Tuesday, 30 June 2020

BEDTIME STORY: A POEM

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.....



BEDTIME STORY

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
                          (those
paranoid playmates

had you
whistling
      to yourself
to assure you
you were
      still alive

When you knew all
along    deep
down
inside
that you shouldn’t
be

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

lost &
shrieking

a chorus
ended
in silence

echoes
those
major themes
of your life.

                     (& still does.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

THE AFL& THE FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME: MY PATREON FMTE COLUMN

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!

BOB DYLAN AND ELEANOR CATTON: THE FRONT ROW INTERVIEW

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.

JEAN KENNEDY SMITH: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

SCOTT TUROW'S LAST TRIAL

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

HERBERT STEMPEL: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY


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
 
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 contestant...in 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

THE PERILS OF NYOKA: REVIEWS FROM ISOLATION ROW VI

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

JERRY SLOAN AND PROJECTING THE SIXTIES INTO THE MODERN NBA & NFL

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 me...you 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 soon...you can link to FMTE at Patreon here.

LIVES THAT MATTER: GEORGE FLOYD, COLIN KAEPERNICK, PROTEST & THE NFL

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 now....you can use this link to access the story via Medium, without having to sign up (though that is not a bad thing to do).