Tuesday, 6 October 2015


Henning Mankell was important as a crime writer because his Wallander books sparked what had become an explosion of Scandinavian crime fiction which went nuclear after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and I find it hard to believe that Steig Larsson wasn't inspired in some way by The Fifth Woman one of the best of the Wallander series.

Otherwise, Mankell's influence was more in terms of marketing than style, though you can see a good bit of him in the best of the Nordic writers, Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason. But Mankell himself was influenced by the godfathers of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and their ten Martin Beck books. Like Beck, Wallander is a dour detective with a depressing private life, and functions within an ensemble cast that both complements and contrasts with him. Mankell spends more time on Wallander himself, perhaps, which reflects the changing times to some extent (our literary cult of fictional personality) but also reflects Sjowall and Wahloo's own influences, especially Ed McBain's 87th Precinct.

Mankell was often dismissive of the label 'crime writer', but he was very generous to Sjowall and Wahloo, and wrote the introduction to the Harper Perennial reissue of the first Beck novel, Roseanna. When I wrote the introduction to Murder At The Savoy in the same series, I noted that its basic premise, the death of an industrial with fingers in many shady multi-national deals, is mirrored in Mankell's The Man Who Smiled (a very Martin Beck sort of title), and noted a few other parallels in the series. I also quoted the description of Beck's colleague Fredrik Melander, logical, calm, dull, with a 'modest' sense of humour, an excellent memory, and a propensity for being in the toiler whenever he was needed. As Sjowall and Wahloo wrote: 'briefly, he was a first-class policeman'. The one time I interviewed Mankell, appropriately enough at the Savoy (but in London, not Malmo) I asked if Wallander were in some ways an hommage to Melander. 'Oh, did they write that?' he replied. He also had little false modesty; I asked him who the man was who had greeted him just before we sat down. 'Oh, he's Sweden's second greatest novelist,' he said.

What also links Mankell to Sjowall and Wahloo was their dissection of the failures of Sweden's experiment in Social Democracy from a perspective often noted to be left-wing, but more accurately described as true to the ideals of that experiment. Mankell's political commitment is strong throughout his work, both in Sweden and Mozambique, and strongly consistent to a sense of rational help for those who need help and justice, and a society based on those principles. It was no surprise he chose to sail on the flotilla of ships trying to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, it was even less of a surprise that he reported the summary murder of 10 activists by masked Israeli commandos, and refuted very simply and strongly allegations that the killings were self-defense. He had a field day with the fact that he was captured in international waters, brought to Israel, and then charged by the Orwellian government with entering the country illegally.

Wallander was well-served by television. Rolf Lassgard nailed his character, but Krister Henriksson was justifiably more popular, because he brought some humour to Wallender, just through his quick smile and twinkle in his eye; it made his interactions with the rest of the ensemble less confrontational. Kenneth Branagh's Wallander virtually eliminated the ensemble, concentrating on the superficial problems of Wallander's life, most notably drinking and shaving. It's good that the series has not been continued, like the Beck which for all its strengths has little of Sjowall and Wahloo left to recommend it. And it should be noted that Henriksson's performance in the final Wallander story, The Troubled Man, is every bit as touching as Mankell's own conclusion to the series (and it's one of the most overtly political of the series as well).

There isn't much humour in the books; Mankell wrote a comic novel, Tea Bag, about literary types and immigration—the humane portion about the life of immigrants in Sweden works muich better than the literary comedy. But his work for children is surprisingly good, including Chronicler Of The Winds, an adult story based on a play written to be performed in Portugese, in his adopted Maputo.

Faceless Killers, the first Wallander book, is a good place to start. One Step Behind and Fifth Woman are my idea of the series' best. I'd also recommend his 2006 novel Depths, (you can read my review of that book here), set on bleak islands in the archipelago during World War I; it is to my mind the most Bergmanesque bit of Swedish writing I've encountered and deeply moving. Of course Mankell was married to Eva Bergman, Ingmar's daughter, which may or may not mean anything.

We discuss Mankell in the second episode of The Crime Vault Live; I could not do the same on BBC Front Row that night because we were recording CVL at the same time. I might have said that sometime in the future people will look at Mankell as a transitory figure, between the trail-blazing of Sjowall and Wahloo and the worldwide phenomenon of Steig Larsson. But he's more important than that, and the consistency of his vision for both his iconic character, his other work, and beyond fiction to his country and the world, should make him a major figure no matter from what distance literary critics are looking back.

Thursday, 1 October 2015


When I reviewed Ironhorse, the first of Robert Knott's continuations of Robert B Parker's Cole & Hitch westerns, I said I thought that the book lacked space for the heroes and villains to interact (you can read the whole review here), meaning a promising set-up is allowed to peter out. Bull River suffers from almost exactly the same problem, which is a shame because the set-up is, if anything, even better.

Virgil and Everett have captured a bizarre Mexican bandit known as Capitan Alejandro, and when they deliver him to San Cristobal they discover the local bank has been looted by its own president, who later turns up beaten comatose, with his wife disappeared or kidnapped by the actual robbers, after a Friends Of Eddie Coyle-style robbery. Which puts Cole & Hitch on the hunt, and coincidentally enough, the Capitan knows the robbers and where they might be.

As in the first novel, we then get a lot of traveling, back and forth, and not really enough tension and precious little confrontation. You can see where the former is waiting to build, especially when the boys are on a train with a Mexican officer who's clearly suspicious, but it never really does, and both the major shootouts are relatively perfunctory, because with Parker they were all about personality, and expressed verbally, whereas here they are diagrammed and drawn, in both sense of the latter word.

More important, however, is the interplay of Cole and Hitch. Everett Hitch narrates, telling Cole's story more than his own, but these two are not like Spenser and Hawk as much as they are the two parts of Spenser: the ego (Cole) and super-ego (Hitch) moderating the gunfighter's id. It's important to get that dynamic expressed in their conversations, but Knott's not able to do that, not even in the other situation where the two express different parts of the Spenserian being: relations with women. Even when Hitch relaxes comfortably with another of the 'liberated' women he seems to encounter regularly, we don't get the obvious contrast with Cole's relationship with Allie French. This lack is striking, because the bank president's wife could well be another Allie, and you would expect that possibility to be noted more than in passing.

Cole & Hitch are such a good pair of characters, and so well delineated by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, that their personalities, even the shadow of them, can carry a story enough to keep the reader going. But there isn't the frisson of doubt that Parker managed; the nature of Hitch's protective worry, the slight hint of self-doubt that Allie brings about in Virgil. I miss that.

Bull River by Robert Knott
Berkeley Books $9.99 ISBN 9780425272305

Monday, 28 September 2015


Doak Miller is a former New York cop who's taken early retirement, moved to Florida and picked up a PI licence. He lives a quiet life in a small town, has occasional sex with the realtor who sold him his house, and does odd jobs for the local sheriff. One of these is to play a hit-man, and wear a wire when he meets a woman who wants her husband killed. But something about Lisa Yarrow Otterbein's eyes gets to Doak.

It's a familiar sort of noirish set-up, right down to the steamy Florida back-drop, the kind of thing that John D MacDonald (echoed by this book's title) or some of the great Gold Medal pulpsters might turn out. This should be no surprise because Lawrence Block may be the last of those writers who came up in the Fifties and early Sixties in New York, often via the Scott Meredith agency, people like Ed McBain and Donald Westlake, and these kind of novels were their stock in trade.

Many of them also churned out porn, as well as soft-core crime fiction, like Block's Chip Harrison books, which is interesting because sex as well as death is the cornerstone of noir. And what Block is doing here is bringing the two together in a matter-of-fact way to suggest that these urges bleed into each other more than writers care to admit, or explain. What's most interesting is seeing the way Doak, rather than being manipulated like a classic noir bozo, is actually drawing himself in consciously, and with control (though of course we're always on the lookout for the usual inevitable betrayal) of the situation, and with a ruthlessness which sexuality has drawn out and intensified.

There's an almost tongue-in-cheek element to the sex here, as if Block were nodding back to those more outwardly innocent days, where the sin was just as heavy but the description was less graphic. If anything, you might see it as an old master doing what he might have wanted to do many years before. The key is Doak's experience with a pregnant woman he interviews as part of an insurance check. She's a reflection of Mildred Diedrichson, role reversed with Doak. And if Doak's inner self turns out to be worthy of Walter Neff (who is referenced specifically by Block, in what may be a slightly too cute playing of his story against some classic film noirs) there is a reason Block has attempted an hommage of Double Indemnity, reclaimed for the male. Block hands the book's killer ending to Lisa. 'That's the movies,' she said. 'This is life.'

The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes by Lawrence Block
Titan Books/Hard Case Crime £16.99 ISBN 9781783297504

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

SAVIN ROCK, 1956 (a poem)

Yogi Berra died yesterday, and while I was revising the obituary I'd written a few years ago for the Guardian's stock files, I thought about this poem. I don't remember when exactly I wrote it; it was part of my master's thesis at McGill, so it was probably in 1975 or 76, in Montreal, but it might have been earlier. It was published with a group of my poems in 1984, in Cid Corman's Origin, Fifth Series issue 3, in Kyoto. Cid was a real baseball fan; for years we exchanged post cards and aerogrammes (remember them) between London and Japan, discussing poetry, baseball, Charles Olson and sumo wrestling. Cid died on my birthday in 2004; I got to write his obituary for the Guardian, you can link to that here.

It was also published in a baseball-themed literary magazine, Spitball, in 1987, and in my collection By The Sound (Torque Press, Southampton) the following year.

Savin Rock was an amusement and resort area along the shore in West Haven, Connecticut, where my parents grew up. My great grandfather had a hot dog stand and pizzeria there; my grandfather, his son in law, at one point was partners in an auction house where my father, again, a son in law, worked weekends.  I think it's pretty self-explanatory: there were rides, Peter Franke's fun house, penny arcades (in one of which a waxed gypsy lady inside a glass machine issued printed fortunes if you inserted a nickel), a huge wooden roller coaster, bumper cars, the Wild Mouse, and the remnants of Donovan Field, where the West Haven Sailors baseball team played, run by George Weiss who later was the general manager of the Yankees.

Don Larsen's perfect game was pitched in game 5 of the 1956 series; Berra hit a home run in the second game, but two in the deciding game 7, won by the Yankees as Johnny Kucks pitched (and Berra caught) a three-hit shutout. Both those games were at Ebbett's Field but it's probably game seven I am calling up in the poem. In game six Bob Turley pitched 10 innings of four-hit ball and lost 1-0. That's 28 innings in which Yankee pitchers held the Brooklyns to just 7 hits; Berra knew how to pitch to the Dodgers.


Don Larsen was tossing the perfect game.
Berra homered onto Bedford Avenue.
The wax lady cackled in the penny arcade
& scared me, her ignorance of the Series.
I didn't want my fortune told,
I wanted to know who had won.

At grandpa's auction prices always went up,
The marks investing junk with sudden value,
Carried away with the power of their words.
After closing we drove past the hot dogs:
Jimmie's, Turk's, Phyllis's, Jake's.
Jake was your great-grandfather, he told me,
As he always did. He ran away when he was 12
& went out west to be a cowboy.
12 seemed very old. A cowboy named
Rosenthal, my father said, & shook his head.

They talked about cars.
My dad had his eyes on a blue '55 Ford.
I wished he played for the Red Sox.
I would run away north and watch him pitch.
I wished they'd someday win the pennant.
I was five years old. I don't remember now
If I knew then who Don Larsen was.


My obit of Yogi Berra is up at the Guardian online now; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, so follow the link to read it, but there are a few things I didn't have space to say, and a few that would not matter to the British audience.

One of them I got off my chest on the BBC World Service's Newshour this afternoon, at 13:55 on the clock, if you go to BBC IPlayer or link to it here. I did a more brief interview with the World Service's Outside Source in the morning: you can listen to that here. It was recorded off my mobile phone as the train pulled into Waterloo Station.

I mentioned in the obit his feud with George Steinbrenner: you can get an idea of what I thought of Steinbrenner if you read my IT intro and link to the Independent obit I wrote here. Berra was treated badly by the Yankees in his first go-round as manager; the team rallied around Yogi to win the pennant, and the Cardinals may have won the '64 World Series, but they were a far better team. But being treated badly by Steinbrenner was something completely different, and Yogi deeply resented the lies and the public humilation which were Steinbrenner's meat and potatoes. There wasn't really that much discussion of Yogi's managerial style today, but he was baseball shrewd, prone to play hunches, and epitomised what Tom Boswell once referred to as the 'glorified cruise director' whose job as manager was to keep everybody happy for 162 games.

It was Suzy Waldman of WFAN who got Yogi and the Yankees back together, but I always thought the 'kindler, gentler' George Steinbrenner of those days was a pretty shallow facade.  Yet David Cone pitched a perfecto on Yogi Berra day in 1999, as if to echo Don Larsen's in the 1956 World Series; has there ever been a better picture of spontaneous sporting joy than Berra's leap into Larsen's arms?

I pointed out that Berra grew up in St Louis' 'Dago Hill', now known, in more politically correct times, as 'The Hill'. That was the neighbourhood which produced the core of the 1950 US soccer team which beat England, guys who played for Simkins Ford in the St. Louis league. I also got the feeling Berra would have liked to have played baseball for his hometown Cards ('hometown' got cut from the piece in the Guardian, go figure) but you have to feel he was born to be a Yankee.

Where Mickey Mantle was incredibly handsome, Whitey Ford slick as a hustler at the Metropole, Yogi was like a collection of spare parts thrown together; R2D2 to Mantle's Luke Skywalker and Ford's Hans Solo. But as Yogi once said, 'you don't hit with your face'.

I wrote in the piece that in 1950, Berra had at 597 at bats and struck out just 12 times. For a guy who swung at almost everything, that boggles credulity. He walked only 55 times, but hit a career best .322 and had an on-base percentage of .383, also a career high. He finished third in the MVP voting that year, behind teammate Phil Rizzuto and Boston's utility player Billy Goodman.

Bill James wrote about Berra's body type, which wasn't that unusual in baseball. He was more or less 5-8 180 in his prime, heavier later; James says Roy Campanella was 5-9 205, Roger Breshnahan and Smoky Burgess roughly the same. Hack Wilson and Kirby Puckett are others James mentions in the outfield. Short and powerful is good for baseball.

I also owe James for the insight into that 1950s Yankee dynasty: Casey Stengel had Mantle in center field, he had Gil McDougald who could handle any infield spot and allowed Casey to stack his lineup toward his hunches, and he had Berra who never had a really bad year and was not necessarily a great catcher, but a great handler of pitchers, hit like an outfielder, and caught both ends of double-headers 117 times. Look at virtually all the great catchers and you'll see a pattern of good and bad years; Campanella seemed to alternate them. This is due largely to the wear and tear, if not injury, at the position, but Berra was remarkably durable and consistent. Cochrane, Bench, Pudges Fisk and Rodriquez, Gary Carter. OK maybe not Mike Piazza, but he wasn't a very good catcher. Casey was once asked what the secret of his success was and he said 'I never play a game without my man', and his man was Yogi.

I never bought into Maypo or YooHoo, but I bought into Yogi. I was never a Yankee fan, but I liked Mantle, enjoyed Stengel, appreciated Ford, admired the way they won, and loved Yogi. Almost everyone did. New York was the center of the world in the 1950s, and Yogi was the guy who brought the glamour of the city down to earth. It wasn't over until it was over. RIP Yogi.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


My obituary of Judy Carne, the 'sock it to me' girl on Laugh-In, is online at the Guardian now: you can link to it here, and it should be in the paper paper soon. It was maybe the saddest obit I've had to write; I recall Carne as someone closer to Julie Andrews than, say, Twiggy, which was the kind of thing Laugh-In was looking for from Goldie Hawn, as well as Carne. But it always seemed to me that she was underused and that 'sock it to me', like much of Laugh-In was a lame joke that got lamer as it went along.

I always found the show too much like a studio executive's idea of what young hip people should be, and although the quick-cutting format was chaotic and different, the humour was largely mainstream and safe. Rowan and Martin themselves I described as stand-ins for the TV audience, but they were also playing those executives. And I meant the word 'leering'. The British influence on Laugh-In was strong; in turn it influenced many shows, from Monty Python to Saturday Night Live (Lorne Michaels worked on Laugh-In).

Oddly, their more 'sophisticated' competition, the Smothers Brothers, who courted actual controversy with network censors, were very much like Rowan and Martin in the sense of Tommy playing the Jerry Lewis character, but they were folk singers, not lounge lizards.

You can see the way Judy Carne was displayed on screen going back to her earliest work, and there was always a sense of unsettledness, perhaps desperation, about her. I had originally written that the divorce from Reynolds was a tabloid sensation in 1966; it may have done more for Reynolds' career than Carne's. I probably should have mentioned that she did do a 25th anniversary Laugh-In show in 1993--she wasn't a total recluse or anything like that.

I do wish the Guardian had kept my ending:  'I was a Sixties flower-child who refused to grow up,' was how she characterised herself; sadly her Sixties fame drew less on her talent than on that nature. RIP

Monday, 7 September 2015


The first edition of The Crime Vault Live is now up on the interweb for your listening pleasure...it's a podcast I'm doing with the novelist Mark Billingham and @americarnage producer Harry Holgate, and it's all about crime fiction, films & television, audio books, and true crime. This debut show features as its special guest @martynwaites, who also writes novels under the nom de guerre Tania Carver...and it is a cracker. We talk about crime festivals, thrillers, review three novels by Gilly Macmillan, Johan Theorin and Simon Toyne, and bring The Maltese Falcon up from the Crime Vault's Vault, discuss the audio book version of the Swedish novel The Father, and compare notes on Hannibal, Bosch, and Mr Holmes. 45 minutes of, dare I say it, killer, and very little filler...here's the link to it at Itunes, but it will be available on a platform near you at any second....listen up, it's worth it.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015


Forty years ago today, Born To Run was released, and Bruce Springsteen would soon be on the cover of Time magazine. It was just before that album came out, some time in July 1975, that my high school friend Bryan Sperry and I took a trip up to Tanglewood, in the Berkshires, to hear Springsteen, outdoors, in a crowd of maybe 1,200 people. My college roommate Steve Berman, who grew up near Asbury Park, had introduced me to Springsteen's music when I taught at Georgetown Visitation Convent School and stayed with him while he was in law school.

Along with us on the trip was the Annie of this poem, Annie Donnelly, whom I'd met while I was teaching summer school at Wesleyan. I'd met Tom Disch, who was also teaching there, on the bus up to Middletown, and I sat in on his class, which Annie was taking. As it happened she was at Trinity, where Bryan had studied, and they knew each other a bit, I think. Anyway, for me it was coup de foudre, and I recall talking her into seeing the Boss. I also recall she not only came along, but drove, at breakneck pace, in her Beetle. I've just moved house again, and I found this old photo: Annie & Bryan and Tanglewood in the summer of '75. I can see my enraptured state in the way Annie looks. Of course it didn't last. And a few weeks later I moved to Montreal, to do a masters at McGill. I finished the poem in September, and it was published in 1976, titled 'The Morning After,' in a nice magazine called En Passant, which if I remember right was published in Delaware.

I collected it in Chump Change, which was the final Northern Lights chapbook, in 1991. Oddly, although it was the Springsteen anniversary that prompted my reprinting the poem here; the new title came to me a couple of weeks ago (it's from JJ Cale's song, obviously). I suspect I was remembering, without realising it, another 40th anniversary.


Old women force smiles & ask if it is hot enough for me.
Magnolia is still in heat; she attracts a crowd
Of suitors. It makes her nervous, having to deal with
Their anxieties. Eight in the morning & already
The dew has burned away. It will be as bad as yesterday
When I went crazy with the heat, or something.
The rest of the city is still asleep, sweating, except
For those watchers, and the panting dogs.
Annie sleeps, still.
I chase away
The puppie's would-be lovers; she doesn't seem
To miss them at all. She fetches sticks until symbolism
Begins to bore her. Chews one to splinters.
As we walk home
My feet start to stick to the pavement. Maggie waves
Her tongue in surrender. Mine feels tired too.
It is getting hotter. On the landing I look at
The neighbour's paper: three humans killed in Hartford
Last night. Not counting us. Someone will be murdered
Today; they will make tomorrow's paper. I will not
Be here to read about them.
Magnolia gets cold
Milk in her bowl. Annie wakes, leaves the bed,
Kisses me the way she clears the kitchen table
For her breakfast. If I were saner I would still be
Sleeping. The heat gets worse. It cannot last.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015


Simone Pierce is a private eye in New York City, only this is a New York populated only in the tops of buildings which poke above a flooded east coast—the polar ice caps have melted and the city is an island cut off from the now-distant mainland, in effect what we know as Middle America is all that has survived. Simone's got two jobs, one a seemingly routine tail of a wayward husband, the other escorting a Spanish museum curator around a number to the city's tallest buildings, to see what may lie underneath the water. Then the husband she's tailing turns up dead, and her former police colleagues like her for the killing.

Lev Rosen's dystopia isn't unique, but using the setting for a detective novel is a nice touch: there's an innate darkness in the cold water that surrounds the remains of the city, giving the atmosphere, dare I say it? depths of noir. Rosen also uses it in the way the best dystopian fantasies are supposed to: as comment on our present day. Not just the ecological, but more importantly, the social: New York has always been an island home to those who don't fit into the mainstream of society, as well as the HQ for said mainstream: now it's somewhat different, isolated almost completely from a doctrinaire reactionary and puritanical fundamentalist government on the mainland. That Simone's best friend happens to be the mayor's top assistant, as well as part of one of the city's wealthiest families, gives her an interesting entree into both side of the equation.

The setting is remarkably consistent, if the future itself doesn't always catch up: for example devices like mobile phones don't seem to have progressed as far as they seem to have in just the past couple of years, much less a longer time, and you might assume surveillance would be far intensified from the levels it is now. The story itself starts to get very entangled, to the point it needs a somewhat cozy kind of parlour scene to explain things; this is magnified by the character focus being very firmly on Simone: and not always presenting a full-enough picture of those being investigated.

In fact, Depth reminded me of two rather disparate books. The story itself played out like Harper, the movie version of Ross MacDonald's The Moving Target. I kept seeing Paul Newman as Simone, or vice versa. But for the combination of dystopian sf and hard-boiled noir, Rosen may have produced the most satisfying mix since Richard Paul Russo's much uner-valued Carlucci series. Although Rosen delivers a powerhouse set-piece climax, the story does drag in the middle, but there is a lot of depth in Depth, and Simone's return would be welcome.

Depth by Lev AC Rosen
Titan Books £7.99 ISBN 9781783298631

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Monday, 17 August 2015


My obituary of Roddy Piper, the wrestler and actor, is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can link to it online here. As you'll see, the last few grafs were mostly lost, in the time-honoured tradition of cutting from the bottom, but a few small points were lost along the way: I've expanded my original copy slightly to give slightly more detail than I imagined the Telegraph's audience would expect.

There is a danger in doing wrestling obits, trying to decide which pieces of biography are real and which are 'works', because the wrestling business is itself a work. Yet its denizens do come to believe in it: in a sense they are marks for their own work, and Piper no less than many others.

I also ignored the drug scene. Piper never had the genetics to become a muscle-freak, but I would not doubt that he used steroids. His recreational drug use became a matter of public record, and controversy, at least twice. I don't know if I'd add him to the long list of stars of the 80s and early 90s who've died young, but he's close. He gave an interview a few years ago in which he said he did not expect to reach 65--it was why he continued working, because he worried he would never be able to collect his WWF pension. I included that in my first, but then edited it out. It resonates with me still.

As it happened, I had shown my 11 year old son They Live just a couple of weeks before Piper's death. Nate was surprised; he'd liked the movie and liked Piper. I found him less convincing than I remembered (I hadn't seen it since it was released) but thought the movie might be even more relevant today. I also would have liked to have mentioned the incredible marathon fight scene with Keith David, which remains awesome but seemed more of a distraction thirty years on!

I think I was just about 11 when I first got into wrestling, the old WWWF from New York and Washington. It's a shame there's nothing as comparatively straight-forward for Nate to come to now. But Piper was one of the men who enabled that change of direction.

Here's the copy I filed to the Telegraph, slightly amended:


'Rowdy' Roddy Piper, who has died aged 61, was a key performer during the explosion of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF—now known as WWE) to massive popularity in the 1980s. Considered by many the greatest 'heel' (or villain) wrestler ever, Piper sold his 'beserker' persona, capable of anything in or out of the ring, to gain credibility in an age dominated by steroid-fuelled muscle-men. More importantly, his ability to perform on microphone and camera meant he could create instant hatred with opponents and audiences alike, thus stoking the flames of money-making feuds. He was equally successful as a 'babyface' (or good-guy), often billed as hailing from Scotland, and entering the ring wearing a kilt and playing bagpipes. 'Only people who can't draw money need belts (ie: championship titles)', he said. 'The only thing I need is a great opponent'.

His talent led to a second career on screen, though he never matched the success of his second leading role, in John Carpenter's excellent science fiction B movie, They Live (1988). Equipped with glasses that reveal aliens who have taken control of earth, Piper, armed with a shotgun, enters a busy bank and announces, 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum!'

Born Roderick Frederick Coombs April 17, 1954 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and descended from the secretary of state of the Confederate States of America, Piper had a fractious relationship with his father, at one time a member of the RCMP. He was expelled from junior high school for carrying a switchblade, and eventually ran away from home. He was only 15 when he made his wrestling debut in Winnipeg, against Larry 'the Axe' Henning. He made his entrance playing bagpipes, as 'Roddy the Piper', which quickly was shortened into his ring name.

At 19 he was wrestling full-time in California. NWA Hollywood promoter Gene LeBell taught him judo, and recognising his heel ability staged a feud with Mexican-American Chavo Guerrero and the entire Guerrero wrestling clan which, with its racial stereotyping, did huge business. At its peak Piper lost his hair versus a hair match to Chavo, and had his head shaved. This was followed by a 'loser leaves town' match, ith Piper leaving LA. But he returned, in disguise under a mask, as 'The Masked Canadian', wrestling as Chavo's tag-team partner, until he double-crossed the Mexican and started the feud again.

He moved to Don Owen's Pacific Northwest promotion, and eventually settled in Portland, Oregon. He feuded with 'Nature Boy' Ric Flair in Mid-Atlantic before joining the fledgling World Championship Wrestling, Ted Turner's cable-television showpiece, in 1983. For the first time he played face when two heel wrestlers he managed turned on announcer Gordie Solie. He then reunited with Flair at Jim Crockett Promotions, turning villain again before leaving for the WWF. In his final match for Crockett, at Starrcade, wrestling's first pay-per-view broadcast, Greg 'The Hammer' Valentine broke Piper's eardrum during a dog-collar match, causing a permanent loss of hearing.

The WWF was going national, and supremo Vince McMahon gave Piper an television interview segment, Piper's Pit, where he smashed a coconut over the head of 'Superfly' Jimmy Snuka, mocking his Polynesian heritage, and starting another huge feud. But nothing matched 1985's 'War To Settle The Score', which saw Piper take on Hulk Hogan in a special aired on MTV, with Cyndi Lauper, Capt. Lou Albano, and the A-Team star Mr. T in Hogan's corner. This set up a tag-team at the first Wrestlemania, with Piper and 'Mr. Wonderful' Paul Orndorff against Hogan and Mr. T. Which led to Piper and Mr. T's boxing match as part of Wrestlemania II; Piper lost patience and body-slammed Mr. T senseless; losing the match by disqualification.

Piper established a unique role, able to take long absences, yet return to big events successfully, often interacting with mainstream celebrities, most notably when he hosed down right-ring talk-show host Morton Downey Jr at Wrestlemania V. This helped his burgeoning film career, which saw his first leading role in Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988) another sf film in which he needs to rescue (and impregnate) some of the women who now run the earth but have been captured by mutant frogs. His later career was mostly confined to straight-to-video action films, but in recent years he'd played in the two Canadian Billy Owens fantasy films, a nostalgic wrestling film, Fancypants (2012), and the self-explanatory Pro Wrestlers Versus Zombies (2013).

Meanwhile he moved between promotions, including independents, capitalising on nostalgia. In 2005 he was inducted into the WWE's Hall Of Fame. He was treated successfully for Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2006, but resumed wrestling. He had predicted in a 2003 interview he would not reach age 65, blaming his lifestyle, and needed to continue earning. In 2009 he, Snuka, and Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat lost a handicap match to Chris Jericho at Wrestlemania XXV, and at Wrestlemania XXX, in 2014, Piper, Orndorff, Hogan, and Mr. T came together to bury the hatchet. He recently started a revival of the Portland Wrestling show, featuring his son Colt, whom he trained.

In 2013, Piper he and Kitty appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap with Flair and his girlfriend; Piper had been best-man for the first of Flair's four marriages. The programme featured his Oregon home, though he also lived in Hollywood. Piper died after a heart attack, in Hollywood, 31 July 2015. He is survived by Kitty, Colt, and four daughters. Ric Flair called him 'the most gifted entertainer in the history of pro wrestling'.

Sunday, 9 August 2015


Remembering Frank Gifford brings back a lot of memories. I worked with him at ABC Sports, including once doing the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final with punter Dave Jennings as his 'expert' colour. Jennings messed up his standup three or four times and then when he finally got it right, Giff messed up his, so we had to tape again. That was a hoot. I was with him for many years at Kitzbuehl, once along with Kathie Lee soon after their marriage...he was one tired announcer! The estimable Mike Rosen, former editor of Sport magazine, was along to write for him, like a third wheel on a honeymoon. I recall my mother telling me about Kathie Lee bragging about their sex life at some golf tournament ABC was covering; I believe that was the Friday a couple of my colleagues and I celebrated our promotions by destroying Caramba  before returning to an empty office.

Gifford was a big part of the most iconic NFL game ever; he was the fallen warrior in the most iconic NFL photo ever, and the only sports star I know of to be the focus of one of the great American novels of the 20th century (Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes) and he was everything Exley worshipped, and more, and less.

He was probably a better player than people remember now, though of course his career suffered because of underuse early, under Steve Owen (corrected as soon as Jim Lee Howell became head coach and hired Vince Lombardi to run the offense) and because of the way carries were shared in those days and Lombardi didn't pass all that much to backs. He's still remembered primarily as the victim of Chuck Bednarik's tackle, and maybe for not getting a crucial first down in that 1958 championship game--he always insisted he'd made it but wasn't given the spot.

It struck me that his career followed closely Kyle Rote's (that's Rote, number 44, in the Bednarik picture). Rote was an even bigger college star, at SMU, as a tailback. He became a running back, then switched after injury to flanker, just as Gifford did. Rote, like Gifford and Charlie Conerly (who became a Marolboro man, did a lot of advertising when New York's Mad Men discovered the NFL in the late 50s (and his son Kyle, Jr. became a pro soccer star in the early NASL). Joe Morrison, to an extent, followed that pattern too.

On the downside, it was the professionalism of his approach when he presented NFL on C4 in 1986 that eventually inflicted the Vicious Boys on us, perhaps the first, and a very prescient, attempt to turn the sport into reality TV. He introduced British crews to the idea of wearing shorts and sneakers out of vision, with a jacket and tie above. He was a longtime ABC Sports host, and oh yeah, he was the referee between Howard Cosell & Dandy Don Meredith on MNF when it was the best NFL on TV. But he was basically a professional, subdued announcer--like his Giant's teammate Pat Summeral, but without as good a voice.

I remember an interview with him, I think it was in Esquire but it might have been Sport. He was asked about regrets. Gifford said 'you know, I was a quarterback in college. The Giants had Charlie Conerly, so they moved me to halfback.' The interviewer said, 'oh, so you wanted to play quarterback?' and Gifford replied, 'no, you don't understand. You see, I was a quarterback.'

That bittersweet regret, from a man who seemed to have everything, has stayed with me ever since. RIP Giff.


Last week I couldn't get any papers here to take an obituary of Richard Schweiker, best-known as a liberal Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, but his career is fascinating for two reasons.First, he represents the last-gasp of the now virtually extinct 'liberal' wing of the Republican party. That wing, which was largely eastern, and which you might argue represented old Yankee money, was dominant in the party up until after the JFK assassination. They were the ones Time magazine idolised, and hence got a lot of respect in the household where I grew up, even though my parents were strict FDR Democrats. 
Even the Republican rabid right, represented by Robert Taft of Ohio, was relatively moderate on social issues despite being vehemently anti-union and pro-business, while always pushing a militaristic foreign policy. The Republicans could occupy this political middle ground because the Dixiecrats, southern Democrats, were the far-right on social issues, specifically civil rights.

Goldwater's nomination in 1964 was the first break-through of the 'Cowboy', new-money: more triumphalist greedy,a defense-industry-dominated turn right. He lost heavily to LBJ, but Richard Nixon, basically an older-style Republican at heart, but brought along by the new breed from California, realised the southern states were there for the taking after LBJ got the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed. He approached this 'southern strategy' with coded reference to states rights, and by the time Reagan sought a second term, the 'solid south' was solidly GOP.
Schweiker was the prototype liberal Republican swimming against this flow. Although he inherited his family wealth (oddly, his liberal Republican counterpart in the state house in Pennsylvania, William Scranton, was also a child of inherited privilege) he possessed a keen social conscience, what the British might think of as noblesse oblige. The Republicans were full of them: Rockefellers, Chaffees, Cabots and Lodges, even Bushes. Representing some very wealthy Philadelphia suburbs as a congressman, then out-polling his party to win a Senate seat, he supported civil rights and Medicare, opposed Vietnam, and voted against Nixon's Supreme Court nominations of Haynesworth and Carswell, the Alito and Thomas of the 60s.
In 1976 Reagan, looking to balance the prospective Republican presidential ticket, announced Schweiker as his potential running mate. In this too-long running age of Don Ron's hagiography we forget Reagan started out as a 'liberal' and went with the flow of money and power to the right. Looking at Schweiker and the Great Prevaricator exchanging a reverse Republican high-five makes me think Richard Dreyfuss would play Schweiker in a bio-pic (with Will Ferrell or Dan Ackroyd as Reagan). But Reagan actually remained committed to some social programmes, just as Nixon had, which today's greed-is-good upwardly mobile tea partiers would rather forget. They forget about his raising taxes, and his major recession too, but tant pis. More on this in a moment.
The second key thing about Schweiker was that he and Gary Hart headed the Senate's Church Committee's investigation in the role of the CIA and FBI in the investigation of the JFK assassination, and their conclusions, that the agencies had deliberately lied to, withheld information from, misled and misdirected the Warren Commission, created a firestorm. I'd recommend reading Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation (here's a link to my obit of Fonzi from the Independent in 2012). Schweizer had hired Fonzi, a Philadelphia journalist, as an investigator for the Church Committee; the book details among other things the interference by the intelligence agencies in the House Select Committee's JFK investigation which sprung from the Church and Pike reports. 

In May and June of 1976 Schweiker went public with his and Hart's conclusions. A few months later Vice President Gerald Ford, a Warren Commission member who was later shown to have been leaking the commission's workings to the intelligence agencies, managed to hang on to the nomination; he lost to Jimmy Carter and four years later when Reagan ran, Bob Dole was his VP. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, though we all know what happened to Gary Hart's presidential aspirations.

By coincidence, or not, Schweiker's voting record moved significantly to the right for the next four years, and in 1980 he did not contest his Senate seat. In 1981 Reagan appointed Schweiker secretary of Health and Human Resources; for the next two years he enacted many of the cuts Reagan had promised to Social Security, welfare, Medicare and the like, but can be said to have held them back from the draconian measures Reagan's backers were expecting. He left in 1983 to become head of the American Council of Life Insurance, a typical game-keeper to poacher move in the Beltway.
Ironically, Schweiker's Senate seat was taken by Arlen Specter, on the surface another 'liberal' Republican (he switched from Democrat to Republican in 1965, then switched back at the end of his career in 2009 while facing severe threats from the right--he then failed to get the Democrat nomination for the Senate in 2010). Specter's voting record was always on the Republican spectrum; you might say he played a liberal to placate an electorate used to that. But more telling, given Schweiker's principled stance on the JFK assassintion and the intelligence community, Specter's greatest claim to fame is as counsel to the Warren Commission, where he invented the 'magic bullet' theory to explain away the idea that Kennedy and John Connally were hit, as Connally believed, by separate shots. If that were the case, there would be too many bullets for one assassin to have fired. Specter's stroke of genius saved Warren and has sparked criticism and argument for the past six decades. You might argue, in our post-Santorum era, the Keystone State deserves another Schweiker.