Friday, 31 August 2018


I've been writing a Friday column on the NFL for something like 20 years, and for the past 13 on have picked every game of the season. Now I'm launching that column on its own on Patreon, as both a weekly chat about the NFL and of course a continuation of my pickapalooza. You can link to it here: all will be explained, including how to subscribe. First pick comes up Thursday--first column next Friday. Be a patron!

In the meantime, I did two season previews this month. First, three weeks ago, I wrote for the American magazine. It's a nice thing to subscribe to, hard copy or online, if you are a Yank here, especially a short-term expat. But because they're such nice folks, they've given me a link where you can sample the column, pound the link here. There's a section on London's International Series games too.

Then this week I did a more complete preview for Betfair, for whom I will also be writing a weekly betting column each Friday, with a best bet, value bet, and outside bet. This one's a bit more detailed on each team, slightly different from the American's version, as I changed my mind about some things, and I will change it again, just you watch! Here's the link to that one. So if you like what you read in these previews, get over to Patreon and make the Friday Morning Tight End column happen! Thanks.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018


I met Harlan Ellison once. It was at an sf World Con in Washington in 1973. I was working in DC at the time, and had a great time. But at one point, maybe on my way to liberate the swimming pool with Michael Gorra at some early morning hour, I walked into an elevator containing Ellison and two young women. I was a fan of his, and I smiled and said hi, but something in my smile, or maybe just my size, irritated him, and he started in on some riff about a goofy mid-western farmboy. The women giggled, I just smiled and said see ya when the elevator reached the ground. I thought it was a little strange, but I'd heard he was aggressive and combative and I just wrote it off to a severe case of Little Man Disease. And he had a pipe, which was a sort of 50s 'longhair' thing--think Hef at the Mansion.

Early this July, 45 years later, I did a brief write-though for the Daily Telegraph of their obituary of Harlan Ellison, adding some details I thought pertinent, some slight interpretation, and a little bit of redirection of the original. It took a long while for the version to reach print (in fact, it came while I was on holiday in Iceland), which I just discovered a few days ago when I checked online. You can link to that obit here, (the online version is behind a paywall).

One of the things I concentrated on for the Telegraph was trying to explain why Ellison's primary work was in the short-story, and this was what I came up with:

      "The short story was his m├ętier...they reflected the bright flame of his angry personality, an emotional  impact that was hard to sustain over greater lengths".

That was my experience reading him. When I first came to his work as a teenager, through those mid-60 short story collections, I found them powerful. Yes, some were derivative of mainstream writing, especially Nelson Algren, some others of the same genre people were all read growing up. But they were also, in a sense adolescent, in their rage against the way the world was: his characters were often losing in battle to forces beyond their control.

While I was looking for the Telegraph piece, I followed a link to an interview Ellison did with The Comics Journal back in 1979. It's a long rambling airing of insults and feuds, and many of his opinions and rants read like stuff you would have found in some fanzines back in the days when I was reading them. Obviously when he wrote he exercised more control. But one quote jumped out at me:

     "I swear to God just one day I'd like to get up and not be angry. Just one Goddamn day in this life I'd like to arise and not be fucking pissed off at the world."

I didn't need the confirmation, but it was striking to see it out there so plainly. I thought back to that encounter and breathed a sigh of relief I hadn't made anything of the bluster I'd received. I also thought how important that anger was to the energy of his stories and the physical power of his best writing.

Some of my adds for the paper were also about 'speculative fiction' and Dangerous Visions: those two anthologies were central to my own sf reading. I noted in the obit that by the time Again, Dangerous Visions appeared, five years after the first volume, its innovations had already become commonplace in the genre. The paper left out mention of Christopher Priest's book about his story which Ellison bought for The Last Dangerous Visions but wouldn't allow him to use when that book failed to appear (one interesting question: will it appear now, courtesy of his estate?). I would assume some of the introductions are missing; Ellison was a fascinating editor (including of himself) in the sense that his intros to stories are often as interesting, if not more so, than the stories themselves.

I filled in details about the famous Star Trek feud. It may be that work in forgettable serial television used up all of Ellison's 'long form' fiction, but I may in a minority in finding 'The City On The Edge Of Forever' good for Star Trek but less than monumental. Most of his other episodic work I don't remember; I was young and they were mostly fluff. The film of A Boy And His Dog remains excellent, and deserving of more attention.

I'd still recommend those story collections, including and perhaps especially the non-sf Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled (a title much less daring nowadays) which had a beautiful cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, who also did the covers and illos for the two Dangerous Visions volumes. You'll like I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream or The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World or Paingod And Other Delusions, and you may wonder why you hadn't read him before.

By coincidence, I had picked up a copy of Ellison Wonderland, which I'd never read, a few months before Ellison died. This was lucky because it provided some explanation about the import of Dorothy Parker's review of Gentleman Junkie to his career, but I didn't get very far through the stories. They vary in quality, sometimes seeming like drafts of Twilight Zone episodes, sometimes seeming like sharp allegories of the society and mores of my youth, sometimes hitting real emotional nails directly on their hearts.

For me, Ellison opened up doors toward writing that challenged me just at the point I was discovering sf. He wouldn't quite move past that with me, but I would dip in and out of his writing for decades. The thing that does stay with me is the wonderful ease and conversational style he was able to maintain in his essays, and the way that flows into his fiction, though forged very much through anger. I truly hope he rests in peace.  


I went on BBC Radio 4 Front Row last night, forming part of an odd couple with Samira Ahmed to discuss Neil Simon. I am sure Samira saw me as Oscar, as played by Walter Matthau, but there are worse thing. Apparently on Today the previous morning, my old friend John Lahr had pointed out Simon was not a major playwright, in the sense of Arthur Miller, say, and there was some consternation that this issue needed to be dealt with. But overall, the brief segment was intended to pay tribute to very good comedy writer. As you can hear if you click here to find the episode on IPlayer, I compared Simon to Alan Ayckbourn; not only a very funny playwright, but one whose humor is often built on the reactions of staid, secure people to the changing mores around them.

Hence my mention of Prisoner Of 2nd Avenue, which given that it deals with recession, unemployment, crime and malfunctioning government in New York City, might be considered the socially darkest of his plays, though he tris very hard indeed to keep that darkness under control with recognisable husband/wife Jewish humour. It starred Peter Falk, one of the actors who did very well by Simon, and vice versa, but the film, which was directed by Mike Nichols (who could spot the darkness) starred Jack Lemmon (and Anne Bancroft, whose husband Mel Brooks also wrote for Caesar) in a role you might see as a pair with Save The Tiger. Though I always thought it should be shown in a double-feature with Death Wish.

I won't summarize the rest of my talk, have a listen. But I will mention a few things I didn't get in. One is how Simon will be remembered: if Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street isn't a lasting legacy I don't know what is. Had we gone deeper into the relevance stakes I might have noted Larry Gelbart, another alumnus of Sid Caesar's show, got points for MASH, though its social comment was much stronger in Robert Altman's film.I didn't mention Simon's Laughter On The 23rd Floor, which came after he'd won the Pulitzer for Lost In Yonkers and is maybe his last major work. It's his reminiscence of those days writing as part of a team; it exists as a TV movie, though if you're really interested in that era the movie My Favorite Year is more entertaining.

I might have made a comparison of The Odd Couple to Hemingway's Men Without Women - it's certainly about the difficulty of male life in a world of changed mores about divorce. I wished I had seen the original Broadway production of Barefoot In The Park, with Elizabeth Ashley opposite Robert Redford. She would have provided some necessary spark that Jane Fonda, who got the film role because her name wasn't Jane Smith, didn't.  I mentioned his funny Agatha Christie parody, Murder By Death, but loved Peter Falk as The Cheap Detective. Colombo anyone? I wonder if a discussion of Simon the screenwriter as maybe being superior to Simon the playwright might be in order. Take The Goodbye Girl, which he wrote for his then-wife Marsha Mason, and re-wrote when Robert DeNiro and Nichols left, replaced by Richard Dreyfuss and Herbert Ross.

Yes much of his work is slight, some of it repetitive, lot of it centered on the inevitable struggles of Jewish New York life, especially in the wider scene, such as the Eighties trilogy, of which Biloxi Blues may be the most interesting, if somewhat cliched entry. But he could write funny, and that is not to be frowned upon. Writing funny for an entire play, or movie, as opposed to a comic sketch, is a rare talent, and Simon had it.

What was especially frustrated was to be sitting in the studio during the discussion of 'the muse' and inspiration. I was bursting because I wanted to interject--at one point Louisa Buck was talking about our image of the muse and I wanted to ask her, is there any middle ground for women between muse and femme fatale, something she said after the show she was trying to get to. Similarly, as Matt Thorne made trenchant points about the changing nature of muses in modern society, it occured to me that it was an equivalent of the death of God: our muse is now more within ourselves rather than an inspiration granted by a figure beyond us. In that area between inspiration and obsession, but perhaps no longer a muse. Or in Neil Simon's case, amuse.

Friday, 17 August 2018


Devon Connor hires Elvis Cole because she's found a Rolex and wads of cash under her teenaged son's bed. Tyson Connor goes to a special school, has troubler socializing, is a gamer. But checking into the watch, Elvis soon discovers Tyson is part of a trio of kids robbing houses in wealthy LA neighbourhoods. Kids who aren't too sharp about keeping their identities hidden. Which is a shame, because there are two other men after them, who want back something they've stolen. And these guys are not as kind nor gentle as Elvis Cole.

With The Wanted Robert Crais has written a pretty straight-forward thriller, with Elvis and Joe Pike working in a deadly race against a pair of cold-blooded killers, with the LAPD lurking somewhere off the pace as well. It's fast-moving and beautifully constructed, and it works perfectly as a race against time and against villains.

But because it's Crais, the novel is far more than that. Take the title. Yes, these kids are wanted, by the police, by Cole, by the criminals hunting them. But it's also a story about kids and their parents, the kids who are wanted, like Tyson, and those who aren't, like Amber, the would-be glamour girl who's part of the burglary trio.

And because it's Crais, the characters become people who involve the reader. It's easy to take sides, to identify with the kids under pursuit, even with their flaws. It's easy because Elvis Cole's point of view has always been one of empathy, of compassion, of understanding, even when his understanding is incomplete. It's where he differs somewhat from the police, and where he differs from the villains.

Though in this case, the pair of Harvey and Stemms are two of Crais's most entertaining creations. They have the kind of insouciance and sarcastic world view that we remember from Elvis in his very early days, only the way it's directed into the off-hand horrific is absolutely chilling.

A watch-craft plot moving smoothly on its gears. A tense chase and finish. Characters who make you care. And a pair of villains actors would metaphorically kill to play. Crais has not yet been served well by Hollywood, but if there were ever a novel that cries to be turned into a screenplay (and then have the producers butcher little things like character) this one is it. It reminds you just how good Robert Crais has been for how long. How good? One of the very best.

The Wanted by Robert Crais
Simon & Schuster £14.99 ISBN 9781471157486

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (

Thursday, 16 August 2018


It's not surprising. Aretha Franklin did one, maybe two or three, of the greatest versions of the Star Spangled Banner I'd ever heard. My memory tells me it was in Detroit, at the Cobo Arena, before the Thomas Hearns/Dennis Andries light-heavyweight title fight, which was on ABC, for whom I was working, though I think I was watching back in London. I recall our announcer Jim Lampley calling it a world record. I found a recording of it on you tube, you can listen to it here. I thought she had a piano round her neck, which she doesn't. The piano playing is almost discordant, partly the acoustics, maybe the piano, or maybe she wanted a Monk-like effect, not pretty, but jarring. It wasn't as long as I recall, and the video cuts out before I can hear Lamps. But I did find another video, Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby, doing the anthem at the 1991 NBA All-Star Game; if you listen closely you can hear my Screensport commentary, saying it's the best version I've heard since Aretha's. And as I say, you can listen to several more great renditions.

I bring this up because it seems appropriate that we listen to Aretha do the National Anthem, because she did it more than justice, and she represented so much of the nation, and the fight of black people, the fight of women, the fight of almost everyone one step or more removed from the American Dream. And she was also part of our American Dream, the great singer with the string of hits, who took her place in the public eye seriously, even when it hurt her.

I remember playing Otis Blue when I first got a record player. The big attraction was his hit 'I've Been Loving You Too Long'. He covered Smokey's 'My Girl' brilliantly, some British band's 'Satisfaction', William Bell's 'You Don't Miss Your Water', BB King's 'Rock Me Baby' Solomon Burke's 'Down In The Valley', and three songs by the recently-killed Sam Cooke: 'Shake', 'Wonderful World' and 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. Some of those names meant nothing to me at the time, but they soon would. He also sang a song he'd written, called 'Respect'. I may have been a little to young to understand fully, but it was a a song of pleading by a man who was doing what he thought was everything for his woman, and all he wanted was some respect for that.

It was probably only a year later that Aretha Franklin's version burst out on the airways. It was a different song, a different point of view, a different delivery. This was a woman issuing a wake-up call, asking for something --not like Otis asking for something he was stunned and hurt he didn't get--she expected against expectation to get. It's one of those automatic choices when people ask for covers better than the original, not just because it is so powerfully sung, but because she pulls every ounce of pain and meaning from the song.

It was her second number one R&B chart single. The first was 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)' which had 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man' as the B side. Her mainstream success with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic records was immediate: 'Respect' was number one in the pop charts too. Look at what followed, 'Baby I Love You', '(You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman', 'Chain Of Fools', '(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone' and 'Think': all but Natural Woman (no2) were number one in the R&B charts; all were Top 10 hits in the pop charts. And all before I'd finished high school. Then Atlantic started searching for other material;  her biggest hits were covers, not just songs like 'Spanish Harlem' or the magnificent 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and this was all before I'd finished college.

Her voice touched the soul, the spirit, almost like a physical presence. She sang with joy, even when she was
singing about pain, when that strength seemed directed at areas we all knew we might someday reach, but probably hoped we didn't. And then she would revive us with that incredible sense of life that speaks back to gospel and speaks too of the immense joy of using that gift you've brought out in yourself.

I could link you to any number of her songs, but I surely don't need to. I will remind you, though, that she sang at Barack Obama's inauguration, a moment when I felt great pride in my country. She had also sung at Bill Clinton's; he had grown up with her as I did, and knew her singing spoke to struggle, that she was an icon of civil rights as much as music, saying accept us, not just me, for what we are. And I will give you this link: to when the Obamas went to see the musical about Carole King's early years, and the songs she wrote with Gerry Goffin. King was in the audience, and when the actress playing her introduces 'Natural Woman', Aretha came out, wearing a full-length fur coat, and sat down at the piano and sang it. Watch it here and note King's surprise and joy. And watch the President of the United States moved to tears. As I was when I watched it again, and as I defy you not to be. RIP Aretha Franklin.

Monday, 13 August 2018

CIPHERS: a poem

I'm not sure exactly when I wrote this poem, probably some time in 1983. It was published in an English magazine, The Rialto, in Norwich. I sent it to them in March of 1985 and it was published in issue 3, in July 1985. If I find any of my notes or drafts I'll amend this post, especially if I discover what city it was that may have inspired it. At some point in the past couple of years I made one small but substantial change; my buddy August Kleinzahler suggested another more substantial one. I like it much more the way it is now.


A window, cracked at the edge, bends inward,
Making room for the wind. If it were colder
We might have snow. Until we do
We can sit and wait
For the raindrops to grow smaller.
In the street, the movement takes on patterns.
The sky changes. We are not so alone.

Saturday, 11 August 2018


'Season One' of Renato Jones is titled The One %, which sets the stage for what is not so much political analysis as a dynamic and savage attack on the great divide in society, and the super-rich who frolic in that chasm. It opens with the eponymous Renato, on his birthday, about to inherit a huge fortune. 'You have everything you want', says his childhood friend Bliss. 'Not everything', he replies, which sets the stage in the quietest moment of this two-volume graphic novel, which is a piece of stunning graphic art and visceral propaganda: the kind of dissection of our present state that one wishes more dominant media would be able to undertake.

From there we see a wordless flashback, to a woman being murdered as a baby looks on, and then its back to the present where Renato is a guest on a yacht belonging to hedge fund manager Douglas Bradley. He's looking for Renato to invest: 'this hybrid shit isn't going to cure world hunger,' he gloats as he stuffs steak into his mouth, 'it's going to monetize it!' Then it's time to party, but the party doesn't work out as Bradley might like. Because Renato Jones is 'The Freelancer', and his mission is to make the '1% pay'. 'For 20 years they've been murdering the working class', he explains. Now he will start to even the score.

As written and drawn by Kaare Kyle Andrews, Renato Jones is exciting, frightening, powerful story-telling. It's extremely violent, at times so much so that as the panels of the page explode it becomes difficult to figure out exactly what is happening. But as you read you also see that other scenes are calmer, more discreet, that Andrews matches the kind of drawing and colouring (which he also does himself) to the moods, which deepens the contrasts between his characters. 'Normal' family life is portrayed as such, but in Jones' world of extreme wealth and indulgence, the figures are drawn grotesquely, they are exaggerated in size and movement, they are oblivious to their own ugliness. Eventually it dawned on me: this is the kind of vision George Grosz had of Weimar Germany; it is not so much satire as the reporting of disgust. Critics may well look at this as a polemic calling for Occupy to arm itself and turn the battle violent, but it's nothing so crude. The beauty of the comics format is that it can play the societal and personal stirrings simultaneously,contrasting the psychopathology of the lone avenger with the sociopathy of his targets. We haven't seen anything so instinctively accurate since The Shadow was convincing Depression Era criminals that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.

Of course a one-man vigilante war on the rich is a limited story line, and there are complications in Renato's own backstory. His task is something he's been raised to perform, by a family retainer named Church. And his relationship with Bliss is complicated, another thing which Andrews' inventive layouts and tones conveys with a combination of passion and restraint. It doesn't help that Bliss' father, Nicola Chambers, survives an assassination attempt, and finds himself elected President of the United States. The parallels to Donald and Ivanka Trump are not subtle, but they are remarkably effective. It seems left to satirists and graphic novelists to get the inner core of Trump where mainstream media ignores it blissfully. And as all this builds to an apocalyptic finish, there are moments of extreme tenderness, of sad tragedy, as underplayed and effective as the grand guignol of the bloodshed has been.

At times, Andrews' art reminds of me Steve Ditko's, a cross between Doctor Strange and Mr A, but Renato Jones is as innovative in its way as Spider Man or Watchmen or the Sandman were in their time. It goes a step beyond some of the very good noirish work in recent comics, to a place where comparisons with Grosz are not unwarranted. You will not have read anything like it.

Renato Jones, Season One: The One % Image Comics $9.99 ISBN 9781632159007
Renato Jones, Season Two: Freelancer Image Comics $16.99 ISBN 9781534303386

Monday, 6 August 2018


Just before Christmas, and for the first time in twenty-five years, since she was sent away to relatives in Reykjavik when she was seven, Asta Karadottir has come home, to a lonely house near the lighthouse in Kalfshamarsvik, on the north coast of Iceland. She had reason to stay away; her mother and younger sister Tinna both met their deaths in falls off the cliffs overlooking the sea; it was after Tinna’s death that Asta was sent away. Now she has come back, and two days later she lies dead in the same spot, at the foot of the same cliffs.

Ari Thor Arason gets a call from Tomas, his former mentor on the Siglurfjordur police. Now based in Reykjavik, he’s been assigned the investigation of the death, and has requested Ari Thor as his support. It makes things awkward for Ari Thor, now reconciled with his grilfriend Kristin, and with a baby due in a few weeks. The prospect of spending Christmas apart doesn’t seem a good idea to him, so he brings Kristin along, hoping things will be cleared up swiftly and cleanly.

Of course they won’t be. Ragnar Jonasson was a translator of Agatha Christie into Icelandic, and his Dark Iceland series of Ari Thor mysteries are redolent of the kinds of characters, situations and plots that define Christie. This one is basically a locked-room mystery: four suspects had dinner with Asta the night of her death, all of whom she knew as a child: the now-elderly caretakers, brother and sister Oskar and Thora, the house’s owner, Reynir, whose father was one of Iceland’s wealthiest men and who continues the tradition, and neighbour Arnor, who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with the lighthouse. Forensics soon determine that Asta did not jump, but was murdered, and that she’d had sex soon before.

From that set-up Jonasson weaves a tale of past sins coming back to haunt the present, with overtones of ghostly activity. As with Christie it’s not so much a question of clues as elimination, of digging up the motivation that reveals the killer. But what makes the story work so well is that it is really, at heart, about families—not just the problems with Asta’s family (who also worked for Reynir’s father) but Arnor and his wife who have their own difficulties, and of course Tomas, who moved to Reykjavik to save his own marriage, and the ongoing relationship of Ari Thor and Kristin. The reflections are amplified by the crime, but they are also fascinating because of the surface practicality with which Icelanders, and you might say Scandinavians in general, approach matters of the heart.

Part of what made that interesting was that I read the novel, and wrote this, in Iceland,
where you can feel that Nordic tradition, going back to the first ‘courts’ of the Icelandic ‘thing’, where the crimes punished most heavily were incest and infanticide. (Note: the former is not part of the plot). It speaks of isolated people, who keep themselves to themselves, yet are as little immune to the pains and passions as anyone else. Being in country, as it were, also makes clearly some of the fascination readers find with explanations of Icelandic life in general, unique in our Western tradition, and Jonasson does that very well indeed.

The present resolves itself satisfactorily, while the past remains ambiguous (though I prefer to take Asta’s opening memories literally as truth), and Jonasson also builds for the future, as Ari Thor himself, simple, bright and well-meaning, has much to work out. There is something slightly less than cozy about these mysteries (and if you read Jonasson’s brilliant The Darkness you’ll understand why –if not my review of it is here) yet they work because the lives of the people involved are not cozy at all. They are real, and tether the mystery to reality.

Whiteout by Ragnar Jonasson
translated by Quentin Bates
Orenda Books, £8.99 ISBN 9781910633892

Wednesday, 1 August 2018


Daisy Jane and Rock Bradley are bank robbers, operating in the Southwest in the 1970s. But Frank Barbiere's story opens 1987, with retired US Marshal Lou telling their tale to young Penny, flashing back to the late Sixties and early Seventies, to Daisy Jane's path into a life of crime, and to his own intersection with her and rock while on the track of the notorious La Jauria drug cartel. Violent Love is violent, and there is love, but mostly it is a fast-paced thriller that claims to be 'inspired by true events'.

It's not hard to see what some of those events might be, but Violent Love also wears its influences proudly. Not least music. The opening epigram comes from the punk band Beach Slang, and while that meant nothing to me, when you read the lyrics the art by Victor Santos can carry you away in those kinds of beats. In fact, you could look at this work as a sort of mix between elements of films as diverse as Badlands, The Outfit or The Grifters. The mix comes from the noirish sense of doom and the pulpy story-telling of Seventies crime movies, crossed with the anarchic energy of punk, music of a more violent sort of crime era. The closest comparisons would be to Carl Franklin's One False Move, or, perhaps even closer, to the now-forgotten crime-spree thriller set in Texas, Love And A .45, starring a young Renee Zellweger.

This is not to say Violent Love is simply derivative, but that it wears its influences, and their eras well. It's also telling that Image Comics bills the story as “crime/romance”, and the cover of the fifth issue of the original series is done beautifully in the style of a romance comic. In the sense that comics are our modern pulp magazines, or pulp novels, it is perhaps inevitable that they should have discovered an affinity for the story-telling of violent noirish B-movie crime. I've praised the work of Ed Brubaker here many times, and Barbiere bears comparison with him, though with Santos' art, he moves in a more dynamic, faster-paced kind of accelerated story-telling. It's a compelling read.

Violent Love Vol. 1: Stay Dangerous
by Frank J Barbiere & Victor Santos
Image Comics 2017, $9.99 ISBN 9781534300446