Monday, 22 January 2018

PETER MAYLE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Peter Mayle is in today's soaraway tabloid Guardian; it went up at the Guardian online yesterday (you can link to it here). It appears pretty much as I wrote it, apart from a couple of bits of explanation that were removed for length.

I had written that Mayle disliked intensely John Thaw's TV portrayal of him. When A Year In Provence appeared on television, Thaw was at the peak of his success as Inspector Morse; the curmudgeon that was Morse was much closer to his own personality than Mayle was, and when you consider how important Mayle's relaxed, knowing forbearance was the key to the book's success, it was easy to see why he wasn't happy. I then pointed out the irony of his neighbour in France and friend from advertising days, Ridley Scott, casting another grumpy Aussie, Russell Crowe, in A Good Year , where the lead character is very much Mayle manque. Crowe's adapting to France, and to Marion Cotillard, lacked the ease of Mayle's.

For some reason this entire section got cut: "Mayle sold the house and moved to the Hamptons' village of Amagansett on Long Island, a summer playground for New York's rich. It was a good place to work; his neighbour Joseph Heller called it a 'dead-ass life,' and Mayle wrote two more French comedy novels Anything Considered (1996) and Chasing Cezanne (1997) as well as a children's book, A Dog's Life (1995) illustrated by Edward Koren. But he could not resist the lure and in 1999 returned to Provence, to a secluded mansion between the picture book village of Lourmarin and the even-tinier Vaugines. He returned to non-fiction books about Provence, and the novel A Good Year." I thought it made some sense, and wanted to explain even more the similarities between the Hamptons and what one might find with expatriate life in Provence, but I'd left that out already, for space.


Apparently it was Mayle who, while freelancing as a copywriter after leaving BBD&O, first used 'nice one Cyril' in bread adverts, but it seemed like explaining the story wasn't quite worth the importance to his career. I mentioned the great George Mikes at the top of the piece; I also toyed with a comparison of Mayle and Bill Bryson, with the common ground being telling the British what they wanted to hear; in effect reinforcing stereotypes while seeming to be critical. Mayle's exuberance is something of a different quality than Bryson's Arthur Marshall style chuckling. The link is how well they each understood their audience.

I was also tempted to point out the way Mayle's writing reflected his advertising copy-writing. It's always to the point, it usually has some kind of 'objective correlative' to hook the reader, and it reinforces its points as it goes along. When I said he sold Provence to Britain and then the world I was not kidding.

I was serious about A Year In Provence being a springboard, for better or worse, for all those tedious reality shows about 'relocating', redoing and profiting off houses, travelling, or becoming a foodie. It wasn't as predictable or inevitable as the slew of imitators whose manuscripts flooded publishers, but the influence was real. And as such he was an important writer for the post-Thatcher era. RIP.

Friday, 12 January 2018

TALKING TRUMP TRANSATLANTIC ACROSS THREE COUNTIES

I guested briefly on the morning call in show on BBC Three Counties radio, adding a non-Republican perspective (listen from the start if you want to inflict that on your ears) to the Donald Trump, US embassy, official state visit 'controversy'. I come on about 20 minutes into the show. And oddly enough, the first thing I needed to do was put Trump into some sort of trans-Atlantic context. Like most things American, Britain has their own much paler (no fake tans) versions of the worst of America.

Here's the link  The fill in host was named Tim. I'm come in around the 20 minute mark, but you might want to listen to Andy, just before me....

TRUMP AND THE EMBASSY ACROSS THE RIVER

Former US Secretary of State of John Kerry once complained that the United States was 'building some of the ugliest embassies in the world...we're building fortresses'. It was a telling metaphor. If form follows function, these buildings were designed to provide a modicum of safety for Americans often unappreciative, if not hostile, countries. In fact, much the same function as the State Department and its colleagues in intelligence perform on behalf of US 'interests' in those countries.

It is thus odd that Donald Trump should cancel his appearance to dedicate the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, given the 'special relationship' between the US and the UK, a relationship so special Trump failed to include the UK in his catalogue of 'shithole' countries from which he'd like to bar immigration. But since arrangements for the official state visit that Theresa May rushed to offer him after his election have not yet manifested themselves, any visit by Trump now ran the risk of being seen by the world as a sort of consolation prize. Especially because Britain cannot guarantee a protest-free Vauxhall, not as much to protect the President physically as to protect his fragile self-esteem, but in essence denying both the form and function of the new building.

Trump's own objections to the embassy, as voiced on twitter, are as easy to decipher as his fear of being met with demonstrations of mass disapproval. He called the Grosvenor Square embassy 'the best located and finest embassy in London', and said the new one was in 'an off location'. Donald Trump is a child of Queens, the New York City outer borough located on Long Island. He is one of the 'bridge and tunnel' people who see Manhattan as the centre of earthly delight. When he took over the family business from his father, his first moves were to rename it the Trump Organization and move it into Manhattan. To Trump, being on the 'wrong side' of the river is literally slumming, especially when the new embassy lies in a bleak development area south of the Thames River, reminiscent of the New Jersey marshlands across the Hudson from Manhattan.

Trump was also quick to blame Barack Obama for the move, saying he'd sold the Grosvenor Square location 'for peanuts' and spent the money on the new one in a 'bad deal'. Trump remains at heart a real estate hustler, and he could not pass up the opportunity to remind his followers of his own business acumen. Never mind that the move of the embassy was a product of the Bush administration, including the sale of the lease that runs until 2953 to the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund. The symbolic figurehead, the golden eagle, will remain on the building overlooking the square, to people that once this was the seat of the American presence in Britain, and was back to the days of Johan Adams, but it will also confirm a shrinking specialness for that special relationship.

The old embassy, opened in 1960, was designed by Eero Sarinen. Its fortress appearance is more the result of recent renovation than original design; it never really fit Grosvenor Square, but it did squeeze itself in without claiming domination. The structure was low and sweeping, and many years ago, quite pleasant and relaxed to use, more like a modern town hall than a fortress.

Of course it's probably best remembered for the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War, which infamously featured a young Bill Clinton. This year is the 50th anniversary of those demos, as well as the ones in France, Mexico, America and elsewhere that will provide acres of fodder for ageing pundits.

But the threat posed by those demonstrations seems placid compared to the fears that fueled the Bush administration's flight from Mayfair. In the wake of the President's 'Global War On Terror', the US government was selling fear, and the Grosvenor Square building was a vulnerable branch of the store. It wasn't large enough to house the extra bureaucracy needed to 'protect' America by making the visa process more of a trial, nor could it house the huge increase in intelligence personnel, nor could it be protected adequately from the busy traffic that still passed nearby everyday.

To its credit, the new building manages to avoid the look of a fortress, though the Kieran Timberlake design has met with criticism in British architectural circles. It certainly doesn't do anything to spoil the landscape in Nine Elms, blending in with the graceless luxury flats with river views springing up in the emptiness of the neighbourhood. Its security is guaranteed by the large open spaces and moat that surround it, as well as invisible high tech equipment. Given the penchant for nicknaming London buildings, in the spirit of the Gherkin, it most resembles an artichoke. Or perhaps an armadillo. Or indeed a kind of Star Wars death-star: one expects those glass windows to open like gun portals, and laser weaponry to emerge. And while it lacks the Stalinist-modern menace of the MI6 headquarters, also in Vauxhall, but in the 'on location' side of the Thames, it also falls short of the state department' idea that it 'gives form to core democratic values of transparency, openness and equality. Just you try to get in, and try to open one of those windows.

The Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury would suggest quite strongly that the primary concern of the Trump White House is protecting the image and self-regard of its occupant. In such a situation, the idea that he would travel to Vauxhall, which he'd probably describe as a 'shithole', to cut a ribbon on a modernist fortress in disguise rather than accept a lift round Knightsbridge in a golden carriage with Her Majesty the Queen should surprise absolutely no one. The Trump team are probably drawing up architectural plans for the new 'special relationship' as we speak.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

SUE GRAFTON: O IS FOR OBITUARY

My obituary of the mystery novelist Sue Grafton went online at the Guardian yesterday; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as it was written, including great quotes from my friend Meg Gardiner and from Jeff Abbott, both of whom were gracious enough to let me poach from their reminiscenses. I would have liked to include Meg's story about being a Grafton fan-girl: driving on the 101 in Santa Barbara she followed a car with the vanity plate THNXKNZ (Thanks, Kinsey) all the way to its home, only to realise it was Graftons husband driving! Could happen to anyone!

I opened with the word 'hard-boiled', although the Millhone books aren't really hard-boiled. Her world view isn't as hard-boiled as Lew Archer's; I would have liked to get further into the debt she owed Ross MacDonald. Where I should have gone was to point out that the alphabet titles were a good device to bring 'mystery' fans to her books: they had enough of the 'cozy' puzzle about them to satisfy those, while Kinsey Millhone was boiled hard enough to appeal to the Megs and Jeffs and many many other readers.

I also spent some time trying to see if I could make sense of a link I felt between the Millhone books (first published in 1982) and the TV series Cagney & Lacey, which also debuted in 1982, though the pilot aired in October 1981. I thought about it and concluded it was just something in the zeitgeist that meant America was ready for women in those classically male roles with some classically male attitudes. I do think there's a certain flow in her writing that reflects those years writing for television, though. I also spent some time trying to link Millhone's name and Dr Kinsey, but that didn't go anywhere. But I will have to dig up a viewing of Lolly Madonna XXX someday....RIP Sue Grafton

Friday, 29 December 2017

REFERENCE BACK: LARKIN AND JAZZ

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

THE MUSIC THAT CAME BEFORE THE CHATTERLY BAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited by Richard Palmer and John White

University of Hull Press, 191pp, 19.99

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

JOHNNY BOWER AND MEMORIES OF AN ERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 December 2017

WILLIAM GASS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 November 2017

BRUBAKER & PHILLIPS' CRIMINAL: THE SINNERS

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

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

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

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

CRIMINAL: THE SINNERS
written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Sean Phillips
Image Books,  £13.99, ISBN 9781632152985

Thursday, 16 November 2017

IN THE WAKE: A STUDENT POEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sept-Oct 1970, Middletown

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

JOHN HILLERMAN: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

Friday, 10 November 2017

RICHARD GORDON: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

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

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

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

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

RICHARD WILBUR: MY BBC RADIO 4 LAST WORD ESSAY

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