Friday, 29 December 2017


I wrote this piece for the Daily Telegraph back in 1999. 'Not Jazzy Phil' their photo caption ran. This morning Kevin Jackson was having a bit of a discussion about the modernists and their reactions to jazz music, so I decided to dig it out and republish it here.  I use the Telegraph's title below:


Philip Larkin may or may not have believed that ‘sex began in 1963’, but he certainly believed jazz had already died long before the Beatles issued their first LP.  In his words it was “as dead as Elizabethan madrigal singing.” This collection seeks to rebut the received view of Larkin as musical arch-conservative, but actually manages to reinforce strongly that judgement, thus suggesting a terrible paradox. How does a man who feels music so deeply and writes about it so well become so tone deaf?

Larkin discovered jazz through dance music, the pop of his youth. It became part of his “private joke of existence”. He relished the escape it provided. “I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz,” he said. He disliked anything that took jazz away from its roots in American folk blues, as if he begrudged jazz musicians their own aspirations to more self-conscious art. There is of course a racial element; but Larkin has been attacked enough for his retroactive affronts to political correctness. Yet while it would be churlish to use these reviews as further ammunition against his prejudice, it’s impossible to see this collection as in any way disproving it.

His complaints about be-bop taking jazz out of the realms of popular music echo those of rock fans who complain the music hasn’t been the same since Buddy Holly died. He never realised that pop music was already moving away from his sort of jazz by the time he became a fan, and it was inevitable that jazz itself would change. One may prefer Johnny Hodges to Charlie Parker, Henry Allen to Miles Davis, but would you feel comfortable asserting Hodges and Allen blew the others “out of the room”? When, eventually, he acknowledges Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in his “year’s best” choices, he does it only out of a grudging sense of responsibility to reality. 

Larkin writes precisely, so it’s hard to grant him leeway. He even has the chutzpah to criticize others for “dragging in culture references”, while himself using the adjective “Henchardian". Amusingly, the editors have culled Larkin’s poetic phrases and listed them in the book’s introduction. This has the effect, like a well-produced trailer for a bad movie, of suggesting that’s all there is on offer. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. 

While not revealing a kinder, gentler Jazzy Phil, this is still a valuable collection. Yet it's most revealing when Larkin reviews, not music, but a fellow writer, the New Yorker's jazz critic Whitney Balliett. He admires Balliet, but is also almost haughtily suspicious of his catholic enthusiasms. And there is the crux of the matter. Larkin’s inability to gain pleasure from anything but the music that first gave him that exciting release when he was young is the very definition of a fetishist, and reveals him as someone more intent on recapitulating that pleasure than making a fan's progress through the seasons of jazz.

Balliett once wrote “it is a compliment to jazz that nine-tenths of the writing about it is bad.” Larkin’s writing falls into that precious one-tenth. If only he could have shared one-tenth of Balliett’s eclectic enthusiasm.

REFERENCE BACK: Philip Larkin’s Uncollected Jazz Writings 1940-84

Edited by Richard Palmer and John White

University of Hull Press, 191pp, 19.99

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


Johnny Bower with the Maple Leafs. Glenn Hall in Chicago. Terry Sawchuk of the Red Wings. Eddie Johnston in Boston. Gump Worsley in New York. And Jacques Plante with les Habitants in Montreal.

Six names, six teams, and a rush of memories. It was a simpler time. When I read that Johnny Bower had died aged 93, I almost immediately recited those six names, like some shamanistic incantation. I can't say for sure when all six of those guys played on those teams, but I am assuming they were all together in that alignment for a least a few of my youthful years.

Beyond that, I remember Sawchuk wound up in Toronto splitting time with Bower, an innovation which went against conventional wisdom that one goalie had to play every game to stay sharp. After all, goalies were supposed to wear number 1, and two guys couldn't do that. It was, of course, a move both goalies hated, though it likely helped both immensely. Of course every team was quickly using two goalies, if only to rest their better one occasionally.

I recall too the shock trade when the Canadiens sent Plante to the Rangers for Worsley (there were other players involved—Dave Balon and Phil Goyette among others) Plante who had come up with the goalie's mask, which was originally seen as a sign of weakness, if not fear, was perceived as the sport's mercurial genius, but at odds variously with coach Toe Blake and GM Frank Selke, who would soon be gone himself. Worsley, a native Montrealer, was seen as a steady plugger (despite being one of North American sport's most prodigious drinking men).

But Johnny Bower's was probably the most interesting career of them all. He was born John Kiszkan, and at 15 enlisted in the Army, serving in England during the war until he was discharged because of arthritis in his hands. When his parents divorced he took his mother's name, though later he claimed it was easier for sportswriters to spell.He was already 20 when he played a year of junior hockey in Prince Albert in 1944, then turned pro in the minor league AHL. He played eight seasons for the Cleveland Barons, and was generally considered the league's best goalie, before he got a shot in 1953 with the New York Rangers, where he replaced Worsley, who'd been the NHL Rookie of the Year in 1952. For the next three years he was in effect Worsley's backup, playing most of the time in Vancouver of the WHL or Providence of the AHL. When the Rangers let him go he returned to Cleveland for a year, before Punch Imlach talked him into giving the NHL one more chance.

Bower was 34 when he finally settled into the nets for the Maple Leafs, where he would play for 11 more seasons, his career no doubt extended by sharing time with his fellow Ukranian Sawchuk. He backstopped the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, the first three in a row in 1962-4. After playing just one game in the 1969-70 season, he retired, and at age 45 he was at the time the oldest player to have played in an NHL game.

Nobody looked less like an athlete than Gump Worsley (well, maybe baseball's Smokey Burgess) but Bower was another guy who you would pass in the street never thinking you'd seen a great. Six decades later, most of those six names still appear regularly in arguments about the best goaltenders ever.

Ssx decades on, thinking of Johnny Bower made me nostalgic for those days when you knew the names, and the faces (no masks, no helmets) of all the goalies (if not all the players) in the six-team NHL. Even though you didn't see them much on TV (though I was lucky, being able to pick up Rangers' games out of New York—and falling in love with Montreal as a result). My dad played hockey, so we followed it a bit. I saw the Providence Reds (post-Bower) play in New Haven when the city finally got an AHL team--I had seen the AHL's Baltimore Clippers play the EHL Blades in the old New Haven Arena). Hockey was what first drew me to Montreal; Evelyne, whom I met on the beach in Woodmont, may have been another factor). In many ways my life has balanced itself on the fulcrum of Montreal; had I not wanted to live there I would not have gone to McGill; had I not gone to McGill I would not have met Theresa; had I not met her I would never have moved to Britain. 

Perhaps it was the Christmas season, or the snow that fell this morning, that helped me spin a hockey player's death into un petit coup de nostalgie, but these were very pleasant memories. RIP Johnny Bower.

Friday, 15 December 2017


My obituary of the writer William Gass is online at the Guardian; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon.

Gass' was an unusual one to write, mostly because I felt I had to explain what it was that defined his writing, and why a writer of such immense reputation was so little known among the wider public. I could not escape the sense that much of his writing was in a sense academic; written by a professor, though I really should have mentioned that he taught philosophy, not English or creative writing (he did offer seminars at various points), and it's important to note also how crucial his essays were considered.

Perhaps the fact that his major novel, The Tunnel, one of those big Great American Novels, was so difficult is part of the reason why he is so cherished among some critics, and some writers in the post-modern, meta-fictional spheres, while being dismissed by other critics (I really would have liked to include extracts of some reviews, but space did not allow) and passed-over by much of the general public.

He's often linked with John Barth, whom I both studied and read for pleasure in my college days. I have to confess I liked the 'post-modern' Barth, of The Sot Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy more than the increasingly dense 'metafictions' that followed them. Perhaps the deconstruction of language and the demands of narration are more exclusive than theorists suggest, perhaps the novel wants to extend beyond itself. Gass' special talent was in being able to do that while bringing his story out, so that the work became a metaphor of the story. "Form is never more than an extension of content", Robert Creeley said. Where many would reverse the aphorism for Gass, I think it rings true as it is.

Sunday, 26 November 2017


In Lawless, a previous volume of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal series (you can link to my review here) we saw how Terry Lawless escaped from the Army, for whom he served as an assassin, and headed home to avenge his brother's murder. He wound up having to work off his father's debt by acting as a strong arm and killer for the mob chief, Mr. Hyde (there is a continuity of sorts in the underworld of the Criminal series).

Now someone is knocking off made men all over town, and Mr. Hyde pulls Terry off his usual work to investigate who and why. And to stop it, obviously. Which means Terry will be put into confrontations with all the likely suspects. And there's one further complication: Terry is sleeping with Hyde's younger wife Elaine, who's son is dying of cancer, and thus needs expensive treatment, just as much as she needs solace or release.

The beauty of Criminal is the way Brubaker hews to noir, not just the themes but deep into the motivations. It is indeed a dark world, no one's motivations are perfect, and nothing, none of the institutions who structure society for those who believe in them, are what they seem to be. Just as much as Lawless, The Sinners is at heart about family, and the ways in which they create obligations, feelings which are not as much chosen as inherited, and the ways in which that makes people vulnerable.

An affair with the boss' girl is a marker of danger any fan of noir will recognise; Elaine's instinct as a mother is a motivation stronger than Terry's obligations to his brother or his father, the latter the one forced on him. And as with Lawless these motivations are not toyed with as the story resolves itself in pretty much the only way you'd think it could. Because this is a noir world Lawless inhabits, and the rules of noir are based above all on their inevitablity. Excellent.

written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Sean Phillips
Image Books,  £13.99, ISBN 9781632152985

Thursday, 16 November 2017


Writing and speaking about Richard Wilbur over the past two weeks, I was drawn to search through my files looking for work I might have done for him. I found this poem, which I wrote in the fall of 1970, which must have been for his verse writing class. I was 19. I seem to have revised it, only slightly each time, in 1976 and 1977, in Montreal, then in Connecticut, and finally after I moved to Britain, and sent it to at least one magazine each time (I can tell by the return addresses; and I used onion-skin paper in those days, remember that?).

I've done a little more revision now, but it's still basically the same poem. I wish I had the copy I submitted to Wilbur, with his comments; it may be in a box somewhere in my brother's attic. I share it because I think one can sense the influence of Wilbur, and I can feel the awkwardness with which I approach rhyme and particularly meter. In The Wake has never appeared in public before...

The funeral procession plodded by
in single-file cars,
headlights struggling to be seen
against the morning sun.

In front the hearse, the limousines,
behind them black gave way
to cars in motley disarray
until the line was done.

And down the road a flower-painted
old Volkswagen van,
just-married signs and tied-on shoes,
tin cans and blaring horn,

Chugged past like dawn's cacophony.
I stopped and looked both ways to view
Their circling my boundaries
That sunny summer morn.

Sept-Oct 1970, Middletown

Wednesday, 15 November 2017


I've written John Hillerman's obituary for the Guardian; it's online and you can find it here. It ought to appear in the paper paper soon. It is as written, for the most part, and I'd characterise it as a log of sorts for a jobbing actor. That he had a major success with Magnum was something for which he was grateful, and deserved; I saw a brief quote from an interview that emphasised the financial comfort the part brought him.

Yet I meant what I wrote about noticing him in small parts in the Seventies (the still above is the moment in Chinatown where he asks Jack Nicholson what happened to his nose), and I have the distinct sense that there were bigger and better roles out there for him, had not casting been so myopic. I also was considering any number of parts on stage I would have thought he could have filled. But playing second banana to Tom Selleck for eight seasons of a hit show was nothing to sneeze at, even if nothing as good, and certainly nothing more rewarding, followed.

It has nothing to do with John Hillerman, but I was struck by the fact that his was the second Hillerman obit I'd written for the Guardian; the first, of the crime writer Tony Hillerman, was nine years ago. You can find a link to it here.

Friday, 10 November 2017


My obituary of the astronaut Dick Gordon is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it, with the exception of the final paragraph, detailing his death and survivors. Here's what I wrote:

Gordon died 6 November 2017 in San Marcos, California, just two months after the death of his second wife, Linda Saunders. He is survived by three sons and two daughters from his first marriage, to Barbara Field, which ended in divorce, and by two step-children. Another son, James, died in 1982. Pete Conrad died in 1999 in a motorcycle accident, but Alan Bean became an artist; his 1993 painting The Fantasy shows all three of the Apollo 12 team standing on the surface of the moon. 

I would have liked very much for that to be the way the obituary ended.


Yesterday I mentioned, in the words I spoke at Kevin Cadle's funeral, the Richard Wilbur essay I'd recorded for BBC Radio 4 Last Word; today the piece was broadcast. You can find it here on IPlayer; it runs from 13 mins to 18 minutes into the programme. It was a very clever edit by the programme editor Neil George, who got an extra poem in, the wonderful 'Tywater', as well as created a new link into the lyrics from Candide. It sounds seamless and I'm very pleased with it. I hope it's a worthy tribute. One bit that was lost was my own reading of Wilbur's 'Museum Piece'...maybe I'll post my original script and record that one for it. Until then, Wilbur's readings are beautiful; listen and enjoy. The programme will be broadcast again Sunday evening at 8:30 on Radio 4.

Thursday, 9 November 2017


Today was Kevin Cadle's funeral. It was a big service, full of music and video and reminiscence from family and friends that had us combining laughter and sadness the way you hope such events will do. I was honoured to be asked to speak at the service, and I wrote something to fit a 4-5 minute slot. But when I arrived at the church, I saw in the programme that I was scheduled to do a reading of Psalm 23. So I took my script and did a quick edit: removing the stories I was going to tell, so the emphasis would be more serious, and lead to the Psalm.

As the service went on, and people shared their stories, I felt better because mine were not really needed, and there were so many of these touching personal moments we might have gone on all day. I found out all about all sorts of sides of Kevin I hadn't known, Although when Bobby Kinzer, in his Eulogy, mentioned Kev watching Calvin Murphy play basketball at Niagara, he reminded me of something and I inserted it into the speech adlib. Anyway here's what I wrote and said: the bit in bold face is what I wrote in the pew as I cut the story-telling part, which is what's between the brackets at the end:


Since Kevin died, I've been thinking a lot about synchronicity. The other day I started reading a novel, Inez, by the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. The first line went “We shall have nothing to say in regard to our own death” and I had to put it down right there, and haven't picked it up since. Kev went so suddenly he didn't have anything to say, but it's been a comfort to my soul to hear so much that everyone else has said. Kevin was so full of life, such fun. You all know that--and it was one of the things you heard from almost everyone who remembered him, from friends and colleagues and fans: the Kevin audiences watched on TV was the same Kevin we knew.

I've told a lot of stories about Kev lately, and I realised that the point of all of them was the same: Kevin touching my serious self, teaching me that 'people gonna do what people gonna do', 'stuff happens' 'it is what it is' and of course exhorting me to 'have a GREAT day!' And making me laugh. Bobby just reminded us of Calvin Murphy; every time Kev and I would discuss or argue or broadcast basketball together, at some point he'd look at me and say, 'remind me how many Murph laid on you in high school?' and I'd stammer and finally say '67 points, but they weren't all on me!'. The last time I saw him we were doing his Sportsheads show, and when we were done I was feeling sentimental and I told Kev how great it felt to be working together again. Kev looked at me and said 'You know what's better? We're still working!' 

I've been thinking a lot about synchronicity. The day Kev died I woke up and discovered that a professor of mine, Richard Wilbur, the second poet laureate of the United States, had died the day before. He was 96, and last week I recorded an essay about him for BBC Radio 4's Last Words. In his late 80s he wrote a poem called This Pleasing Anxious Being, whose title comes from Gray's 'Elegy in A Country Churchyard'—which, given a little poetic license about 'country' is just what we're doing today. In the poem he remembers a holiday dinner when he was a boy, and the action stops while everyone around the table waits

for you to recollect that, while it lived, the past
was a rushed present, fretful and unsure.

In an interview he explained he had only recently discovered there was a past: he thought his life would always be there for him to revisit, only to find now he had to do it in his mind. It was like Thomas Wolfe's saying 'you can't go home again', something both Kev and I, as expats, were aware of.

The poem ends with a drive, in 1928, through a snowstorm, to a Christmas visit. In the back seat, the boy's half-closed sleepy eyes

make out at times the dark hood of the car
plowing the eddied flakes, and might forsee
in good time, the bedstead at whose foot
the world will swim and flicker and be gone.

Synchronicity. Seeing through a child's eyes. Cooking pancakes for my son on New Year's morning two years ago, right after giving me 'pinch, punch first of the month', he asked me 'when we die, the world won't remember us, will they?' I told him that we all have worlds we make around ourselves, where we will be remembered, even when things, like books and poems and articles and show tapes and blogs, have disappeared. And that someday he would tell his children about their grandad they may have never met, and maybe tell them how he learned to make pancakes from me. And he said 'never mind, dad'....

But I do mind. We can't go home again? Kev didn't get to choose his own words? For Kevin Cadle, home is going to be present in all those memories all of us and so many other people share of him, home will be in all those he reached, and touched, made smile, and entertained. I don't have that many close friends. I've just lost one. But wherever my friend is now, I like to think that he is home.

Which leads us to the reading, from the 23rd psalm, and please join in: 
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul: he leads me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: 
for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies: you anoint my head with oil; 
my cup runs over. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: 
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.


If you're still interested, here are the stories I left out.  They pick up from
'I've told a lot of stories about Kev lately, 

{ but I'll repeat this one cause it's at the root of why we stayed friends for more than 20 years.

Kev and I had been covering World League of American football in the spring. That summer, Sky decided to replace me with Kev as host of the NFL in the fall, and being Sky they didn't bother to tell me. Kev and I had lunch one day and talked mostly about his future. Later, after I'd luckily gone to Channel 5's late night, I bumped into Kev and told him I had no hard feelings; Sky offered him the job and that's fair enough, I just was surprised he hadn't mentioned it to me. 'But I thought they'd told you and you were just being polite and not mentioning it', he said. And then he shook his head and said 'Sky be Sky' and the truth of it (and the pun on BSkyB) made me laugh. It became a catch phrase and I still use it.

We still did NFL Europe together, where I got Cadled (see this post), when Kev would tell you he was going to ask you a certain question, then ask you something completely different, and sit chuckling off camera while you spun your wheels. The best times were when he'd drive me home afterwards, and we'd talk. Sometimes we were even serious. I do tend to stew on things. One time I ended a worry about something by asking rhetorically, why can't they just do the right thing? Kevin burst out laughing. People gonna do what they do, he said. Nothing you can do about it.

My favourite gig with Kev was one he got for me. We did Euroleague basketball for Showtime Sport, each doing solo commentary on one game a week, then doing the Final Four together, my doing play by play and Kev colour. I rarely Cadled him, but I got to set him up to analyse the sport he loved so much and was so knowledgeable about. Kev was a good coach because he was a people person, but he was a great coach because he could also take apart the game} 

I sometimes tell people I'm happy I don't have to work for a living. When I was working with Kev, it certainly never seemed like working. RIP my man. My condolences to his family and friends, and my grateful thanks to Lorraine, his widow, for being asked to be a part of his goodbye.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017


The shock horror at revelations of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the House of Commons came as a huge surprise to the media who cover Parliament. There has never been a sex scandal in Westminster before. Ever. Right? I should Profumo, to use some rhyming slang. I can't tell if the present scandals are considered better or worse than a major party leader hiring a hitman to kill his gay lover, but time and the tabloids will tell. I am suspicious, however, of any scandal which allows Julia Heartless-Bruiser to play the heroine.
But to get on point, when it comes to inappropriate behaviour with subordinates, I recall a column Simon Hoggart wrote thirty-some years ago. It was probably in the Tina Brown Tatler, which I confess to having read back then, and hooked to the scandal of Margaret Thatcher's favourite cabinet minister, Cecil Parkinson's impregnating his secretary, Sara Keays, during a long affair, all the while upholding Mrs. Thatcher's 'Victorian Values,' just as one of the heartthrobs of the blue-rinse Tory faithful ought to.

This must have been in 1983, when the scandal forced his resignation, but before his heartless callous bullying treatment of Keays after her daughter was born became public knowledge. Hoggart was, like most Westminster insiders, approaching the story with some levity. I couldn't find the original column, but memory says it the punchline was something like "it would be an exaggeration to say that the air at Conservative Central Office at 5pm on a Friday was filled with the noise of assistants smacking against desk tops, but not much of one."
They say politics is show business for ugly people, which doesn't explain Harvey Weinstein, but may go some way toward understanding how the power elite functions with those less powerful, in the hothouse and treacherous upwardly mobile atmosphere of Parliament. Shocked! I'm shocked to discover politicians abusing those under they know how the electorate feels.


I am not sure exactly what this means, but I do advise care in following Robert Mueller's investigations. He is described as dogged and perseverant, as scrupulous and honest, but also as loyal, and the question might be to whom is his ultimate loyalty? Here's a portion of a remarkable bit of investigation by Patrick Cockburn of the ongoing 9/11 lawsuit, the Saudi connection, and Mueller's stone-walling of it 15 years ago.

"The reason we know so much about the West Coast activities of the (9/11) hijackers is largely because of Michael investigatior for the Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities (relating to) the Terrorist Attacks Of (9/11). Reviewing files at FBI headquarters, he came across a stray reference to an informant in San Diego who had known one of the hijackers. Intrigued, he decided to follow up in the San Diego field office. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (said) Robert Mueller, then the FBI director...made the "strongest objections" to Jacobson and his colleagues visiting San Diego.." This is Patrick Cockburn in the current issue of Harpers. He goes on to report the links beween the hijackers and Saudi funding of people they visited, and extreme Wahhabis at the Saudi consulate in LA. They had been in touch with another FBI informant named Shaikh, who omitted them from his FBI reports,. When Jacobson wanted to interview Shaikh, even backed by a congressional subpoena, Mueller refused to allow it, and the FBI moved him into hiding "for his own safety". "Graham believed Mueller was acting under orders from the (Bush) White House"....

Saturday, 28 October 2017


Watching the response to the latest release of documents about the JFK Assassination, I'm struck by just how much noise and how little light has been generated. Starting of course with Donald Trump's claim 'he' was releasing the docs, 'ahead of schedule', when of course the release was mandated by a law passed 25 years ago, and Trump in the end withheld what were probably the most crucial documents. But that's par for the course with the Tweeter in Chief.

The spin had been delivered to the mainstream well before the release: the voices called upon to evaluate it were predictably defensive. A couple of threads likely to attract attention from the general reader and deflect attention from bigger issues were the major talking points on virtually all media, from BBC to NBC and even to Fox, where you'd think so-called 'conspiracy theories' about JFK would get as much credence as all the other weirder stuff Hannity, Alex Jones and Trump peddle. Watching the uninformed bit of the  punditocracy wade around in this sludge like they were backstroking in perfumed waters has long since ceased amusing me.

Those pundits always work within the Conspiracy Anomaly, an oddly worthless syllogism which posits anyone suggesting the Warren Commission might be wrong in its assumptions that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone crazed leftist assassin, must therefore also defend any and all other conspiracies extant, from Elvis on the Moon to David Icke's Lizards. Meanwhile, defenders of the establishment like themselves can be proven wrong time and time again when they accept the official version, and never be compelled   to account for that history of conspiracies or lies. They simply write those events off as good intentions gone bad, unfortunate coincidence, or unwitting mistakes. Then they erase their errors and press on with accepting and acting as PR boosters for the next set of official lies which come along. This represents a long and ignoble list of the highly paid and highly promoted punditocracy.

Nevertheless, or indeed, for this reason, I do have a few names to throw out there which I wish some of those enlightened personages might have considered.

1. DONALD TRUMP As mentioned, this was not 'Donald Trump Releasing JFK Documents', as it was billed almost everywhere. This was a release mandated by law 25 years ago, which Trump managed to sabotage by allowing both the CIA and FBI to allow a large tranche of docs to be withheld, for at least six more months until a 'review' has been undertaken. Which was what the 25 year wait was supposed to allow.

2. EARLE CABELL One of the more interesting documents released, as highlighted by Jefferson Morley, confirms Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell was a CIA asset going back to the 1950s. Given that his brother was Charles Cabell, deputy director of the CIA under Allen Dulles, and the man who planned the Bay of Pigs invasion and then was forced by JFK to resign along with Dulles, there has always been speculation of collusion, not least with the late change of the motorcade route to include the odd and unsafe turn through Dealey Plaza on its way to the Stemmons Freeway. Knowing he actually worked for the CIA makes such speculation that much more credible.

3. DAVID ATLEE PHILLIPS: Many of the stories led with Oswald's contacts in Mexico City with the Soviet embassy, and their so-called head of assassinations. This made for great headlines to relaunch the CIA's pet conspiracy theory of 50 years ago into a climate where Russia-hating is popular and rife. The documents released shed no new light, but it's worth remembering what we already knew. First, at the time he was supposedly traveling from New Orleans to Mexico City via Houston, Oswald, or someone pretending to be him, was introduced to Sylvia Odio in her Dallas apartment. Odio, the daughter of a man who tried to assassinate Castro, would have no reason to lie about this.

The tapes of Oswald's telephone calls to the Soviet embassy were originally claimed to have been destroyed by the CIA, before they showed up, at which point the 28 Sept calls were shown to have been made by a voice not Oswald's. The pictures of the man taken by CIA cameras were of a man not Oswald. If, as we believe, Oswald was a patsy, he may have been being moved around Mexico City with one cover story (trying to get to Cuba?) while another man was moving in parallel paths setting him up, and another was doing the same in Dallas.

It's also possible that there were two separate frames built, as Peter Dale Scott has suggested. The first was intelligence sources setting up Oswald the assassin as a Russian/Cuban hireling or sympathizer, in order to justify LBJ's invading Cuba. The second was cobbled together quickly when LBJ unexpectedly balked at triggering WWIII, and then put together piecemeal to show Oswald as a disaffected lone crazed assassin.

Most of the rest of the docs which are still being withheld are most likely for CYA reasons involving cover up for involvement by CIA agents and contacts with Oswald as an informant by FBI. But there may be others, more directly dangerous to the CIA. The most interesting would concern David Atlee Phillips, who, under the name of Maurice Bishop, actually introduced Antonio Veciana, the founder of the militant Cuban exile group Alpha 66, to Lee Oswald in Dallas in August 63. Phillips, who would lead the CIA's anti-Castro ops, was Win Scott's deputy in Mexico City. Intuiting that he might have been running Oswald around and framing him requires no great leap of imagination.

4. GEORGE JOANNIDES: Joannides worked on JM/WAVE, the CIA's operations run out of the University of Miami, which included the plans to kill Castro (Operation Mongoose). He basically ran the Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE), which was even more aggressively active than Alpha 66 against Castro; it was DRE who staged the confrontation with Oswald in New Orleans which caused Trump to accuse Ted Cruz's father of killing JFK. Joannnides was also appointed the CIA liason to the House Committee on Assassinations in 1978, which is an interesting use of the fox as a game keeper (HSCA was of course never informed of the conflict of interest). There were lawsuits to get his files in 2005 (he was also accused of participating in the RFK killing, but that appears to have been disproven) which the CIA blocked. These likely don't fall under the purview of the files in the National Archives, but it would not surprise me were there other material there.

5. ALLEN DULLES David Talbot's biography of Dulles, The Devil's Chessboard, is essential reading on the subject of the CIA and its doings, including re JFK. Had it been published back then, I would have added it to the compendium I wrote for the London Library on the 50th anniversary of the assassination (you can link to it here) for his speculation on what documents may be missing. Talbot provides information about what Allen Dulles was doing at the CIA facility known as 'The Farm' on 22 November; unusual given that he had been gone from the Agency for two years. It's easy to speculate he was ready to oversee operations in the chaos that might have followed the assassination (recall communications going dead just after the shooting). I would be surprised if records were kept, but any confirmations of meetings or other attendees would be welcome, and, since they might suggest a highly-placed disaffected element of the CIA was involved or had knowledge of the plot. This of course would be something the CIA would need to stall indefinitely.

6. WILLIAM HARVEY, HOWARD HUNT et al: David Talbot also mentions files on the Church Committee's 1975 interview with the CIA's legendary William Harvey, who was in charge of the much of the Company's dirty work and may have felt he was being hung out to dry. Even travel records might be revealing for Harvey, David Morales (who was a hit man working for Harvey and Ted Shackley) or Howard Hunt, who denied being in Dallas on 22 November, but lost a libel suit to the magazine who claimed he was, and then of course issued a death-bed confession via his son. Talbot also mentions files on J. Walton Moore, the Dallas CIA office chief who assigned George de Morenschild to Oswald (I have always believed it was de Morenschild's writing in Russian on the back of the famous Oswald posed photo) and Gordon McClendon, the Dallas businessman Jack Ruby called for after he shot Oswald.

7. LEE OSWALD: The '201' file the CIA kept on Oswald was supposedly destroyed by James Angleton (who also destroyed Mary Pinchot Meyer's diary after she was murdered; her estranged husband Cord Meyer was high up in the CIA and she had been having an affair with JFK) but bits of it have been pieced together. If you believe that many of the contradictions in that file were because Oswald's 'defection' to the USSR was being used as a barium meal, to discover leaks within the CIA, this complete file would possibly answer some crucial questions. It might also reveal contacts who knew of Oswald, and knew his identity was being used in this way. If you can show that oswald was indeed being used by the CIA, whether as agent, informer, and/or dupe  you are well on the way to understanding that he was: in other words, a perfect patsy.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017


My obituary of the actor Robert Guillaume has been posted at The Guardian online, you can link to it
here. It should be in the paper paper soon; in fact, they called me while I was out taking the dog for a fall swim at Waggoners Wells, and asked for it in two hours as it was intended for today's paper, before Fats Domino died.

Guillaume was a very late starter in many ways, but his good luck in being spotted a number of times, and his hard work at a number of good roles where he was the first to take over from the original lead, or to take a show on the road, was impressive. Apparently, despite his success as Nathan Detroit, which ought to have convinced almost anyone, network executives were very hesitant to offer him the Benson role on Soap: I probably should have mentioned that as well as being the show's anchor, his work with Katharine Helmond was the best relationship in the show. Benson, in a sense, was less successful because his was more a two-hander with James Noble, who had to stand in for any number of characters from Benson.

Charles Gordone was, I believe, the first black dramatist to win a Pulitzer, and No Place To Be Somebody was the first Off-Broadway play to win as well. I read that this was Guillaume's favourite role. I never saw an episode of the Robert Guillaume Show, but would be very curious to view it now: it must have driven the network Standards & Practices people crazy. Interracial romance? What next?

Similarly, Sports Night never made it to Britain (I assume because they would assume American sports was of no interest to anyone) but a takeoff on ESPN Sports Center could easily be seen as a precursor to Studio 60 (Saturday Night Live) or Newsroom (CNN). I've also never seen the movie Prince Jack, but alongside Guillaume as King and Robert Hogan as JFK you have Lloyd Nolan as Joe Kennedy, Cameron Mitchell as Gen Walker, Kenneth Mars (Franz Liebkind in The Producers) as LBJ, and Dana Andrews, Theodore Bikel, William Windom and Jim Backus. How did I miss that? RIP, Robert Guillaume.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017


Harry Bosch is still working cold cells, his office a converted cell at the San Fernando PD. But when the small town is hit by a double murder at a pharmacy, Harry's experience means he becomes the primary on the case, which he quickly realises is not just a brutal killing attached to a random robbery.

But just before the murders were called in, Bosch had been visited by an old LAPD partner Lucia Soto, accompanied by a DA and an investigator from the departments new Conviction Integrity Unit. Preston Borders, a sex killer Bosch had put away thirty years ago has petitioned for a new trial, based on the confession of another criminal to his lawyer. As the other man is now dead, the lawyer came forward, and a recheck of the evidence discovered new DNA evidence which backs up the confession. And if someone else killed Danielle Skyler, Bosch must have framed Borders with the evidence that did convict him.

Two Kinds Of Truth is Michael Connelly's second novel released this year, following The Late Show, which marked the debut of a new cop character, Renee Ballard. In my review of that book, to which you can link here, I wrote that Connelly's books are character-driven, though never shrinking as police procedurals, and often in the Bosch series resembling hard-boiled detective stories as well. I also noticed, in the previous Bosch novel, The Wrong Side Of Goodbye (link to that review here) the way Connelly's weaving together of two complex stories became driven by plot—which I thought might reflect the different approach to writing the Bosch TV series.

This novel's two stories aren't as complex, nor as deeply-layered as The Wrong Side Of Goodbye's were, but they are also, in a sense plot-driven. The pharmacy killings lead to a more serious drugs case, and Harry winds up going undercover to get to the bottom of the prescription opioid racket. Meanwhile, Harry hires his half-brother Mickey Haller to defend him in the re-opened murder case, which turns into a courtroom drama, and most interestingly, one based on what is, in effect, a locked-room mystery.

The first story is a thriller, and it really stretches the image of Harry as an action hero. Its pacing is quicker than the other story, in which the investigation has to proceed layer by layer, and much of it done by Haller and his investigator, and reported back to Harry. It also has to resolve itself like clockwork: legal clockwork, and legal is the meaning of the two truths in the novel's title. The mesh of the stories isn't as seamless as you'd hope: but both wind up being page-turners, reading to get to the solutions. It's the way in which thrillers and puzzles get to a similar place by different means; the dark interiors of hard-boiled Harry are what gets passed by to an extent. The great thing is, it doesn't matter. Undercover thriller, courtroom drama, locked room mystery. The menace of drug rings and the menace of venal DAs and Rat Squad cops. And Harry Bosch, whose character remains as deeply compelling as ever. Michael Connelly remains the best in the business.

Two Kinds Of Truth by Michael Connelly

Orion, £19.99, ISBN 9781409145554

published 31 October

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Thursday, 19 October 2017


I mentioned that I could recall one exercise I did for Richard Wilbur's poetry writing class. This was in the fall of 1970; I was 19, beginning my third year of college, and as I wrote in the previous post, the student strike had convinced me that if I was going to stay in college, I was going to study what I wanted to study. Though I'm not sure this sort of thing was my ultimate goal. If I can find any others from that time which are a bit more, well, you know, I may post them here.

The assignment was to write a riddle in verse.  I was quite pleased when I came up with this one, and if I remember correctly he of course guessed it right away (it ain't hard) but said something nice about the originality of the metaphor, or some such.

I couldn't find a copy of it, but I did find its index card in my files, because it was actually published, in Frank Denton's magazine Ash Wing, in 1977. I hadn't remembered that at all. But I've written it below, from memory. I think I'd get rid of jaundiced in this context and maybe reverse 'around the world' and 'over the top', which I'd originally done writing in logical progression, though the phrases sound better ordered as they are.


Blood blue yellow yo-yo
What tricks can you do?
Around the world, over the top
And a wicked all-day sleeper too.


Richard Wilbur, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and America's second Poet Laureate, died last Saturday. My obit of him went up at the Guardian online Tuesday; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I had actually written it quite a while ago, probably about ten years ago, long enough that it was saved in my computer in Microsoft Works! However it didn't require much updating, and I was very happy with what I'd written then.

When I was at Wesleyan, Wilbur was one of the two glamorous figures in the English department. The other was F.D. Reeve (father of the actor Christopher), whose obituary I also wrote, four years ago for the Independent. You can link to that one here. What links the two, apart from their patrician elegance, is Robert Frost and Russia. Reeve was Frost's translator when the older poet went to Russia, Wilbur translated Russians, especially Yevtushenko. But more importantly, Wilbur really was the heir to Frost's position as an American poet. His work has the same precision of language, the same sensitivity to the natural world, the same sense of some sort of moral agency behind it, though crucially I find Wilbur's world-view far less dark and far more approachable in our time than Frost's. I almost see it more in Wilbur's blank verse, and occasional free verse, than in the rhymed poems, but it's certainly there. That he was never able to assume Frost's centrality in America's public arts world speaks more to the changes both in American poetry and American society than it does to Wilbur.

I saw him compared to both Auden and Larkin in some obituaries, and it's easy enough to see why. But he's not as showy with his language as Auden, and he's nowhere near as misanthropic, as presumptively world-weary as Larkin. Somehow it's hard to imagine either of those poets translating Moliere with the playful verve Wilbur managed--I do recommend those to anyone still reading this far!

I was lucky enough to take two courses with Wilbur. One was his basic poetry course, where as I say in the obit, his breakdown of a wide range of poets was stunning: his command of the deeper meaning of words, their roots, their sounds, their usages was comprehensive, and he liked poets who could use words deftly and unusually: Hopkins and Cummings, I recall. I then came back and got into his verse writing course the following year, by which time, after the student strike of 1970, I had decided I should be studying those subjects I wanted to study. Wilbur had been one of the professors most supportive of the strike; I remember cycling round campus with the strike paper the morning his poem 'For The Student Strikers' appeared, hawking it like a newsie with a headline: 'Strike paper! Wilbur Poem! Getcher Wilbur poem here'.  The photo above left shows the documentary film-maker Stephen Talbot leading an anti-war march in Middletown in 1969: if you closely behind him you'll see Wilbur, a few rows back, unprepossessingly marching with the students.

I had published a poem when I was 16, in the New Haven Register, but I should have realised just how big a step a class with him would be. Wilbur was not a touchy-feely kind of teacher, but each assignment came back with thoughtful (and gentle) criticism of my work. I can recall one short exercise I wrote for him, a riddle, and he took great pleasure in guessing it, correctly of course.

At some point after that class, I discovered Charles Olson, a Wesleyan alumnus, and my view of poetry changed completely. I wish I'd been able to start making that leap while I was submitting poems to Wilbur, because his input probably would have spurred me on. But though the style I began to absorb from Olson was very different to Wilbur's I never lost my desire to be able to express myself with a mere fraction of Wilbur's acuity, grace, and precision.

It was a privilege to be able to write Wilbur's obit and note his passing for a British audience. I hope I did him justice. I just wish the paper would occasionally use a younger photo of poets who lived nearly 100 years! The first photo at top right is of the young poet; the one just above to the right is from about the time I was a student at Wesleyan, and how I remember him. RIP

Monday, 16 October 2017


My friend and colleague Kevin Cadle died unexpectedly yesterday, aged 62. I've written an appreciation of my man for, you can find it here. (NOTE: On the first anniversary of Kev's death I went back to repost that story, and the link to doesn't work any more. So I'll just insert it here, exactly as I wrote it that morning, after Karl and Larraine called to tell me he was gone, and as it appeared on There will be a little repetition in the rest of this piece, but I don't mind if you don't.


Yesterday Kev was supposed to be in the Talksport studio doing the Jags game with Nat Coombs and me. I got a text from him Sunday morning saying he'd been to the emergency room with a virus, and wasn't feeling up to doing the show, making his unnecessary apologies. This wasn't like Kev, who was generally indefatigable, but I texted him back jokingly, as I was just out of hospital myself. I expected to see him in a few days, when I was going to do his new Sportsheads show with him. When I heard the news of his death, my first thought as the shock wore off was that it was the first time I'd ever heard from or about Kev when the conversation didn't generate a smile.

Kevin was above all fun. It was more than twenty years ago that we met doing End Zone, the World League of American Football magazine show on Sky, and for another decade he and I did WLAF/NFL Europe games together every spring. The thing with Kev as the host was he always kept you on your toes; one of his favourite tricks was to tell you he'd be asking you about the Monarchs' defense when we came out of the break; then he'd ask you about the Amsterdam offense, and chuckle off camera as you tried to adjust. I used to call it 'getting Cadled'.

Most of you know Kev was first off a basketball coach, and for a couple of years in the Nineties, he and I did Euroleague basketball for a satellite channel in the Gulf. We'd each call a weekly game, but during the final four playoffs we worked together, with my doing play by play and Kev the colour. I tried any number of times to Cadle him, but like I said, he was indefatigable, and I never really succeeded: nothing was going to put him off his game.

But my favourite times with Kev were quieter ones, when his positive thinking could lift me up. Especially in those years we both lived in northwest London, and he'd give me a lift home after late finishes at Sky. We'd be able to pick up the banter, and it was always a hoot and a half, in just that sort of way when you and someone you like share some common background, but also enough differences see things from different angles. But it was even better when the talk grew more serious. I see humour in things in a somewhat ironical way, Kev's perspective was always more positive, and no less funny.

He was big man, with a big personality, and he loved to share it. From the first time we went to Scotland to do a Claymores' game, and the legion of fans from his days coaching hoops up there crowded round, I could see there was a special connection there. Kev was successful as a motivational speaker, and it was easy to see why: his message was always upbeat, and he was always on message.

I can't tell you how shocked I am that we've lost him. The last thing I said to Nat Sunday night was about bringing Kev back in this Sunday. I was hoping to finally Cadle him. I won't get that chance. When we finished a Sportsheads taping a couple of weeks ago, we went off together and started talking about how much fun it had been, just like the old days. Those old days are now gone. I will miss him. And so will NFL fans, and sports fans, all round the UK. For anyone in this country who followed American sport, Kev was a star. And to me, I am proud to say, he was a friend.

It was a shock, especially since he was supposed to do our Talksport show that night, and I was looking forward to doing his Sportsheads programme this week. Just saying that reminds how much of our careers in this business depends on relationships: Kev brought me aboard on Showtime Sport's EuroLeague basketball (it was in 2003 and 2004, not the late Nineties as I mis-remembered) and I was able to throw some things his way: it was true that we talked about that old time feeling of working together regularly just a couple of weeks ago: you just never know what will happen.

As some of you may remember, Kev replaced me on the Sky NFL show. Sky being Sky no one ever bothered to inform me of this, but I was lucky enough to have Channel Five pick up the late night Sunday and Monday games soon after, and the rest was history. The Sky NFL producer was on holiday, and had assumed someone else would let me know; meanwhile Kev and I had lunch in Primrose Hill when he knew but I still didn't. The next time we got together (which curiously enough was by accident, and on Primrose Hill) we had a talk. Kev hadn't wanted to bring the subject up, because he felt embarrassed and, assuming Sky would have had the grace to inform me; he figured I was being polite and not bringing it up either. That we stayed friends says all that needs to be said.

The photo at the top of the page was taken just about a year ago, after the NFL game at Twickenham, when I interviewed Kev on stage to help promote his memoir, The Cadle Will Rock. In the middle is Karl Baumann, who was our producer on WLAF/NFL Europe. I'd tell the Amsterdam story now, but this isn't the time or the place.

But it makes me smile. I've got others; the Frankfurt concentration camp one is my favourites. Maybe someday. And this is the absolute truth: no sooner had I posted this than my email showed a request from Kevin to connect on Linkedin. He'd Cadled me one last time! This morning someone posted a picture of Kev and Cecil Martin carving the Thanksgiving turkey, a Sky tradition which I believe was Karl's idea. It was high sports comedy, and it got better every year. When I saw the photo I started laughing out loud. And then I cried. RIP Big Guy.

Sunday, 15 October 2017


NOTE: This review contains some spoilers, but that shouldn't matter because the film offers its own spoilers early on.

It's the East End of London, before the Ripper murders, but the Limehouse Golem is a serial killer who has already killed a prostitute, a Jewish scholar, and a family in the rag trade. The police have no clue, but the public and press are clamoring for results so Scotland Yard hands the investigation to Inspector Kildare, a detective who has gone nowhere in the Yard because he is 'not the marrying kind', and thus will be gladly sacrificed to the public as the murders multiply.

But as Kildare joins the case, he is presented with a domestic poisoning, of playwright John Cree by his wife Lizzie, a former music hall star in the female impersonator Dan Leno's shows. And the two cases turn out to be connected, as Kildare discovers in the reading room of the British Museum, where Thomas DeQuincey's infamous essay on the art of murder has been annotated by the Golem himself. Which limits the list of suspects to Cree, Leno, Karl Marx and George Gissing.

Does this not sound like the skeleton of a tremendous film? It is taken from Peter Ackroyd's novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, and the possibilities are endless. A conflation of the Ratcliff Highway murders about which DeQuincey wrote, and the story of James Maybrick, the Ripper suspect poisoned by his wife, Ackroyd's book was a rich mining of the nuances of Victorian sexuality, as well as a turn about performance, creation and fame. Screenwriter Jane Goldman said it was a long-time dream of hers to adapt the book for the screen. But that long-time does not appear to have been used in considering what would be the best way to do that.

The biggest problem is that the story's big twist, the identity of the killer, is made obvious a third of the way through the film, and that leaves the viewer hoping that some more exotic twist may be in the offing—a bit of stagecraft magic from Leno, perhaps, or a demented Kildare turning out to be the killer. The latter would make great sense, not just because Bill Nighy sleepwalks his way through the role, perhaps thinking he's already played a Peter Cushing role at least once. His eventual awakening would be welcome,  because Kildare's closeted sexuality could have spurred exactly the sense of murderous rage the killer shows. Though of course how it would apply to the victims chosen would still be problematic. It's interesting that Alan Rickman was originally cast in the role, but had to bow out as he grew ill.

Oddly enough, the movie is content to leave most of those questions of sexuality lurking in the background. Leno is a female impersonator; Lizzie starts her career playing men. Kildare's assistant turns out to be sympathetic to his sexuality, though nothing is made of this. Uncle, the theatre manager played by Eddie Marsan, turns out to be a sado-masochist not above blackmailing Lizzie into servicing his needs. The acrobat Aveline (played with bitchy menace by Maria Valverde), who loses Cree to Lizzie, then joins the household, taking the pain of wifely duties away from Lizzie. This is a rich broth of sexuality in conflict, but most of it goes nowhere. Perhaps they were worried about revealing the twist too son were they to reveal too much, but because they point you so obviously in the direction of the real killer that's no excuse.

The story is told through imaginings by Kildare of the various suspects carrying out the killings, and through Lizzie's own story, told to Kildare as she awaits first trial and then the noose for poisoning her husband. Kildare's protective attraction to Lizzie is hard to figure, except that it's necessary for the plot, but we see Lizzie abused sexually as a young girl and then punished brutally by her mother for having been abused. Orphaned at 14, she makes her way into the theatre, and with the unfortunate death of Leno's midget foil takes over that place in his act and becomes a star.

So as Lizzie directs Kildare's Inspector Knacker, we lose further opportunities. Karl Marx is played by Henry Goodman in a fake nose wig and beard as if he were a music hall character, he adds nothing to the film; nor does Morgan Watkins' George Gissing, though he is shown in an opium den and explains he's married a fallen woman to try to save her.When you consider the way director Juan Carlos Medina sets the scene, half Hammer horror and half Ripper Street, to show us all the degradations of the East End, you might expect to get more than a knowing nod to where each of those characters came from.

But in the end, it is Lizzie's film, and Olivia Cooke rises to the challenge by channeling her inner Kate Winslet, almost to the point of parody. The directors' and her real interest seems to be the music hall and the backstage world; obviously that is where Lizzie has come alive, but it turns out to be a thing much deeper than that and we're never really convinced of that. And when the denouement comes, a lot of heavy mascara is no substitute for character. You might have expected a bit more of Dan Leno, who is played well enough by Douglas Booth, though as with Marx or Gissing, the film always backs off giving him more character to explore. Even in the film's final scene, in which Aveline dies in an accident, playing Lizzie in the noose, you wonder if there's something you missed—though the film immediately tells you you haven't, by going to a celebratory shot of Lizzie, though you obviously have.

It's that kind of movie. Gratuitously violent at times, well-set up at others, it in the end goes around in circles, to no point because the audience knows too well where it is going to end up. It would have been easy to have made the journey more worthwhile.

Thursday, 12 October 2017


It's a nice piece of synchronicity that the next film I saw after Blade Of The Immortal was God Of War, a Chinese wuxia war drama based on historical events of the 16th century. The film opens with Chinese soldiers under General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) being defeated by Japanese pirates who are preying on the coast of China. Yu is stymied by a lack of tactical imagination, inferior troops, and the politics of the Ming dynasty. Young General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) arrives to take charge, and wins the chess game against the pirates, driving them away.

So far, so simple. The battle scenes are done well, and the tensions within the Chinese camp have a nice parallel with the Japanese invaders: the 'pirates' are largely ronin, battling for plunder and women, being supervised by samurai. The young Lord Yamagawa (Kaisuke Koide) is offended by this affront to the samurai ethos, but the commander, his sensei Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata) is playing his own chess game with a sort of zen patience which General Qi visually is shown to echo.

With the battle won, General Qi eventually wins his argument to recruit and train his own army, why General Yu is arrested by the Ming government. And when the Japanese return in force, Qi is put in a dilemma of having to defend three towns, including the one where his army's families have been left behind, against a vastly superior force.

Fans of non-stop action will be disappointed, not least because Sammo Hung plays such a small part (in fact I was half-convinced he would be released from prison and ride to the rescue in the final scenes). He and Zhao get one scene, in the prison cell, where they display their individual fighting skills, but Hung's presence, his calm acceptance of his political fate is somewhat wasted here. That kind of fighting is not the point, however, because God Of War is a real historical drama, and so intent on proving the superiority of the Chinese to the Japanese it resembles wartime propaganda. That it was scripted by four writers reflects a somewhat disjointed structure, as it veers between action, intrigue, and even domestic drama. But at its best it reminded me of John Ford and his cavalry trilogy. Not only are there distinct echoes of Fort Apache in the training scenes (borrowed by Kurosawa for The Seven Samurai, then again by John Sturges for The Magnificent Seven), but it's easy to see Capt. Kirby Yorke in General Qi. I might be stretching things to suggest a brief homage to Chariots Of Fire in one training scene, though without the Vangelis.

I found the historical backdrop fascinating, and the Ming subplot intriguing. Even more compelling is a subplot which recalls Ford's Rio Grande: General Qi's petulant and impulsive wife hen-pecks the great leader, before his men (including the leader of the miners Qi has recruited to form his new army) but when the Japanese attack comes, and his base city has to be defended by its population, Lady Qi (Regina Wan) stops being Maureen O'Hara and turns into a warrior as well.

The battles are exciting, with new technologies introduced, three-eyed muskets and multi-pronged lances disguised as tree branches, as well as a 'Crouching Tiger Cannon' which is a bit deus ex machina, but for all the explanation, cheerleading, and historical details, what makes God Of War work is the interplay of characters, and the final showdown between Qi and Kumasawa reduces the vast scale of the drama down to great man. It's effective. Zhao is hamstrung somewhat by his need to play humility, but Kurata is outstanding as the Japanese sensei, and Wan, who is the centre of virtually every moment she's on screen, is worthy of O'Hara in her fiery scenes, and dynamic in her fight scenes. Ryu Kohata gets to have fun as the leader of the ronin, and the leader of the miners is played by Sammo's son Timmy Hung, which ensures another individual fight with Qi.

It's uneven, and fans of non-stop action might be bored, but God Of War is a sort of thinking man's wuxia, a return to form for director Gordon Chan, and a showcase for some personal conflicts within an epic backdrop.

GOD OF WAR is released on blue-ray, DVD and digital on 16 October.

This review will also appear at

Monday, 9 October 2017


This is apparently Takashi Miike's 100th feature film, and as such made its London debut as the Gala show  of the 'Thrill' Strand of the London Film Festival yesterday. It's an epic swordsman movie, with supernatural overtones, and like most of Miike's work, based on other sources, in this case a manga series by Hiroaki Samura. It's very different from Miike's last LFF entry, Yakuza Apocalypse, in 2015. Like that film, which I discussed on our late, lamented Americarnage podcast, but about which I didn't write, there's a serious theme behind the over the top treatment of violence. Apocalypse was somewhat derivative of blaxploitation and early vampire tropes, everything from Solomon Kane to Kolchak. 

But the basic theme, equating the Yakuza with vampires, was a thread that tried to hold the whole thing together, at least until the face of the ultimate apocalypse, a giant soft frog, appeared. To music that sounded like Ennio Morricone scoring the Teletubbies. I found my screening notes, and I'd actually scrawled 'some weird shit coming out of nowhere', which is a good description of Miike's work.

For someone who works so quickly, Miike can make some incredibly artful cinema. Blade Of The Immortal opens in black and white, a homage of sorts to the 50s. Manji (the name echoes Clint Eastwood's 'Joe Manco', The Man With No Name') is a samurai who is tracking down his sister, who's lost her senses after seeing her husband killed by Manji, under orders from his master. The kidnappers kill her, in a scene echoing The Wild Bunch, before Manji literally disposes of the entire bunch, somewhere between 70-100 (I lost count). He is dying, but a witch feeds him 'bloodworms' which heal his wounds, rejoin his severed hand to his body, and basically render him immortal.

Fifty years later, and in a fine, cold-toned colour, he meets a young girl (Hana Sugasaki, shown right with Miike)  whose parents (her father is a samurai sensei) have been murdered by a group of swordsmen, the Itto-ryu, who eschew the honourable tactics of samurai, insisting on winning at all costs. He eventually agrees to avenge them on her behalf.

What follows is interesting, but to be honest it's a bit boring. I wrote that after yet another one man against dozens fight. Despite the set-up, which would augur some internal, as well as external battling, Blade Of The Immortal really becomes a kind of Kill Bill, or Kill Lots More Bill. The presence of Kazuki Kitamura here does little to avoid one making that connection. But seriously, there doesn't seem to be any substantial difference between the Itto-ryu and other fighters, particularly those from the government, and there is no real examination of the samurai code. Nor, despite the strains of facing an immortal life thanks to witchy worms, does Manji appear to try to figure much out. It's superficial compared to some of the work of Beat Takeshi, where existential questions of samurai loyalty and life's meaning often haunt the story, or even to Miike's own 13 Assassins, a film which draws quite heavily on westerns (my review is here) or Yakuza Apocalypse.

Takuya Kimura is fine as Manji, but the show is mostly stolen by Sugisaka as the young girl he eventually equates with his long-gone sister. The villains are all impressive, especially Sota Fukushi as the androgynous head of the Itto-ryu, particularly when he gets the tables turned on him by sneaky Imperial bureaucrats. Miike presents the Tarantino-like anachronistic costumes, and there is a good bit of his trademark dark humour. But one wishes Miike would have done more to condense the story into its main lines: graphic novels are told quickly, although series do meander. But I get the feeling that for number 100, Miike was looking to go full Tarantino.

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Tuesday, 3 October 2017


I was interviewed by the BBC World Service programme Sporting Witness, to talk about OJ Simpson as he was being released from prison. My part of the programme was to put his football abilities into context, though I also experienced his charisma first hand at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, where he was accompanied, I think, by Paula Barbieri (I'm not sure because he never introduced her, and there was a certain uniformity to some of his women: having just written about Hefner, you could see OJ buying into the whole Playboy Philosophy. Just check out his house before his lawyers gave it the right-on make-over!) You can link to the show here; it was produced by Simon Watts and it's worth a listen.