Monday, 17 May 2021

JO SPAIN'S PERFECT LIE

No, it's not a book about golf. Instead, it's early on a sunny Tuesday morning when Erin Kennedy wakes up next to her husband Danny. She's Irish, and a book editor, who moved to New York after a family tragedy; he's a former NYPD cop now working homicide in a sleepy shore town in Suffolk County, Long Island. Then, at 7:15, there's an insistent knock at the door: Danny's partner Ben, and two uniforms, are there to arrest Danny. He walks to the balcony, and with a look back at Erin, jumps to his death.

Eighteen months later, Erin is in court, charged with murder.

Jo Spain's thriller is a finely designed construction, jumping about in time between the period of the trial, the time of Danny's death, and the sexual assault of a Harvard co-ed, told from the point of view of her house proctor, four years earlier. This is not an easy trick to manage, but movement between stories is deft and what helps is the setting, especially as the story moves between Harvard of the past and Suffolk County in the present. They are backgrounded sharply: the insular, almost claustrophobic world of Harvard increase a sense of danger about the campus; the Suffolk community is put into stark contrast by one of Erin's allies, Cal, who comes from the Gatsbyish side of Long Island, an uneasy fit into her world.

Of course the need to find the resolution of each bit of story creates a web of interwoven cliff-hangers which make The Perfect Lie compulsive reading. But there is a problem, in order to maintain the recurring doses of suspense, you have to withhold a lot of information from the reader: from the Harvard backstory and its other protagonists, or the location of its assault, right up to details Erin's trial taking place in the present. This is an easily disturbed structure, and it also requires a certain amount of expository prose once the revelations begin, in order to answer some of the questions readers are going to need resolved. The artificiality of withholding can be irritating at times, but the positive side is that it keeps the reader guessing, and the resolutions are, in the main, satisfying. Spain builds Erin's character well, and Dave's by reflection, but to some extent the other characters are limited by their function to the plot: learning too much might uncover too much revelation. And the moment of that revelation was, if anything, underplayed—perhaps the need to explain how we got there overpowered the actual menace of the situation itself. Cold blood needs to be presented as a dish served quickly.

There is also the danger of bending modern reality: given the amount of investigation Erin and her friends undertake, it seems improbable that aspects of one person's identity could be kept secret by their missing it. The pedant in me also wishes that the American characters didn't occasionally use Anglicisms, which Erin in narration can say to her heart's content. But an American lawyer would never say “inland revenue” meaning the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). Freshmen in America are never called “freshers”, things like that. Small irritations for a natural born Yank, but like the larger question mark, not enough to slow down the suspense train which barrels ahead on its Long Island Railroad (or railway?) tracks.

The Perfect Lie by Jo Spain Quercus £14.99 ISBN 9781529407242

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

Saturday, 10 April 2021

GORDON LIDDY: MY GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of G Gordon Liddy, the Nixon plumber of Watergate renown, who after getting out of prison turned into a right-wing showman with considerable success, appeared in the Guardian on April 8th; it had already gone up online, and you can link to that here.

For once, this appeared almost exactly as I wrote it: I had not been given a word count, but after over-writing Larry McMurtry I set one for myself and tried to stick to the facts, ma'am, and hope the readers were adept at reading between the lines. I hit my own word count almost precisely, and everything went smoothly.

Looking at other obits, I was amazed at how often he was billed as the "Watergate mastermind". Let's face it, Watergate was not exactly a brains operation, and when I looked at much of Liddy's career, I saw a similar pattern, by which a certain amount of macho bluster and spotlight chasing overpowered a series of, shall we say, mess-ups? In a way, E. Howard Hunt that first initial thing has been a right-wing trope as long as I've been alive) was similar: remember Hunt was a long-time spy novelist, and many of his CIA plots seemed planned as if they were fictions. The two of them paired was trouble in a clandestine specimen jar. 

Watergate was one thing I would have liked to go into in more detail, but that would be opening a pandora's box. You could look at my obit of James McCord and the CIA's Special Research Staff (at the Guardian here --also my Last Words interview about him here) for a sense of some of  my feeling about the nature of the burglary itself...and the idea that both Hunt and McCord were accused of being in Dallas the day of JFK's assassination. Jim Hougan, who at the time was the DC editor of Harpers, wrote a seminal book on Watergate, Secret Agenda, part of which surmised the bungled burglary was a deliberate act by the CIA to weaken Nixon (there was virtually no chance he would lose the '72 election to McGovern), perhaps because of "the Bay of Pigs thing" as Nixon referred to it in the infamous White House tapes. It wasn't until after Liddy's obit had been published that I discovered he had been one of the people associated with Norman Mailer, Edward Jay Epstein and other "deep politics" researchers who called themselves "The Dynamite Club". The easiest way to discredit those who believe in conspiracies is to send them down rabbit holes which distract them from the real prize and also eventually may discredit them: I can just see Liddy doing that to the guys in this club.

I didn't see the need to expound further on Liddy as right-wing shock-jock, pitch man, and huckster: who knows? he may have believed his own shtick, at least superficially, and the uber-mensch persona probably was as close to the real GLL as we will get. I take his autobiography Will with a grain of salt, but it still might have been interesting to go deeper into those "bund" roots in Hoboken, and the way he celebrated his in his later years. But the idea of Nixon as the leader whose own will could power America "back" to greatness (in the face of hippies, anti-war and civil rights protesters and the like) was so demonstrably false that when it came back in Reagan's kinder gentler return to the Disneyland 50s or Donald Trump's much more visibly Teutonic MAGA mode, it is no surprise many Americans bought it both times, and Liddy was there to cheerlead and profit from it. 

Thursday, 1 April 2021

LARRY MCMURTRY: MY GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of Larry McMurtry is online now at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It has been cut considerably, because I over-wrote it, and it was a good edit: keeping the most relevant information and the spirit of what I wrote. So this is not a complaint, but an addition.

Because I knew McMurtry's work well, especially his early novels, which I believe are not only his best but justified the praise (with some caveats) Jim Harrison gave it in his review of All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, which is my other favourite of his books (I'd like to re-read it and see if my older sentimental self still enjoys what my younger romantic self did). It seemed to me that the caveats Harrison mentioned were what drove much of his later work: his proclivity for writing too much, for extending ideas into series, came from his ability to create characters, and I use the word picaresque. In many ways he was like an 18th century novelist, and he would take characters he liked, and introduce them to other unusual characters he created (and understood) and let that all fly. But this is not part of what was trimmed from the piece; it is the spirit underlying my writing.

There remain a couple of small points that needed explaining, but because of reorganisation weren't. Thalia, the Texas town that is the setting of his first three novels, is a fictionalised version of Archer City; I thought that really needed to be clear right from the start, because, like the Houston books which followed, it showed how he transformed his own experience (for example: his father's running his grandfather's ranch echoes the set-up of Horseman Pass-By (Hud). 

And when he held his Last Booksale, it was from his four remaining Booked Up stores in Archer City. For some reason the Guardian said only one was in his hometown: but I'd actually clarified the point to them. This was important because, in another line excised from the copy, his purpose in putting his store, which grew into six at their peak, in his hometown was an idea to turn it into a Texas version of Hay-on-Wye. I thought the English reference would have kept it in the piece, but what do I know?

One small loss, which I also couldn't understand, was Peter S Beagle from the short list of his Stegner colleagues and friends. Beagle, who is still alive, was a major success at a young age, with the fantasy novels A Fine And Private Place and The Last Unicorn (which is always in best-of lists still) and I See By My Outfit, his tale of a cross-country journey on a motor scooter, well ahead of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintence. Maybe I should have dropped his middle initial to save space.

The biggest excision was one I expected, because I included a lot of material about Ken Kesey; on the surface very different from McMurtry, but a close friend whose career had some strong parallels until Kesey diverged. If this weren't enough reason, however, the idea that McMurtry then married Kesey's widow, on whom he appears to have maintained a crush for 50 years (he said that at the time Kesey would never let the two of them even talk together!) made it important. Anyway, here is what I wrote: 

... Stanford University’s Creative Writing programme, where classmates included Peter S Beagle, Wendell Berry and Ken Kesey, who attended the Stegner seminars taught by Frank O’Connor (The Last Hurrah) and Malcolm Cowley (Exile’s Return) only because Stegner, who disliked him intensely, was abroad.

...It may not be a coincidence that in Kesey’s first novel, the best-selling One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), the main character, played by Jack Nicholson in the Oscar-winning film, is named Randall McMurphy, or that Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes I Get A Great Notion (1964) revolved around a father/son feud within a family logging firm in Oregon; when tt was filmed in 1970, Newman again played the rebellious son.

Let me repeat: I was not surprised these bits got cut: it's an obituary, not a literary analysis. But the idea Kesey simply snuck into the Stegner Fellowship seminars is intriguing, if not crucial to understanding McMurtry. But the teaching by O'Connor, whose novels tend toward the sentimental family saga format McMurtry used, and Cowley, chronicler of the Lost Generation, seemed a fascinating influence.And the parallels I mentioned are delineated here, and I found them convincing. And then there was the Merry Pranksters.

After Stanford, McMurtry taught creative writing for a year at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, then back at Rice. In 1964 Kesey and his Merry Pranksters got in their San Francisico school bus driven by Beat icon Neal Cassady, the Grateful Dead on board for the music, and began a cross-country journey to New York. Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the trip, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, became a best-seller, including the Pranksters’ arrival to visit McMurtry in Houston. As the bus pulled into his driveway, a tripping Cathy Casamo, also known as “Stark Naked”, spotted McMurtry’s son playing on the lawn. Unclothed, she jumped off the bus to hold him. McMurtry recalled "James, in diapers, had no objection to naked people, and the neighbours, most of them staid Republicans, took this event in stride; it was the Pranksters who were shocked". Far from being harmed, James McMurtry grew up to become a country music star.

McMurtry stayed off the bus. He won a Guggenheim fellowship and produced a seminal book of essays about Texas, In A Narrow Grave (1968), whose themes included some of those reflected in his fiction: cowboys “finding it bitter to leave the land...to the strange and godless heirs they had bred.” 

Again, you can understand, as I did, why that basically had to go, but I did suggest re-inserting one sentence about Kesey's visit, if only because Wolfe made such a thing of it. But I loved McMurtry's own later response to it: it clarified difference between him and Kesey, and I thought the early mention of his son's later career fit well right there. I also love the quote about the bitter leaving of the land, because that theme starts in Horseman Pass By and continues through Lonesome Dove.

But the quote from Leaving Cheyenne stayed in.“Nobody gets enough chances at the wild and sweet”, Johnny McCloud says. They aren't quite the story's last words, though. He then wishes he'd had a Kodak, so he could've captured Molly sitting on the steps in her blue and white dress. So memory stays with us all. 

NOTE: I wrote an essay on Leaving Cheyenne/Lovin Molly a couple of years ago. You can link to that here on this blog 

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

YAPHET KOTTO: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of one of my favourite actors, Yaphet Kotto, was online at the Guardian last Friday, 26 March; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. 

It is pretty much as I wrote it, but there was of course A lot more to say. The most curious thing was how difficult it was to be sure of the information about his biographical details; various sources had his name two different ways; the stories about his father's name and origins changed when he told them; was his mother's maiden name Marie or was that her middle name; more details about his maternal grandparents, who raised him, and how they (Roman Catholics) managed to raise him Jewish were all, in the end, left for supposition. I couldn't find much about the Mobile Theatre Project in the Bronx, which is where he first trained, or where he played Othello aged 19; I assumed it was for them and not professional, but I couldn't find details.

Besides Judy Holliday, he claimed a couple of other actresses as mentors, including Mary Astor--how he got into that position is an interview question I didn't see posed in the ones I found.

There were, of course, other black actors of note besides Sidney Poitier, though he was only real 'star': Ivan Dixon, Ossie Davis, Abby Lincoln, Ruby Dee and the like; Bill Cosby in the first starring role on TV.  But Kotto was a different story, and I believe he helped open the door for great actors like Forest Whittaker or Lawrence Fishburne --the preference for matinee idols continues to this day, particularly on TV: think of any number of very attractive black actors whose careers have stalled in TV, or of the ones who have made successes, from Denzel to Hall Berry.

And of course nowadays, black British actors might be taking those roles, which may be because many of them come up the traditional way, and get judged by their acting, rather than their faces, though no one's going to compare Idris Elba's looks with Kotto's.

Bone is a film that should be seen again. First because it really is Larry Cohen's take on Boudu Saved From Drowning (though he would have probably denied it) and second because it would probably offend most of its audience. It was Cohen's first feature and if you know his work you will understand why, but Kotto's character is not the problem in the film, it really is, like Jean Renoir's film, a satire of the bourgeoise; something its big budget Hollywood remake, Down And Out In Beverley Hills.

Similarly, I can't emphasize strongly enough how important a movie Blue Collar is, not least for the way race divides working people against their own interests, but at the same time because race is not understood as the same kind of problem on both sides of the colour line. And Schrader's casting of Kotto, Keitel and Pryor, none of them pretty boy Hollywood types, escaped the swamp of what the Firesign Theatre once called portrayals of  "tales of ordinary working people as played by rich Hollywood stars".

And it would have been nice to discuss Homicide, where Kotto in a way was the star, and also the comic centre. There is a famous episode of the show, "Subway", in which Vincent D'Onfrio plays a commuter pushed in front of a train, and trapped between the carriage and the platform. Andre Braugher plays Frank Pembleton, the detective on the scene, who is aware that D'Onfrio's sprine has been severed and he will die as soon as the train is removed. Thinking of Kotto's career brought it to my mind; two tremendous actors, neither a matinee idol, who act the hell out of the two-man show which is at the episode's core. Yes, there is space for them, but how much? How well will Jamie Hector do? As Al Giardello tells Pembleton: "Come on Frank, it's a new age. The world's becoming a perfect place." RIP Yaphet Kotto

Thursday, 18 March 2021

LOU OTTENS: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

 My obit of Lou Ottens, who invented the audio cassette, and the portable tape recorder, and had a hand in the creation of the CD, is online at the Guardian; it should appear in the paper paper soon. You can link to it here.

This happens to be a piece which appears exactly as I wrote it (after one brief rewrite when a sort of re-organsation was required. It was one of those rare times when I was asked for 800 words and filed exactly 800 words; I didn't bother to recount after I did the touch-up!

It occurred to me that Ottens reminded me of a number of engineers I have worked with in my years of broadcasting: very bright men who are practical problem solvers, very calm and reasonable, and who enjoy nothing more than a problem to solve. It's always the producers, or the talent, who often couldn't plug the machine into the wall, who get all excited. It's much more fun to work with them!

Monday, 15 March 2021

NORTON JUSTER: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the writer (and architect) Norton Juster was published in The Guardian online on 11 March, I am hoping it will appear in the paper paper soon, but you can link to it online here

The odd thing about it was I couldn't actually remember when I read The Phantom Tollbooth; I may have been too old or advanced in my reading to have latched on to it the first time. In fact I may have been introduced to it by my college roommate Winsor Watson; that idea popped into my head long after I had filed my copy. And I don't recall ever reading The Dot And The Line; but it's on You Tube and when I showed it to my son, who's 17 and very good at maths, he loved it. I realised I had never read The Phantom Tollbooth to him; my copy was probably left in storage in London.

And as I wrote it the day before my birthday, the quote from the Terrible Trivium seemed especially apt: “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones that are so difficult.”

The piece as printed is virtually as I wrote it; the only omissions were part of the first quote from Jules Feiffer, which talked about their lifelong friendship, and then the second quote from Feiffer which closes the piece; it was cut short. The rest of it, which would have ended my story, was "He was my oldest friend...and we managed to concoct a classic together. I miss him badly. Who knew?".Somehow I felt that "who knew?" was the perfect way to summarize Juster's life, and indeed, his work.


Friday, 5 March 2021

VARIAN FRY: LOST AMERICAN HERO

I wrote this review for the Financial Times in 1999, and it was published in January of 2000. It popped up, unbidden, in my computer as I was attempting to store material, and it seems as if I had at some point restored some elements which may have been edited from the original. But Fry's story has been retold since, and deserves to stay in the forefront of our attentions today as a warning about the way no good deeds go unpunished, especially as we see Breckinridge Long reflected in both the Trump and Johnson regimes, and also in the way so-called geniuses ignore those who sacrifice and risk to help them, indeed, save their lives.

In August 1940, Varian Fry, an unassuming American editor, arrived in Vichy France on a brief fact-finding mission, representing the Emergency Rescue Committee. He carried a list of 200 worthy artists, writers and intellectuals endangered by the Nazis, whom the ERC had been founded to aid. When he was finally expelled 13 months later, Fry had created an underground operation which saved thousands, not just the Max Ernsts and Marc Chagalls, but “ordinary” refugees, as well as hundreds of British servicemen. Yet Fry, a true heroic figure of the Second World War, died in obscurity, teaching high school in suburban Connecticut.
 
“Pimpernel” is a particularly apt title, because Fry seemed an unlikely candidate for such heroism. A pampered child who feigned illness to escape school bullying, he became a precocious aesthete at Harvard. His modest career on liberal magazines was transformed in Berlin when he witnessed Kristallnacht, and received a blunt assessment of the Nazis’ plans from their international spin-doctor, a fellow Harvard man. His Associated Press reports were the first to warn that Germany intended to “exterminate” the Jews.
 
Fry’s low tolerance for political in-fighting had seen him sacked from Spanish Civil War relief, and there was no hint of his practical abilities when he landed in France. Yet within weeks he created an organisation which hid refugees, forged papers, smuggled people into Spain, and kept one step ahead of the Vichy authorities. The players were worthy of a movie cast, and Andy Marino retells their stories with piquant details not included in Fry’s contemporary memoir SURRENDER ON DEMAND.
He can also be more honest than Fry about those he saved. Many showed little gratitude and worse, endangered those who saved them. Lion Feuchtwangler revealed his escape route to the New York press. Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler meant to sneak across the Spanish border with 17 pieces of luggage, supposedly filled with her first husband’s manuscripts.
 
Marino deals best with Fry’s twin enemies: Vichy’s officials, keen to out-shine their German masters, and the US State Department, to whom Fry was persona non grata. The consular section headed by Breckinridge Long was overtly anti-Semetic, with no desire to fill unused immigrant quotas with Jews, reds, and other undesirables. The US also wished to maintain Vichy’s paper neutrality, keeping its fleet out of Nazi hands. Fry’s conflicts with the government (who denied him the Swiss visa offered all Americans for safety in case of a German invasion) soon had his own committee trying to force his replacement. When he returned to America they fired him. 
 
Returning to journalism, he detailed, in 1942, the extermination of some 2 million Jews in Nazi death camps, facts which the Allies finally acknowledged officially only the following year. By now Fry’s marriage had also collapsed, and it's not until this point Marino begins to examine the book’s most intriguing question: what made Varian Fry such a successful secret agent? It’s understandable when Fry’s personality fades into the shadows of wartime derring-do and a gallery of memorable characters. But Marino also glosses over Fry’s early years. His subtle hints about sexual orientation underlie an equally subtle theme which Marino himself only faces in his conclusion. By then, with Fry’s second marriage and attempts to play corporate family man broken up, it is too late to hear suggestions of his inner torment; his participation in the Kinsey report, and some of the demons which drove this man. It’s as if he’s inherited Fry’s own reserve. Marino concludes, perceptively, that the pretending and repressing which tormented Fry also prepared him for his clandestine life as spy. But with better writing and organisation, we should have apprehended this crucial fact from Fry himself. 
 
Through the efforts of Andre Malraux, France finally granted Fry the Legion d’Honneur in 1967, though for services to the Resistance, not for saving refugees from Vichy. Five months later Fry died, alone. In 1996, Israel named him “Righteous Among the Nations”, the only American so honoured. The US government continues to ignore his accomplishments. 
 
 AMERICAN PIMPERNEL
by Andy Marino
Hutchinson, 1999, £16.99, 403pp

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: ON POETS & LAUREATES

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has died, aged 101, and by coincidence (or not) on the 200th anniversary of John Keats' death. See my previous post for more about the Keats anniversary, and for a poem of mine from 1972 about him.

I've gone back to 1999 for this piece about Ferlinghetti, whom I interviewed for the Financial Times Weekend; the angle being his recent appointment as Poet Laureate of San Francisco contrasted with the long-running story about the choice of a new Poet Laureate of Britain. I've appended a little note about the editing of the piece, and about Ferlinghetti's interview, which was entertaining in the extreme...

You can link to it here at Medium, and with this link you do not need to be a subscriber, though you might well consider being one.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

ACROSS HAMPSTEAD HEATH: Keats' 200th anniversary

For the 200th anniversary of John Keats' death, I've unearthed a long-lost poem (of mine, not his) I committed way back when & prompted a little essay about the day I wrote it & more since then. I'll reprint the poem below, but if you want to know the story behind its writing in 1972, and about Keats' and my relationship, you can get the full package over at Medium. Use this friends link, and you'll get have access to it even if you don't subscribe to Medium. 

 

ACROSS HAMPSTEAD HEATH

He measured the room with a fury of pacing;

It shrunk, more confining, with each angry stride.

His eyes at the window through dim glass were tracing

The flight of a swallow, its leisurely glide.

But he felt no leisure; he was bound to his writing,

And each unfinished line made his solitude worse.

His muse was his torture, each thought fled him fighting

Against being committed to the prison of verse.


Just to be one with nature, footsteps drowning his cry

But the swallow had hidden, in some corner of sky.

Darkened clouds passed him quickly; the words came and went,

He failed to grasp them with his weakening eye,

And could not now write them; his pen gone bone dry.

Words flown away wasted; the energy spent.

Monday, 22 February 2021

TALES FROM ISOLATION ROW: DAWN ADDAMS, THE SAINT AND LIFE MAGAZINE, MAY 17, 1954

Tonight
on isolation row: I watched a 1964 episode of The Saint called The Lawless Lady, with Dawn Addams opposite Roger Moore (this was their second pairing I've seen). Anyway, a few clicks later, I am looking at the May 17, 1954 issue of Life magazine. Big stories: The 'tragic' fall of Dienbienphu; too much fuss over the 'boring' Army-McCarthy hearings; Roger Bannister breaks the 4 minute mile; and a big show at the Met with Sargent, Whistler & Mary Cassatt (in case you thought Cassatt has been ignored until recently). But what was the cover story? Dawn Addams' wedding in Rome to Vittorio, Prince of Roccasecca di'Volsei. Guess who showed up late, and had to order off the menu at the reception? Charlie and Oona Chaplin (you may remember Addams in King Of New York?) There was a scandi royal wedding that week too and Sister Cecilia battling commies in Slovakia....Life did it all: celebrity gossip & right wing politics, and an amazing set of ads for the American Way of my childhood dreams...
 

 

Thursday, 18 February 2021

RUSH LIMBAUGH: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Rush Limbaugh went up quickly last night on the Guardian's website; you can link to it here. His was the kind of life that tests the obituary writing concept of "nil nisi bonum" to the utmost. I tried to keep my writing balanced while not "normalizing" him as either a political thinker or broadcasting stalwart. This meant that a few points needed to be left out.

I had pointed out then when Limbaugh was a struggling high school student, his parents, pillars of privilege in the Cape Giradeau community, got him an internship at a local radio station--and he was quickly on the air as "Rusty Sharp", which would have been a good stage name for the rest of his career.

Later, when he dropped out of college, he faced the draft, like all of us from the Vietnam era. He appears to have been deferred by a medical condition called a pilonidal cyst, which is on that grows around the cleft in the tailbone cleft just above the buttocks. There appears to be no truth to his sometimes claim that it was a football knee injury; he played only one year in high school and his coach recalled no injury at all. Limbaugh, like many war-mongerers, was himself a "chicken hawk", which did not stop his constant attacks on Bill Clinton for his deferments. 

I mention Limbaugh's link to Morton Downey, and earlier TV talk hosts like Joe Pyne and Alan Burke. They were all right wing; Downey in the 70s, the other two in the 60s: when I was in high school I went along with the other two "smart guys" in my class to be in Burke's studio audience. He was more erudite than Pyne, who looked like Jimmy Hoffa's meaner brother, but part of his shtick was putting down his audience, and some of his guests, with ad hominum insults. The thing was, these guys were never considered legitimate news and not billed as such, and their programmes were not carried on networks (because of the fairness doctrine) but sold in syndication to local stations. I also mentioned Long John Nebel, the greatest of the all-night talk DJs, the model for the Nightfly in Donald Fagen's great record detailing the Sixties. Nebel was proof that weirdness sold, and the lesson was not lost on Limbaugh's predecessors, nor on Limbaugh himself.

He realised that he could turn political discussion into a sort of late-night freak show: equate his political enemies, "liberals" "feminazis" whatever, as loonies just like the people who told Long John at three ayem about being kidnapped by aliens and having pilonidal cyst probes while in their spacecraft.

It was the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan that opened the door for right-wing talk radio and eventually Fox News. Roger Ailes was no one's fool, and he saw the opportunity characters like Limbaugh provided now that stations and networks no longer faced an obligation to at least be truthful or let the other side present its own arguments. O'Reilly, Hannity, my namesake but no relation Tucker, Ingraham and the rest all spring from the viagra loins of Limbaugh.

The one case left out, which probably should be in, was his treatment in 2012 of Janet Flake, a Georgetown grad student who testified in Congress about the denial of access to contraception which many health-care plans enforced on women. Limbaugh attacked her and her parent non-stop for weeks, calling her a slut and a prostitute---and it cost his show sponsors. It was not quite a beginning of the end, but from that moment until now, in the obituary season, it was hard to argue Limbaugh was an honest player in the political world, rather than an ideological bully more interested in attacking those in whom he perceived weakness than actually bolstering the right ot the Republicans. But they were grateful for his help--hence Trump's awarding him the tarnished Presidential Medal of "Freedom", which in the end didn't get Limbaugh's support when Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

URSA MAJOR DANCES: A POEM

Lockdowns appear to induce looking back. I wrote this poem in August and September of 1978, and it was published forty years ago in my first small collection, Winter Lovers, by Bran's Head Press in Somerset, 1981. I was reminded of it by a letter I received recently, saying it was a shame I had not pursued my poetry. I never gave it up, of course, and I have been recently trying to see if it has given up on me, but in memory of those optimistic days, here it is. It was one of the two poems in Winter Lovers not previously published in magazines. With one very small change from the original...

 

URSA MAJOR DANCES


she spins

beneath

stars


looks up

about to

be-


come a

dream, bear

soft


shoes a-

cross

night


sky dark

as fur

light