Monday, 30 November 2020


For the Thanksgiving issue of The American magazine, I wrote about Tom Brady and his move from the New England Patriots, where for 20 seasons he and coach Bill Belichick have dominated the NFL, to Tampa Bay, which dominated for a year right about the time Brady joined the Bucs.

It was written before the Bucs' back to back 27-24 losses to the Rams and Chiefs, so I might want to update on the team's problems, but the piece mostly delves into the reasons for the football divorce, and the reasons for choosing the Buccaneers as his new place to extend his career into his forties. Now if he only learned to place kick! It worked for George Blanda. You can link to the story here.


My obituary of George Cockcroft, who, as Luke Rhinehart wrote and was the main character in The Dice Man, appeared in the Guardian on November 27th; it had already appeared online but was bumped from the paper paper on the 26th by the death of Diego Maradona. If you missed it in either location, you can link to the online version here

It was a fascinating story to tell, and there were bits I had to leave out and some which had to be cut to fit the length I'd been assigned. I had, for example, started to discuss The Dice Man in terms of other works that play with probabilities; Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle, for example, about a decade earlier, had characters throwing the I Ching to decide their actions; Dick himself claimed to have plotted the book using the I Ching. Since Cockcroft's fictional protagonist is also the fictional author, I liked the comparison. But though I felt fairly confident that Cockcroft had likely read the novel, I couldn't really find any connection. Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association is about a man whose life is centered on running his own fictional baseball league whose results he finds using three dice,whose numbers read consecutively, offer probabilities through which his simulated games take place. And of course Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead begins with a coin being flipped again and again, with always the same probability of either heads of tales. But intriguing as these ideas were, and the way they might merge together, there was no way to speculate in a couple of lines!

The research was somewhat problematic too. I found several revealing interviews; Cockcroft, once he went public with his identity, could charm his interviewers, especially, as I say, when they visited him on his lakeside house in upstate New York (one of them marveled at being introduced to the peanut butter, olive and mayonnaise sandwich. . But sometimes there were differences in the stories, and it was exceedingly difficult to discover facts, about family, and where he taught, and sometimes when. With a good guess as to his mother's maiden name I did find his ancestor who was Chief Justice of the Vernont State Supreme Court, but I couldn't establish who the governor in his mother's family had been. I know he was at University de los Americas in Mexico City in the mid-Sixties and at Dowling College probably when it opened in 1968 in an old Vanderbilt mansion on Long Island. It might have been their programme in which he was teaching in Mallorca.

The story of his near-death at sea was cut; he actually had apologised to his wife and children for killing them before they were rescued by a freighter blown adrift. He had just bought the yacht with his savings, and was sailing it on vacation before bringing it back to Mallorca. The delay caused him to miss the first meeting with Mike Franklin, whose co-publisher was Shel Talmy, the producer of the Kinks and Who among others, who got cut from the obit, but if you're looking for first editions, the UK one is from Talmy-Franklin. 

His younger brother James was an interesting story himself: the brothers and their wives twice lived together, one of those times being in Mexico City. He was also a writer (of more than 30 books) and professor, and an activist, specializing in left-wing Latin American politics. He predeceased Cockcroft, but there was also an older sister, Patricia, also pre-deceased, who doesn't seem to have figured as deeply in their lives. I also tracked down (online) Tim Linthicum, who wound up an English professor and seems to show up in writers' circles in academia. 

But the most serious bit that was lost was my explanation of the start of The Dice Man, which I felt was necessary because although Rhinehart is a funny narrator, he is also a very self-centered and as Cockcroft said, "the colder harder part of George". The problem was the novel starts with Luke wanting to sleep with his best-friend's wife. So he rolls his die, and the one he rolls dictates that he should rape her, so he does. I wrote that, but it was changed to "have sex with her", which is in a way more accurate because it is a gray area: he goes to their flat, rings the bell, and tells her he is going to rape her. So she invites him in and tells him not to borrow her husband's bathrobe afterwards. The paper was averse to using the word rape because they had received a number of complaints after their obit of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, but again, to tell the story properly would have taken too long, and I then wanted to mention the very Fifties attitude this "if rape is inevitable lie back and enjoy it" scene represents.

I had never been a fan of the book particularly, but I found it an interesting look at an era that had already changed: Luke was like if Henry Miller had written the Jack Lemmon character from The Apartment crossed a bit of  Holden Caufield.I think Cockcroft was looking for something more existential, as his thesis on Kafka might show, but he's very much in Miller's tradition, that what I do, who I am, is important, even if I lie outside the world of societal expectation.

Saturday, 28 November 2020


An overlooked strong point of Michael Connelly’s crime writing, even when one of his major recurring characters is the lawyer Mickey Haller, The Lincoln Lawyer, has been his skillful adaptation of the courtroom thriller. This was most evident in Two Kinds Of Truth, where Haller’s half-brother Harry Bosch is being framed for planting evidence, even as he goes undercover to solve a double-murder at a pharmacy and break up a massive opiod scam business. The way the two stories are weaved together leads to a courtroom denouement in which Haller works his magic with the material Bosch and his own investigator Cisco have uncovered.

It’s told in the third person, but from Bosch’s point of view, so the reader is seeing the courtroom tactics with Bosch’s explanation, as if he were a commentator for the reader to the event. As an aside, in the television series Bosch, the same scene, with some crucial modifications (not least that because of film rights to The Lincoln Lawyer character, Haller does not appear) is handled in a similar way.

In The Law Of Innocence, it’s Haller who’s being framed. The body of a former client, a career con-man whose bills of course went unpaid, is found in the trunk of Haller’s Lincoln after a seemingly routine traffic stop, and the forensic evidence indicates he was killed in Haller’s garage. Haller decides to defend himself, because the only way to prove his innocence is to prove someone else guilty, and he’s the lawyer best-qualified to do that. The problem is, he’s in jail, and he’s got to get himself out and free to pursue his own investigation and courtroom manoeuvring.

What makes it work, of course, is the way Connelly builds the story piece by piece, as he would with any case. Haller, Cisco and Harry Bosch all follow leads, some of which lead in dead-end directions, but all orchestrated by Haller as he tries to build the foundation of his defense.

But what is really fascinating is the way the story is told, in Haller’s first-person narration. It’s one thing to see from Harry Bosch’s perspective Haller’s abilities to bend and twist the truth, to sometimes run roughshod over ethical bounds, as you did in Two Kinds Of Truth. It’s completely different when you are inhabiting Haller’s own point of view, and the way Connelly writes it, it’s as if you are inside his brain as it is spinning, making decisions on the fly. And this is not just in terms of the legal case; Bosch plays only a small part in the story, but you get a different perspective on how Haller views his less ethically flexible sibling. More important, when the story starts, Haller’s girlfriend has gone off seeking her own space; she returns in his time of need. And so too does his ex-wife, and mother of his daughter, district attorney Maggie “McFierce”. Haller’s own emotional boil is something Connelly writes with great precision, letting the reader see exactly how Haller is focused.

The case itself is not what he appears to be, which you would expect, but it is this low-key but bravura writing which makes it work. There are a couple of items left unresolved; I was irritated by a red-herring of lost papers that never actually reappears, but the others, the nature of the traffic stop itself and the machinations behind the frame-up, would seem to leave the door open for Mickey Haller to seek further justice for himself, and Harry Bosch would be just the person to be at the center of that.

The Law Of Innocence by Michael Connelly Orion Books, £20.00, ISBN 9781409186106


Thursday, 12 November 2020



It’s London in 1942; the streets are dark with fog and wartime blackout. And a killer calling himself Crimson Jack is murdering women on the same dates as the infamous Jack the Ripper murders more than 50 years before. It is a case for Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

What? I hear you say. Holmes and the Ripper were products of the same era; in fact they’ve been brought together before (most notably in Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, but also, for example, in the films A Study In Terror and Murder by Decree). It was inevitable that Holmes, the greatest fictional icon of Victorian London would be brought together with its greatest real villain, both steeped in the atmosphere of the time and reflective of its violent hypocrisies lurking beneath that fog-bond surface.

But, as Robert Harris points out in his preface, Holmes and Watson were already brought forward into the wartime world of 1942, in the now timeless movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for Universal. The placing of Holmes in this milieu, set against his own age’s greatest villain, was probably less inevitable than the works mentioned above, but given a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, it is an interesting conceit.

There are, however, a problems, and a couple of them are Holmes and Watson themselves. We probably should not expect them to be Rathbone and Bruce, but it’s hard to avoid at least comparing these atavars to the originals. In fact, this Holmes is a more gossamer construct, dependent on our own images, while Harris’ Watson is certainly not Nigel Bruce’s, full of Blimpish bluster. Bruce, while perfect in defining his role, always puzzled me a bit; not least with the ring he wears on his middle finger, a denoter of class that would place him below what we’d expect from Watson. Harris’ Watson is still slow on the update, but more the stronger presence to which Holmes attaches himself in the books than Bruce’s more dim-witting sidekick.

The story creaks at times, with herrings overly red and an ultimate villain who may be perhaps too easy to pick out. But its strongest points are the way it weaves between its possible Ripper connections and the pattern of the killings themselves, introducing many is not most of the best-known Ripper ‘solution’ theories. And where the time bending may work best is in the introduction of a woman journalist, part Martha Gellhorn and part Hildy Johnson, to spice up the action (and Dr Watson). This may suggest a sequel, to work out that unresolved situation, because Watson even in 1942, remains a Victorian gentleman, while the American journalist Gail Preston, whose dialogue tries hard to be Forties USA but often slips, at least is the only person in the Holmes saga, canonical or otherwise, who constantly calls Watson “Doc” and gets away with it.

A Study In Crimson byRobert J Harris Polygon Books, £12.99, ISBN 9781849675271

Note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Thursday, 29 October 2020


I have written before about what a thankless task it is to follow in Robert Parker’s metaphorical shoes. Ace Atkins has come the closest in his continuation of the Spenser series; he gets that the essence of it is a series of short scenes, told in dialogue, in which Spenser spars with foes and banters with friends, sometimes both. Michael Brandman’s Jesse Stone was more like the TV movies Brandman produced; Reed Farrell Coleman’s aren’t much like either the book or screen Jesse. Robert Knott’s Cole & Hitch are pared down and plot driven without Parker’s sharp eye for character.

Which left Sunny Randall, whom Parker created as a vehicle for the actress Helen Hunt. Parker wrote six novels featuring Sunny, who is perhaps less a female Spenser than a female Jesse Stone, which made it interesting when the two hooked up for a while before deciding they were unsuited for each other (perhaps because each was the other’s alter ego). Her character may be more like Stone’s, indeed both are obsessed with ex-spouses; but Sunny’s set up was closer to Spenser’s, a gay male Chingnachook to her female Hawkeye; she has a dog, Rosie, her version of Spenser’s Pearl, and she also, like Spenser, has close contacts with the Boston mob—in her case because her ex, Richie, is the son of a mob boss.

Parker wrote six novels with Sunny; Blood Feud was the first pastiche taken up by the New York sportswriter and crime novelist Mike Lupica (there are now two more). At this point Sunny is back together with Richie, sort of, but at a loss for work, when someone walks up behind Richie and puts a bullet through his shoulder, saying to him, as he lays on the street “sins of the father”. Of course this puts Sunny on the case, though neither Richie’s father Desmond, nor uncle Felix, nor the Boston cops really want her there.

Nor will the Providence mob nor the Providence cops, when the case takes her south to Rhode Island. Because as Sunny investigates she finds that Richie’s shooting, which leads to more, does indeed have family roots, and they may be roots the family itself does not want dug up.

Lupica has plotted his story very well, and he moves it along, though the finale may seem a little fortunate. His Sunny is best when she is interacting with the established characters, including her ex-cop father Phil, and Frank Belson, who’s one of Spenser’s police foils. Lupica works surprisingly well with the Sunny/Richie business: there is a surprising amount of adolescent angst in their relationship, as opposed to the psychological paradise of Spenser and Susan Silverman (to whom Sunny has been referred for therapy, and with whom she has banter worthy of Spenser’s), or the more sensitive Hemingway of Jesse Stone. Where Sunny does less well is in her moving between Richie’s family, rival Boston crime boss Tony Marcus and Providence godfather Albert Antonioni. There is too much ping-ponging, as the dogged Sunny pursues buried secrets, but also far too many threats; if she was really pissing off people as much as she is pissing off these guys, at some point the threats might turn more real.

Finally, though, there is an unmistakable sense of the outsider in Lupica’s writing, like a New York Yankee fan writing about the Boston Red Sox. There is the feel of the guide book in the places she goes out for meals or drinks, about the directions or descriptions. It’s harder to get the sense of someone who knows the turf the way Sunny is supposed to; indeed, they way she does. Lupica’s prose can be sharp and balanced as Parker’s; he gets that bit of the style. But can he learn to be Boston enough?

Robert B Parker’s Blood Feud by Mike Lupica

No Exit, £9.99 ISBN 9780857303820

note this review will also appear in Crime Time (


I've written a long essay on the new Aaron Sorkin film. A shorter version might appear elsewhere, but here's the synopsis: this is an entertaining movie. If you weren't 'there' at the time of the Chicago riots, or the trial of the Chicago 8, you will probably find it politically instructive too, given life on planet Trump. But if you were there, you will find that its version reflects less the tenor of the protest, the chaos of Chicago and the overall seriousness of the situation than Sorkin's need to find a hero and a conflict for him, and his inability to see the United States in anything less than glowing terms. Here's the link to find it at Medium, where you can read a certain number of stories before having to subscribe.

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 meant 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.”