Saturday, 28 May 2016


In 1971, rookie goaltender Ken Dryden, with only six NHL games under his belt, led the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, beating Boston's Big Bad Bruins in the final. I can still visualize the 6'4" Dryden stopping Phil Esposito, the Bruins' big centre who dominated the slot (the area just in front of the goal--as bumper stickers said in Boston at the time: 'Jesus saves...and Esposito scores on the rebound') as if the two were going mano-a-mano in the midst of this fast-flying team game. There is something about goalies that sticks in the imagination; I played the position in lacrosse, and it's an all-or-nothing proposition: you're only as good as you last save, you feel as if every goal is your fault, even if you should feel none of them are. A hockey goalie is probably the most important single player in team sports: expected to stop virtually every shot, a hot goalie can elevate a team throughout the playoffs.

Dryden was a surprise, and both incredibly graceful and remarkably quick despite his height; most goalies were smaller men who fit the goal better. Being 6-3 at the time, I liked this too. He would win the NHL's Rookie of the Year award, the year after he'd won the Cup. He had a remarkable career, on and off the ice, and wrote one of the best sports books ever, The Game. I was lucky enough to work with him a couple of times, that lanky youngster who excelled under the greatest pressure turned out to be a smart, dryly funny and unassuming nice guy. What everyone thinks Canadians ought to be.

Thursday night the Pittsburgh Penguins staged a remarkable comeback to beat Tampa Bay in game seven of their Conference Final series, winning at home to advance to the Stanley Cup final against the San Jose Sharks, which means the final will at least sort of look like a match-up of cities that know what ice is.

The Penguins back to back wins in Tampa and Pittsburgh were keyed by the return of goaltender Matt Murray, who turned 22 on Wednesday. Watching Murray was like watching Ken Dryden reborn. It's not just physical: Murray's listed at 6-4 but only 178 lb; Dryden was heavier, but goalies wore fewer pads in those days, so if anything Dryden looked skinnier in the nets. But it was the way Murray stands up, and then finds incredible moments of contortion in that long frame. Like Dryden, he performed well in the American Hockey League; when Dryden was called up, it was from the Montreal Voyageurs, who played their home games in the Forum. Ironically, Dryden had been drafted by the Bruins while he was still playing in Junior B hockey; when he decided to go to Cornell instead of sign, the Bruins traded his rights to Montreal. Goalies coming out of US college hockey were still a rare thing in the NHL in those days.

Murray was a second-team all-star his last year in Junior A hockey, but Pittsburgh had already seen potential and drafted him in the third round of the 2012 draft. His impact with the NHL has been very much like Dryden's was 45 years before.

Murray tore up at AHL last season, playing for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. He had a 1.58 goals against average, a .941 save percentage, won 25 games lost 10 with three ties. He was named MVP, rookie of the year, selected as a first-team All Star and awarded the Baz Bastien Trophy as the league's best netminder. Although he was promoted to Pittsburgh this season, he sat on the bench behind veteran Marc-Andre Fleury; when Fleury was injured he shared time with Jeff Zatkoff. In the end, he appeared in only 13 games (9 wins 2 losses 1 tie) but his goals against (2.00) and save percentage (.930) were team bests.

He took over the goaltending full-time in the third playoff game, beat the Rangers 3-1 and 5-0 in two wins, and took over as the number one goalie. I made the Dryden comparison then, because I was back in the States and watched the series with my brother and sister-in-law, devoted Rangers' fans. But after losing to Tampa Bay in Tampa last week, the Penguins went back to Fleury, who was beaten 4-3 in overtime at home. Thus Murray came back and won the remaining two games.  For the playoffs his record now stands at 11-4, GA 2.22, save pct .924. He will go into the finals against the Sharks as the number one goalie again, not bad for a guy who, like Dryden has now played more Stanley Cup playoff games than regular-season games in the NHL.

But the Penguins won that game seven against Tampa Bay not so much because Murray was spectacular, although he was good when called upon, but because their offense swarmed the Lightning throughout the game, and because of two goals by Bryan Rust, which gave him five in the playoffs, which is one goal more than he scored during 41 games of the regular season. He's not known as a goal-scorer, obviously, but in the Stanley Cup surprising things happen. I can't really visualize Rust in my old Montreal memories; Doug Risebrough a little, but he was a centre, Murray Wilson for the role he plays, but Wilson was bigger and played on the left. And although the game has changed so much since the Sixties and Seventies, we can't live in the past, can we?

Thursday, 26 May 2016


My piece on Madeleine LeBeau (and her first husband, Marcel Dalio) is now up at the LRB Blog, in a slightly edited format (removing most of the background about Casablanca, which the more erudite LRB audience is presumed to know, as everyone should!). Here's the link.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016


My obit of the JFK assassination critic Mark Lane was posted on the Guardian online back on 17 May; I somehow missed it at the time. I may have missed its appearance in the paper paper too. You can link to the story here.

It's a fairly straight forward catalogue Lane's peripatetic career; I had to avoid getting too deeply into the minutiae of either the JFK or MLK assassinations, and dipping into the constant back and forth before critics of the official line (I did mention Calvin Trillin's New Yorker piece about what he dubbed 'assassination buffs', in which Lane was central, as an early attempt to trivialize critics). The first big books about the assassination were those published by Lane, Harold Weisberg (the Whitewash series, basically self-published, apart from Oswald In New Orleans, after the original paperback, while successful, disappeared), Josiah Thompson (Six Seconds In Dallas), and Sylvia Meagher's indispensible Accessories After The Fact, which catalogued the deliberately random presentation of evidence in the Warren Report. They were also dubbed 'critics' because they were criticising the Report itself, and one of the biggest problems is that the Warren Report is so shoddy, the evidence it presents so dishonest, that it has always obscured and made more difficult efforts to find a 'solution' to the JFK assassination, something I doubt will ever be done.

In my original copy I also mentioned how Lane and Jane Fonda were eventually marginalised by the leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, because their publicity-seeking became self-defeating; the VVAW got more traction from its actual vets, including leader Donald Duncan, whose obituary had appeared in the New York Times only shortly before Lane's, but who had actually died in 2009. (The story behind that is fascinating, and told in the Times here).

What I really should have made clearer was the way in which, as I said, Lane's career might been seen as a metaphor for what I called the 'chaotic web' around the assassination. This was reflected in my original copy for the graf about E. Howard Hunt:

Typifying the fun-house mirror world of conspiracy, Lane's most unlikely client was The Liberty Lobby, a far-right group whose magazine The Spotlight published an article by CIA whistle-blower Victor Marchetti claiming E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate burglar, had been in Dallas when Kennedy was shot. Hunt had often been mis-indentified as one of the three men in the infamous Dallas 'tramps' photograph. In 1981 Hunt sued for libel, and Lane was brought in for the 1985 appeal hearing, where he produced witnesses who claimed Hunt was in Dallas and won the case, though some jurors apparently voted against Hunt on the grounds his reputation couldn't be defamed. Ironically, after Hunt's death in 2007, his son claimed his father had excised information about his involvement in the assassination from his own memoir, and in a death-bed confession implicated himself and a number of other CIA operatives. Researchers clashed on whether this could be taken at face-value or was just a final bit of disinformation from Hunt on the Agency's behalf. On the back of the trial, however, Lane published Plausible Denial (1991), positing CIA involvement in the assassination. 

If someone brought signed confessions or documentary evidence about the men who shot JFK, half the research community would argue with the other half over its validity, and there is a good case to be made that some of the work presented over the years has indeed been disinformation.
I have written before that establishment writers posit a strange double-standard for those who believe JFK was not killed by a lone crazed assassin. We have mountains of evidence of government conspiracies, to kill, to wage war, to steal, to spy, to lie and to cover up, yet establishment writers always take the official version at face value, and turn the accusation of 'conspiracy theorist' on those who don't. Although the burden of proof should always remain with authority, the way the game works is if you posit, however reasonably and with whatever evidence, anything that might be dubbed a conspiracy, you are then expected by the guardians of the official version to defend every whacko out there--you are assumed to believe with David Icke that the Royal Family are lizards from outer space.

You could look at Lane's winding up with Jim Jones and the People's Temple as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, of the researcher looking for a conspiracy. Lane claimed to have heard shots from the scene of the mass suicides; as far as I'm aware that was never confirmed by evidence (though people were shot in other locations). I think in the end my approach to Lane's life was the best way to recognise the importance of much of his work, and to take it at face value, as it deserved to be taken.

Sunday, 22 May 2016


In the 14 May Guardian Review, Lionel Shriver wrote a piece titled 'On The Money', about our 'newfound' fascination with bankers as 'the perfect villains'. Coincidentally enough, Lionel Shriver has a new novel coming out, which she described as 'an economic dystopia', and which she linked to a number of other fictional works arising out of the 2008 financial collapse. Later, she says, 'bankers and their ilk have never had an easy time of it in drama', and that the 'sole positive portrayal I could dig up of a cinematic character in the money business is Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, while then pointing out the tremendous banker-villain of Its A Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter, played by her namesake Lionel Barrymore. That this works somewhat against her thesis of banker villains as a modern trend in literature, it does manage to lead her to films, where including Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps again begs the point of the original Wall Street coming during a different period of banking perfidy.

Inconsistencies aside, it was an interesting piece, but her mention of It's A Wonderful Life reminded me of something she's missed. A couple of things, actually. So I wrote a letter to the Review, which follows in my original version, before I cut it back on the off chance the G might print it:

Had Lionel Shriver, in her interesting essay, searched a little further back into Frank Capra's films she would have found another banker hero. In the aptly-titled American Madness (1932), Walter Huston plays Thomas Dickson, a prototype George Bailey who staves off a run on his bank after his protege is accused of stealing from it. He makes virtually the same appeal to reason and community over panic and greed that George makes in a scene framed and shot in much the same way, only moreso: the panic and greed seemed more frightening and real in 1932.

It might also be worth pointing out that banker villains have thrived in westerns since the early silents ('If you don't give me the deed to your ranch'). One of the the greatest is in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) where Henry Gatewood (played with pompous self-regard by Burton Churchill), who has robbed his own bank, constitutes a one-man argument for The New Deal's banking regulations, like Glass-Steagall, and for George Bailey's idea for coping with banking crisis; if anything, he's a more loathsome figure than Mr. Potter.

Saturday, 21 May 2016


I got drunk with Guy Clark once. He taught me how to play poker dice. It was almost 25 years ago, and I probably remember more about it now than I did the next day.

It was 25 August 1991, a Bank Holiday Sunday, and I was playing softball in Regents Park with my ex-colleagues from ABC and some other friends. An American guy wandered past and stopped to watch, then asked if he could play. He joined my team, and we started talking. Tom Wohlke was the promoter at a music theatre in Westchester, just outside New York City. He was in town managing four singers who were playing that night in London: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Peter Rowan and John Stewart. This made him immediately, to me at least, the coolest guy in London, since all his charges were favourites of mine. I knew Van Zandt's songs and I'd followed Rowan since his days in Earth Opera. I'd discovered Clark listening to Jerry Jeff Walker, live and on record, and Clark's album Old No. 1 was played to death on my turntable. John Stewart, had been an obsession of mine ever since I picked up California Bloodlines in the bargain rack at the store on High Street in Middletown in 1969; one of his songs provided the title of this blog.

Tom comped me tickets, and after the show I went backstage. Tom introduced me around, but Stewart and Rowan were each in a hurry to head out, so I never even got the chance to play fan boy (and at that time I was working for baseball, not freelancing, so I couldn't even pretend there was a piece of journalism at the end of the rainbow). Van Zandt was quiet, there was a bottle going round, but Guy Clark was welcoming. 'Come on back to the hotel with us, we'll play some poker dice'.

'Sure' I said, and piled into a cab with them and Tom. We went to the Phoenix Hotel in Notting Hill, and somehow some more bottles appeared and Guy went up to his room, and after a while came back down with the dice. These were poker dice—with 9 through Ace on the dice—we weren't playing dice poker, which you play with the real 1 through 6 dice. At least I think that's what he said. You play poker dice like yahtzee: three rolls, keep whichever dice you want, roll the rest. There are no suits, so no flushes, and of course you have to wait til the others roll til you discover who won.

And while you're waiting, you drink some more. And some more. This was a lot of fun.

I honestly don't remember what I was drinking, and what else might have gone on. I do know that sometime around 2 or 3 ayem Stewart and Rowan each returned to the hotel; Rowan went straight up the stairs; John Stewart watched a few rolls, and then went up to his room too; I never did get the chance to discuss his music with him. Tom and Townes and Guy and I went on playing, drinking, and talking for most of the night. At some point Townes adjourned himself, then Tom gave up, and finally, after a few hands of liar's poker with the dice, Guy gave me his address and said to come visit Nashville.

I went out in the street as the sun was rising and found a cab home. I woke up in bright sunlight, sitting on the steps of the house. I hadn't been able to face going up the four flights to my flat. Now I went up the 69 steps (I still recall the number) and collapsed on my bed. My pockets seemed heavy and noisy, and as I took off my jacket I emptied them. They were full of coins. So were my trouser pockets. And a few notes stuffed here and there as well. I passed out, and when I woke up I counted it and there was 60-something quid there. Monday was a holiday too, but the tour had moved on, so I didn't have a chance to lose back some of the cash.

I kept in touch with Tom Wohlke for a while. I wrote Guy, checking on the rules of Poker Dice, and offering him a chance to win his cash back sometime. I never had a reply and I still haven't been to Nashville. I saw John Stewart at the Borderline many years later, on his last tour, not long before he died. When he sang 'Mother Country' I cried, and when I saw my friend John Harvey afterwards he said he'd cried too.

You should listen to Guy Clark's 'LA Freeway', a great song about him and his wife Susanna moving from California to Nashville. Jerry Jeff had a hit with that. Or 'Texas 1947', which, even though I'm 10 years younger, and a streamline never appeared through my Connecticut town, is as good a song about growing up in those heady postwar times as I've ever heard. Or 'That Old Time Feeling' which comes and goes in the rain. Or 'The Randall Knife', a talking song, with a haunting nostalgic tune behind it, about his father's life and death. If you want an album, start with Old No. 1, or his live one, Keepers, which has most of his best songs. He and Townes and Steve Earle released a live record, Together at the Bluebird Cafe, in 2001 that's fun. And there was a tribute album, This One's For Him, with various people covering his sons, which came out in 2011. To be honest, I've never listened to it. His last record, My Favorite Picture Of You, came out in 2012, after his second wife Susanna died. It won a Grammy. Clark had been ill for a long time, including ten years with cancer, but kept writing and playing. He died Tuesday. He was 75.

 I think more than anything you should listen to 'Desperados Waiting For A Train', about his grandmother's boyfriend Jack, an oil driller, who raised him the way good grandads do. Here's a link to the original album version. Go to You Tube and listen to how it changes as he gets older. In the last verse, he visits Jack for the last time:

And then the day before he died I went to see him
I was grown and he was almost gone
So we just closed our eyes and dreamed us up a kitchen
And sang another verse to that old song
Come on, Jack, that son-of-a-bitch is comin.
We're desperados waiting for a train...

RIP Guy Clark. I still owe you another game. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2016


 It is one of the most beautiful, and most moving, close-ups in film: Madeleine LeBeau, as Yvonne, tears streaming down her face, shouts 'Vive La France' after joining the patrons of Rick's Cafe Americain in singing 'La Marseillaise' to drown out the Nazis singing 'Die Wacht Am Rhein'. The news was released this weekend that LeBeau had died on 1 May, at the age of 92; she was the last surviving cast member from Casablanca. Her's is one of the best scenes in a movie filled with memorable scenes, and Yvonne's tears are what gives a moment that might seem absurd, a battle of songs between the Nazis and the melange of refugees and Vichy French in French Morocco, dramatic credence. It's enough to make me want to be French every time I see it.

The back-story makes it work. We first see Yvonne sitting at the bar, attended by the drooling baman Sascha (Leonid Kinskey). Rick (Bogart, of course) has just dumped her, and he deals with her pleading with a harsh existentialism: "Where were you last night?" "That's so long ago, I don't remember." "Will I see you tonight?" "I never make plans that far ahead.” The dialogue helps us understand that Rick's unwillingness to commit to anything—it's a metaphor for wartime neutrality, which is what, on the grander scale, the film is nominally about. Rick has already refused to help Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who has robbed and killed the couriers carrying prized letters of transit, which he has given to Rick to hide. After a police have shot Ugarte trying to escape, one patron says 'I hope you'll do more when they come for me,', to which Rick replies, 'I stick my neck out for nobody'.

Yvonne returns to Rick's on the arm of a young German officer (Hans Twardowski), as if to flaunt him in Rick's face. LeBeau's acting is perfect, part childish part femme fatale, as she gets a couple of sour glances as she's seated. But Rick is upstairs with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) who's trying to get stolen letters of transit from him, so he and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) can leave Casablanca. Rick has refused to sell at any price, telling Laszlo to 'ask his wife' why, when the sound of the Germans singing reaches his office.

In a series of cuts we see the Germans singing, Laszlo in frozen anger on the stairs with Rick, police prefect Capt. Renault (Claude Rains) looking discomforted, and Yvonne staring with shame into her drink. Then Laszlo marches to the bandstand and orders the band to play La Marseillaise. They look up to Rick, who nods his approval. The singing begins, and Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) tries to get his Nazis to sing louder before they sit down in defeat. In another close-up, Yvonne sings with barely disguised shame and rage, as the tears begin; by the time the song ends her face is swimming in tears as she shouts 'Vive La France'. I usually post that clip on social media each Bastille Day, and each time I feel a lump in my throat.

But for LeBeau the film must have had extra resonance. Exile, and fleeing the Nazis was real. She and her husband, Marcel Dalio, had fled Paris ahead of the Germans. Like Victor and Ilsa, they obtained letters of transit from Spain to Lisbon, whence they boarded a Portugese ship carrying Chilean visas which turned out to be forgeries. They were stopped in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but managed somehow to get temporary visas for Canada, and on their way north stopped in Los Angeles.

Dalio was a major actor in France; a comic star who played major roles in two of Renoir's classics, La Regle du Jeu and La Grande Illusion, where his comic skill belies the seriousness of the parts. They had met when she was a teenaged stage actress, and married in 1939, the year she landed her first small file role, in Pabst's Young Girls in Trouble. Dalio was some 20 years older; a prefiguring of Bogart's romance with Lauren Bacall that began on the set of To Have And Have Not, in which Dalio would have one of his best Hollywood roles. Dalio was Jewish; born Israel Moshe Blauschild to Romanian Jewish parents; the Germans actually used his face on posters to illustrate their warnings against the typical Jew. Dalio's parents would die in concentration camps.

Both of them landed work in Hollywood: Dalio landing character roles and LeBeau worked her way up with smaller parts in better films at Warner Bros: Hold Back The Dawn, with fellow French expat Charles Boyer, and in Raoul Walsh's boxing drama Gentleman Jim. But by the time they made Casablanca, the marriage had already failed to survive Hollywood; Dalio sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion. One senses he was an older professional; she was younger and beautiful and may have had her headed turned.

Dalio, of course, plays Emil the croupier in Casablanca; he's the one who hands Capt. Renault his winnings an instant after Renault has closed Rick's under Strasser's orders, because he is 'shocked, shocked, to find gambling is going on in here'. Renault's initial response to Strasser's order, 'but everyone's having such a good time,' is one of Rains' many marvels.

Yvonne disappears from the movie at that point; LeBeau played in two more films, with one good role alongside Dalio, George Sanders and Brenda Marshall in Paris After Dark (1943), then disappeared from Hollywood after the war. Her postwar career in France was peripatetic, with few starring parts or memorable roles. The most notable is probably her title role in (ironically) The Sins of Madeleine (1951) playing a prostitute who scams her clients with a pregnancy scare. She also gathered some epic bad reviews playing a singer in a British film, Cage Of Gold (1950, see photo left) alongside Jean Simmons.

Dalio worked consistently on both sides of the Atlantic; he even took the Capt. Renault role in a short-lived American TV series of Casablanca in 1955. You can see him in Sam Fuller's China Gate, John Ford's Donovan's Reef, and even in Mike Nichols' Catch-22, but his biggest role was one of his last, as an American rabbi returning to the France where he was born, in Gerard Oury's The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, which was followed by a key part in Walerian Borowczk's soft-core classic La Bete.

LeBeau made little impact again until she played a tempermental French actress, called Madeleine, in Fellini's 8 ½ at which point she stayed in Italy with one of the film's writers, Tullio Pinelli; they married in 1988. You can see some of her character reflected Valentina Cortese's character, Severine, in Truffaut's Day For Night. She retired from films in 1965, and lived quietly. Pinelli died in 2009 at the age of 100. She died in Barcelona, after breaking a hip in a fall.

As it happens, I often write obituaries, and they often drive home changes in my own world, changes that rarely seem for the best. I can't say how many times I have watched Casablanca in my lifetime; often enough to have most of the film's key lines down by rote. I've probably watched Madeleine LeBeau sing La Marseillaise five times as many times, and as I said, I will continue to replay it on July 14 for years to come. Vive La France! Vive LeBeau!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016


Today is the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan and The Band's performance at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, when a spectator yelled 'Judas' at Dylan, who was in the midst of an amplified set. Note it's a 20 shilling ticket; I assume they didn't have the press set up to charge £1!

I listened to a 'report' on the incident on the BBC Radio 4 News tonight, presented as the moment Dylan's electric band faced the music, so to speak, and the audio quality of both the accusation, and Dylan's response: 'I don't believe're a liar' were a lot more audible than they were on my bootleg CG, called Guitars Kissing And The Contemporary Fix, which I find I still listen to even though I have the 'official' version from Dylan's own Bootleg Series.

But the BBC version omitted what Dylan said next, as he turned to The Band and told them to 'play fucking loud'. I thought about the song they played next, 'Like A Rolling Stone', and how this reflected something essentially English. Not the BBC's coyness, despite the song, which benefits from loudness, being Dylan's best riposte. Listen to it: Mickey Jones (sitting in for Levon Helm who didn't make that tour) makes the snare drum explode as he starts the song, and Garth Hudson's organ swirls.

No, it was because the whole controversy was old hat by the time Dylan made it to Manchester. 'Like A Rolling Stone' had been played at Newport, to booing (although some of that allegedly was due to the bad sound system) and elsewhere (organist Al Kooper says the crowd was fierce at Forest Hills a little after Newport). But that was the summer of 1965, not '66.The song was released as single in July, and went to number 2 in the US charts (behind 'Help'). By the time the Highway 61 Revisited album was released in August, 'Like A Rolling Stone' was also number 4 in the charts in Britain. The Free Trade Hall protestor was already nine months past his sell-by date when he compared Dylan to Jesus' betrayer. Some things never change, and many things are presumed not to exist until they reach British shores.

Apparently Keith Butler, the guy who yelled Judas died 15 years ago, after a violent reaction to bee stings. A lonesome fate for a participant in what may be the most hallowed bootleg moment ever.

As Sgt. Pepper might have said:

It was 50 years ago today
Bob Dylan told the Band to play
Fucking Loud

Saturday, 14 May 2016


 In the midst of an excellent analysis of the success of Donald Trump in the current New York Review of Books, Mark Danner recalls something prophetic written twenty years ago by Richard Rorty, which is worth quoting in full here:

"Watching him blather and mug as he casually leaned over the podium in Boca Raton, seeing him cultivate the applause as if directing a symphony and then raise his two hands in thumbs-up gestures as he surfed the waves of applause and the deafening shouts of “USA! USA! USA!,” I recalled a remark that the philosopher Richard Rorty made back in 1997 about “the old industrialized democracies…heading into a Weimar-like period.” Citing evidence from “many writers on socioeconomic policy,” Rorty suggested that
members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
As Trump put it in Nevada, “I love the poorly educated!”

Rorty’s words prophesy not only the strongman’s rise but his blithe refusal to let “political correctness” prevent him making sexist and bigoted remarks, and his fans’ euphoric enjoyment of their hero’s reveling in the pleasures of free speech."

Read the whole article here:

Rorty's essay appears in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998)

Monday, 2 May 2016


The current conflagration over 'anti-semitism' in the Labour party has been particularly well-timed, and incredibly effective. I say well-timed because it came, as if by coincidence, just as polls revealed the great distance by which Zac Goldsmith, the Etonian candidate for mayor of London, trailed Sadiq Khan in the polls, and also just after polls showed, for the first time, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn with a higher approval rating than David Cameron. I say effective because it has transformed the debate and worked in favour of three interests: the Tories, with Cameron on the attack and Goldsmith's mayoral campaign thrown a lifeline; the anti-Corbyn New Labour faction of the Labour party; and supporters of Israel. These groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Goldsmith had been running a cynically racist campaign against Khan, sending out leaflets targeted to various ethnic groups with names apparently originating in the sub-continent, trying to inflame them against a Moslem candidate. Those always linked Khan with Corbyn. And Goldsmith (and his proxies in the Tory Parliamentary party) spent much time playing guilt by association with Khan and any number of Moslem figures, including one, Suliman Gani, who actually canvassed for the Conservatives against Khan in the general election! This was a classic 'Sir' Lynton Crosby campaign: full of Lee Atwater style coded appeals to fear and hatred.

Then came the Naz Shah scandal, as raised by the Tory blogger 'Guido Fawkes'. Shah had retweeted a meme 'calling for the forced transportation of Jews of of the Middle East'. Really? The meme actually says that 'an easy solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict' would be to 'relocate Israel into United States', showing a map of the US with Israel seemingly carved out of part of Nebraska and Kansas. The words 'forced transportation' never appear in the text, nor indeed does the word 'Jews'. But the word 'solution' does, which was manna to Cameron, as we shall see later. To anyone who uses the internet, the meme is obviously a satirical attempt to show Israel's dependence on the United States and the US's unquestioning support for Israel. You may not agree, you might think it heavy handed, you might not find it clever, but its call is to literally move an entire country to another continent to eliminate a conflict. Taking it literally is like arguing Jonathan Swift supported cannibalism as a cure for famine in Ireland.

Shah had retweeted this meme a couple of years ago. She might also have been taking it literally, who knows, she doesn't show much imagination. She has also been highly critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, and often combative, once refusing to admit an Israeli child had indeed been killed by Palestinians throwing stones. Now that she is actually an MP, she might have been more cautious. But she issued a seemingly sincere apology to those offended by it. That should have been the end of that. But the point was not to embarrass Shah, so her comments quickly became a challenge to all Labour party members to repudiate, disavow, condemn something that they may not have seen and which was being misinterpreted out of all proportion. Step forward Ken Livingstone, ready to pour oil on what was still a simmering flame.

By coincidence of a sort, there was an extended piece on Goldsmith and Khan by Simon Hattenstone in Saturday's Guardian magazine. It rehashed much of the Goldsmith racism campaign noted above, but it also quoted Livingstone saying it was 'the dirtiest campaign he'd ever witnessed' and also condemning anti-semitism, albeit as practised by the Daily Mail in, uh, 1906. 'Never forget the headline in 1906: "Jews bring crime and disease to Britain". And it's been selling papers, and unprincipled politicians have been using fear, throughout time immemorial'.

Between Livingstone giving the hyperbolic quote to Hattenstone and the piece appearing, the Naz Shah story had broken, and Livingstone had jumped into the fray. Not content to expose the 'anti-semitic' slurs for what they were, he upped the ante, reminding people that 'Hitler was a Zionist', because the Nazis had done deals with Zionist groups to buy Jews passage to Palestine in the early 1930s. Equating the desperate efforts to free Jews from Germany and the cynical confiscation of Jewish assets by the Nazis to making Hitler a Zionist was insulting, inaccurate, and incendiary. Kind of like Bibi Netanyahu claiming Hitler got the idea for cremating Jews from the Moslem Mufti of Jerusalem. Livingstone has already got into trouble evoking Nazis with Jewish people, and anyone concerned with the elections or his party would have thought twice and kept their mouth shut. Instead he gave Labour MP John Mann, who's called Gerald Kaufman an anti-Semite for seeking a balanced solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, another chance to posture for the cameras and cry anti-Semitism.

Conspiracy theorists might see Livingstone as a Laurence Wainwright type character from A Very British Coup, but the reality seems to be he's halfway down the slope to becoming George Galloway, following a personal agenda bent on self-destruction of all around him. 

Hattenstone's piece was prophetic in describing Lynton Crosby's classic technique called 'the dead cat', whereby the dead cat thrown on the dinner table distracts the guests and becomes all anyone at the table discusses. Sure enough, Labour's 'anti-semtism' led all the papers and bulletins, and the nastiest slur yet against Khan attracted no negative attention at all. Of course, as Hattenstone's piece made ironically clear, Crosby has nothing to do with Goldsmith's campaign, which is being run by Mark Fullbrook, the 'F' in the political consultants CTF Partners. That's CTF where the 'C' stands for, um, Crosby.

Even more tellingly, this brilliant political riposte bore the classic hallmarks of another Atwater disciple: Karl Rove, who ran the Bush campaigns. Rove's signature ploy was to turn his opponent's strength, and his candidate's weakness, against him. Shrub Bush is an elitist preppie eased through the Ivy League and business by family connections? Call him 'Dubya' like a good ol boy and make Al Gore a 'liar'. Bush dodged the draft and went AWOL on his cushy National Guard gig? John Kerry's a decorated war hero who turned against the Vietnam War? 'Swift Boat' Kerry, make him a 'liar', question his 'patriotism'.

So consider: you've got a campaign based on coded racism, and you're waiting to, in effect, accuse your Moslem opponent of at least supporting terrorists. You're fading fast.  Jeremy Hunt and the NHS and Dave Cameron and Europe are killing you. What do you do? Make the Labour Party the story, accuse THEM of racism, of antisemitism, the most heinous racism of the past century, and turn the attention to them. Which three-quarters of the media will do with glee, and the other quarter will do because Labour, unlike the Tories in power, are powerless to affect them. Your party's leadership  is systematically running an election campaign trying to stir up racial fear and hatred, so make the Labour party the villain for any individual's worst statement, and be sure to conflate any criticism of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism. Here's a moment from Prime Minister's question time: 'The Prime Minister told the Commons: "Anti-Semitism is racism and we should call it out and fight it wherever we see it. The fact that we have got a Labour Member of Parliament with the Labour whip who made remarks about the transportation of people from Israel to America and talked about a 'solution' is quite extraordinary." ' No one will ever claim Cameron's duff at following a script.

Beyond the utter ruthlessness of the Tory party and its press, the other issue here is the growing conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, which is growing more pronounced as Israel's policies become harsher and harsher in the occupied territories, and indeed, as the leader of the opposition in the Knesset has just supported the building of more walls around illegal settlements. We've seen that referring to the walling off of Palestinians as part of an 'apartheid' state has got Jimmy Carter called an anti-semite. In the midst of the US presidential primaries, where walls are also an issue,  Hillary Clinton used coded language to accuse Bernie Sanders, a Jew, of anti-Semitism, because he won't join her whole-hearted doubling-down in backing Netanyahu.

It's here a perfect storm meets, the neo-cons and neo-libs looking to support Israel and marginalize the left get both wishes in one package. But there is a real danger here in using antisemitism to try and remove issues from debate. One leading neo-lib columnist attacked the BBC for left-wing politically correct bias for calling ISIS 'so-called Islamic state', conviently forgetting how high and quickly the Beeb jumped when David Cameron condemned them for using the term Islamic State and giving ISIS 'credibility'. Extremism in the defense of Israel knows no limits. Using the anti-semitic slur with reckless abandon cheapens it, dilutes it, and renders it harder to deal with real anti-semitism, and with other forms of real racism.

Another internet meme went around last week, quoting Dr. Hajo Meyer, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2014, around the time Naz Shah was retweeting that now-notorious meme. 'An anti-Semite used to be a person who disliked Jews. Now it is a person who Jews dislike'. In this context, Dr. Meyer doesn't seem to have imagined the British right.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

O.J. AUCTION: PRICES SLASHED/The 1999 Civil Trial Auction

I wrote the following piece from Los Angeles for the Financial Times. It appeared in the FT, in somewhat more restrained form, on 27 February 1999. The hardest part was getting accredited, for some reason they didn't quite believe I came from London, or wrote for the FT, or maybe both. But there I am, about four rows back; you can see me more clearly in the second photo, below left. And by the way, the FT didn't use that title for the piece.

The OJ Simpson Circus was back in action in Hollywood last week, when property from the former football star’s residence was auctioned off on behalf of a Court Receiver, one step in obtaining the $33.5 million judgement levied against Simpson by a Santa Monica jury in the civil suit brought by the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. This being LA, the receiver, Michael D. Myers, came complete with a four-page biographical press release, describing himself as “slim and soft-spoken”.

Sadly, the slim and soft-spoken Mr. Myers went overlooked by the local media, for whom otherwise it was Christmas in February. Hollywood auctioneers Butterfield & Butterfield on Sunset Boulevard overflowed with 17 film crews jostling, 12 reporters pouting, 8 live-vans transmitting, and 5 panicked PRs. All it was missing was Dominick Dunne as the partridge in the front row. 

The top item on offer was OJ’s 1968 Heisman Trophy, awarded by the New York Athletic Club to America’s outstanding college gridiron player, and made more valuable because the Club misspelled Athletic on the inscription. Beyond the contents of his trophy room, the sale also provided a rare look into the aesthetic sensibilities of the football star turned Hertz pitchman and Naked Gun actor. Tiffany style lamps, chocolate box tourist paintings, and a large proto-cubist head painted by Donna Summer all gathered more action than many of the sports items.

The crush of media necessitated a second room for buyers and the curious public, including those desperate for their 15 seconds of fame. Hogging the centre ring of the circus was one Bob Enyart, a right-wing radio host from Denver, who orchestrated a TV camera scrum by announcing he would destroy the three items he purchased in a ceremony on the steps of the LA courthouse the next day at high noon. Enyart claimed to be acting for “citizens frustrated with the American justice system that allowed a criminal to remain as President and a murderer to go free.” Meanwhile, he frantically plugged his web-site, which turned out to be hawking “I Helped Execute OJ Simpson” T-shirts for a mere $200 a pop. As it turned out, Enyart’s OJ exorcism was exiled to the “and finally” item on the next night’s news.

Other buyers included wealthy souvenir seekers like Marty Cohen, who dropped out of the Heisman bidding at $220,000 “when rationality took over” and, more predictably, sports collectors, like Mark Dalen. Dalen came from Michigan, wearing proudly a huge Super Bowl winners’ ring he’d bought off the bankrupt family of former Chicago Bears owner George Halas. “Financial problems are sad, but they’re good news for collectors,” he said, adding he’d bought, and resold, a second Bears’ ring he after it was pawned by the son of a team executive, in his words, 'to pay off drug dealers'. Dalen proved a less than Super Bowl quality bidder, winding up only with OJ’s commemorative NFL Alumni golf umbrella, a snip at $400. That was the only golf umbrella on auction, but six separate sets of Simpson golf clubs sold for $2000 or $2250 each. OJ must’ve insisted on one day of golfing rest.

And of course, there were the OJunkies who had queued for hours to get a place in the room. Yvonne Adler had attended the civil trial every day for six weeks, and now wanted to buy something to burn. Priced out of the early bidding, she tried to pool with three other women, familiar to each other from the trial, to buy and share a collection of four crystal awards. But one of the four refused, on the grounds crystal doesn’t burn. 

The usual absentee and telephone buyers were joined by bidders on the internet. The auction was transmitted live over, and featured interactive “real time” bidding, using systems developed by the Seattle-based LiveBid. LiveBid has already run 40 internet auctions, selling, among other things, the Batmobile from the movie Batman Returns. CEO Matt Williams, 26, admitted they were doing this one for the exposure. The question was, for whom? As Williams said, 'the prospect of riding the OJ media whirl “gave me goose bumps.”

Internet buyers bought three items, and the crush of bidding threatened to overwhelm Yahoo’s Susan Carls, on the computer in the auction room. “It’s pretty scientific,” she said modestly. “The system takes only the highest bid, and automatically eliminates others. But I was really hoping we’d win the next-to-the-last item.” An internet buyer had appeared to claim The Washington Pigskin Club’s Player of the Year trophy, but a late bid from the second room coincided with auctioneer Scott Bradley’s dropping the hammer. "I felt it appropriate to allow the bid," said Bradley, who otherwise coped with the myriad sources with aplomb, to no one's surprise. "Potentially, we can add millions of bidders, but there’s weren’t really any problems."

The piece de resistence, the Heisman Trophy went by phone to a then-anonymous buyer for $230,000. Two days later, Philadelphia sheet-metal wholesaler Tom Kriessman, 47, flew to LA to ante up $255,000 (including tax and comission) for his first-ever sports collectable. "I bought it for everything it represents," he said. "You know, the tragedy that was his life." Not to mention his victims. 

The sales of OJ’s other tchatkes totaled $152,000. Nicole Simpson’s father, Lou Brown (see photo top left), watched the sale from the front row. Attorney Gary Caris announced afterwards that Brown was "very pleased with the result, but very pleased it was over." They remain aware that the $382,000 raised represents just over 1% of the judgement owed the two families, and that’s before the slim and soft-spoken Mr. Myers’ fees.OJ himself has decamped to Florida, where state law protects more assets against civil judgements.

Ending the post-sale press conference, Butterfield’s George Noceti, compared the Simpson auction to his past successes with Liberace or Elvis. And with that, the OJ media circus folded its tents, and Butterfield’s business resumed, auctioning television and movie memorabilia, starting appropriately enough with costumes from the cult TV show The Munsters.


The language that divides us. The People V. O.J. Simpson: The Run Of His Life, was released to coincide with the TV series, which in America was called American Crime Story: The Run Of His Life: The People vs O.J. Simpson. Similiarly, in America the book's primary title was The Run Of Life. Because OJ's career as a running back (and Hertz airport hurdler) was probably not something a British audience would recall, that title was played down. And the vs. was changed to v. because a British audience wouldn't be able to make that narrative leap either.

You can listen to or read my essay 'OJ and Our America' which I did for Cultural Frontline, on the BBC World Service, in my previous posts on this blog. I did that after seeing the first two episodes of the TV series, which prompted me to read Jeffrey Toobin's book. In fact, if you're playing catch-up with the series, I'd suggest you read the book early on too, because it will give you another picture of the case and the trial, and put things into context. It's also a great read. Toobin was writing from the standpoint of a legal observer, and he takes on the legal issues with the same sort of dramatic drive the series does, but with much more depth and context. And without actors to make characters more sympathetic.

The title is a little misleading. The Run Of His Life is really better applied to the famous Bronco chase, a run where he eventually turned and went the wrong way before being brought down in his own driveway. The trial was really the run of their lives for many of the other people involved: in a bigger sense, OJ might have been better served had he followed either of his original plans, of suicide or escape. That was the moment the trial leapt into the netherworld of celebrity: as Toobin says 'the world waited to see if O.J. Simpson would blow his brains out on national TV'. Irony is a major player in the Simpson case. As Toobin writes, 'only O.J. didn't understand the preeminent place of race in his own defense'. 'I'm not black. I'm O.J.'

Really the title might have been 'The Indifference To Truth'. Toobin talks of the shamelessness of Alan Dershowitz, but points out 'shamelessness is a moral, rather than a legal, concept.' He then quotes Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman on 'the indifference to truth that all advocacy entails'. He doesn't note the irony of a law school dead assuming the law's rules apply; outside the world of attorneys (and who knows, perhaps even inside occasionally) advocacy may pursued via the truth. Call me naïve and put me on the OJ jury. It's chilling to actually read OJ's 'suicide' note, which begins 'First everyone understand nothing to do with Nicole's murder'. That could be the title of a book too.

Toobin is absolutely brilliant on the way the defense's case was built on lies, and the lies built into performance, helped by the inertness of Lance Ito and the prosecution intent on playing Judy to the defense's Punch. His was the first piece on the 'race card' in the OJ trial, the strategy which proved effective, but he doesn't miss the smaller things. Barry Scheck's fragmentation of the prosecution's overwhelming DNA evidence was filled with explanations that ere 'fanciful, and some were silly'. They posited an LAPD that was both 'totally inept and brilliantly sinister' (this is in Marcia Clark's closing argument in the TV show. Maybe the glove was enough, but without Scheck's dumping of a ton of mud in the recombinant waters, it might not have been.

Although the TV series is based on Toobin's book, much material seems to have been gleaned from other sources, most notably Larry Schiller's 'as told to' inside story, which is where, for example, the brilliant scenes of Johnny Cochran redecorating OJ's house before the jury can see it is drawn. That he was able to do that speakes volumes about the ineptitude of Ito's court. Toobin is good on many of the sleazy tactics, such as deliberately withholding witnesses, but I can recall others, like swamping the discovery process, that I might have read in his columns but which aren't in the book. No matter: Toobin's book is full of the sort of astounding bits of absurdity that became the daily fodder for the OJ audience. LA DA Gil Garcetti's press officer, Suzanne Child's, would wind up 'dating' talk show vampire Larry King. And at times, like many magazine writers, he has to give the best lines to his colleagues on the daily beat. Mike McAlary's take down of Robert Shapiro presenting himself as the hero of the trial was deflated by Mike McAlary of the New York Daily News, who explained Shapiro was 'a typical Hollywood invention--a character tan-deep in make-up and significance'. Toobin also explains elsewhere that Shapiro drove a Bentley, but it 'was a used Bentley'. Years ago, when I reviewed Chris Darden's OJ book (you can link to that here) I pointed out where Darden said proudly he drove a Mercedes, but that it was only a 'used Mercedes'. In LA, I said, that passes for asceticism.

It's also brilliant on the internal battles within the defense team, particularly Shapiro's exclusion from it as the trial went along.The best thing about reading Toobin is to get the small bits that form the basis of the series' legal argument in more detail, and in tracking the personalities in more depth. F. Lee Bailey in particular comes off far worse than Nathan Lane's portrayal, but almost all the TV show's characters lack the desperate edge that Toobin gives them. And Toobin ends with a postscript on the civil trial, which took place in Santa Monica, not downtown, and of course went against OJ. It's a somewhat better, if less dramatic, but more ironic ending. This is a book to read regardless of whether you've seen the show or not. Because even if you don't intend to watch, after you read this, you will.

The People V O.J. Simpson: The Run Of His Life
by Jeffrey Toobin
Arrow Books, £7.99, ISBN 9781784758867


A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk on the BBC World Service's programme Cultural Frontline, tracing the influence and effects of the OJ Simpson trial; you can read my introduction to that in my post of 2 April, or link direct to the programme on Iplayer here; it comes about 14 minutes in. But for the time the show is no longer available, I thought I'd post my working script (with one footnote) here.

The essay was prompted by the showing of American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson on BBC television. As the series has now concluded, and I am about to write about it, and about the re-issue of Jeffrey Toobin's book about the trial, I thought this bigger picture might be instructive...


Was it really two decades ago? Watching The People Vs. OJ Simpson transported me back to that summer of 1994. After a stressful day in charge of the host broadcast of the opening match of the FIFA World Cup, I'd ordered room service in my hotel to watch the NBA basketball finals, when the infamous white Bronco driven by OJ's friend AC appeared in a box in the screen's lower third. Soon, the basketball was relegated to the box, then it disappeared, as the strange freeway convoy disguised as a police chase took centre stage. It was presented just like sports coverage, because America's new national pastime was television, and OJ gave TV everything it could desire.
It was billed as the 'crime of the century', or the 'trial of the century', but almost every decade in America produces at least one of those. It actually was the television event of the past century, but re-seeing it today generates far more than nostalgia. The Simpson trial balances on two great axes: race and celebrity, and it is both history and prediction. It is America defining itself, by its unending racial schism, and re-defining itself, as Andy Warhol foresaw, by celebrity.
The mini-series sets the scene with the brutal beating of a black man, Rodney King, by white Los Angeles police four years earlier, and the massive riots which followed the cops' acquittal on criminal charges. This signals the first crucial theme: the show dissects the way Simpson's defense was based on the disconnect between black and white Los Angeles. White America believed stars like OJ transcended race; prosecutor Marcia Clark wisecracks that a jury of OJ's peers would actually consist of 'middle aged white millionaires'. Black Americans saw it differently.
The narrative of OJ being framed by cops who resented his wealth and fame, hated his having a beautiful white ex-wife, recalled the Jim Crow era when 'uppity blacks' might be lynched for 'recklessly eyeballing' a white woman. Whites saw OJ as a world apart from Rodney King, but OJ's lawyer Johnny Cochrane knew they had one crucial thing in common, their skin; actor Courtney Vance milks every nuance of racism perfectly.
Twenty-two years later, America has a black president, and something like 20 per cent of the country believes he's a foreign-born Moslem educated in terrorist cells. It's impossible not to feel the embers of prejudice smouldering, waiting to be blown into flames by the next police killing of an unarmed black man.
Race was the strategy, but the trial was defined by celebrity. OJ had always received special treatment from the police and district attorneys in LA. It was easy to see why: when I met OJ while covering the 1992 Barcelona Olympics;, his charisma was overpoweringly physical: he's big in a way Cuba Gooding, the actor playing him on TV, cannot convey, yet moved gracefully with a chiselled handsomeness and easy smile. In the face of his celebrity, the prosecution pulled on kid gloves, but the money and sheer weight of numbers of the defense team pounded every concession into a submission. Judge Lance Ito preened for the cameras even as his head sunk beneath the quicksand; Clark and her assistant prosecutor Chris Darden saw TV punditry in their futures.
The mini-series plays the celebrity card knowingly, by highlighting OJ's friend Bob Kardashian, played with his trademark insecurity by David Schwimmer. Typically, there’s no mention of the garment bag Kardashian removed from OJ’s house, with whatever crucial evidence it contained (NOTE: This comment was premature. The bag did feature later, as Kardashian and AC opened it together to discover it contained nothing incriminating. That moment signalled the show's almost total acceptance of a changed Kardashian, Schwimmer being a character far more sympathetic. But I wonder.) Because what’s more important is that OJ was godfather to Kardashian's oldest daughter, Kim, and there follows a series of knowing winks at the soon-to-be-famous-for-being-famous sisters.
The Kardashian phenomenon was, in effect, enabled by the Simpson trial. It brought together the new world of 24 hour news and multi-channel television in a perfect storm, creating a parallel universe in which the trial became a catalyst for endless argument, speculation, innuendo, and punditry, full of cliché and sophistry, all about style and process, not about substance.
This legacy haunts us today. Not just in the morass of trash television, but in the trash television that has been the two-year cycle of the American presidential elections—an endless series of so-called debates in which nothing is debated, filling countless hours of airtime. Donald Trump, most of whose supporters believe that Barack Obama is a foreign terrorist, steps seamlessly from awarding pretend jobs on scripted reality shows, to playing a candidate in an endless reality show. Indeed, his candidacy would not be possible were it not for the OJ trial.
The primary voters themselves are like the jurors in a series of OJ trials, distracted by the big money dream teams of consultants who make TV commercials, believing in the celebrities they know from TV, and unable to escape the inflammatory rhetoric that invokes that shadowy cloud of ever-present racial divide. The Simpson trial created the Kardashians and empowers the Trumps; it is the template for today's America, glued to its TV screens, understanding nothing.