Wednesday 21 December 2016


My obituary of Henry Heimlich, inventor of the eponymous manoeuvre to deal with choking, is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It is pretty much as filed; the biggest cut was some information about his wife Jane. I found it fascinating that she wrote a book called Things Your Doctor Won't Tell You, and co-authored another about Homeopathy. Given Heimlich's sometime shaky status with the medical establishment, that seemed somehow telling. I'm not sure the ubiquitous nature of her father, Arthur Murray, and his self-promoting dance empire, would be clear in Britain; I debated trying to make a connection with his son-in-law and his self-promotion, and later learned (but from only one source) that Arthur Murray  Heimlich's medical school.  But the connection seemed interesting, particularly in light of all the celebrity endorsements his technique received in its early days (including New York mayor Ed Koch, see photo).

They also cut my mention that Heimlich's father moved to New Rochelle to work as a prison social-worker, which also seemed interesting to me: those two influences seemed to combine to define his own personality. And the antipathy shown by his son Peter, whose campaign against his father was virulent and lasted for decades, is something worth its own story, if not novel.

Monday 19 December 2016


You may have noticed a lack of posts in the month of December. I wish I could say it's because I have been too busy, but really it is because I have again come to question the utility of this blog. Partly because I am encouraged by writing I have done elsewhere, in commercial markets, and partly because Blogger, which is a free tool and thus much appreciated, has for some reason decided to simplify its controls, and in the process of this simplification managed to mangle this blogs logo (I did not intend the title of the blog to be laid out as an e.e.cummings rough draft) and lose two of the sidebar 'gadgets': the Bullseyes list of 'greatest hits' and the list of links to other blogs and websites. Having failed to recapture them, I tried to re-enter those gadgets, and though they sit on the formatted template, blogger refuses steadfastly to publish the new layout.

This should not be as discouraging to me as it has been, and I may well start a Christmas push to help clear the backlog of pieces I have, in most cases, started but then abandoned. Anyone who can suggest a viable alternative to make this blog look at least as good as it did, or a way of expanding its reach would be more than welcomed. In the meantime, a New Year's resolution seems in the offing....

Wednesday 30 November 2016


I wrote Orlando Bosch's obituary for the Independent five years ago, and I thought it might be worth posting it here to widen the perspective of reflection on the death of Castro, and American attitudes toward terrorism. The death toll from Operation Condor alone is instructive. You can look at my original posting here at IT which I wrote when I linked to the Indy piece: it includes the Dealey Plaza photo. I've posted my original copy here; it was edited slightly in the Indy, and I've added a couple of notes.


It is said that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom-fighter. If so, Orlando Bosch, who has died aged 84, was all things to all men. A dedicated anti-Castro Cuban, Bosch was implicated in dozens of terrorist acts, including the 1976 bombing of Cubana Air flight 455, which killed 73 people, and the assassination in Washington, DC the same year of the Chilean exile Orlando Letelier. Hailed as a hero by America's Cuban exile community, Bosch was a prime example of the double-standards of the Bush administration's so-called 'Global War on Terror' and the long-standing policy of the US toward Cuba, especially considering the electoral importance of Florida's Cuban vote. Despite his terrorist record, Bosch was personally championed by Jeb Bush, and released from US custody by his father, President George HW Bush.

Orlando Bosch Avila was born 18 August 1926, five days after Fidel Castro, in Poterillo, Cuba. His father, a former policeman, ran a restaurant; his mother was a teacher. While studying medicine at the University of Havana he became friends with Castro, a law student; both were in the student government. He completed his medical internship in Toledo, Ohio and his residency in Memphis before returning to Cuba, where he was the first doctor to provide the new polio vaccine. At the same time he began organising underground support for Castro's campaign against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, for which he was forced to flee to Miami with his wife Myriam and their children. He returned after Batista fell, but quickly became disenchanted with his old friend, and after launching a failed counter-revolution, returned to Miami in 1960.

He became general coordinator of the Insurectional Movement of Revolutionary Recovery (MIRR), and joined Operation 40, a CIA-backed effort to arrange Castro's assassination, whose membership included future Watergate burglars E.Howard Hunt and Frank Sturgis, and a former Cuban intelligence officer named Luis Posada Carilles. Meanwhile, he lost his medical job for using the hospital to store explosives, and was arrested numerous times for violating the Neutrality Act, once for towing a home-made torpedo through Miami's streets. According to a later Justice Department report, between 1961 and 1968 Bosch was involved in some 30 terrorist operations, often organised with Posada, most notoriously the phosphorus bombing of Cuban sugar factories.

Some researchers claim to have spotted Bosch in Dealey Plaza, sitting next to the 'umbrella man' in the aftermath of John Kennedy's assassination; the photographs are more convincing than the so-called 'tramp' photos which purported to include Hunt or Sturgis, but still the figure looks more like an older Bosch than how he might have appeared in 1963. In 1985, when Hunt lost a libel suit against a magazine which claimed he was in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Marita Lorenz, once Castro's mistress and later Sturgis' girlfriend, testified under oath linking Bosch to, among others, Sturgis, Jack Ruby, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Later witnesses placing Bosch in Dealey Plaza are generally considered less reliable, and investigation by the House Select Committee on Assassinations 'failed to support that claim'.

In 1968, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for firing a bazooka at a Havana-bound Polish freighter docked in Miami. While he was in prison his wife divorced him. Released in 1974, he immediately broke parole and travelled around Latin America, often overstaying his welcome by being caught in terrorist activity. He was arrested in Venezuela for planning to bomb the Cuban embassy; the US declined extradition, and thanks to the intervention of President Carlos Andres Perez he was released quickly. He moved to Chile, where he met his second wife, Adrian, and in the next two years, according to the US government, attempted postal bombings of Cuban embassies in four countries. After another arrest, in Costa Rica, Bosch went to the Dominican Republic, where the CIA, now headed by George HW Bush, attempted to unify and control the various Cuban exile groups by forming the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organisations (CORU).

The scale of Bosch's operations increased, including the failed assassination of the Cuban ambassador to Argentina and the bombing of the Mexican Embassy in Guatemala City. In September 1976, Bosch and Posada met with Michael Townley, a CIA agent assigned to DINA, the Chilean secret police, and the architect of Operation Condor, which killed or 'disappeared' at least 60,000 people around Latin America, to plan Letelier's killing.

Flight 455 was brought down the following month, while en route from Barbados to Jamaica; Cuba's entire national fencing team was killed. Barbadian police arrested two Venezuelans, who confessed and named Bosch and Posada as the men who gave them their instructions. When Venezuelan authorities arrested them, Posada was still carrying a map of Letelier's route to work. The two were acquitted of planning the bombing by a military court in 1980, but eventually civilian authorities struck down the verdict and ordered a new trial. But by then, coincidentally, key evidence had gone missing in police custody, and the confession of the two bombers was ruled inadmissible because it was in English. While in prison Bosch allegedly told the journalist Alicia Herrerra, 'we planted the bombs—so what?' With judges wary of Bosch's connections with President Lopez, the Venezuelan bombers were sentenced to 20 years each, but Bosch and Posada were finally acquitted in 1987, by which time Posada had already bribed his jailers and escaped. Since then, freedom of information requests have revealed documents noting both foreknowledge of the attack by the CIA and confirmation by an FBI informant that Bosch received a phone call from the bombers saying 'a bus with 73 dogs went off a cliff and all got killed'.

US ambassador to Venezuela Otto Reich arranged for Bosch to return to Miami, where he was greeted as a hero by the Cuban community, but almost immediately arrested for absconding while on parole. He served three months in prison, and the US Justice Department called for him to be deported; Associate US Attorney General Joe Whitely said Bosch was 'resolute and unswerving in his advocacy of terrorist violence.' The only country willing to accept Bosch was Cuba, where he would have been tried again as a terrorist, but by then Jeb Bush, at the time head of the Dade County Republican Party and with close financial ties to the exile community, took the forefront of a campaign to have Bosch allowed to remain in the USA. In 1990 Jeb's father, by now president, overturned Bosch's deportation order by presidential fiat, in effect pardoning him. As part of the deal, Bosch promised to renounce the use of violence. In a later interview, he called his promise 'a farce', saying 'they purchased the chain but they don't have the monkey'.

While in prison Bosch had taken up painting, and his work commanded high prices in Miami's Little Havana. He set up 'Mortar for Masons' to fund resistance to Castro, and acknowledged the money raised was not for 'flowers or hot meat pies'. When he was linked to a 1997 series of bombings in Cuban hotels, which killed an Italian tourist, he denied it with a wink, saying 'we have nothing to do with these attacks. Besides, if we did, we'd still be denying it, since that's illegal in this country.' Earlier this month, Posada received a hero's welcome in Miami, after being acquitted by a Texas jury of lying on his immigration forms, but by then Bosch was already ill. Bosch died 27 April in Miami and is survived by his second wife, and six children, five from his first marriage. In Miami, there were public demonstrations of mourning the man who said, 'you have to fight violence with violence. At times you cannot avoid hurting innocent people.'

Monday 28 November 2016


The stories of Fidel Castro being scouted by major league baseball teams, or even offered a contract in some tellings, are apocryphal; Castro could pitch a little, and apparently did for the law school at University of Havana, which would qualify as something like intramurals as best I've been able to figure. But Cuba was then and is now baseball-obsessed; there's a nice photo of Castro pitching with the revolutionaries wearing an Oriente cap.

Cubans shared that passion for baseball with Americans, along with a parallel passion for boxing. You have read  The Old Man And The Sea, right? But where the mutual love of music also survives (see Buena Vista Social Club), baseball is no longer America's national pastime; that's now television, and the new national sport is the more violent and uniquely American football. Even MMA fighting seems to have replaced boxing for Americans.

Metaphorically it marks a change for the worse in modern America that Cuba, cut off in many ways, has been unable to follow. And note that when Cuban baseball players defect to the major leagues, they inevitably establish their residencies in the Dominican Republic, trying to escape MLB's cartel monopoly on amateur talent.  Viva la revolucion! Actually, much like Ho Chi Minh, Castro, while holding no illusions, originally seemed to think he could reason with the Americans. So imagine what might have happened had John Foster Dulles not snubbed Castro to go golfing, shades of Donald Trump, when the Cuban came to Washington in 1959, and taken him to ballgame instead.

In 1959 the Havana Sugar Kings were champions of the AAA minor International League, and took on the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association in the 'Little World Series'.  There's a nice photo of Fidel with a group of Millers including Gene Mauch, the future Phillies and Angels manager. It was also during that season Fidel formed a pick-up team, called Los Barbudos ('the Bearded Ones') and actually pitched a couple of innings against a team from the Havana police before a Sugar Kings' game. Of course a minor league franchise in Havana couldn't survive the embargo on Cuba, and Cuban baseball became a strictly amateur (in the Eastern European sense of 'state-sponsored') sport which Cuba dominated internationally for many decades.

When I worked for Major League Baseball I was told this story, by a long time baseball coach: Two scouts are talking during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. One mentions that he scouted Castro for the Washington Senators, who in that era boasted two Cuban pitching sensations, Camilio Pascual and Pedro Ramos. 'Imagine if we'd signed Castro,' he muses to his friend. 'How different history might have been.' 'Bull,' says his friend, spitting tobacco juice on the ground. 'The Senators were crap and one more Cuban pitcher wouldn't have made a damn bit of difference.'

Monday 21 November 2016


A new Harry Bosch novel is always an event (see photo). In The Wrong Side Of Goodbye Harry has found himself a bolthole. Having sued LAPD over his dismissal, and won, he's now working cold cases part-time and unpaid for the tiny San Fernando department, an arrangement that allows him the freedom to take private assignments as well. So when he's approached by a former LAPD colleague now working a lucrative security gig, he accepts $10,000 to visit the reclusive aircraft billionaire Whitney Vance in his Pasadena mansion. It's a scene redolent of the opening of The Big Sleep, with almost as much sad nostalgia. Vance had a young love while he was at university, breaking away from his family and studying film, shades of Howard Hughes. She was a Mexican named Vibiana who worked in the school cafeteria. When she got pregnant, Vance's father sent people to take care of her; she disappeared from his life. Vance transferred to Cal Tech and took over the family business. Sixty-five years later, Vance is dying and wants to know if he has actually left an heir.

Meanwhile Harry and his partner, Bella Lourdes, are investigating the Screen Cutter, a serial rapist who cuts screen doors to enter houses and rape Latina-looking women who happen to be ovulating. Harry's concerned that such attacks tend to escalate in ferocity as well as frequency.

What's particularly interesting here is the way the cases create echoes of each other but never actually intersect in the way readers so often might expect them to do. They also echo much of the Bosch history as well: the novel opens with a scene recalling Bosch's own time in Vietnam, as a helicopter built by Vance crashes there on a rescue mission; a dying soldier's last word is 'Vibiana'. His relationship with his daughter Maddie, who's lost her mother, reflects the issues of parenting and motherhood in both cases. And Harry's still facing antipathy from LAPD over his lawsuit; he is viewed as a traitor by many cops. And when Vance dies, the search for an heir becomes one with multi-billion dollar stakes, and Harry can trust no one, least of all the man who put the job his way. There are even echoes of Raynard Waits from Echo Park, and the clever merging of that novel with City of Bones in the Bosch TV series.

This isn't as intense as the very best of the Bosch novels, rather it's more diffuse and layered. Early on I noticed something slightly different in the narrative, the way Harry's perceptions were revealing so much depth, observations of the unseen as well as the seen. Connelly has always been an excellent reporter in his writing, here I was struck by the way he'd seemed to move beyond that somewhat. Which is necessary, because the stories, both of which are complex, move with a relentless drive which could easily allow readers to miss crucial details. Not plot points, necessarily, but those of character, of nuance, which keep you involved even as you get caught up in the stories. In fact, as the pace increases, the depth of detail slows down, so the finish almost seems rushed. It is a long novel, nearly 400 pages, and in an afterword Connelly thanks his editors, implying the original ms was even longer.

In a positive way, I thought this might be considered his first post-Bosch TV novel. It's almost as if Connelly has melded two separate novels into one, in the same way the series combined elements of multiple novels together. Usually, people drawn to series novels from TV are advised to start at the beginning; although this is an older Bosch, in a different setting, with different supporting cast, this would be a novel viewers of the series would recognise immediately. I would have been happy to see it run longer; there was room not only in the plot elements but also for reflection, and as I suggested above, this is a reflective book behind its narrative drive. And beyond musings on the excellence of the LA Dodgers' baseball announcer Vin Scully, who is retiring as this story takes place; even Scully's name-check mirrors part of Bosch's story-- would he could continue as long as Scully did!

The Wrong Side Of Goodbye by Michael Connelly
Orion £19.99 ISBN 9781409145530

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Friday 18 November 2016


I don't often post my sports writing here, the previous post notwithstanding, but I think this piece for Newstalk Ireland is worth it, because Tony Romo's press conference earlier in this week said a lot that is true for any of us who've played in team sports, and says a lot about the reasons so many of us, whether we played or not, love can link to it here at Newstalk Ireland.

Sunday 13 November 2016


I wrote what follows as the introduction to my Friday Morning Tight End column at, except the column is now actually christened simply picks of the week's upcoming games, and accordingly the intro wasn't a part of it. So I offer it here, wondering what kind of juju the The Donald connection will have on Bill and the Pats...


The one thing Bill Belichick's letter to Donald Trump proved was that Bill can make a winner out of just about anyone. The bizarre thing about it was that it read as if it had been written (well, dictated) by The Donald himself. I doubt it was intended to be read out at a press conference, as Bill explained it well enough, the two are friends, and it was a friend's congratulations on his campaign, not intended as a public endorsement. With friends like these, a neutral might think. Trump also claimed Tom Brady had voted for him, when Brady at that point hadn't voted at all, and Giselle then said no they wouldn't vote for Trump and told TB to shut up about it! As a model she would probably know a side of Trump that Bill and Brady didn't.

This puts Bill and Rex Ryan on the same team for the first time, and raises an interesting dilemma. Football coaches tend to be very conservative, small c, and so do players. It's an authoritarian sport, everybody is wealthy to an extent, and although most players have natural advantages in terms of size, speed or ability, they also work very hard and feel they have earned what they have, and everyone else should work as hard to do the same. America is a relatively conservative country; its liberals are far less left than in most western countries. But as we saw with the reaction to Rex when he appeared at a Trump rally, Trump's positions on minorities in particular transcend some of the usual definitions. Will there be fallout? There was much talk about that with Rex earlier in the season, but as far as I've seen, nothing really came of it.

In the opening scene of Aaron Sorkin's show The Newsroom, Jeff Daniels talks about how America isn't the greatest country in the world. But it sure used to be, he says (Sorkin might've given Trump his campaign slogan right there). Among the reasons, he says, was that 'we didn't define ourselves by who we voted for'. That might be a good lesson to learn this week..


The morning after the election, bleary after two and a half hours sleep, I wrote the following for the Times Literary Supplement's blog reacting to the result. If you want to read it in situ, along with the other responses, you can link to it here (there's also a link in my piece to the article I wrote for TLS the previous week on Trump as the reductio ad absurdam of the Republican party's 50 year descent into madness. It's a few entries before this one on this blog. Anyway, here's the view from the aquavit, my morning after with Trump:

The aquavit came out around 2:30 in the morning, when I realised Trump would win. By 5 I'd surrendered, went to bed considering how we journalists had failed. I'd written on election day for Newstalk Ireland about the 'imperfect storm' of ten ways in which Trump 'swift-boated' America, projecting his weaknesses as a candidate onto the voters themselves. It reads like a template for his victory, yet I did not take it seriously enough, not even as I watched America's sensationalist media chase Trump's theatrical grand guignol ahead of issues to the bitter end.
There is no one explanation for Trump's triumph. Not media, not gender, not race, not the anger of white men in the rust belt's industrial wastelands. Not crookedness, not Russia, not collusion between James Comey and Rudy Giuliani. Dislike for Hillary may have polled lower, but it proved stronger than dislike for Trump.
We misread people who took Trump's vision seriously, as they had Ronald Reagan's in 1980. They didn't really care if he built a wall or not, abused Miss Universe or not. I thought he aspired to become America's Berlusconi, with his own TV network. Many fear he'd prefer being America's Mussolini. Can he deal with Putin, May, or Merkel as he did the contractors building a casino? Can the job of being 'Leader Of The Free World' really be that simple?

Friday 11 November 2016

WHY TRUMP WILL WIN: A Guest Post by Julia Carter

Forget electoral math, demographics and polls. Julia Carter laid out the reasons why Trump would win both the Republican nomination and the election, back on 29 February this year. She was spot on, and reading this in conjunction with my piece about the tactics of his campaign, I wish I'd kept this post as a template for that. In the interests of full disclosure, Julia Carter is my niece, and ever since she was a kid we have rarely agreed on politics. But she was right this time, and it's the best piece of analysis I've seen--especially given how long before the election she saw what would happen.

by Julia Carter

It is really incredible how Donald Trump is completely outsmarting and manipulating the mainstream media with its nonstop coverage and dissection of every intentionally ridiculous comment he makes. His strategy is totally winning and he is most certainly a more dangerous threat to Hillary Clinton than Rubio or Cruz. How anyone does not understand this is beyond me. 

1. Rubio would do no better than Romney did on an electoral level. There is no state he could win that Romney didn't.

2. The Latino vote will ultimately not affect Trump. California and Texas will vote blue and red respectively regardless, and his turnout affect in Florida among whites will offset any uptick in Latino voting, which is always low. Only the Cubans vote in high numbers and they don't associate themselves with Trump's wall comments. And even blacks like Trump more than Romney...ouch!

3. Trump galvanizes a base and appeals to independents. He can win swing states. He can win northern states. The votes of the Republicans who say they'll refuse to vote for him will ultimately not matter in die-hard red states. Again, it's all about the swing states.

4. And Trump's biggest advantage is that just as many people who will refuse to vote for him will also refuse to vote for Hillary. She is totally divisive for Independents and non-inspirational for Democrats. You cannot count on people voting for her just to vote against Trump.

Conclusion? Bernie Sanders would be a much more formidable opponent. But he won't be and that gives Trump very favorable chances in November. And guess what? Sadly enough, Trump is more qualified than the other two Republican front runners. He is the least full of shit and the best player in the game of thrones. He has outsmarted the system. Nations get the governments they deserve.

-Miami, 29 February 2016

Tuesday 8 November 2016


I've done another election essay for Newstalk Ireland, about the way Donald Trump in essence 'swift-boated' America while playing the system and the electorate for suckers. You can link to it here. There is another one to be written on his conning Americans who still believe in the American Dream, but that's been going on at least since Ronald Reagan. Newstalk was very generous to give me extra space as it was, and I'm sure  mainstream media will start to catch up on the con of Trump's campaign once the election is done. They're good at that.

Similarly, I resisted the impulse to go further into the minutiae of Trump's background: the ties to the mob, the scams, the sources of investment, some of which is still paying off earlier loans, the contradictions in his tax statements and the way he can be proven to have lied in numerous depositions under oath. But there just isn't the space. Writers have covered these things, not least Wayne Barrett, David Cay Johnston, and Tim O'Brien, whose books were there for nightly news anchors, reporters, and debate moderators to study and use as a basis for their questioning. But they do not appear to have bothered. It's as if they were afraid of his suing, or something.

Happy Election Day!


I've done an essay for Newstalk (Ireland) about the nature of 'crooked Hillary', trying to trace the political truths, as opposed to simply the misogynistic roots, of her unpopularity. Which is not to say that a lot of it is indeed simple misogyny: if Hillary were a man, many of her faults would become, if not virtues, tolerated as politics as usual.

But in terms of 2016's election, there is indeed more to it than that. You can link to the piece here...


I've written an obituary of Janet Reno for the Guardian, you can link to it here; it will be in the paper paper soon. I wrote it quickly under deadline pressure (1,200 words in two hours) so it was trimmed considerably, for the most part additional details about the cases I discuss, or background information.
For example, her loss in the 1972 state house election was largely the result of Richard Nixon's landslide win at the top of the Republican ticket. Occasionally there are conclusions I drew that were left out: she might not have fallen victim to a 'glass ceiling' for women when she was turned down by Miami' top law firm, but I find it hard to believe that wasn't the case.

Obviously Whitewater or the Siege of Waco require a lot of explaining. I had already cut references to current events: Whitewater and the origins of the 'crooked Hillary' myth; Waco and the Cliven Bundy affair, in which heavily armed rebels become right wing heroes as they stand down the government.

Her loss in the 2002 gubernatorial primrary to Bill McBride I had explained in more detail as well. McBride was seen as a more liberal alternative, but the primary was marred by contested results that I thought provided an eerie echo of Jeb Bush's attempts to deliver Florida to his brother two years earlier.

In the end Reno is a fascinating character, and her parents are a big part of that: one gets the sense that she is an amalgam of both, with her mother's more practical down to earth nature winning out. Janet Reno seems to be someone with both compassion and a strong moral compass, but with a degree of inflexibility which oddly helped her survive the Clinton years, where many more malleable politicians failed.

I didn't use a quote which Reno often repeated, advice from a mentor in Florida politics, John Orr: "don't equivocate, don't pussyfoot, don't talk out of both sides of your mouth, and you'll wake up the next morning feeling pretty good about yourself."

Monday 31 October 2016


Is Donald Trump really an outlier in American politics? Should we really believe the stream of rabid rats scurrying down the ropes from the SS Republican who claim Trump is not what Republicans are supposed to be?

This is now. That was then. What the Republicans were is not what they are, and what they are is a party for whom Donald Trump is the logical product of the past 50 years of history...

I've written about this for the Times Literary Supplement's TLS Blog, you can link to it here.

There is much else to write about in this election, especially when you consider the topics which most of the media seems to ignore. Those who cannot remember history are condemned not to repeat it, but to repeat it one circle closer to the centre of hell....

Saturday 22 October 2016


The best head coach I ever had, Don Russell, was inducted into my university's Sports Hall of Fame  (our 1969 football team is already in en masse), along with our defensive coordinator, Pete Kostacopolous, who also, in his other role on campus, coached a Wesleyan baseball team all the way to an NCAA final. In fact, in this photo the defense must be on the field, and Don is probably yelling into the headset to ask Kosty what he wants to do!

Let me tell you a few things: when Don was 'recruiting' me (he spoke at a New Haven Register/National Football Foundation awards dinner where I was being honoured and mentioned I was headed to Wesleyan, which I had chosen after being recruited heavily by the University of Pennsylvania) he told me that if I came to Wesleyan I would play football because I wanted to, not because he or anyone else could make me, or take a scholarship away, and frankly, not many people on campus would care one way or the other. And that sold me on the school. That and my student guide around campus that day driving me home, rather than making me take two buses from Middletown to Milford.

In the summer of 1970, when there were layoffs at the Fafnir plant where my dad worked and I lost my summer job, Don got me one on building & grounds at Wesleyan, and I worked there all year round for two years. At that point, following the student strike, I was seriously debating not returning to Wesleyan, so by a strange synchronicity the loyalty of my football coach in getting me the job I needed to pay my share of the costs not covered by my scholarship was a big factor in my returning for my final two years of college. And doing much better at it than I had in the first two.

And when in 1972 I was applying for conscientious objector status I asked Don to write a letter of reference to the draft board. He wrote that although he disagreed with my stance, he respected the way I'd made my decision, understood my grounds for it as I'd expressed them, and would support me 100% because he believed in my honesty.

All three of those things meant a huge amount to me at the time, and still do. I want to thank him for that, and for being a fine coach who led us to an undefeated season, The Lambert Cup, and two Little Three titles in the two years I played for him (he stepped down in my senior year to concentrate on being AD; we stumbled to a .500 season that year and didn't win another Little Three title for more than 40 years). Don succeeded in part by recruiting a few very good players, but more by understanding that he needed to get the best out of a bunch of less talented players who played because they wanted to, because they enjoyed it, but who also had other options. We called him the Silver Fox, and it was a term of respect.

And I can't help by recalling how the defense on that undefeated team, which Kosty coordinated, featured among others a 175 pound middle linebacker and a 155 pound rover, and when asked by a reporter if he didn't think his players were a little too small, Don reportedly told him, 'we may be small, but we're slow'. And he told another reporter that the key to our beating Williams in 1969 was that we 'held Jack Maitland to 167 yards rushing'.

Plus he (and Kosty) chewed tobacco. I hadn't ever met anyone who did: it was reserved for red necks down south and baseball players, not two mutually exclusive groups. I always figured it was because they were from Maine. But what was frightening, and funny when the coaches' weren't looking at you, was watching the brown juice run down Don's chin when he got angry or excited. I can remember it once spattering over someone still lying on the ground who was being berated for doing something wrong and landing there. It was hard to keep a straight face, but as a football player you knew you had to.

I was very sorry I had to miss that induction banquet. To think all these years later I'd still be doing football on a weekend: this time the NFL playing their first ever game at Twickenham, which I first visited with my Wesleyan teammate Blake 'Mole' Allison, in 1972 to watch the Combined Services play the All Blacks.

Thursday 20 October 2016


Although Donald Trump's whining about a rigged election is obviously just a spoiled brat loser's ploy to play to his audience, and who knows, maybe incite armed rebellion. After all, most of the guns in America are owned by just a minority of Americans, and they overlap strongly with Trump supporters. Still it's hard to argue an election is being rigged before it even happens, unless of course you have some nefarious evidence. Which of course Trump doesn't have.

But while the punditariat waves the red white and banner of American democracy, it needs to be remembered that Election fraud is a tradition in American politics, going back at least as far as when the franchise was extended beyond land-owning white males (not to mention the disenfranchisement of slaves, while still counting as 3/5 of a person when determining the population, and thus representation, of a state. Big city machines, rural machines, intimidation by Jim Crow laws, gangs, klans, sheriffs and unions all influenced elections unduly. But I'll bet there isn't a TV pundit in America (under, say, 60) who's read either All The King's Men or The Last Hurrah. There isn't one under 40 who's seen either movie.

In 1960 Nixon did not challenge the incredibly close Presidential election result. We've heard that quoted repeatedly to point out the sanctity of 'the system'. However the Republican Party chairman John Sherman Cooper filed lawsuits challenging the results in 11 states. These were dropped when someone realised that whatever gains Kennedy had made in Chicago (thanks Mayor Daley) were actually surpassed by those favouring Nixon downstate. And that in most of other 10 states the challenge wouldn't hold up anyways.

Since 1960, aided by technology voter registration/polling has improved, and coupled with the decline of monolithic machine politics, that kind of fraud virtually disappeared. Well, until Florida in 2000. Again, Al Gore did not challenge the ultimate result--but Shrub Bush certainly did challenge it, in court, where his lawyers argued (and the Supreme Court, against all precedent and careful to ensure their decision could not alter that precedent, ruled by a 5-4 vote that Bush's right to be spared the uncertainty of not being President trumped the people's right to have their votes counted fully and honestly.Al Gore lacked the guts to challenge further, and note that after the election Gore was deemed to have 'won' Florida by every means of counting the ballots EXCEPT the one his lawyers were arguing be implemented! Note too the vote counting was actually stopped by a mob of Republican congressional staffers who stormed the offices where the recount was being held. But I digress...

Florida 2000 notwithstanding, the past 20 years have seen gerrymandering on a scale never contemplated in the 19th century. They have seen voting machines (Diebold) programmed to change votes, which is why most machines now must have a paper trail. They have seen systematic shedding of voters from the registration lists (55,000 in Florida in 2000 alone) under the guise of keeping convicted felons from voting. They have seen voter ID laws aimed at stopping the poor, racial minorities, and students from voting. They have seen voting machines removed from areas unlikely to vote for the party controlling the state government (Ohio, 2004).

That is the face of voter fraud in America. The actual number of cases of people voting illegally is in double figures. Literally...out of hundreds of millions.

And the guy who is running on behalf of the party that has accomplished most of the frauds listed above is going to complain the system is rigged against him? It's pure Karl Rove: attack the other side for what your own side's weakness might be. The guy who has received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of free publicity from the TV networks is going to complain the media is rigged against him? God bless Trump and God bless the United States of America.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

MIRZYA: Bollywood Epic at London Film Festival

Mirzya was the Gala presentation in the 'Love' strand at the London Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. It's a big, colourful romance, which showcases many of Bollywood's finest moments: lush sets, lavish dance and music, and a cast sometimes as ravishing as its sets. It also uses the popular device in current historical/romantic fiction of running two parallel story lines, in this case a love story in the present which reflects the doomed story from myth of Mirza and Sahiban. You might think director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehta has all the materials for a crossover hit.

In fact, it opens brilliantly, with its historical story, told virtually without dialogue, and offering a vast panorama of action, like a Chinese war epic, interplaying with the tale of two children from different backgrounds, but already young sweethearts as students at the same school. When Adil forgets his homework, because he's been fetching a sweet for Soochi, Soochi passes him hers. When she is then punished harshly by a teacher for not having hers, Adil takes revenge. He is sent to a youth prison, escapes, and their lives diverge.

To this point the stories have been captivating, but when we rejoin the present, Adil, now called Munish, is working with the horses for a maharajah, and the young prince is engaged to marry Soochi, grown into a beautiful woman. And of course, the prince wants his bride to learn how to ride.  It's relentlessly melodramatic, like a epic tele-novella, and although the smaller scale of the children's tale worked, the larger scale of this love story often seems to trip over its own inconsequence in contrast to the epic tale it mimics. And because the luxury is royal in nature, and so modern, it starts to look like Dynasty or the Trump Towers, again undercutting its parallel tale. Screenwriter Gulzar, himself a director as well as a songwriter and poet, tries to weave elements of Romeo and Juliet into the tale, even self-consciously quoting Shakespeare, but the songs (by Shankar Ehsaan Loy) are often too didactic, as if we, the unschooled audience, wouldn't be able to follow the tale otherwise.

The most believable part is newcomer Saiyami Khar as Soochi/Mirzya. She projects the strength needed for the historical character as well as the awkwardness of the beautiful daughter of a police chief, about to become a Rajput princess. But apart from looking petulant, Harshvardhan Kapur as Adil/Munish doesn't really have the power to carry his role off (though he too does better in the mythical story, perhaps because it's silent). He too is a newcomer, but his also being the son of Anil Kapoor may perhaps explain why he seems to be cast over his skills here.  As the jilted prince, Anuj Choudry plays with the foreboding of the classic second lead, sort of like a handsomer Ross from Friends. Veteran actors Art Malik, Om Puri and K.K. Raina invest the older generation with some dignity, but their roles do little to escape stereotypes.

One element that may be harder for western audiences to accept nowadays is the character of Zeenat, played by Anjali Patil with more fire than anyone else in the film. Spoiler alert: it is always signaled that her love for Munish must give way to his love for Soochi. 'We are all links in a long chain', she explains to Soochi. This sort of inevitability of class might seem antiquated, but when he aids the two lovers in their escape, she pays a price that does not, to our eyes, seem necessary, except to add to the melodramatic build up. But Patil is an actress to watch, at times as fiery as the visual metaphor which puncuates the film. That fire is also captured brilliantly by Polish camerman Pawel Dyllus: you can allow your emotions to follow the feelings his compositions suggest and enhance.

In the end, the modern story falls short of the myth it is tracing--though I would have liked one small bit of extra melodrama as the old story reaches its end. Because so much has been telegraphed, so little surprises us. A tighter film might have been more affecting, but a tighter film is not what this has been designed to be, and bikes down cobblestones, horses across desert, and motorbikes into the sunset need to be played out in their own time.

And one lovely moment that pleased me no end: at one point Khar is shown lounging at the pool reading Zealot, Raza Aslan's study of the life of Jesus and the roots of Christianity. It's not only a tribute to a fine book, but perhaps a sort of ironic comment on our own mythologies.

Sunday 16 October 2016


My friend Michael Goldfarb, just back from rust-belt America researching a pre-election profile of the  turmoil, said today he hopes one candidate, Hillary Clinton obviously, references America in terms of Benjamin Disraeli's idea of Two Nations: "Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets."

Michael writes:
And this divide isn't geographical or over a single great issue: civil rights or Vietnam or even as Dizzy had it, "rich and poor." It is more abstract than that and I don't know a of a single word or phrase to explain it. But it really is soul-split.

Michael and I have discussed two nations before, and I have my own ideas about where this divide may be said to begin, somewhere in the confluence of the civil rights movement and the rise of television. But if we can't define the two nations, we need to reconsider whether there actually are two, or whether numerous smaller fissures in our society, which have always existed and have been exacerbated within our lifetimes, are now converging.

And more importantly, whether that convergence, in the face of our electronic information inputs and electronic discourse outputs, have pressured many people into becoming one-issue fanatical true believers. Those one-issues usually centre around micro-political, personal, 'lifestyle' or 'identity' issues, as opposed to macro-political (economic, foreign policy, wider social justice), and they conform in allowing no tolerance of dissenters. 

This would suggest a multitude of nations, although the reality is that those multitudes still constitute a minority within the larger multiple groups who engage in discourse. But their energy, harnessed through manipulation by politics and media, pulls the political discourse away from what used to be the overlapping centre, at least as far as a two party system goes. Yet the two party system itself is in some crisis at the moment, which more than anything would suggest two-nation America is a mirage, or at best a fragile illusion. And that Trump and Hillary are not Gladstone and Disraeli.

Saturday 15 October 2016


Bob Weinberg's life will be celebrated this afternoon in Chicago (if you're around there you can find the details here). Bob died aged 70 on 25 September. I had known him for something like 50 years, although we only met twice (or maybe three times, we couldn't be sure). Bob spent an unusually long time on kidney dialysis and last summer he posted a note about his will to live, and his dream of Mars, which I reposted; it was only the third guest post in the years I've been writing this blog. You ought to read his short essay before you continue: you can link to it here.

I admired the way Bob approached his illness, and the vitality with which he kept in touch with his world. Rereading his post, and thinking again of what linked us across the years and the distance, the phrase 'sense of wonder' came to mind; I'm amazed I hadn't used it when I published his essay. It's the feeling that brings youngsters to fictions, especially sf, and which drives what some people derisively call fandom: the ability to retain that sense of wonder as life throws up the kind of reality checks life is inclined to throw up. This is nothing to do with a retreat into fantasy: Bob was hardly one to retreat: the sf world became his livelihood as a dealer in books and art, as an editor, and as a writer. He didn't retreat from illness either.

What a sense of wonder is is the ability to see beyond the cluttered surface of our life, and remain open to the joys hidden beneath, to the wonder of life itself, and the very special wonder of imagination. Because all the best fiction reveals to us the depths which life contains: imagination is our magnifying glass, our microscope, our telescope, our prism through which this fascinating world appears. I mentioned Bob and his tomato crops: I saw the same sense of wonder in the way nature grows, nourishes, sustains, and celebrates our existence.

Bob reminded me one last time of that sense of wonder. I'm grateful that he kept it alive for so long, not just for himself but for those like me whose lives he touched. Man has not yet conquered Mars, and Bob did not live to see that. But in my heart I know that wherever Bob Weinberg is now, he has found his Mars. 

Thursday 6 October 2016

COACHWHEEL YELLOW: a poem for National Poetry Day

Apparently today is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom. Because I've just been to see the Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy, I was looking for a poem I've done called 'Zinc Door' after the Franz Kline painting which is hanging at that show. I found two other Klines, 'Torches Mauve' and 'Blueberry Eyes', but not 'Zinc Door' on which I've been working intermittently for years, since seeing the painting in, I think, Washington. But while I was looking I came across the manuscripts of this poem, 'Coachwheel Yellow'. I wrote it in May and June of 1978, and it has some personal resonances that go back to that time. Reading it now, I also feel a bit of Robert Creeley it in, which I'm sure I didn't realise at the time, but I now wonder if that influence is exactly why I chose a villanelle; I haven't done much in such strict forms (for good reason, you may say, as I improvised on the secondary rhyme, rather than sticking to just one pair). It may or may not have been published in a magazine called Rogue Raven sometime in 1979....if anyone knows, I'd appreciate a heads-up...


I always wanted to be able to draw.
Have something made solely by eye and hand.
There were paintings in my poems you never saw,

You heard my dreams, but couldn't understand
That my frustrated fingers felt useless, dead weight.
I always wanted to be able to draw:

Those nights in the greenhouse, working late
To convince myself, despite what you said,
There were paintings in my poems. You never saw.

"Your words are your body. Your body's dead,"
You told me, and because it was true that
I always wanted to be able to draw,

I continued to write what I could, but knew that
It was not what you wanted. In words you despised
There were paintings. In my poems you never saw

There were paintings of you. Reflected eyes,
Which, if you'd seen, you'd have recognized
I always wanted to be able to draw.

There were paintings in my poems you never saw.

Monday 26 September 2016


Bill Nunn's signature role was as Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. Nunn and Lee were buddies from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and he was regular in Lee's movies. In a way, the brilliance of his Raheem was a curse more than a blessing; it's a nuanced performance combining intelligence, ego, and depth along with anger, rage, and potential violence. Much of Nunn's career would see him cast in roles that reflected only the angry part of the character, almost as if producers thought he were Bill Duke, or a younger version of him.

My favourite of Nunn's parts (though I can't claim to have seen them all) came in the wonderful Fallen Angels series which aired on Showtime in the mid-90s, and intermittently at odd hours in Britain (sometimes with the silly title Perfect Crimes) after that. They were 30 minute adaptations of hard-boiled detective stories, with top-flight writers, directors, DPs, and actors. Nunn played Walter Mosley's character Fearless Jones in an episode called 'Fearless', alongside Giancarlo Espositio and the much under-valued Cynda Williams. You can watch the three of them onstage in that lovely scene from Mo' Better Blues, Nunn on bass, Esposito on piano, giving the spotlight to Wesley Snipes and Denzel, while Cynda sings 'Harlem Blues'.

Fearless was directed by Jim McBride and adapted by Richard Wesley, who also wrote Uptown Saturday Night, and the adaptation of Native Son. Although there's often little difference in Mosley's various leading men, especially on film, Esposito's Paris Minton is very much an Easy, while Nunn's Fearless captures the ironic nature of his name, in an almost classic noirish pairing. Oddly, Nunn also had a part in Always Outnumbered, a TV movie made for HBO three years later, in which Lawrence Fishburne played another Mosley hero, Socrates Fortlow, and Mosley wrote the adaptation. Interestingly, Bill Duke was in that one too.

But one thing you probably didn't know was that Bill Nunn was a ball-boy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he and Art Rooney, who's now the Steelers' owner, once stole Mean Joe Greene's car. The ball-boy job came about because Nunn's father, Bill Nunn, Jr., was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier (owned by William Nunn Sr.) which was one of America's leading black newspapers. Bill Nunn Jr knew more about black college football and its players than anyone. Dan Rooney, the son of the then-owner of the Steelers, was curious about why Nunn never came to Steelers' games, and was told it was because the team ignored players from black colleges. Rooney was intrigued, they became friends, and eventually Nunn became a full-time scout for the team. It was Bill Nunn who brought many of the stars to the Steel Curtain Steelers of the 70s, including Greene, so it wasn't surprising his son and Rooney's son would be ball boys together.

Bill Nunn Jr. died in 2014, at just about the same time as Steelers' coach Chuck Noll. I wrote a piece about the two of them for, but the link to the article seems to have expired. So here is that piece; it's a shame that Bill Nunn III has gone so soon after.

In a sense, Chuck Noll's death on June 13th caught us by surprise. He was 82, of course, but we had the image of the rock-hard Noll implanted on the Pittsburgh Steelers' sideline not so long ago. That's because Noll was succeeded by the even more granite-jawed Bill Cowher, and Cowher by the kinder, gentler visage of Mike Tomlin, and as far as the Steelers are concerned, that was it. Dan Snyder goes through more coaches in a decade than Dan Rooney has in 45 years.

But another Steeler great died just a month before Noll. Bill Nunn Jr, their longtime scout, died May 6th, drawing somewhat less attention. But Nunn's role in the transformation of the Steelers from also-rans to dynasty was crucial, and his story and Noll's, and for that matter Dan Rooney's, are tightly entwined, and worth telling here.

I'm not sure where Noll fits in the rankings of top coaches ever, which is just about the first thing everyone asked when he passed away. If you are what your record says you are, then he's certainly among the very elite, and one of the things I'd like to point out is that his career as an assistant gives him extra points in the scoreboard of eliteitude. Lots of people mentioned the innovation Noll and his defensive coordinator Bud Carson brought to the 4-3 by lining up Joe Greene at an angle off the center's shoulder. If you never saw Greene, think of Warren Sapp in the Tampa 2 during the seasons he was in great shape and fully motivated. And realise that for Greene that was every season.

But what was overlooked was that when Noll was the coordinator for Sid Gillman's San Diego Chargers in the AFL, he began to use an offset 4-3 by lining up The Big Cat, Ernie Ladd, directly over center. Ladd was 6-9 315 and as Patriots' center Jon Morris once said, 'when he lined up over you he blocked out the sun.' Those Chargers had the original 'Fearsome Foursome': Ladd, Earl Faison (a great forgotten star), Bill Hudson and Ron Nery, but that was overshadowed by Gillman's innovative offense. Noll was a defensive guy but when he built the Steel Curtain Steelers, he kept Gillman's offensive innovation in mind, and the need for a Lance Alworth-type deep threat receiver.

Before he got to Pittsburgh, Noll went to the Colts, as defensive coordinator for Don Shula, with whom he had played on Paul Brown's Browns. In 1968, those Colts went 13-1, with a defense built around MLB Mike Curtis, but they lost the Super Bowl to Joe Namath's Jets. Patriots' owner Billy Sullivan displayed his usual talent for understanding football, and hired the Jets offensive coordinator, Clive Rush as their head coach, leaving Noll for the Rooneys.

When Noll arrived in 1969, Nunn was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper with a national profile, and a part-time scout for the Steelers. His father, Bill Nunn Sr. was the paper's editor; perhaps Dan Rooney recognised something in Nunn, something about the way they worked hard to avoid the tinge of nepotism which always has been a part of the NFL. Bill Nunn Jr was a fine basketball player at Westinghouse High, where is father had been the school's first black football player. Nunn went to West Virginia State, playing with Westinghouse's Chuck Cooper, and with Earl Lloyd. Cooper became the first black player drafted by the NBA, and Lloyd, by virtue of the schedule, would become the first black to actually play in the NBA. Nunn was good enough to get an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters, who in those days had talent worthy of an NBA team, but he went back to Pittsburgh and became his father's sports editor.

Every weekend in football season, Nunn covered a different game played by black colleges, and while he did he built a network which enabled him to in effect scout the entire country. Thus, he began picking the Courier's black college All-American team. There is a famous story of the Giants drafting Roosevelt Brown simply because Wellington Mara had followed his progress in the Courier. Nunn chose Tank Younger to his team in 1948; Younger would star on one of the great offensive teams of all-time, the early 50s Rams, before becoming a scout. It was Nunn who tipped Younger to David Jones, a defensive lineman expelled from South Carolina State for taking part in civil rights marches. Jones was playing for Mississippi Vocational College, and running down wide receivers thirty yards downfield. At the Rams he would be nicknamed Deacon, and you know the rest.

Younger, who played at Grambling, had been the first player in the NFL from an historically black college. The AFL, desperate for talent, was quicker than the NFL to scout those schools, with Lloyd Wells of the Chiefs prominent. One day in 1967, Dan Rooney asked a Courier reporter why Nunn never came to Steelers games, and was told Nunn didn't like the way the Steelers seemed to ignore black colleges. Rooney arranged a meeting and hired Dunn to work for the team part time. When Noll arrived, the two clicked, and Nunn left the Courier and became a full-time scout. In their first draft together, their first pick was Joe Greene, from North Texas State.

The Steelers had no GM, as such. Dan Rooney ran the scouting, and Noll knew the kind of players he wanted, focused on athleticism. Rooney, Noll, Nunn and the other scouts were all on the same page. Nunn looked for the same thing; he often went to campus dances on Saturday nights after games, to watch players he scouted on the dance floor and check out how light-footed they were. Dancing was different in those days.

Of course 1974 was the Steelers' signature draft, and Nunn was crucial to it. He had scouted Johnny Stallworth at Alabama A&M, but word got out. When scouts arrived to time Stallworth, the field was wet, and his 40 time was slow. They left; Nunn stayed and found a dry field somewhere in Huntsville. He also dug up film for Noll to watch (this wasn't an automatic thing as it is today). When Stallworth played at the Senior Bowl, they moved him to cornerback, and he looked like a receiver moved to corner (think of how Richard Sherman he might've been today). So Stallworth was off other teams' radar, but Noll was so enamoured of what he saw on film he wanted to take him in the first round.

Nunn persuaded Noll to wait. The Steelers grabbed Lynn Swann, a bigger name from USC, in round one. In round two, Nunn again talked Noll out of 'reaching' for Stallworth, and they took Jack Lambert from Kent State instead. The Steelers didn't have a third-round pick, and by the time the fourth round came around, they used their earlier pick (acquired from the Cardinals) in the round for Stallworth. Nunn breathed a huge sigh of relief. He hadn't been quite so confident as he had let on that Stallworth would still be there. In round five they added Mike Webster of Wisconsin: four Hall of Famers from their first five picks (the second choice in round four was Jimmy 'Spiderman' Allen, who played on two of the Super Bowl teams). Nunn's influence extended even after the draft's 17 rounds; the Steelers signed Donnie Shell undrafted out of South Carolina State.

Mel Blount (Southern), LC Greenwood (Arkansas AM&N), Ernie Holmes (Texas Southern) and Frank Lewis (Grambling) are some more of the key members of those Steeler teams Nunn drew from traditionally black colleges. Another was Joe Gilliam, the quarterback from Tennessee State, who certainly had the talent to star in the NFL, but whose career spiralled out of control after Terry Bradshaw took the starting job away from him.

Nunn worked for the Steelers for 46 years, like Noll staying on the team's books right til the end. You might recognise his son, Bill Nunn III, an actor who made his name in his fellow Morehouse College alumnus Spike Lee's early films, most notably as Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing.

Bill Nunn Jr leaves a tremendous legacy, one that fits into the Steelers' story perfectly. He once explained that Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll 'ignored the dots', which were little stickers teams put on their draft board identifying the race of the player. It was an issue then. Men like Noll and Nunn made that an anachronism. Dan Rooney went a step farther with the Rooney rule. When you watch Mike Tomlin on the Steelers sideline, think of Chuck Noll and Bill Nunn, and where the Steelers and the NFL would be without them.
 -Friday Monthly Tight End, May 2014,


In Saturday's Guardian Review, Carlo Rovelli writes an essay on the meaning of Brexit and its philosophy, spinning off from the importance of philosophy to science. He begins:  

       A few months ago, I was asked to give a lecture on the usefulness of philosophy while in the UK. The lecture followed a wave of hostility towards philosophy from well-known physicists...While I was working on my lecture, I came across an astonishing unpublished text. It turned out that this issue had been discussed at length by a young man who was, without doubt, better at it than I could ever be: Aristotle.

This raised two questions. I was curious about exactly in what sense Aristotle's dialogue 'Protrepticus' had been unpublished for 24 centuries before Rovelli came across it. But more importantly, I wondered how Aristotle, in the fourth century BC, could have possibly conceived, much less discussed, the issue of the 'usefulness of philosophy while in the UK', given that the UK would not exist for roughly 2,000 years, more or less. 

Saturday 24 September 2016


Listening to predictions and reactions from the Labour leadership election, I've been impressed by the many weasel words explaining how British 'democracy' needs an effective opposition. Nowhere in any of those discussions did I hear anyone even mention that the current government, with its Parliamentary majority, commanded the support of 36% of the voters in the last general election, and that the other 64% opposed them.

Look (to borrow a form of address oozing sincerity from the former Labour PM): Bliar won three elections because he could be sure of the Scottish vote and the vote (albeit decreasing in each election) from the Northern Industrial Wasteland (aka Powerhouse), and then he was able to draw away some (again, a decreasing number) of the disaffected voters in the otherwise solidly Tory English south.

Neither Brown nor Miliband could hold that English vote, and lost (Brown) the NIW and ('Red' Ed) the Scots. Labour's first task now, regardless of the leader, has to be to win back their core support from the SNP and UKIP/Tories, not try to become a more serious LDP. There is little middle ground available for them in southern England outside the cities.

They have to do this with policy first, presented in unity, fighting the Tories on areas where they should be vulnerable: offshore wealth, Brexit, the NHS, schools. By time the next fixed election comes (thanks again Nick Clegg for that one), to be fought on newly gerrymandered boundaries, and  without proportional representation (thanks again Nick Clegg for that one) Labour ought to know not only if they are in with a chance, but also who should lead them....


One of the few remaining reasons to buy newspapers is to indulge in reading literate and measured reactions to events of the previous day. This motivation is especially precarious for devotees of sport, who can watch events live, bombarded by replay, analysis, and interview. Of course, listening to the interviewer who, having watched the entire event, and having had time to consider the biggest and most challenging ideas it threw up, and then asks, inevitably, 'how did it/you feel?' 'what was going through your head?' or the existential classic 'can you describe for us your feelings' is, in itself, a reason to increase the number of papers you take.

So imagine my feelings this morning when I turned to Ali Martin's lead story in the Guardian sports section: Middlesex's triumph over Yorkshire in the county cricket championship, and read this:

     Toby Roland-Jones spoke of an unbelievable feeling after his stunning hat-trick completed a rollercoaster final-day victory over Yorkshire that meant Middlesex claimed their first County Championship for 23 years and deny both their opponents and Somerset the crown.

Middlesex won the title, in a thriller, and your lede is 'Toby Roland-Jones spoke'? Middlesex don't get a look-in until after Yorkshire? 'Unbelievable', 'stunning' 'roller-coaster'? Three cliches in the first 14 words? And there's nothing wrong with a paragraph-long lede sentence, but if you're going to essay one, you ought to at least have some awareness of the concept in English of parallel construction: if Middlesex 'claimed' the title they also 'denied', not 'deny' both.

It gets worse. Hoping for some drama, some setting, some feeling, I moved on to the second paragraph:

     Set a contrived target of 240 runs to win in 40 overs Yorkshire were bowled out for 178 with just 28 balls of the match remaining, in what was not just a nerve-shredding run chase for both teams involved but Somerset too, who were watching from Taunton in the hope that a draw might deliver a first title in their history.

Where do you start? Obviously, there's none of whatever feeling might have been at Lords, Middlesex's home ground and of course cricket's HQ.  The stating of the target (contrived? how and why?) misses the key point, which we will get to after the next paragraph, but which involves the tension. Why 'balls of the match remaining'? 'Of the match' is redundant, because of what else could the 28 balls remain? 'nerve-shredding'? At least he didn't say 'literally nerve-shredding'. 'A' first title in their history? How about 'the first title'? I doubt there were multiple titles on offer. Sloppy writing also creates a factual error: Somerset were hoping for (not that) a draw which would (not might), deliver the title.  And remember our old friend parallel construction? If the run chase were nerve-shredding for both teams 'involved' (as opposed to both teams), it was for Somerset too. The way the sentence reads, you'd be forgiven for thinking a team called 'Somerset too' were watching from Taunton. More:

    Roland-Jones, whose hat-trick was spread across two overs, ending with No11 Ryan Sidebottom being bowled around his legs, finished with figures of six for 54, with Middlesex going on to spray the champagne for the 13th championship in their history and 11th outright.

Again, it's awkward and laborious, with the final clause larding on a couple of more numbers the writer felt had to be included before any description. But what about the tension? It's hinted at in the previous paragraph, but you have to work out the numbers to see that Roland-Jones' hat-trick began with 31 balls remaining, and Yorkshire's tail-enders chasing 63 runs. Even a Yank like me can figure out not only the tension, but the pressure on the batsmen, and the opening that would create for a bowler. Credit Roland-Jones for taking care of business in the most emphatic style. Credit him somewhere.

There follows in the story paragraph after paragraph of anodyne quotes, from Roland-Jones, from his captain James Franklin, from the Yorkshire coach Jason Gillespie. We learn absolutely nothing about the match from any of them, except perhaps that Roland-Jones feared injury when his teammates piled onto him after the win, or that Gillespie, unusually for an Australian, 'hates losing'.

One of the joys of cricket used to be following the game through the prose of writers who gave its expansive setting its full due and more. I don't know if the new generation has no appreciation of such things, or whether their writing skills have been honed on twitter. I don't know if the Guardian had no subs available to rewrite the grammar, nor a sports editor to suggest getting the drama into the lede.

I do feel certain, however, that the format of newspaper sports coverage is changing quickly. The idea of bringing the reader to the match is long buried, the idea of letting the reader 'see' something he might not have seen on television is dying. What is left is the art of recreating for the newspaper reader what he may have already seen on television, or been unlucky enough to miss, in all it's anodyne glory.  Can you tell me how you felt when you got to the end of that article?

Monday 19 September 2016


I did this interview in the autumn of 2000, in the bar of London's My Hotel, just before the US presidential elections. One version of it appeared in the Daily Telegraph. The editor there, Casper Lewellyn Smith, was most interested in Marcus' thoughts about punk rock, but Marcus' Dadist take was far too academic for the music he (Casper) loved for different rebellious reasons. Unfortunately I'd found Lipstick Traces enigmatic to the point of incomprehension; punk rock not only couldn't take the weight of Dada which Marcus wanted to load onto it, but the bridge he wanted to build between Punk and surrealism never seemed complete. I wrote the piece anyway for Casper, who cut it severly, and then I wrote this, the more complete version, for Headpress, where it ran in 2001. I also reviewed the re-issue of Mystery Train for the Spectator, which is another story, and met my future ex-wife at My Hotel soon afterwards, which is another another story....

Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train is a landmark of rock criticism, a look at America myth seen through the magic lens of rock and roll, from Robert Johnson through Elvis to The Band. Its publication turned Marcus, at age 30, into an instant eminence grise for an entire generation. There had been writers, like Ralph J Gleason, who had discussed rock music in terms of the wider world, but no one had attempted so wide a sweep, nor accomplished it so gracefully. With one book, Marcus changed rock writing forever, becoming, in effect, the music’s creative conscience.

Indeed, behind Bertold Brecht spectacles, Marcus resembles a cultural commissar. He’s never considered himself a rock critic. “I ignore the industry, don’t go to the parties,” he says. His essays now appear in such rocking outlets as Artforum, Suddeutsche Zeitung, and Salon. But you can still see the excitement behind his eyes each time an idea clicks into place. A sense of risk-taking danger gives Mystery Train its edge. It’s criticism as creative art.
Marcus was in London to promote the 25th anniversary edition of the book (“presented finally the way I always envisioned it”) alongside simultaneous publication of Double Trouble, a collection of essays dealing with a very different American myth. Double Trouble is subtitled “Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives.” When we meet at his London hotel, Marcus is worried about the upcoming presidential alternatives to America's First Bubba. He’s living temporarily in New York while he teaches at Princeton University, and although he’s registered to vote there, his wife isn’t.
We registered on the subway. New York sends people to wander the cars, signing up voters; they pay them a commission,” he says. “But only my registration went through. So if an absentee ballot hasn’t arrived by the time we get back, Jenny’s going to fly home to San Francisco, just to vote.” Marcus was born in Palo Alto, outside San Francisco, and educated at Berkeley. His lifelong addiction to rock began with a different sort of poll. I was 11 years old, my favourite song was “All Shook Up.” Chuck Berry’s “School Days” was everyone else’s favourite, and threatening to knock “All Shook Up” out of number one in the local charts. So I went and bought the record, in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Chuck Berry from number one.
He became a “self-conscious” fan in the summer of ’64. “I was interning in Washington, and I’d brought the Beatles’ album with “Money” on it with me. One of my flatmates said ‘what’s the big deal?’ and I said, ‘just listen to the instrumental break, the way you hear the whole machinery of industrial society grinding the man down, and he refuses to go under.’ A light bulb went ‘click’ in my head. I knew it was all bullshit, but I also believed it.”

When Rolling Stone magazine appeared, Marcus submitted a review to editor Jann Wenner, a college buddy. “A week or so later it was printed and I got a check for $12. That was it. I’d spent all my time studying at Berkeley, undergrad and grad school, and my professors seemed to have stopped trying to inspire students, and instead were training them for jobs. It was time to leave.” 
Marcus eventually became Rolling Stone’s book critic, and in Mystery Train he brought the devices of literary criticism to bear on rock music. I ask about what I feel is the particular influence of Leslie Fiedler, author of Love And Death In The American Novel, obvious in the way Marcus uses his personal sensibility to interpret wider issues of myth.

That sums it up pretty well. I thought a book might work if I could combine the instinctive reaction of a fan with the bigger ideas that attracted me. I felt that the whole of America was somehow captured in songs like “Mystery Train”, Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway”, The Band’s “Cripple Creek”, Sly Stone’s “Thank You For Talkin To Me Africa”, Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”. If you’re presuming that, the theoretical ideas wouldn’t work without the visceral reaction.
But that book was really motivated by Watergate, by the idea that the country was up for grabs, being fought over daily. It was tremendously thrilling, but also scary, the sense of a battle taken away before it was finished.” 
Mystery Train was published in 1975, by which time many of the artists profiled had already slipped from the creative peaks Marcus chronicled. Soon Bob Dylan would retreat into born-again Christianity, Sly Stone would begin his odyssey through jail and rehab, Elvis would be beyond comebacks. Almost immediately after Mystery Train appeared, The Band would play their “Last Waltz”. 
Coincidentally, on this trip to London, Marcus read an article in Mojo chronicling the bitterness among the Band’s surviving members over song-writing credits. In Invisible Republic, his study of The Band and Dylan’s Basement Tapes (note: now retitled The Old Weird America), Marcus wrote that he still found himself framing questions for Richard Manuel, who hanged himself in 1986, knowing Manuel could not answer them. Marcus won’t go into some of the aspects of the Mojo article, but remembers when Manuel once told him he hadn’t been able to finish a song in two years. “Why not?” asked Marcus. “I haven’t been able to finish a song in two years,” said Manuel. 
I was most interesting in seeing Rick (Danko) say he got a $200,000 cheque for his share of “Wheels on Fire”. This was 25 years ago. There are various stories out there about what went on with song writing credits. For example, there’s one that Garth wrote the early version of “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”, and sold it away, but I won’t say any more about that.”

As America turned to mellow rock and disco in the late 70s, Marcus embraced punk, which led to Lipstick Traces, a study of punk and dada which attempts to deconstruct the entire 20th century. The book left many Marcus fans cold, perhaps because it was more intellectual?

It didn’t feel different to me, but it is more intellectual in the sense that I started with a question I wanted to answer, ‘why is “Anarchy in the UK” so powerful?’ which is a different approach than Mystery Train, where I started with an instinctive understanding. But I found the lack of understanding no less thrilling. Lipstick Traces was very much a Reagan book; in the same sense that Mystery Train sprang from Watergate. It was written at a time when I literally couldn’t bear to think about America. So intellectually, I left for Europe.
It was a burning desire to get to the heart of something I knew I wasn’t going to get to the heart of. I do think I got close to figuring out what made Dada a thorn in the side of the 20th Century. After I’d finished my research and before I wrote the book, I actually wrote a play combining all its characters in a night club. I spent a month writing footnotes to the play, but it never got into the book itself.
Recently a theatre company in Austin, Texas adapted Lipstick Traces as a play. My only involvement was to see the finished product, which they did as a comedy. I said, ‘you’ve staged the book I wanted to write!'

A quarter of a century after Mystery Train, Marcus says America is once again up for grabs. Again, he’s following instinct, because the parallels between Bill Clinton and Elvis go further than their white-trash upbringings in the hinterlands of Memphis. Clinton auditioned for his job by playing America’s First Elvis on the Arsenio Hall show, donning shades and blowing the sax. 
When President Bubba’s activities below the waist began exciting America’s right-wing would-be moralists, he literally forced Elvis off the front pages of the scandal sheets. What was Kenneth Starr, after all, but another Ed Sullivan telling Clinton to keep his hips out of camera shot? In Double Trouble, Marcus quotes Jonathan Alter saying “(Clinton) may be a hound dog, but he’s our hound dog”.

From the moment Clinton was elected, the right has tried to deprive him of his legitimacy,” he explains. “His temerity was believing in himself, just like Elvis. Elvis could’ve been accepted, if he’d dropped his Memphis buddies, took the right drugs, slept with the right celebrities. Instead he stayed in Memphis, where local society treated him with contempt. Clinton went to Washington and met similar contempt from a similar high society. He didn’t do what Reagan did, invite them all to the White House, where they’d say, ‘what class!”. Clinton didn’t schmooze them. He and Elvis are fundamentally outsiders, hicks who see no reason to become sophisticated. 
And if he had invited them, they’d feel this deep sexual terror, a nightmare of waking up in the White House hungover with Clinton snoring next to them. Elvis communicated a sense that life is easier than you’ve been told it is. The people who hated him, who hate Clinton, are the ones telling you it’s not."

During the London Film Festival I watched Elvis: The Way It Is, Rick Schmidlin’s magnificent re-edit of Dennis Sanders’ 1970 Las Vegas documentary. The new film captures Elvis’ ability to draw something from an audience. It struck me I hadn’t seen a performance like that since Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention in August.

Exactly,” Marcus smiles. His eyes light up again and I feel like a student being given a A. “Think about it, from the time Elvis was 19 or 20, he was a citizen of a nation divided. Half the country wanted to BE him, and the other half wanted him removed! Clinton divided the country in the same sort of way. People thought: ‘if they can do that to the President, what can they do to me if I step out line? And they keep redrawing the line!’ They look at Clinton and they’d simply like to feel as good as he does in his element.”

We also agree on the film’s defining moment, when Elvis flirts with one of his backup singers. “Yes, here’s the woman who is black, she could feel ‘oh, he’s stolen our music’, but then he spins around to her and turns it on, and she’s jelly.” 

Marcus misses that sense of joy in music today. Does he believe, as he writes in Double Trouble, that rock music “no longer seems to speak in unknown tongues“? 

Well, so much is subject to commodification. John Langford, of the Mekons, plays in the Waco Brothers, and he began one show I saw by saying ‘we do not play no alt country.' Someone wrote that Britney Spears is 18, and she looks like a 35 year old 1950s housewife at the same time she’s an ingenue. Like she’s used up her capacity to have new experience.” 
In an essay “The Summer of Love Generation Reaches the White House, and So Do Their Kids”, Marcus quoted Margaret Drabble’s 1977 observation that people are “more ironic, more cynical, more amused by more things, and less touched by anything.” 
It’s more true than ever now,” he says. “But people are still moved by what they hear. Polly Harvey and Coren Tucker of Slater Kinney are infinitely more alive—it isn’t age—they will be touchstones in the next 20 years. They’re younger than other people and of course now they’re younger than I am. The last music to come out of nowhere and change my expectations was the last three Dylan albums, the two acoustic and “Time Out Of Mind”. They tell a single story, it’s a great detective story, as good as The Big Sleep
Most music today is a different story, but it’s a continuing one. The groups I revile, like Rage Against the Machine, Limp Biskit, Christina Aguilera, well they were created so I wouldn’t like them. Dock Boggs, the banjo-playing white bluesman said it best when he was older, “I don’t really like rock and roll, but then, I’m not supposed to like it.”