days. In his 1969 essay The Revolt Of the White Lower Middle Class, for New York magazine, he wrote about this “they are in revolt against taxes, joyless work, the doubt standard and short memories of professional politicians”, warning New York would have to deal with their 'growing alienation'. It could have been written 50 years later about Donald Trump. Indeed, although Hamill had written powerfully about the presumed guilt of the Central Park Five, when Trump published his full-page ad in New York’s papers calling for the executions of the convicted rapists later proved innocent, Hamill called the future president 'Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtue of stupidity...the epitome of blind negation'”. 
In 1970 he published Why Sinatra Matters. As a measure of sentimental cynicism, one could do much worse. But 1970 also the year "he was divorced from his first wife, Ramona Negron, whom he married in 1962, and was awarded custody of their two daughters. Work, drinking and being a father left no time for the writing he wanted to do, so on New Year’s morning 1973, at Jimmys, a mid-town night club, with his date Shirley MacLaine and friends like Village Voice journalist Joe Flaherty, another Brooklyn high school drop out who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before turning to the papers, he resolved to stop drinking. 'As a drunk I could always squeeze something from my talent, but I wanted to write books,' he later said. That year, he published his second novel, The Gift, about a teen-aged sailor on Christmas leave in Brooklyn during the Korean War.

Joe Flaherty I had forgotten about. He died in his early 40s, but he had served as Norman Mailer's campaign chief when Mailer ran for Mayor of New York with Jimmy Breslin (that's Hamill and Breslin in the photo on the right) on his ticket, and written a very funny book about it, Managing Mailer. The crowd at Jimmy's that night also included the actor Jerry Orbach (Law & Order). It would be Breslin, a couple of years later, who would leak the story of Hamill's relationship with Jackie Kennedy, and I made a further comparison, beyond their hard-edged Irish-American sentimentality, in pointing out both wrote less than successful novels about the 'Troubles' (Hamill's was The Guns Of Heaven, in 1984).

I managed to get my references to his Lennon interview and Dylan liner notes back into the published piece, but not my favourite quote from that essay on Blood On The Tracks: “But of all the poets, Dylan is the one who has most clearly taken the rolled sea and put it in a glass”. 

And I also wrote about some of his later work. His comic strip studies at what is now the School Of The Visual Arts led to his writing introductions to collections of work by Milton Caniff and Jerry Robinson. He also wrote a study of Diego Rivera, whose funeral he had attended while he studied in Mexico. And they cut my final graf, which surprised me, because cause of death is usually included and also because I thought I'd found a suitable line to tie the whole thing together. Here's my original conclusion to Pete Hamill's obit. RIP:

In 2014, Hamill suffered kidney failure and cardiac arrest. He spent nine days in a medical coma from which he was not expected to emerge. But he did, and the experience prompted his return to Brooklyn, where he was working on a book, Back To The Old Country. He and Breslin were the subjects of a 2019 HBO documentary, Deadline Artists. He died in Brooklyn, 5 August 2020, after breaking a hip in a fall after finishing kidney dialysis. Fukiko and his daughters Adrienne and Deirdre from his first marriage survive him. As he wrote in A Drinking Life, “Maybe words, like potions, were also capable of magic.”

Wednesday, 19 August 2020


Cry Baby is Mark Billingham’s twentieth novel, and the seventeenth featuring Tom Thorne. This makes me feel old, because I still recall vividly the impact Sleepyhead made back in 2001, and he had amply delivered on the promise of that novel. I’ve been lucky enough to work with the man some might dub lazily The King Of North London Noir, but I think it’s a telling and indeed brilliant stroke that Billingham has chosen this landmark book to be a prequel to the Thorne series.

Set in 1996, Thorne is a DS, and still reeling from the effects of an earlier case where he didn’t follow or trust fully his instincts. Now he finds himself caught up in the abduction of a child, a child whose father is a career criminal currently in prison, and a case on which the force is under extreme pressure to get a result, and quickly. So although Thorne wants to use and trust his instincts, his commander doesn’t agree, and doesn’t trust him.

This uncertainty is part of what makes the story work so well. There are suspects, false leads and unexpected discoveries. There are leaks to the tabloid press which work against solving the case. And there is throughout the self-questioning of Thorne as he encounters a mother faced with the greatest loss imaginable, and her friend, who was looking after the boy and her son when, just for an instant, she missed them. The contrast of the two women, unlikely friends whom tragic loss separates, is part of the beauty of the story: Billingham is excellent with character and with setting, the contrast of their lives is not just that one woman lives in a council flat with her husband in stir, and the other in a nicer part of North London, with her divorced husband father out, but the way in which their statuses drive them apart. The subtleties of distinction have always been the meat of Billingham’s books, he has the detective’s eye.

Which is where Thorne is different from many of the other detectives with whom he is linked, some of whom influenced Mark when he started writing. The instinct which Thorne felt in his previous case is a sign that, like say, Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck, he is a detective, by nature; it defines him above any other human qualities. But unlike Beck, he is, or wants to be, a more ‘normal’ person outside the job, always one of the key dilemmas detectives in police procedurals often face. Some, like John Harvey’s Resnick or Henning Mankell’s Wallender, appear to succeed; others like Marlowe or Graham Hurley’s Joe Farady battle throughout their series, with different ends. I find it interesting that Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason (Erlendur) brought their detectives to a recognisable end, then began prequel series with them as cops on the beat.

For Billingham, this taking Thorne back to 1996 is case specific, and as such it works brilliantly to reveal Thorne’s inner core. As a story on its own, it delivers too; with an unexpected twist at the end which casts a chilling shadow over the story, and a brief coda set in the present which reflects perfectly on Thorne’s self, as both person and detective.

One you ought to read.

Cry Baby by Mark Billingham Little Brown £20 ISBN 9781408712412
This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Sunday, 16 August 2020


 My obit of the media tycoon Sumner Redstone is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I wrote it some time ago, and it was a fascinating story to order, because it played more like an series of a particularly tacky version of Dynasty or something similar. I probably should have pointed out that the guy who said "content is king" might well have been an unrecognised master of modern irony.

Friday, 31 July 2020

THE WASHINGTON NAME GAME: My American Magazine Column

In case I haven't mentioned it, I do a monthly column for the American magazine here in the UK, which appears online and in the print edition. July's was an essay on the problem with the Redskins and other nicknames, including possible suggestions for new names (the Watergators, anyone?) and the problems some colleges have (the Idaho Vandals: if I were a Vandal I'd be scandalized!). If you're interested, you can link to it here.

Sunday, 19 July 2020


My review of Castle Freeman's Come With Me was originally published at Crime Time, but if you hit the link to it I left in 2009 here at IT, it's dead. So I thought I'd reprint the review now. I had been looking for it because I discovered that it had been made into a 2015 movie, called Blackway, directed by the Swedish director Daniel Alfredson, who did the second two films of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I was curious, and I wanted to be reminded of the book before I searched out the film. I'll preface my review of the book with my original Irresistible Targets intro.

Although the story moves along somewhat predictable lines, and though some of the characters are telegraphed by their names, it is the quality of the prose, particularly the dialogue, which makes it work. The quality of Freeman's seemingly simple northern New England prose, and the sharpness of the unsaid within his characters' conversations, makes this a formidable work: a modern Deliverance set in Vermont. What it has that Deliverance didn't is humour: and again this is something of the old New England wryness (the kind of irony Americans are not supposed to possess, according to received wisdom in this country) that I first encountered on the page in The Real Diary Of A Real Boy, by Henry Shute, one of my favourite books when I was a child.

Interestingly, one of the dailies (oh, go on, it was the Guardian) reviewed this book and thought Freeman was a woman. That's nowhere near as bad as the guy I heard on Open Book once talking about Flannery O'Conner as a man, but it does show you how fine-tuned his prose is, as well as revealing what critics sometimes assume about such prose. Actually, although the main character is a woman, the narration is pretty obviously in a male, New England male, Vermonter voice.


When Sheriff Ripley Wingate finds a woman asleep in her car outside his office, early in the morning before most of his Vermont town has risen, he listens to her story and sends her away. The woman is being stalked by a man called Blackway, who has just slit her cat's throat. She refuses to run away from him, but there is nothing the sheriff can do, except send her out to the old sawmill on Dead River, looking for someone who might be able to help. And when that someone turns out not to be there, the men gathered around the pot belly stove call in the only two men working, old Lester Speed and the simple young giant, Nate the Great.  They head off in search of Blackway, and little by little we learn that the woman's name is Lillian, that Blackway has scared her former boyfriend out of Vermont, and that Blackway is not one with whom you trifle.

This might not sound like the most engrossing of plots, but the beauty of this book is in the slow crafting of the story, almost exactly the way stories are told around the stove in the sawmill. That mill is run by Alonzo 'Whizzer' Boot, so called because he's confined to a motorised wheelchair, and the small circle of men, like most of the people in this novel, have nothing much to do, certainly nothing legal. 'No one works,' the sheriff muses at the start of the novel, not like the days of hard-scrabble farming and Yankee grit. It's a circle closed to outsiders, like Lillian, often called 'flatlanders' by the locals, and her journey with Lester and Nate is, in its way, an initiation to the realities of the area to which she came, viewed with amused detachment, but now, if she is going to stay, to assuage her stuborness, becomes a life of which she must learn to become a functioning part.

It's a domestic sort of Deliverance, with Lillian's quest counterpointed by the hot-stove chatter of the men. Freeman, who writes for Yankee magazine, an eccentric reading tradition in Northern New England, has a fine feel for the local talk, for the way outsiders are excluded from it, and for the traditional, if somewhat stereotypically cliched, crafty logic of the people. But what really makes the novel work is its sense of timelessness, in being somehow caught out of time. There are hints that it is being narrated from the present, talking about the past, and others that this is very much the present. But Freeman, perhaps feeling a bit unsure if the audience gets this dislocation, has one of the characters around the hot stove, Conrad, who is the outsider in the group, having married into the town, explain it all. He tells his wife he feels like they are sitting in a rocket ship, travelling at the speed of light, so that 'time doesn't pass for them. Time stretches. It stretches or it shrinks. Or something. They're out of time, you know?' And his wife says 'No, Einstein...I don't have any idea what you're talking about and I don't think you do either.' Though she knows enough to know it's Einsteinian, whatever it is. And Conrad, showing how much he's assimilated, says 'That's possible too'.

This is a finely written book that only gradually becomes a thriller, and all the while it is essaying something that we may have, indeed, lost forever. Freeman can muse, in a coda, about what this new world is like, but for the short ride of these 160 pages, he enthralls you with the old world. A small marvel.

Go With Me
Castle Freeman
Duckworth Overlook 2009, £7.99, ISBN 9780715638354

Saturday, 18 July 2020


My obituary of John Lewis, the Civil Rights leader and Congressman, is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. I was working
with some limits of space, or I think I would have gone into greater detail about the excisions from his March on Washington speech, and maybe about his effectiveness and ability to play hardball politics: you could never call Lewis an ineffectual Congressman.

I also missed a trick by not mentioning that March won a National Book Award. When he accepted the award, he broke down in tears, remembering how he had been refused a library card when he was young, which I had mentioned. They would have tied together nicely.

I do remain baffled by my paper's eccentric rules of grammar, by which the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee's acronym, SNCC, is in caps, but the Congress Of Racial Equality's acronym, CORE, is rendered Core. Go figure. 

Thursday, 9 July 2020


When I was in college I discovered The Shadow. The first of the reprints of his pulp exploits was The Living Shadow, which I probably read in the summer of 1970. It had a striking cover by an artist identified as Kossim, who I later learned was Sanford Kossim, and as my reading at the time was largely comic books and sf, it was a perfect fit for the time I was deciding whether or not I should return for my third year of college -- the student strike and my own lack of academic engagement had me pondering my future.

The Shadow did not draw me back to university, but among other things it probably influenced my decision to concentrate on the subjects I felt I needed to study, one of which was American studies. In that class, for the exceptional professor Richard Slotkin, I wrote my final paper on The Shadow, some 55 pages, which among other things drew a comparison with Herman Meville's Confidence Man, illustrated by the cover of the Signet paperback, with a cover by Kossim.

Captivated by The Shadow as I was, I looked for other pulp heroes, and the most obvious place to start was with The Spider, the most successful, and obvious, of The Shadow copies. I didn't go very far with The Spider, although author Norvell Page (writing under the house name Grant Stockbridge) had a talent for keeping things moving. But the lockdown being what it was, I decided to give The Spider a second chance.

Fifty years later, it was even harder to be impressed. I chose Dragon Lord Of The Underworld because I do have a fondness for the pulp versions of Chinatown, and Chinese super-villains, but Ssu Hsi Tze (Four Vermin, apparently a nom de guerre) was a disappointment. Page specialised in villains with outre weapons of mass destruction: in this case, literally, vermin, which of course in  The Spider's, mind, refers to the rule of vermin, not just accomplished by vermin, including the dread Kara Khoum spiders from the Gobi desert. And, as he fears, "what the Chinese could accomplish here in America was fearful to contemplate. He would have the instant, unquestioning obedience of every Chinese, to the death." This is 1935, after all. Look at the cover: white woman in the clutches of the long-nailed Chinese villain and his henchmen. The Yellow Peril threat engulfing society's most cherished symbol!

The casual racism is typical, but Richard Wentworth, The Spider, is an enigma. He is part Superman and part louche, which fits the Shadow model, but he lacks the dark centre and fearsme intensity of Lamont Cranston. His Margo Lane is his faithful girlfriend Nita Van Sloan, and one of the most fascinating differences to The Shadow is the way Page does not hold back from suggesting the sexual relationship between the two, even if it's never actually shown. Though she does always call him 'Dick'. Oddly, Nita is described early on as one of the three 'servants' who knows his true identity, another being his servant Ram Singh, a Kato-type bodyguard and chaffeur. The others are not characters, simply off-stage presences who can explain The Spider's uncanny knowledge of events, but the odd thing is that, at least in this novel, the villain knows his identity, knows where he lives, knows where he can attack Nita, and this appears to be more general knowledge than the narrative would dictate.

In Spider novels the death toll mounts exponentially, this is another characteristic of many of the pulp hero novels, most notably Operator No5, who fights the 'Purple Invasion' in a series of novels whose body count far surpasses World War II, and stands as the apex of Yellow Peril fiction. But the resolution of The Spider's battle always boils down to the mano a mano battle, with imperiled frails, bizarre tortures and underground catacombs laden with traps in which to fall.

Of course Nita in peril is a given, but its the handling of two other female characters that is most interesting. One is Flo Delight, a 'dancer' who wants revenge on The Spider because she thinks he killer her gangster boyfriend Craven (though it was Ssu who killed him as part of his bid to take over crime in New York). The names are not subtle, in case you hadn't noticed. Flo pursues The Spider and finally is left in the hands of Nita, a study in white and somewhat stained gray. When finally Ssu brings her face to face with her nemesis, he makes the fatal villain mistake of not honoring his promise to let her kill him with her own hands. Tsk tsk.  The other, more intriguing woman, is San-Guh Liang-Guh, Ssu's handmaiden. Oriental villains always seem to have beautiful women (Fu Manchu's daughter Fah Lo Suee being the prototype) with whom to tempt their white enemies, though in San-Liang's case the first thing Wentworth notices is that she is not a pure-blooded Manchu. Not that his fealty to Nita is ever in doubt.

This all may seem silly beyond words, but Page's real talent lies in the final showdown, which turns into a literal battle of wills between Ssu and The Spider, who is billed, on the pulp covers, as The Master Of Men, something to compete with The Shadow's ability to 'cloud men's minds'. With San-Liang holding a still vengeful Flo at knife point and the governor of New York a mindless prison about to unleash mass destruction on the city, there is no way The Spider could ever escape, much less save New York and America! Is there?

Tuesday, 7 July 2020


My obituary of Charles Webb, who wrote The Graduate and gave away virtually all the money he made writing, from film and from inheritance, is up at the Guardian. You can link to it here; it should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I had written it, but it really begged for more space; his and his wife's lives were so peripatetic, and they were so steadfast and true to their beliefs, their story deserved as much telling as I could give it.

I think the film of The Graduate, which seemed so 'anti-establishment' to some folks in 1967, was way behind not only Webb, as I say in the obit (he wrote the novel in 1963) but also behind the young people whom the film was supposedly speaking for. It seemed very much a mainstream approach to a mainstream view, and what we remember most about it is the comedy, not the angst that is supposed to lie at its core.


In 2015, I watched Ennio Morricone conduct at the O2 center in London. The sound of that concert has stayed with me for the past five years, and it came back in all its magnificence when I heard Morricone had died. I wrote this essay about the evening, which you can read at Medium, using this link, which should by-pass Medium's pay-wall, though Medium is well-worth your support.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020


I wrote this one in the late summer and early fall of 1975, soon after I'd moved to Montreal. I have a fondness for it, mostly for the darkness underneath its innocence; I have the feeling I was beginning to experience my first real being on my own in a place that was, well, different.It was published in 1977, along with four other of my new poems from a new city and country, in a newspaper format magazine called The Lance, which was published somewhere in Ontario, I think. Return with us now to those stirring days of yesteryear.....


All the shadows (those
      friendly faces at the top of
      the stairs
      peeking out of the closet
      you’d never dare open
when you were a kid
paranoid playmates

had you
      to yourself
to assure you
you were
      still alive

When you knew all
along    deep
that you shouldn’t

the demons seemed
the same,
                their faces
flew together
like migrating birds

lost &

a chorus
in silence

major themes
of your life.

                     (& still does.

Saturday, 20 June 2020


For those of you interested in American football, yesterday I did a post for my Friday Morning Tight End football site at Patreon (you can link to it here), discussing the bias the ProFootball Hall of Fame appears to have shown against players from the NFL's rival league from 1960-69, the American Football League. The piece was prompted by an exercise going on at Sports Illustrated, to try to pick the most worthy AFL players who have not yet been included, and I wind up by picking my top ten. When SI pick their top ten we will compare.

I have unlocked the post for this weekend, so you can read it without subscribing, but next week I will begin writing a weekly preview of the upcoming season, going division by division, and breaking down the off-season changes for each team. So the time to subcribe is now!

That's Mike Stratton about to break Keith Lincoln's ribs. I talk about it in the piece!


I was on BBC  Radio 4's Front Row last night, discussing the new Bob Dylan album, Rough & Rowdy Ways, and the TV adaptation of Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries. Friday episodes are 45 minutes, so I thought we were going to have a longer amount of time to discuss each item, but unknown to me there were a number of other pieces going in the show, and they also did very well to have a fine interview about Ian Holm, who died that day. You can link to it here on BBC Sounds, our reviews (host Kirsty Lang and Guardian music writer Laura Barton) start at about 15 minutes in; the Holm tribute follows after them.

I have seen the first two episodes of the series, for which Catton herself did the adaptation, and I enjoyed them enough to watch on. As I said, I think as the two time-lines and locations converge, in the mining town of Hokitika: if they keep expanding the number of (male) characters they could lose the focus, and if they don't they need to keep the mystery, and the danger moving. One thing I didn't say was how much I thought Catton herself resembled NZ PM Jacinda Arden! Judge for yourselves.

As I said, I felt Dylan's record was his best in years, harking back to the song-writing of Blood On The Tracks, but with more of a feel of the Basement Tapes/John Wesley Harding years. It is elegiac, but when I thought about, those albums, after his motorcycle crash, were also in the vein of looking back. I was lucky to be able to squeeze in a Gregory Corso quote about Jack Kerouac into this context, and I have to say I thought it felt particularly appropriate.

I do intend to write reviews of both the record and the show here soon, so I won't say more, but have a listen to the show.


My obit of Jean Kennedy Smith, the last of the Kennedy siblings, went online yesterday at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon.

I had written it a few years ago for stock, and there was little to change. I added some details and clarified the Northern Irish peace process a bit, but basically it was as written. I would have liked to have spent more time on her childhood, and the aura of privilege which she enjoyed, but with the space I had, the issues more important to our British audience were paramount. I'm not sure her bit part in Michael Collins was as important as it seems to be the way I wrote it, but it was a nice bit of trivia to include.I did think the Barack O'Bama endorsement was a great way to conclude, especially with the references to John Hume.

Monday, 15 June 2020


I have no doubt that Scott Turow read and/or watched a lot of Perry Mason when he was younger. It’s not that his novels ape Erle Stanley Gardner’s template, with the shocking courtroom reveal. Nor is his prose as straight-forward and workmanlike as the pulp wordsmith. But what Turow does that Gardner did before him is get beyond the simple elements of courtroom drama, by presenting the personal conflicts outside the courtroom. His stories are not so much ‘whodunits’ as ‘whydunits’, sometimes as tricky in their past references as Agatha Christie and other times as revelatory as Ross MacDonald, in whose books the evil that men do always seems to come back to haunt someone.

The Last Trial is firmly in that style. It is, literally, the last trial for Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, a constant presence in Turow’s courtrooms. He is now 85, in court with his daughter and legal partner Marta. His Paul Drake (Perry Mason’s investigator) is his grand-daughter and paralegal, Pinky, a punky problem for most of her family but her granddad’s favourite, kind of like William Katt playing Paul Drake, Jr. Stern is defending an old friend, and fellow Argentine immigrant, Kiril Parko, a Nobel prize winning medical researcher who is being put on trial for counts of murder, fraud and insider trading when his anti-cancer drug, G-livia, has apparently caused deaths in patients receiving it as treatment.

This is a complicated case, not least because, difficult as the medical case is, the financial law regarding fraud and insider trading are even more convoluted. Part of the joy of Turow’s best work is following his explanations for laymen of the issues involved, and the way the legal issues often trump the factual ones.

But what makes this novel work so well is the parallel construction of the families. Pafko’s partner is his son, by all accounts a brilliant researcher, and his wife Donatella, whom Kiril wooed away from her previous husband, is a steely counter-point to her husband’s Argentine charm: a hard contrast to Stern’s own. In fact, when one potential witness seems to give Sandy a come-on, it is something that sends warning signals up for the reader, if not for Stern himself. And in the end, the case comes down not so much to the legalities and their interpretation by lawyers, judge and jury. That system is so enclosed, it was a wonder the judge, with a former relationship with Sandy and working past with the US attorney, didn’t see fit to recuse herself. But as I say, in the end that doesn’t matter: the case and its denouement comes down to a matter of personality, or personalities, of conflicts hidden and overlooked for decades, and simple matters of personal pride and ego. Turow leads us to a legal conclusion, and to a personal one as well, made clear in Sandy’s final dialogue with Pinky, in which she questions whether the case’s outcome was fair. Sandy thinks “the law is erected on many fictions, and perhaps the falsest one of all is that humans, in the end, are rational”. The thought inform s Sandy’s reply to her, and it is a hell of a way to go out.

The Last Trial by Scott Turow
Macmillan Mantle, £18.99, ISBN 9781529039085

Note: this review also appeared at Shots Crime & Thriller E-Zine

Wednesday, 10 June 2020


My obituary of Herbert Stempel appeared in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. In case you missed it in the paper paper, and don't have a digital subscription, this is the piece as I filed it...had I had more space, I would have discussed in greater detail the move in American TV from 'working class' programmes which is obvious, especially in sitcoms: Jackie Gleason's bus driver and William Bendix's factory worker gave way to the affluent suburban males like Robert Young, or those who served as pipe-smoking suit-wearing office-going husbands for the likes of Donna Reed. My mother never dressed like that when she served us dinner! But the difference between Stempel and Van Doren is part of that move to aspirational shows that would encourage viewers to buy the sponsors' products. And course it was also a perfect preview of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, with JFK as Van Doren and Stempel as Nixon. Finally, I didn't mention this, but I always wondered if the Israelis had not watched 21 before they put Adolf Eichmann on trial in his glass box.And of course I would ave written more about the dangers of believing 'reality' television is actually real.

Herb Stempel, who has died aged 93, was the central figure in the scandal of fixed television quiz shows that shocked 1950's America. The nation followed his prize-winning rise on '21' and ultimate defeat by Charles van Doren never suspecting all was scripted, like a wrestling match, to build up drama. Stempel returned to the public eye in a 1992 television documentary, leading to Robert Redford's 1994 movie Quiz Show, in which Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren and John Turturro was Stempel.

Quiz shows broke American television's domination by sitcoms, westerns and detective shows, and offered large cash prizes. When Stempel watched '21' he thought he might do well, and with good reason.

Stempel was born in New York. His father Solomon, a postman, and mother Mary were both Jewish immigrants. When Stempel was seven his father died; the family moved from Queens to a poorer neighbourhood in the Bronx, living on public assistance. A precocious student, he skipped a year in primary school, where he won a number of fountain pens on a radio quiz called 'Americana'. He gained a place at the highly-selective Bronx High School of Science, again excelling at quizzes on a team called the Kid Wizards. He enrolled at City College of New York but left to enlist in the Army, serving until 1952, including as an intelligence analyst. He returned to New York, took a job, like his father, in the post office, married his first wife, Tobie Mantell, and returned to CCNY on the GI Bill.

He wrote to 21, then sat a 3 ½ hour exam on which he claimed he scored the highest-ever result, 251 of 363 questions correct. But when Dick Enright, the show's co-producer along with its presenter Jack Barry, visited his house to offer him a spot, he asked if Stempel would like to make $25,000. Knowing what was implied, Stempel agreed. He was groomed to be 'the heel', the man the audience wanted to see lose. He was given a buzz cut, dressed in ill-fitting suits, even supplied with a cheap watch whose ticking was audible in the contestants' booths, all “to make me appear what you would now call a nerd.” He was coached with answers, but more importantly in his delivery, how to seem anguished, torn, worried. Viewers of modern quizzes like 'Millionaire' will recognise the symptoms.

Van Doren was the baby-face hero. The sponsors wanted a clean-cut, middle-class type who reflected the moves in sitcoms from 'urban' workers to affluent suburban consumers. He was part of New York's premier literary and academic family; the contrast between his light-suited cool and Stempel's intensity foreshadowed the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. Stempel was promised that if he lost without fuss he would have a consulting job, appear on another quiz, 'Hi-Lo' and be booked on other network programmes, like Steve Allen's talk show. He agreed, but was galled by the question he was told to miss: 1955's Oscar-winning movie. Marty, the correct answer, was one of his favourites; ironically, the wrong answer he gave, On The Waterfront, is about a boxer who takes a dive in a crucial match.

None of the promises came true. Enright 'completely forgot I existed,' Stempel told the documentary. He reneged on $20,000 of Stempel's ostensible $69,000 winnings, and got him to sign a document saying he was never coached. Even worse, Van Doren's brother John would win $80,000 on High-Low. Stempel blew the whistle to a paper, but not until another quiz show, Dotto's, cheat sheet became public was he believed. Fixing a TV show broke no laws, but after the judge sealed New York's grand jury investigation, a Congressional probe found Van Doren, Enright and others guilty of perjury.

Stempel lost most of his winnings to an investment con. He taught, then worked as a legal investigator for New York's Transportation Department. He was a paid consultant on Redford's film, and played a cameo as a witness. He disliked Turturro's overly-whining portrayal of him, but told interviewers he understood. After all, as he had years before told Congress, “I was not a quiz my opinion, I was an actor”.

He died 7 April 2020 in a nursing home in Queens. His former step-daughter, Barbara Fyne, confirmed his death, which was not announced.

Herbert Milton Stempel b 19 December 1926 New York City
died 7 April April 2020 New York
m (1) Tobie Mantell died 1980 m (2) Ethel Feinblum, divorced
survived by son, Harvey from his first marriage


NOTE: There are a couple of small spoilers included here, but frankly, it doesn't matter.

There must be something about the lockdown; it's not as if my life, which is primarily working from home, has changed immensely—yes, shopping takes longer and there's nowhere to go except for walking the dog—but sometimes I think I have bugged out to a fantasy world set in my parents' youth. I've always loved the Thirties and Forties, so it isn't that strange—but it may seem weird that for each of the last 15 days I have set aside 15 minutes or so to watch one chapter each day of The Perils Of Nyoka, a Republic Pictures serial from 1942. Serials were run for kids on Saturday afternoons in cinemas all over America; I suppose lockdown evenings are the next best thing, and I doidn't have to wait a week for the next episode.

I know how I got to Nyoka. I had been watching a lot of series B pictures in the vein of The Saint. So I spotted Lorna Gray playing a bit part in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939), distracting Warren William away from persistent girlfriend Ida Lupino and femme fatale Rita Hayworth (trust me, she could do it), then a week later caught a similar eye-catching cameo from Kay Aldridge modelling a V for Victory gown in The Falcon's Brother (1942). Checking their credits, I realised they had both appeared in the Nyoka serial, so I found it on You Tube and took a look. Of course I was hooked.

Nyoka was later re-issued as Nyoka and the Tiger Men, which is odd as there aren't really many tiger-men in it, and no tigers. It was also re-edited into a feature in 1966, under the title Nyoka and the Lost Secrets of Hippocrates, which is closer to the truth, but not very catchy. I wouldn't be surprised if they were trying to cash in on the campy Batman TV show craze.

Aldridge plays Nyoka, a character who had starred (played by Frances Gifford) in the serial Jungle Girl, based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, but bearing no relationship to the book at all. And Aldridge's Nyoka bears even less. She's not a jungle girl at all, but living in what appears to be Abyssinia, in a sub-desert setting which is the California of countless B movie westerns. She is part of a team searching for the Golden Tablets of Hippocrates, which contain a cure for cancer—but also contain directions to a treasure, which means they are coveted by Vultura, Queen of the Arabs. She is also searching for her father, who was lost and presumed dead on a similar previous expedition.

Nyoka's team includes Dr Larry Grayson, a medical doctor who's pretty handy with gun and fists, and played by Clayton Moore, who later achieved fame as the Lone Ranger. Moore actually packs a pretty good left hook; he brawls with great energy which is essential to any serial. Billy Benedict plays his pal Red, accompanied by a monkey called Jitters, played by a monkey called Professor. There are some veteran actors in the professorial parts, all of whom are getting by, and oddly, when Nyoka does discover her father, Professor Gordon, who is now high priest of the Tuareg tribe, she doesn't recognise him, but recognises his signet ring!

The villainess is Vultura, a priestess played by Gray. She's aided by Cassib, whose tribe of Arabs follows her. Cassib is played by Charles Middleton, who you will remember as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon series: he delivers his few lines with real panache, and despite seeming visibly too old for the rough stuff, takes part in any number of brawls.

They also add Signor Torrini, played by Tristam Coffin, whom I remembered from a western TV series called 26 Men, also starring the immortal Kelo Handerson. He also played Jeff King in a 1952 Republic serial King Of The Rocketmen, which was then followed by Radar Men From The Moon, also in 1952, in which King had been re-named Commando Cody (played by George Wallace, no not the Georgia governor, but arguably the most wooden actor in history) and in which Clayton Moore also has a role, as a villain in the service of the Moon Men. Small world! Coffin actually may be the best actor in this crowd, but his role is severely limited, despite Torrini's representing the Italians who are in charge of Abyssinia, and being in a fact a spy for Vultura.

The problem with trying to judge acting in a serial is that there is not much of it written into the scripts, and what is written in is not written well. Remember the audience was mostly young boys on Saturday afternoons, so lines are simple, and exist to explicate elements of the plot an over popcorn'd, candied and soda'd 12 year might follow. In other words, what TV today assumes is the level of its basic adult audience. As I said Coffin stands out, trying to look evil while ingratiating himself with the party. Aldridge tries too,but she really has very little to work with, and she hesitates over her few good lines. Gray is fine as a villain; her femme fatale potential is clear.In 1945 she changed her screen name to Adrian Booth, but her career never advanced beyond B pictures; I can think of a handful of more major act

But the best actor in the serial is actually Ace, the dog who plays Nyoka's dog Fang. Oddly, he just disappears in the last couple of episodes; maybe he got a better offer from another adventure film. I should also mention Emil Van Horn, who plays Satan the gorilla. Satan's death scene is actually the most moving in all 15 chapters, and I felt sorry for the big guy.

Also in the cast are Yakima Canutt, whose stunts you can see, and Clayton Moore's future Tonto, Jay Silverheels. I didn't check the cast until after I'd finished the series, so I can't say as I spotted either of them, but you don't get much chance, because the use of close ups is extremely limited. I don't know if you've seen a serial, but you probably know that each chapter ends with a cliffhanger (the word comes from the original serials) in which one of the leads appears to headed for sure death. It never turns out that way. There's only one or two in Nyoka that are real cheats, like when she falls off a cliff and then next week when she falls she has a rope in her hands.

I'd seen Flash Gordon, but in the edits done for Saturday morning syndicated TV in the Fifties. I also saw the Commando Cody TV series, with Judd Holdren as Cody, and probably also Lost Planet Airmen, which was the Tris Coffin serial re-edited into TV episodes. They're somewhat harder going than this one. But my favourite things were the trash-can helmet Cody wore, his leather jacket which was his flying gear, and the control panel for his rocket pack, which boasted an on/off switch and two controls: up/down and fast/slow. NASA took years to catch up to this.

The production values and cast of Nyoka are pretty good, in fact often considered the best of the serial era. The story is pretty basic, with the possibilities of greater intrigue with Torrini, greater dramatic tension with Nyoka's long-lost father, and any femme-fatality at all (since 12 year old boys weren't interested in that mushy stuff) lost. Any episode moves between Vultura's temple, Cassib's village, Nyoka's bedouin village, and the Tuareg temple. Directions to the Golden Tablets and given by those tablets all seem to involve places within a ten minute ride of each other, and reach episode features at least three scenes where groups of tribesmen are galloping off from one to another. Then they get ambushed and a gun fight ensues. Occasionally there is a chase, and in every episode at least one brawl. These can be funny: fighters fall unconscious, then spring up as if on signal fully awake and fit. Aldridge is particularly bad at trying to look natural when she's knocked cold into a precarious position. And in one episode, the bedouin who is shot and falls off a balcony, misses the lamp that's supposed to start the fire that traps Larry and Red, so he rolls an extra, unconscious, step, to knock the lamp over!

I was oddly disappointed with the final episode. Yes, cancer was now going to be cured forever, but what about Nyoka and Larry? And where was Fang? Maybe if we weren't locked down I would not have minded, but I certainly can't blame the lockdown for enjoying this trip back to a different childhood. And had I seen it as a child, I probably would not have appreciated either Kay Aldrige or Lorna Gray half as much.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020


I wrote another long essay, this one starting off as a sort of tribute to the late Jerry Sloan, one of my favourite basketball players when I was a kid. Thinking about Sloan's qualities led me to write another 1,000 words about how he and players from his era might project into the modern NBA, and THAT led to another 1,000 words about how NFL (and AFL) players from the Sixties might project into the modern NFL. It was an exercise that fascinated can read it at my Patreon site, which is an extremely reasonable $3/month to subscribe to, and I was be starting my preseason looks at all the NFL teams can link to FMTE at Patreon here.


I've written a long essay 'Lives That Matter' for Arc Digital on the NFL and Black Lives Matter protest, from the point of view of someone who not only has broadcast and written about the league for 25 years, but also someone who first attended a civil rights rally 55 years ago, and really feels he shouldn't have to still be saying the same things can use this link to access the story via Medium, without having to sign up (though that is not a bad thing to do).

Tuesday, 26 May 2020


When I wrote a book about Oliver Stone, I coined a description 'The Thumper' for the moment when, in virtually all his movies, the action stops and he metaphorically turns to the audience and explains what has been going on, the moral of the story, as it were. Since so much of Stone's work is about chasing a sense of enlightenment, that isn't so surprising.

The biggest problem with Shock And Awe is that there is no Thumper--instead, the whole movie is one continuous Thumper, telling us what many of us knew at the time, what all of us except the haters and deniers know now, but and which almost alone in the mainstream media Knight-Ridder was
reporting then--that the Iraq war was based on a mountain of lies, lies legitimized by most of our political discourse. The point is made repeatedly and heatedly, especially by Rob Reiner in a plum role as the Washington editor John Walcott, acting almost as the audience's conscience, if the audience were all Rob Reiners.

There is a key moment in Shock And Awe, when our two lead Knight-Ridder reporters (played by Woody Harrelson and James Marsden) finally get an interview with Ahmed Chalabi, the Bush regime's (and their echo chamber in the media's) go-to source on Saddam Hussein and WMDs. With Chalabi, played as far less slick than he seemed at the time--more Sydney Greenstreet than reality would have suggested) ducking and diving, the interview descends quickly into argument, and then Chalabi calls the journalists 'smug', and although you are no doubt on their side, you realise he is absolutely right--their sense of smug frustration seems to overpower their professional ability. When they entered Chalabi's office, his aide introduced them as coming from 'Knight Rider', which was maybe the only really funny moment in the film--but it's ruined because, when they leave, they remind the lackey that it's 'Knight-Ridder'--thus proving Chalabi's accusation of smugness is true.

This odd smug futility is compounded by a similar scene in which the reporters argue with Harrelson's father-in-law and Marsden's girl-friend's dad (their romance story has probably the worst 'meet-cute' I've ever seen and the whole sub-plot is arch and treacly--Marsden and Jessica Biel seem to be trying to reinforce their images as beef/cheese cake) over the invasion. Again, neither can make a coherent argument. I understand that this mirrors the problems Knight-Ridder was having in the wider world, when it became the go-to source for almost anyone who saw through the subterfuges, and became ignored by everyone else--including some of its own syndicate, here represented by the Philadelphia Inquirer) but that frustration again seems to infantilise the reporters. In fact, that may be the point: their relationship to Walcott is presented as naughty children to a stern father, or maybe teacher.

In some ways it's unfair to judge the film too harshly, because what it really is is a docu-drama, and if it stuck to that more limited format it might have been better. The tale is bookended by an individual's story, and that works to an extent, but frankly the drama in between does not do the sacrifice justice. The actual news clips of Bush, Chaney,Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell (whom the film tries to exonerate by bringing in Tommy Lee Jones to play Joe Galloway and do that) render most of the anonymous sources just that: anonymous--in many cases simply repeating Reiner's talking points. And the key dramatic point--being beaten by the New York Times to the story of Rumsfeld's private intelligence agency--is never really explained.

We all know how the story ended, and 17 years later we are still mired down in the region, on which anarchy and chaos, not democracy, has descended. Fifteen years later, a film whose ending comes so abruptly, and with so little payback that it actually shocked me, wasn't really enough to offer.