Saturday, 29 August 2020

WISHFUL THINKING: A SONNET

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....



WISHFUL THINKING
                                         (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

PETE HAMILL: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

MARK BILLINGHAM'S CRY BABY

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 (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 16 August 2020

SUMNER REDSTONE: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

 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.