Saturday, 10 April 2021

GORDON LIDDY: MY GUARDIAN OBIT

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 April 2021

LARRY MCMURTRY: MY GUARDIAN OBIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

YAPHET KOTTO: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 March 2021

LOU OTTENS: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

Monday, 15 March 2021

NORTON JUSTER: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

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


Friday, 5 March 2021

VARIAN FRY: LOST AMERICAN HERO

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

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

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: ON POETS & LAUREATES

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

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

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

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

ACROSS HAMPSTEAD HEATH: Keats' 200th anniversary

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

 

ACROSS HAMPSTEAD HEATH

He measured the room with a fury of pacing;

It shrunk, more confining, with each angry stride.

His eyes at the window through dim glass were tracing

The flight of a swallow, its leisurely glide.

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

And each unfinished line made his solitude worse.

His muse was his torture, each thought fled him fighting

Against being committed to the prison of verse.


Just to be one with nature, footsteps drowning his cry

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

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

He failed to grasp them with his weakening eye,

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

Words flown away wasted; the energy spent.

Monday, 22 February 2021

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

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

 

Thursday, 18 February 2021

RUSH LIMBAUGH: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 30 January 2021

URSA MAJOR DANCES: A POEM

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

 

URSA MAJOR DANCES


she spins

beneath

stars


looks up

about to

be-


come a

dream, bear

soft


shoes a-

cross

night


sky dark

as fur

light

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

HENRY AARON: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Henry Aaron is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, although my preferred first reference for him would be Henry, not Hank. I wrote it some time ago, then revised it briefly, trying to explain in more detail the civil rights situation in Atlanta and how important Aaron was there--I would have liked to have spent more time on the exact nature of the abuse he received while chasing Babe Ruth's record, and I probably should have mentioned that the response of the crowd at Fulton County Stadium when he did was a standing ovation. RIP Hammerin Hank. 

Lots of people, including me, mentioned Aaron's consistency. I noted in the obit that he benefited from the Braves moving from County Stadium in Milwaukee, which was a tough home run park for righties, to Fulton County Stadium "The Launching Pad" in Atlanta. According to baseball historican Bill James, Joe Adcock, who was Aaron's teammate for nine years, hit more homers per at bat than Aaron, and lost more homers to his ballpark than anyone in history other than Joe DiMaggio and Goose Goslin. Eddie Matthews, who batted left, holds the HR record for the Milwaukee part of the Braves years. Of course the other big change came in 1969, after Carl Yastrzemski staged a late season surge to win the AL batting title with a meagre .301, when the mound was lowered and strike zone shrunk, to, in James' words, stop Bob Gibson from pitching 32 shutouts a year. This came in a comment about Eddie Collins, another all-time great with a long career whose stats look better as he got older. But by James' 'Win Shares' method, he pointed out each was actually most effective in his late 20s. They didn't become  'better' players as they aged, but circumstances became more favourable for them and they were still great enough to take advantage of that.

Just this morning I read in an NFL column by Peter King a fantastic story; it wouldn't have made this obituary, but I can share it here: Aaron was a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan. He was originally drawn to the Browns (there were no NFL teams in the South when he was young, and the Miami team in the AAFC (in which the Browns played) was short-lived. It was also segregated, and the Browns left their black players at home when they travelled to Miami in 1946. But the presence of black stars like Bill Willis and Marion Motley made them young Aaron's favourite team when they joined the NFL in 1950. They were dismissed by NFL partisans, yet they beat the defending NFL champion Eagles in theur very first game, and won the league title at the end of the season. Aaron had liked them as underdog heroes, with black stars alongside greats like Otto Graham and Dante Lavelli, and he was hooked.

As an adult, Aaron would buy a single ticket in the "Dawg Pound" end zone section, fly up from Atlanta incognito, and cheer anonymously among the Browns' most fervent fans. But in 1986, when he took a trip to watch the team in preseason, Browns GM Ernie Accorsi, a big baseball fan, recognised him. He went up and introduced himself and Aaron said "I know you you are. It's an honor to meet you." The became friends, but although Accorsi offered him better seats gratis, or a view from a box, Aaron preferred to stay in the Pound. "I didn't throw bones or do crazy stuff like that," he said, but he felt commfortable studying the game with the most enthralled fans.

I also had to leave out the idea that, had the Giants offered him just a little more money, they could have had both Aaron and Willie Mays in their outfield. Although Mays too had been offered a contract by the Boston Braves, before he signed with New York.

One last point: when Aaron joined the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, the major leagues were, of course, integrated, but the Negro American League actually continued until 1962. The Clowns are said to have begun in Miami around 1935, though I have a replica hat from the Ethopian Clowns, who barnstormed just after that, which was the team they morphed into before settling in Cincinnati and then Indy. It was my cricket cap when I kept wicket for ABC Sports London cricket club. When Aaron left the team, the Clowns signed a woman, Toni Stone, to play second base. The following year they sold her contract to the Kansas Cith Monarchs, and replaced her with two other women. The Clowns continued to barnstorm as entertainers after the NAL folded, and finally gave up themselves in 1989.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

LARRY KING NOT LIVE: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Larry King is up at The Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon, probably Monday. King's was a challenging piece to write: I wanted to put the importance of his show on CNN at the centre, what it meant in terms of news coverage--I was a little more direct in my analysis than what is printed, but King's success led to Fox News to follow suit with O'Reilly, Hannity et al ad nauseum, though in their case the motivation was more being able to control the take on news by not "reporting" it than using the interview slot to feature ratings-grabbing celebs. 

The other problem was trying to deal with King's personal life, which was, as I suggest, the stuff of trash TV. The paper left out much of the loonier stuff of his later days, but it occurs to me that, since I have heard from people who worked in the CNN building just how personally friendly and kind King was, that he was just a kid having fun with the gig of his life.

The Simpsons show was the one where Homer eats fugu and is told he has 24 hours to live. After fulfilling his check list of last things to do, he sits in his La-Z-Boy listening to Larry King reading the Old Testament. King finishes the Begats, then gives one of little run downs of things he thinks, like in his USA Today column, as Homer snores. Marg comes down and thinks Homie is gone, only to see the drool coming out of his mouth. Having survived, Homer vows to live each precious day to the fullest.

The show ends with a crunching noise over black. As the camera pulls back it reveals Homer on the couch, eating pork scratchings, watching bowling. RIP Larry King.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

GEORGIA ON MY MIND: THE NEW SOUTH & THE OLD (MY ARC DIGITAL ESSAY)

 In 1973 I was teaching a short-term course at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, about 80 miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond. I was staying at a boarding house, and one evening I came back and the lady who ran the house was watching the news. I stood in the doorway for a second, watching a report on the mayoralty race in Atlanta between Maynard Jackson, who would become the city’s first black mayor, and the incumbent, Sam Massell. She saw me there and pointed to the screen. “Will you look at that,” she said. “A big ol’ city like Atlanta, and they can’t even find one white man to run for mayor.” I took the bait. “But Massell’s white,” I said. “He’s not white,” she told me, “he’s a Jew.”

I thought about that moment today when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won, apparently, their US Senate races in Georgia. Warnock became the first black candidate ever to win a statewide race in Georgia, and he spoke movingly of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, who marched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr back in the day (if you aren’t aware, Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Ave in Atlanta, where Warnock is the pastor, was King’s church, and his father’s before him).

Back in 1996, after the Olympics had finished and my de-rigging at the Georgia Dome was done, I went to Sweet Auburn, the old heart of Atlanta’s black community, to visit the King Historical Center, across the street from the church. It was amazingly moving, watching that footage of marchers having fire hoses and police dogs set on them, before the police and others moved in to finish the job. I’d seen it on TV, in snippets, when I was a kid, and now the full horror set in again, wrapped in the context of people who were required to put their lives on the line just to achieve the justice and equality they were due as humans.

Afterwards, I went across the street to a luncheonette, sat at the counter and ordered a sandwich. Out the window, I could see the Georgia Dome, just a few miles from where I sat. The counterman brought the sandwich and I said “you must’ve been pretty busy the past few weeks?” He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?” "Well, with the Olympics and all those tourists. No offense, but there isn’t that much touristy in this city, and the King site, well, that’s the best thing I’ve seen. There must’ve been people coming to see it?” The guy looked out the window and pointed toward the downtown. “That was THEIR Olympics,” he said. “They didn’t send nobody here.”

Atlanta may have had black mayors, in fact every one since Jackson, but they didn’t actually run the city, in the same way that Georgia remained a state governed by whites, one that sent white senators to Washington. Gerrymandered congressional and state house districts kept the black vote restricted, as we saw in 2018, when Stacey Abrams ran for governor against the then-Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp,who aided his own campaign with wholesale purging of the voter lists: 700,000 cancellations in 2017 alone. Abrams lost by 50,000 votes statewide, but rather than challenge the result in the courts, she turned her attentions to voter registration. Combined with the Covid pandemic making remote and absentee voting more acceptable, Georgia went for Biden as well as the two Senators—by narrow margins that might well have been bigger were the state’s minority voters fully enfranchised.

It should be instructive that Kemp, and his secretary of state, have avoided following Trump’s challenges to the election results in Georgia. This does not make them “good guys” in this business of electoral suppression and fraud: they certainly do not want any full-scale examination of Georgia’s voting practices, and by upholding the rule of the law they set the stage to use that as part of their response should they be accused in 2022 or 2024 of abuses of voting rights.

Meanwhile the election of Ossoff, who will become the only member of the US Senate to have played in the British Baseball Federation (where he hit .200) reminds us that, although Atlanta billed itself as “the city too big to hate” that slogan arose from the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted (in all likelihood wrongly) of the murder of a 13 year old girl, when his death sentence for the crime was commuted. He and Warnock entering the Senate together, a rare occurance brought about by Kelly Loeffler’s having been appointed to fill an unexpired term, will be like a symbolic restatement of that bond which used to link the black and Jewish communities, and, symbolically at least, holds out a modicum of hope for the Democrats and their pseudo-majority in the Senate.

I wonder how they took it in Ashland, and around the rest of the Confederacy? A few days later back in 1973, I returned to the boarding house after a night at a bar, and the husband of the lady who watched the news called me in to see some football. “Y’all played football in college up north?” he asked. “Yup.” “Well take a looksee at this,” he said, as Monday Night Football replayed a 100+ yard kickoff return touchdown by Miami’s Mercury Morris. “Jest lookit that thing run!” he exclaimed. I used to tell that story and point out it was then more than 100 years since the Civil War ended, at least on the battlefield. Now I tell it to remind us that this was less than 50 years ago, and there were then, as our president believes there are now, “fine people on both sides”. 

(Note: I wrote this for Arc Digital, a platform available on Medium. Check it out)

TAKING DOWN THE TREE: A CHRISTMAS TALE

I don't much like Twelfth Night. It’s the night I take down the Christmas tree, to avoid the goblins. I know in Britain (and Ireland) many people wait until the next day, the feast of Epiphany, to do that. That’s the day the wise men showed up, acknowledgment of which ruins every Christmas pageant any of us have sat through, but I’ll let that pass. But wish I could bring myself to delay, even if only for a day, taking down the tree; this year I heard someone on the radio arguing that trees could remain up until Candlemas, which is the fortieth day of the Christmas season (2 February).

It has been such a maddening year, full of disappointment and sadness. This year’s holiday season took place in the dreary short days and long nights of December, with lovely sunshine on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but otherwise rain and darkness and the promise of another monumental cock-up by the Government That Couldn’t Shoot Straight which would negate the brief glimpse of Johnson’s sunlit uplands promised by the various coronavirus vaccines.

Certainly I found this year’s tree endearing. It was only five feet tall; I snipped it’s top branch in half, as it had extended about 18 inches all on its own. I wasn’t the perfectly balanced and symmetrical creature I saw in other people’s photos, but it stood straight and it seemed to welcome its ornamentation. It was healthy, held its colour, and dropped precious few needles along the way. On dark mornings I would greet it, turn its lights on, and be cheered immediately. In the evenings, I’d turn it on and play some music, maybe sit on the couch and read or just look at it and feel comforted.

On Monday evening, as if it knew what was in store the next day, I came into the living room and caught a burst of firry fragrance, which filled me with nostalgia for the evergreens of my childhood winters, and with hope. Tuesday morning I greeted the tree as if it were a friend about to go to hospital, and there have been enough of them this year. I took the tinsel off in the afternoon, as if to prepare the tree for what was to come, and prepare myself too. Finally, long after dinner, I put on the Emersons playing Razumofskys, went over and removed the ornaments and lights and packed them away. I loosened the screws in the stand, though this tree had stood on its own, small branches down the roots flexing it into place. I apologised, and pulled it out of the stand, realising it still refused to drop its needles, not even as I squeezed it out the front door.

I wasn’t going to leave my tree outside, for some council van to take along with all the other trees. I carried it off into a nearby woods, and found it a spot where it might be able to return itself to the earth from which it sprang, at its own pace, at least enjoying the world outside my living room for a little while. The dog watched without quite knowing what was going on, but sensed enough not to tug at his lead until I was through doing whatever I was doing as I stood there and turned to lead him away. When we got back, the room looked emptier than usual, and this morning there was no scent, no display of green branches, no lights and baubles and tinsel to welcome me into its new day. Maybe Candlemas has something to say for itself after all. I think this tree could have made it all the way to February had I let it try.

 

Friday, 1 January 2021

BRUCE BOYNTON: MY DAILY TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Bruce Boynton, whose protest of "separate but equal" dining facilities at a Virginia bus station led to a Supreme Court ruling against that apartheid concept, and sparked both lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders on buses across the South, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 21 December. I happened to miss it then, and as it is behind a paywall, I will simply post my original copy here: it was written to a tight word limit and I hope therefore wasn't cut very much.

Had I more space I would have written a bit more about his own practice, especially in Washington, and about the conflicts which are hinted at in accounts of his work in Alabama, particularly in what he felt was a lack of support from the Civil Rights movement and the black community when he broke racial barriers in public service.

I would have also written more about his mother, who outlived three husbands and was an activist all her life. You can find that picture of her in her wheelchair holding hands with President Obama on the Pettus Bridge as easily as one of her beaten body lying on the bridge in 1965. Sadly, it wasn't Bruce pushing her wheelchair on that anniversary day.

But his life story is a reminder that great changes often arise from small hurts, and a decision not to put up with that hurt any longer.

BRUCE BOYNTON: HERO OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

Bruce Boynton, who has died aged 83, was a key figure in the American civil rights movement, whose protest was as crucial as Rosa Parks’ on the buses of Montgomery, Alabama. His 1960 victory before the US Supreme Court in Boyton v Commonwealth of Virginia sparked five years of protests that eventually led to the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts passed by Congress in 1964 and 1965.

His simple motivation was hunger. In December 1958, Boynton, in his final year of law school in Washington DC, boarded a Trailways bus to return home to Alabama for Christmas. At a stop in Richmond, Virginia, he sat in the whites only section of the terminal’s lunch counter, because the “coloured” area had water on the floor and looked unsanitary. He asked for a cheeseburger and cup of tea, but the waitress returned with her manager. As Boyton described it, “he poked his finger in my face and said ‘N***** move’, and I knew I would not move.” He was arrested for criminal trespass, convicted in state court of violating Virginia’s segregation law, and fined ten dollars. He decided to appeal the conviction.

His case was argued before the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first black justice on that court just seven years later. They ruled, on a 7-2 vote, that so-called “separate but equal” facilities violated the constitutional right to equality. Since interstate transport was subject to federal regulation, the Interstate Commerce Commission was required to see states obey federal law. Within a year, “Freedom Riders” were organising bus rides through the South to challenge segregated facilities; future Congressman John Lewis was one of 13 riders on the first bus, and beaten in a rest stop in South Carolina. Another bus was fire-bombed in Anniston, Alabama. Also inspired by Boynton, sit-ins soon took place at lunch counters throughout the South.

Resistance to the American version of apartheid came naturally to Boynton. He was born 19 June 1937 in Selma, Alabama, where his parents Sam and Amelia (nee Platts) were both active in voter registration; Amelia registered to vote in 1932, no mean feat for a woman in a state where huge obstacles faced any black person desiring to exercise their rights. Both parents had attended the Tuskegee Institute and studied under the renowned botanist George Washington Carver, who was Bruce’s godfather and source of his middle name. Bruce was a precocious student, finishing high school at 14 and winning his BA from Fisk University at 18. He would receive his law degree from Howard University at 21.

With his degree, he returned to Alabama, but while the state bar association spent six years ‘investigating’ his conviction for trespass, he moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where he worked defending sit-in protestors. In 1965, his mother was beaten savagely on America’s Bloody Sunday, at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, the start of a march on the state capital in Montgomery; photos of her went round the world. In 2015, when President Barack Obama led a march across the bridge on Bloody Sunday’s 50th anniversary, he held hands with Emilia Boynton, then 103 years old, in her wheelchair.

Finally practising in Alabama, Bruce defended notable activists such as Stokley Carmichael, and was himself attacked by a county sheriff and two deputies. He defended one client with a plea of insanity caused by endemic racial abuse. Eventually, Boynton became the state’s first black special prosecutor, investigating a white mayor accused of attacking a black man, and then Alabama’s first black county attorney. Later feeling frustrated by what he felt was a lack of support from the black community, he returned to Washington to practice civil rights law, before coming back to Selma in private practice.

In May 2018, Boynton was honoured in Montgomery, where a courthouse was named after him. He received an award on behalf of the Freedom Riders, presented by Hank Thomas, a former state legislator who was another of the original 13 Freedom Riders and the only living survivor of the Anniston fire-bombing. “I decided to follow you and do what you had done,” Thomas said, “and it damn near killed me”.

Bruce Carter Boyton

born 19 June 1937 Selma, Alabama

died 24 November 2020, Montgomery Alabama

survived by his second wife, Betty and two daughters