Tuesday, 18 July 2017

REISSUES & REMAKES: THE GRADUATE MEETS THE BEGUILED

As movie posters go, the one for The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman's Benji staring in stunned bewilderment at Anne Bancroft's outstretched black-stockinged leg, Mrs. Robinson's temptation, is one of the best. Simple, effective, even haunting, it encapsulate's the thrust of the film and reveals much about both characters.

Even if it leg, as it turned out, really belonged to Linda Gray, who confessed just a few years ago that she'd been called in to pose for the photo and been paid $25.

So imagine my surprise as I walked past our local hall and I saw a poster for The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman standing in a sort of mini-jungle with a big cat behind his shoulder. I had to cross the street to look close up: the Hoffman looks like an artist's rendering of a botoxed version of young Dustin. But I was still trying to figure out the cat until it came to me: Cougar!

Forget a female Dr. Who. The Graduate has now become a movie to be sold as a tale of a boy and his cougar. Plastics? The marketing guys wouldn't get it. It's got all the subtlety of that TV show with Courtney Cox. 'That's good!' they'd say. 'Friends sells!'

I was probably not in the best frame of mind to receive such a re-booting of a classic film, since a couple of days ago I listened to a powerfully anodyne discussion of Sofia Coppola's remake of Don Siegel's offbeat classic The Beguiled. It was one of those discussions framed by Coppola's best director prize at Cannes, and the residue of Siegel and star Clint Eastwood's heavily masculine approach to the film, yet the panel were incapable of suggesting any real virtue in the film. It looked very pretty, the dresses were far too nice for the situation (girls' school, Civil War, hard times) and the only black character, the maid Hattie, had been written out of the story, so all the cooking and cleaning and ironing happened as if by magic, as it would if you were Sofia Coppola or you were making another movie set in Versailles. So no one really liked the film, but only Tom Sutcliffe, the host, appeared to have seen the original, and he was being very cautious about endorsing Clintonian misogyny.

Then I read the Sight & Sound review, which tried to pretend the remake was based not on the original film, but a new take on Thomas Cullinan's novel, which would make more sense were not the screenplay of the Siegel film, by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (writing as John B Sherry and Grimes Grice) credited. You can fool Sight & Sound but you can't fool the Writers' Guild. The reviewer ended by praising the wonderful bits of embiguity Coppola had inserted. Like the amputation of McBurney's leg. Were they punishing him or saving his life? Oh now there's one that never occurred to Siegel. Nor demanning him, symbolically. Sheesh. They just weren't sensitive enough to make a small masterpiece some big name could come along and remake.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

CHUCK BLAZER:THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Chuck Blazer, the US soccer supremo whose testimony pulled back the curtain on the high level of corruption in FIFA, is online at the Guardian. You can link to it here; it should be in the paper paper soon. Blazer was an interesting case study, and I was lucky in the sense that I knew enough about the situation, and knew people with far more knowledge of it, to be to see both sides of the equation. It was important to note the impact Blazer had on the growth of the game in America, particularly in terms of the success of the national teams and the added exposure he got for them. The US still suffers from minnow status in the big world of football: they can go into the World Cup ranked a tier below Mexico even when they have beaten the Mexicans and won their group. But as I never tire of pointing out to British soccer moonies, the men's national team has had a success rate in the World Cup very much comparable to England's, the difference being no one in America really cares.

I also was able to speak, or at least write, with experience of FIFA. I had been doing business with them in the days when Sepp Blatter was the General Secretary and Joao Havelange was the President, and Blatter's reputation was as an 'honest broker' whom you could trust to see a deal through. Times change. Otherwise, writing it was easy, in the sense that Blazer was a larger-than-life character in any sense; I smell the makings of a TV movie, with John Goodman in the starring role. The hardest part was cutting out stories that were entertaining but didn't suit the obit. The macaw, however, made the cut.

Otherwise it is pretty much as I wrote it, with a couple of I think telling omissions.The first came with the mention of Prince William appearing in Chuck's blog. What I had actually written at that point was:  

alongside those (pictures) of Blazer with British royalty and football stars. 'Royalty treated him like royalty,' an anonymous colleague told the New York Daily News, 'because they wanted to host the World Cup and were slavering for the money that could be made buying and selling the beautiful game'.  

This was a reference to the failed British bid for the World Cup, which crashed amidst a 'fury,' as the tabloids would have it, of accusations of bribery. Which turned out to be true, but probably didn't actually take the event away from Britain anyway. But the ideal royals could be slavering for money was apparently beyond the pale.
The second was at the end, in the mention of his survivors. There I wrote:


Blazer is survived by his son Jason, a physio therapist who served as CONCACAF's head of medicine, and his daughter Marci, a lawyer who served on FIFA's legal committee.

I thought that the mention of their positions within world football was a telling point to make, for obvious nepotistic reasons. It wasn't the only case in FIFA history, that's for sure, including Sepp's nephew the travel agent. The paper also had some doubt about his cause of death. When he was hospitalized in 2015, it was reported as colon cancer. His lawyer's statement about his death said he died of rectal cancer. I didn't think it was a cause for omission.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S TRUNK MUSIC: MY SPECTATOR REVIEW 20 YEARS ON

Tonight I will be interviewing Michael Connelly at Waterstones in Piccadilly, to celebrate publication of his 30th novel, The Late Show, which features a new main character, LAPD night shift detective Renee Ballard. As I prepared for the interview I realised that I wrote my first review of Connelly 20 years ago. The novel was Trunk Music (his fifth Harry Bosch novel, and his sixth overall) and the review was published in the Spectator. It was, I think, his first major review in this country. Not long after that, I met Michael when he was reading in Melbourne, Florida, and I've been lucky enough to stay in touch, and to be asked to write an afterword to his collection of journalism, Crime Beat. So I thought I'd reprint that first review, from the Spectator, 8 March 1997. I also discovered that Connelly was mis-spelled throughout, and I've finally corrected that. One line from the close of the review was used as a blurb on any number of Michael's later books, which more than made up for the typo!

THE BEST FROM AMERICA

TRUNK MUSIC
by Michael Connelly
Orion,£16.99, pp.375

The Los Angeles inhabited by LAPD detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch resembles the paintings of his Flemish namesake. Horrors lie underneath the surface of a garden of earthly delights. The classical gives way to the modern; Trunk Music, Michael Connelly’s fifth Bosch novel, is also the first post-OJ police novel; the ghosts of Judge Itoh and Johnnie Cochrane are never far from the thoughts of cops like Bosch, nor from Bosch’s real Nemeses: lawyers, politicians, and police administrators.

When the body of soft-core porn video-maker Tony Aliso is found in the trunk of his car with two .22 shells in his skull, on a hill overlooking a concert in the Hollywood Bowl, it appears to be a classic mob hit (“trunk music”). The trail leads Bosch quickly to Las Vegas, and to an apparent solution. It also leads him back to a woman who betrayed him, in the very first Bosch novel, The Black Echo. The situation may seem old hat but Connelly makes it work by constantly confounding your expectations as he finds new angles to pursue. His stories have more twists and turns than Mullholland Drive, but they never divert you from where they should be going. Because the murder is only part of the story, the rest is Harry Bosch, his character, and his conflicts with authority, the forces of control whose toes he inevitably steps on. “Who polices the police who police the police?” is a favourite Bosch line.

Character is action, said Fitzgerald, and the way Connelly gets to the core of the situation through Bosch suggests the genre’s best writers. If Bosch resembles Hammett’s Continental Op, a lone wolf who’s honest in a corrupt world, the woman who betrayed him is his Brigit O’Shaugnessy. Trunk Music also recalls Chandler’s relishing of the sleazy Hollywood milieu and his use of Las Vegas as a contemporary Bay City, where respectable people go to be bad, and bad people go to help them. The hothouse corruption of Aliso’s wife and the deserted settings in the Hollywood hills smack of Chandler at his best.

There is no new ground broken in Connelly’s prose style, but he writes with sensitivity to nuance, the kind of undercurrent often missed in conversation. He is particularly good in the interplay of verbal and psychological warfare. This was shown best in The Last Coyote (1995) , where Bosch fences with the police psychologist who must decide if he is fit to return to duty after he has assaulted his chief, the wonderfully named Harvey “98” Pounds (as in the American equivalent of 7 stone weakling). 

Bosch uses his suspension to investigate the murder of his mother, a prostitute, who gave him his name because she had no father’s name to use. There is more than a hint of James Ellroy in the pursuit of this case, which leads to revelations of Chinatown-like corruption. Although he lacks the innovative prose fire of Ellroy, Connelly has the skill to create a powerful new story out of familiar materials to create a new story with its own power.

After The Last Coyote, Connelly changed gears with The Poet (1996), a serial killer novel which is interesting, but hampered by the use of a reporter as its protagonist. The journalist, oddly, lacks the psychic empathy to the killer that the cop may have, the kind of feeling for criminals that Bosch has. The Poet, of course, became a best-seller in America. Trunk Music marks Bosch’s return, and lives up to the high standard of The Last Coyote. This is the strongest crime series being written in America right now, and Trunk Music gets an unqualified recommendation.

Monday, 10 July 2017

RAILROADED: THE BACK ALLEYS OF NOIR I

THE BACK ALLEYS OF NOIR is a title I'll use for occasional essays on the films I'm catching up with (or maybe revisiting) that fall into the general category of film noir. Or perhaps reflect in some ways upon it. I won't go into a great definition debate about what is or isn't noir right now: but I'm going through two editions of the Encylopedia of Film Noir which sit by my bed, and I may have something to say about that later. In the meantime, here's an early Anthony Mann I finally caught up to, and just yesterday I was talking about it with my friend Jeanine Basinger, who wrote the first and best book on Mann, which has been reissued and is still in print...

ANTHONY MANN'S RAILROADED

I'm not sure how I managed to miss Railroaded before, because this early Anthony Mann noir is fascinating at times on its own account, and moreso for what it says in relation to Mann's other work. According to IMDB it was released in 1947 after T-Men, which is often considered Mann first classic, done in a semi-documentary style. The title Railroaded implies some kind of police malfeasance, which would play into a documentary style; some variation on 'Framed' would be more accurate a title. But we do get some of the technical detail, as we did in T-Men: the laboratory forensics (discovering a perfume-scented bullet!), the quick access to the villain's rap sheet, the police radio broadcasting across the nameless city.And more interesting, as in T-Men, we have a top cop, the hard-boiled Capt. MacTaggart, smoking through a cigarette holder, as disconcerting in this movie as in that one, and no accident, as he's shown doing it in multiple scenes. It's sometimes seen as an easy way to make a stock character stand-out, but I think there's something slightly more sinister, more unsettling about it; something about the way the bureaucracy may impinge on the character of those it rewards.

The movie belongs to John Ireland as the villain Duke Martin, and, whenever he's in a scene, the centre of attention (note the poster above right). He could be the template for Lee Marvin in The Big Heat, only he's cooler, more convinced of his superiority, and his violence is more controlled, and thus more vicious. Jane Randolph sadly has to play her part with more vulnerability because of this, but she starts out brassy and tough: Clara Calhoun owns a beauty salon that's a front for a bookie joint; she and Duke plan to rob her take one night and keep the cash. When the heist goes wrong and a cop is killed, they frame young Eddie Ryan for the crime, and it's up to his sister Rosie and hero detective Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont) to learn the truth.

Stella Ryan, as Rosie, is most interesting when she's trying to get close to Duke by playing up to him; there's just the slightest suggestion she might be drawn to dark side of the Club Bombay forever, especially when she (gasp) accepts a cigarette from Duke. Beaumont isn't bad as the cop, though he's almost constantly having to play against his own innate niceness. Which hurts in a sense since his romance with Rosie almost parallels Dukes in its forcefulness, but he has nowhere to go with that.

As in other noirs, from Mann and others, relationships can be highly ambiguous and eminently mutable. Duke rubs down his gun (and its bullets) with a handerchief soaked in Clara's perfume (the scented bullets turn out not to be a key plot point), as well as using his (still-scented) handkerchief to polish his cigarette case feverishly as he tries to seduce Rosie. This frenzied wrist motion highlights Duke's manic sexuality: he's the epitome of what his boss, Jackland Ainsworth (played with great relish by Charles D Brown as he reads to Duke and his own moll passages from Oscar Wilde about the need to keep women under control with force. When Duke eventually shoots him, he does it while telling him about killing his previous boss, up close and facing him. His name, Jackland Ainsworth might be a subconscious kind of clue. This subplot of violence against women also explains why Eddie Ryan has been framed; he beat-up Duke's actual accomplice in the robbery for coming on too strong to Rosie.

But what's most fascinating is watching Mann (working with cinematographer Guy Roe) using the template of noir. It's at its best in interior scenes; the opening is brilliant in Clara's salon (we know she's bad because she has her initials embroidered gaudily on her uniform) where the robbers literally materialise out of the shadows, and where the curtains create dark effects as the robbery and shootings take place. When Duke stashes Clara in a waterfront dive, it looks too elegant for its setting, but when he shoots her he's framed in stark contrast to that setting, turning it into a trap. Even better is the scene when Clara goes to the drugstore phone booth to get help from Mickey, who's at the Ryan's house (don't ask): shot from the outside, framed by the drugstore window and the booth's windows, it's Hopper crossed with black and white Richard Estes. Finally there is Club Bombay, shot through small windows from the outside, and a hidden window that looks like a television screen from Ainsworth's office. The final shootout in the shadows, which Mann expands to include a brilliant bit behind the piano, ends with Duke being shot in the back, dominating the screen as he dies. Sharp contrast to the way he's killed Ainsworth, facing him, previously. There's a subtle diminishing of Beaumont as a hero in that. Duke also plugs Rosie as she stands in the shadows of the Club Bombay, set off in the chiaroscuro shadows, but it's only the inevitable shoulder wound, though in the final scenes it appears that the wrong shoulder has been bandaged.

The plot stalls repeatedly, because it cries for Rosie to be more active in it, and for Beaumont to perhaps get caught up more severely in her ambiguity. One of the key scenes is a cat-fight between Rosie and Clara in Clara's luxury flat, while Duke looks on from behind a doorway. She's brilliant in a three-way scene at he club where Duke and Mickey spar over her at a table. But this story's really about getting from one point to the next. I'm still trying to figure out how writer John C Higgins, who also wrote T-Men simply keeps things moving, to get to the confrontations that are set up so intriguingly by Mann.

Ferguson's partner, the aptly named Jim Chubb (played with great B movie relish by Clancy Cooper) is able to find out where Clara is stashed, as supposedly only she and Duke know where she is. Or why Duke has to write down the number to Rosie's phone, when he already knows it and it's dead easy to remember. But that's just plot and frankly we don' need no steenkin plot. There is more than enough to savour in Railroaded.

THE LIONS: IT MEANS A LOT, IT MEANS NOTHING

I was listening to the estimable Keith Wood on Newstalk Ireland's Off The Ball programme talking about the end of the series between the Lions and the All-Blacks and he said something wonderful about why sport is 'terrific' and why we follow it. 'It means a lot, and it means nothing,' he said, and how true that is.

Which is why I find myself writing this. It might have been fitting that the series came down to a ferocious last-chance drive by the All-Blacks which the Lions' defenders just managed to push into touch to get the final whistle and preserve a tie. And fitting that the ABs appeared to be arguing right to the end that the whistle should not be blown. A 15-15 tie was, on balance, a fair result, as was a drawn series, 1-1-1. The Lions haven't won a tour in New Zealand since 1971, and that mark remains; NZ haven't lost a test at Eden Park since 1994, and that mark remains as well.

But it was also fitting that the biggest controversy of the tour came when referee Romain Poite of France reversed a decision to award a penalty to the All-Blacks, with the score even at 15, changing an offside against Ken Owens to an 'accidental' offside, thus cuing a monumental nationwide whinge which began with All-Blacks' captain Keiran Read arguing and debating the call with Poite on the spot, then exploded with nuclear force in the NZ media the next day and will run and run for decades. Recall Read's words immediately after the match: 'That (the penalty reversal) wasn't why we lost the game.' In NZ, this draw was the equivalent of a loss.

The penalty came off the restart kick following Owen Farrell's penalty that tied the game. The ball had popped loose from fullback Liam Williams as he fielded the kick, and bounced into Owens' hands; after an instant's realisation, he dropped the ball. But what's interesting is that Read, as captain, was leading the chorus of protest, because when the whistle blew, I immediately assumed it would be for a penalty against Reid himself, for lurching into Williams' back as he was in the air fielding the kick. Contact is allowed only if the player is trying to play the ball; Read was no higher than Williams' mid-back when he lunged into the Welshman. He waved an arm around as if he were trying to tap the kick backwards, but the contact was not at all, uh, 'accidental'. Worse, if you watch the replay, as the equally estimable Brian Moore pointed out to me, you'll also notice that Read appears to be ahead of the kicker on the re-start; he's so far ahead that he's in front of referee Poite as he chases the kick, yet Poite apparently never notices him. Had Read not assumed All-Black invisibility, that would have been an offside penalty.

I've been watching international rugby regularly since 1977 (though my first match was the All-Blacks vs Combined Services in 1972 or 73) and trying to fathom the rules has always been a near-impossibility. I've read them, and they are ambiguous to the point of making the NFL's rule book look like it was written by Ernest Hemingway. It's all in the interpretation, and each referee seems to make much up as he goes along. When I first started watching, lifting in the lineout was illegal, yet everyone lifted. Nowadays the feed into the scrum never comes close to being straight; one AB put in during the third test didn't even enter the scrum at all.

And this is one of the areas New Zealand have a huge advantage over everyone they play. The All-Blacks are put on a refereeing pedestal: Richie McCaw spent his career entering rucks from the side without penalty. Rugby minnows are given no benefit of the doubt, the All-Blacks always are.

This is partly deserved. To me what most separates the All-Blacks from the world is their game awareness. They process the game quicker, see options, make decisions more fluidly than any side in the world. The whole country is focused on rugby, they grow up playing and learning the game the same way. Every player possesses a great degree of skill and no fear of using it. They also have a sense of the rules, and of how much they can get away with bending and sometimes abusing them.

M. Poite's decision in Owens' favour wasn't his first use of the accidental or inadverdant call. When Jerome Kaino (born in American Samoa, there's one who got away from gridiron or at least the Eagles) clotheslined Alun Wyn Jones. Despite seeing Wyn Jones' head smashed backward (he was concussed, and allowed to return to play for reasons that deserve explanation), the ref and the video official concluded that it was not contact with any force (!) and that it was a legitimate attempt to tackle within the laws, although Kaino's fist remained closed and arm remained stiff throughout. The clothesline was banned in American football back in the Night Train Lane days. Given that Kaino had been caught (but not penalised) for late hits on Connor Murphy in the second-test, his standard New Zealand reply: 'Its never our intention to hurt someone outside the laws of the game' rang as hollow as it always does.

Read also said 'perhaps we were trying too hard', and that certainly seems true, given the unforced errors the ABs made. The Lions made plenty of their own, but in the end Owen Farrell and Elliott Daly atoned for theirs with penalty kicking. The game was a tactical masterpiece: the ABs reacted to the Lions' defending in the second test by widening their play, and should have had more tries. The Lions adjusted at half-time, and the All Blacks never really adjusted back. The Lions again couldn't finish at the goal line, and Farrell's soft pass nearly turned into a NZ try. It was a fascinating, imperfect, hard-fought match and in the end not marred by the officiating the way the first test had been.

The drawn series seemed to bother some people. The Sky reporter began an interview by saying 'we all know a tie is like kissing your sister', but that's always been a misleading aphorism. It was originated by Bear Bryant in 1966, when an injury-riddled Notre Dame scraped out a 10-10 tie at Michigan State in a battle of unbeaten teams ranked numbers 1 and 2. Bryant's Alabama, also undefeated and ranked no 3, remained there after the game, which irritated Bear no end, as if, when the first two runners finish level, the gold medal should go to the one in third.

I've never been a proponent of overtime in American football (except in the playoffs when it's necessary) and I'm not in rugby. These are heavy contact, physically debilitating games and after 60 or 80 minutes, a result is a result. Overtime tends to work on behalf of the 'better' team, the favourite, the deeper squad, and especially the home team. For the Lions to scrape a tie, and a drawn series, against the odds, is something special, and something that should not be overturned because some people find it inconclusive. To me, it's very conclusive. Over the course of 240 minutes, these two sides were as near enough equal as they could be. The All-Blacks deserved to be favourites, and after the first test they were overwhelming favourites to sweep the series. That the Lions fought within a hair's-breadth of winning (or indeed, losing) the series, but hung on for a draw, is triumph enough; that the Kiwis, threatening to take the whole thing right to the end, couldn't, will remain a disappointment, but in reality, it was a series they didn't deserve to lose. Remember, it does mean a lot, but it also means nothing.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

SAGA: NEW AGE SPACE OPERA by Brian Vaughn & Fiona Staples

The winged people of Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy, are in a state of perpetual war with the rams-horned people of their planet's moon, Wreath. But because the destruction of either planet or moon could wind up destroying the other, the war has been out-sourced across the galaxy, with planets and their creatures forced to take sides. This bellicose state of being becomes threatened when Marko, a Wreathian who is as close as one can come to being a conscientious objector, is captured, and guarded by Alana. Sparks fly, and twelve hours later the two are escaping together. And when Alana gives birth to a Hazel, a feat not believed possible by either race, the new family are pursued by both sides, neither of which has any interest in rapprochement.

Saga is an epic space opera which is the most entertaining thing I've read over the past two years. It's been billed as a cross between Star Wars and Game Of Thrones, but that's much too limiting. Writer Brian K Vaughn draws on familiar tropes, but what brings them together is the way they are used to tell stories which reflect on our present state, while constantly surprising with their innovation. The myriad, mostly humanoid, races include the Robots, androids with video monitors for faces, who, like most of the races in this galaxy are perfectly able to have sex with, if not procreate with, other races. There are mercenary assassins, including The Stalk, with an arachnid body. There is a Lying Cat, who says 'lying' whenever someone does. There is Izabel, a ghost with half a bodywho floats alongside the family. And D. Oswalt Heist, a writer reminiscent of the Man In The High Castle, whose offbeat philosophy seems to mirror the entire Saga itself.

But what makes it work is the way this inter-planetary chase, this violent existence, simply brackets the more human, as it were, problems. Marriage, parenthood, relationships, drug use, reality TV (Alana at one point is acting in a soap opera on 'open circuit'), love, sex, friendship, loyalty...all the things we expect epics to draw upon, and when it is done well, it reflects on us in ways we recognise. Artist Fiona Staples has a wonderful knack of moving from the mundane to the galaxy-busting which complements Vaughn's leaps of imagination and daring.

Saga is published in volumes which collect six issues of the comic. I find this the more satisfying way to read the series, because it operates on cliffhangers which would become too frustrating on a regular monthly basis. I've just finished Volume Seven, which may be the best, and is certainly the most powerful, since the start of the series. It appears to be a pause, a holding pattern, for the series, but really it is a book of losses.

The family has been reunited, and with the unlikely group they've gathered on their tree-based spaceship, they land for re-fuelling on the war-torn comet Phang. In fact they land in the middle of a group of meerkat-like creatures, one of whom, Kurti, becomes Hazel's friend and her first kiss. But pursuit is never far behind, and in the conflict a timesuck is released which threatens to engulf Phang. It's necessary to abandon Phang, and they want to take their meerkats with them, especially Kurti, but the meerkats believe their deity will see them through the crisis. I don't want to spoil this, but near the end of the story is a panel that made me think of Goya's Dog, and the final pages are stunning in their power. These are creatures who would fit the classic comic book definition of 'funny animals', yet Vaughn and Staples have given them life we belief in, and told a story which has the power to bring even cynical adults to teary sadness.

SAGA Volume 7
written by Brian K Vaughn art by Fiona Staples
Image Comics, £13.99, ISBN 9781534300606

Saturday, 1 July 2017

...LISTEN (a poem after Jan Garbarek/Thomas Transtromer)

I started this poem between August and October 1985. That was the time when I had just moved into my flat in Belsize Park, alone. I was listening to Jan Garbarek's new album, It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, in which each of the tunes is based on, and titled with a line from, a Tomas Transtromer poem. There is a lot of inward looking in there, and it was resonating with me at that time, for reasons I got then, but understand a lot better now. It wasn't based strictly on either the title track, nor on "One Day In March I Go Down To The Sea And Listen", which is why the title has its ellipsis at the start. I know I have made notes for both those other titles, but I haven't found them yet.

...Listen was published in December 1987, as part of 'Five Jazz Poems' in Hollands Maandblad, which, as I've said before here, was one of my favourite of my all poetry publications. I've continued to write poems when the jazz music takes me. I was putting some together, maybe for a 30th anniversary at Hollands Maandblad, or for this blog, or something else, when I started looking at this one again. And when I did I reworked it considerably. In fact, what I hear in it now is a lot of 'Witchi-Tai-To', the Jim Pepper tune, in Garbarek's later version, not the one with Bobo Stenson in 1973. It's got the feel of a ritualistic chant, which is an approach to a feeling of aloneness from another side. It was a gray voice I was hearing, and I was not sure it was OK.


...LISTEN
                   after Tomas Transtromer via Jan Garbarek

 
You're learning

something you've known
long time gone
crazy with rain
falling in waves
driving away
wipers beat

blinking not
crying but
trying to

make her repeat
what you don't
want to hear

but you think
needs to
appear & fill
spaces
between you
still

.

so you'll feel
pain, know
enough to
push her
away, though
she's not
there in the
other seat

so push instead
the last dry
grain of love
to a place
beyond care
you'll never
find again
not in this
rain & then

.

you can
drift

& drift away
away with
& drift away with
the rain

drift

away.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

MICHAEL NYQVIST: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Michael Nyqvist is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. Sometimes it feels wrong that an actor should be so identified with a character, but in the case of Nyqvist and Mikke Blomkvist it seems appropriate. Nyqvist caught the crucial thing about Blomkvist's sensitivity, and the ambiguity of it, but where the character Stieg Larsson wrote about seems more of a wish fulfillment, Nyqvist made him seem less heroic, which made him even more heroic.

I've written about this before, but when I went to a preview of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I was sitting right behind John Landis. When it was over, one of his companions asked what he thought of it, and very loudly he said 'It's an episode of Columbo!'. Which was true, in a sense, at it was, at least half of it, a who-dun-it, one almost set in an isolated building. Of course, Landis wasn't paying much attention to the Salander part of the story, go figure.

The piece is pretty much as I wrote it. A couple of literals snuck in: as far as I know (and I wasn't able to find the names of either set of his parents) his given names were Ralf Ake Mikael, and Nyqvist was his adopted family name. Also the name of the Matthew Ross film is Frank And Lola. And I had mentioned the film You Disappeared,  but that didn't make the final cut.

There was a lot of his filmography of which I hadn't been aware; Jan Guillou's books about the Crusades are good, so I'd like to find Arn. And there were two TV series after Blomqvist, not just Zero Hour, but a Swedish/German co-production called 100 Code.  I'd also like to see The Girl King, a bio-pic of Queen Kristina, in which Nyqvist plays the Chancellor.

I'd also like to read his memoir now, because he seems to have had such a balanced, contemplative attitude toward life, and especially toward identity. I can't help but think that helped make him such a good, and appealing actor.

RIP

Thursday, 22 June 2017

LARRY GRANTHAM: MEMORIES OF FOOTBALL

Larry Grantham died this week. He was a linebacker for the New York Jets, who joined the New York Titans out of the University of Mississippi in 1960 and played with them through 1972, including, of course, in Super Bowl III. He was one of of only seven players to play through all 10 seasons of the independent AFL with the same team. He was an all-star eight times, and five times all-league, though his reputation suffered because he was a standout in the early days of the AFL, when the overall league wasn't as strong. It's the reason why guys like Earl Faison or Jon Morris aren't better remembered and why the best runners and receivers from those years tend to be undervalued. Grantham was recognised by the Pro Football Researchers Association, who named him to their Hall of the Very Good. But he was a bit better than very good.


In fact, the Jets' victory over Baltimore in that game brought the AFL into a sort of parity with the NFL,and the Chiefs win over Minnesota the next year cemented it. Joe Namath of course was that game's MVP, because he was the QB and because he 'guaranteed' the win, but what is often overlooked in Namath's brash guarantee was the fact that he was not breashly self-promoting. He was stating what he thought was obvious, that the Jets were the better team. His coach, Weeb Ewbank, had coached the Colts, and he knew it too.


But the Jets did not win on the strength of Namath's arm. They won because they had a good offensive line, and could control the ball behind the power running of fullback Matt Snell, And they had a fine defense which could shut the Colts down, and Larry Grantham was the key guy on that D.  He had been a playmaking star in the early years of the Titans (while Wahoo McDaniel got the publicity) but when Weeb and defensive coordinator Walt Michaels arrived in New York they realised they had more than a playmaker in Grantham, and used his smarts and anticipation to bring out the best in the strongest part of their team. Grantahm called all the signals on the field. He once said he had eyes in the back of his head. 'I could close my eyes and know where all 22 players were on the field'. The Jets' strength was in their pass rushing ends: Gerry Philbin and Verlon Biggs, and their secondary, which included Johnny Sample, who had won the 1958 NFL title with Weeb and the Colts,  had a big game with four interceptions, two by Randy Beverly. The Jets held the Colts, who were 18 point favourites, to only 7 points. They didn't need Joe Willie to win.


Grantham was switched to linebacker in the pros because he wasn't fast or big enough to play tight or split end, nor big enough for defensive end. Grantham was listed at 6-0 210, but he probably played closer to 190. He'd played both ways even though he was undersized even for college. He was quick enough to avoid blockers, he could run with receivers, and he although he lacked raw strength he was an excellent form tackler against runners. He was also everything southern football players were in that era.
In 1959 I was just starting to become hooked on football beyond the Yale games I'd been going to in the Bowl since I was five or six. I'd watched the 1958 NFL championship with the men, not the kids, at a family gathering, and I knew my dad had played in college against the Giants' Andy Robustelli. I believe 1959 was the first year I encountered a Street & Smith's Annual, probably bought for me by my grandfather, and began to follow the colleges. And I can clearly remember reading the accounts and seeing the picture in the papers (and probably in Sports Illustrated or Time as well) of the LSU-Mississippi game that year.

I remember often playing 1959 Mississippi (and 1960 Washington with one-eyed Bob Schloredt at QB) in the Sports Illustrated football board game, with Seth Davis in the College of Letters when we were at Wesleyan. Ole Miss played a split-T roll-out offense with four different QBs! Bobby Franklin (later an NFL DB) and Jake Gibbs got most of the time; Gibbs would take over in 1960 and go on to catch in the major leagues for the Yankees; he must've had a strong arm but the Rebels rarely threw the ball; Gibbs attempted 94 passes all season. Doug Elmore was a sort of designated passer, while Billy Brewer was a runner who also played as a DB in the NFL. Grantham was third on the team in catches with 10, while Johnny Brewer played TE in the NFL for ten seasons. Their big runner was fullback Charlie Flowers, and they had a 6-4 runner/receiver named Bobby Crespino at halfback, both of them had NFL careers. Their backups were Hoss Anderson and Cowboy Woodruff. Really. But the biggest name on the team may have been tackle Bob Khayat, who had a longish NFL career as a kicker; he was dating Mary Ann Mobley, who was Miss America, in fact for two years running America's Miss came from Ole Miss. Khayat would go on to become chancellor of the University of Mississippi, and help bring it into the 20th century, before the Tea Party allowed at least a partial retreat.


It was as big a rivalry as any in the country, absent, at that time, Yale/Harvard and Army/Navy. And it was big because both teams were undefeated, and both coaches, Paul Dietzel at LSU and Johnny Vaught at Ole Miss, had built dynasties. Plus LSU had the country's best player, Billy Cannon. He had been third in the Hesiman voting as a junior and would win it as a senior. LSU won that game at home in Baton Rouge in monsoon conditions on Halloween. The score was  7-3, the TD coming on an 89 yard punt return by Cannon. You can see the tape of that run on You Tube; it's amazing. In the photo, that's Grantham, number 88. Mississippi allowed only 21 points on their way to a 10-1 season: only two offensive TDs all season. I didn't realise it at the time, but conditions were so bad Vaughn actually punted on first down from deep inside his own territory (that was not the one Cannon returned).


Ole Miss had a 4th and goal shot, but had their 'passing' QB in the game, and failed. The win took so much out of LSU they lost the following week at Tennessee, and handed the SEC championship to an inferior Georgia team. But LSU and Mississippi met in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl. Mississippi still could not play games against integrated teams (state law prohibited it) so it was a natural for the Sugar Bowl. That law stopped Gibbs and Khayat from taking their SEC championship baseball team to the NCAA tournament. But Dietzel had to be talked into the game because obviously he had more to lose. Ole Miss won the game easily, 21-0, immediately after the game Cannon signed a contract with the Houston Oilers of the brand-new AFL; odds are the deal had already been done beforehand. Cannon gained only eight yards rushing all game; Grantham was assigned to spy him and hit him on every play.


I mentioned Grantham was a typical southerner. In those days the South seemed like a separate country and the Civil War seemed still fresh in everyone's minds. Yankees might as well have been foreigners. Southern teams were smaller, quicker, and hit harder. They played bowl games with de facto home field advantage against bigger teams from the north who struggled to adjust to the heat. They often had the benefit of southern referees too. But of course in that Sugar Bowl, it was Ole Miss' defense, led by Grantham (this was still both-ways football) that dominated. They finished the season 10-1, but the national championship went to 11-0 Syracuse, with Ernie Davis and Gerhard Schwedes, who beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl. You could argue that despite only playing in the segregated SEC, Ole Miss had a tougher schedule, but Syracuse had beaten two other ranked teams, Penn State and UCLA. Johnny Vaught got his title the next year, with a 10-0-1 team. Mississippi hasn't had one since. Those legendary college coaches seem a different breed than today's chief executives: they were tough. Vaughn in his career was 6-7-1 against Bear Bryant, and not many did even that well. But for a five year period between '59-'63, before the SEC started to integrate, Vaught went 43-2-3, his teams built around smaller Mississippians like Grantham.


Grantham came out of retirement to play one season with the Florida Blazers of the WFL in 1974, but it's as a Jet (and a Titan) he shall be remembered.   Later in life, as his medical bills mounted up, he put his Super Bowl III ring up for auction. When he was younger he had done fund-raising for a drug charity called Freedom House in New Jersey; they raised enough money to win the the auction for the ring, and the auction house handed it back to Larry Grantham, along with the money raised. It was what he deserved. He died in his native Mississippi. 1959 was a hell of year for old time college football. 1968 was a hell of a year to usher in the modern era. Larry Grantham was an unsung hero of both, and I remember him fondly.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

STEPHEN FURST: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Stephen Furst, immortalised as Flounder in Animal House, is up on the Guardian online. You can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper sometime in the next few months.

If you believe, as I do, that most of life's situations can be explained or solved or at least papered over by quotes from Animal House, Kent Dorfman becomes a central existential figure. I was pleased that the G left in my quotes of Flounder's dialogue, especially 'You can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes. You fucked up. You trusted us'.

Three of my favourite, less famous, Flounder moments are: when we see him and his roommate, Larry Kroger (Pinto), in Donald Sutherland's English class. Flounder appears to be taking notes: the camera looks over his shoulder and he's drawing jet fighters blasting away, like a little kid in school.  Then's there the time Flounder walks in on a card game, sidles up to the table, and asks 'you guys playing cards?'. And finally that tremendous reveal when we see his high school sweetheart who has come up for a visit, and she is lovely. It forces us to look at Kent Dorfman in a whole new way.

Otherwise, as I say, it was interesting that Furst recapitulated Flounder over and over, but also used parts of that character in his most successful roles. He rarely was given the chance to branch out, however, into villainy, which I think would have been interesting. There's a comparison to be made to Wayne Knight, who played Newman in Seinfeld after playing Numa in JFK.

Furst acted in, wrote, directed and produced an awful lot of films that were derivative from other movies. He must have had a good idea of what could sell, especially as a TV movie, and he was probably, as an actor, just big enough for roles in those B pictures and TV movies. But as I say in the piece, there were some interesting exceptions. And I have to say I've never seen Atomic Shark, though I think I might have to now.

As often happens, my closing was edited out of the piece. Here is the last graf as I wrote it. I think Mohammad, Jugdish, Sidney, Clayton and Lonny would have liked it.
 
Furst died at home in Moorpark, California, of complications from his diabetes. He is survived by his wife and sons. As tributes poured in, one actor posted the video of Flounder, in his undercover agent raincoat, watching the chaos Delta House and his marbles inflict on the college's annual parade. Furst's smile fills the screen. 'Boy is this great,' he chortles.

Monday, 19 June 2017

DON WINSLOW'S IRRESISTIBLE TOUR DA FORCE

Detective Sergeant Denny Malone leads the Manhattan North Special Task force. He is the King of Manhattan North, or the king of kings, leading their blue-uniformed knights as he and his three-man crew enforce their domination over the neighbourhood, 'Da Force' battling with the gangs to protect a population that sees them as part of an occupation force. It's a never-ending battle, and it's one in which he and his crew have become very wealthy making compromises as they do business in their nominal fiefdom.

Dope is the currency of these streets, dope and guns, and you can't run the streets if you don't deal in that currency. Malone is from Staten Island, from a family of Irish cops and firefighters. He went on the pad bit by bit, and now he controls, or tries to control the money he and his partners think of as feeding their families. But he's left his family, and now is involved with a black nurse who's a recovery junkie; a nod back to Heywood Gould's script for the film Fort Apache: The Bronx, perhaps, and Rachel Tictotin's take as cop Paul Newman's nurse girl friend.

There is much that is familiar in Don Winslow's superb novel, especially those steeped in the lore of the NYPD and corruption. The stories of Frank Serpico, Bob Leuci, and Sonny Grosso will ring familiar; books like Robert Daley's Prince Of The City; Philip Rosenberg's now-overlooked Point Blank, much of the work of Richard Price. But The Force stands with any of them, maybe even rising above them. Winslow's writing carries this book to new heights of plumbing these depths. He has written about Manhattan before, the New York of the Fifties, in the wonderful novel Isle Of Joy, but this is something on a different level and vaster scale, something six decades more intense.

Winslow deals, as you must with the moral ambiguities. In fact, morality is the greatest danger in Malone's world; having fixed moral lines creates problems which are not covered in the cop's catechism of violence. In the world Winslow portrays, almost everyone has a moral failing; cops, lawyers, politicians, preachers, feds, judges, DAs, journalists. Yet they all profess to a moral code; something you see strongest, oddly enough, in Malone's stoolies.There is another force too, besides the NYPD and Da Force; it is the one Malone senses around himself and his fellow cops, a force field that is about to be tested beyond his comprehension.

You understand this because of Winslow's writing. He is inside the mind of Denny Malone, each choice, each rationalisation. You see every other character, from the equally corrupt head of the other Task Force to the wives and children of the cops, from Malone's perspective, how they compete for his attention, his loyalty, his soul. And Winslow builds Malone's perspective brilliantly. He gets things wrong; misjudges key people, which he realises too late. The book proceeds at a rush, fast-paced, pounding movement, taking the reader along with the visceral excitement and triumph of Malone's world, the building speed as his skates over and around the mounting dangers.

And when those dangers begin to turn on him, the pace of the book slows down, and the reader begins to feel the squeeze just as tightly as Malone does. There are twists and turns as it proceeds, but events around Malone are gathering pace just as they slow him down and narrow his perspective down to one of survival. In the end, it is a story of morality, of a moment where Malone followed his deeper feelings; 'he still fucking cares. Doesnt want to. But he does.' as Winslow puts it. So it's also a story of redemption, that part of the catechism which Malone knows may well be impossible.

Winslow's superb drug novels, The Power Of The Dog and The Cartel, were big and powerful, but sprawling and detailed. The Force is something different altogether, big and detailed, but tightly controlled, brilliantly written, simultaneously thrilling, sad, and memorable.

The Force by Don Winslow
Harper Collins, £18.99, ISBN 9780008227487

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


Sunday, 18 June 2017

GRENFELL TOWER AND THE HOUSING CRISIS

The privatised management company that 'ran' the Grenfell Tower estate on behalf of the cash-strapped Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea saved themselves £5,000 by using flammable cladding on the building instead of the flame-proof stuff. This small but venal illustration of the subordination of people to profit will be talked over much, as well as repeated refusals by Parliament to legislate for safety in rented accommodation. These questions should be more important than whether Theresa May lacks the bottle to face the public she appears to fear, when she thinks about them at all. She is the head croupier in a system designed to drain the poor for the benefit of the rich, and Kensington and Chelsea just happens to be one of those boroughs where the extremes of rich and poor meet, if not rub shoulders.

There are eight bands of poll tax, sorry council tax, in the borough. They are based on valuations set in 1991. The lowest is for houses (or flats, I will use the term houses here) up to £40,000; the highest for all properties over £320,000. The value of the cheapest property in the highest band is eight times the value of the most expensive in the lowest band. The tax paid in the highest band, however (£2124) is only three times as high as the lowest band (£708). An incentive to buy high.

But the average house price in Kensington and Chelsea right now is £1,371,000. It was $1.2 million in 2014, when the London average was £400,000 and the national average £200,000. The median in London has increased from £87,000 in 1996 to £462,000.

Two things are obvious. Property is a great investment. Those empty luxury buildings that are unoccupied are owned by (often foreign) investors, many of those from countries where personal wealth can be, shall we say, volatile; they are appreciating steadily and rapidly, while the property taxes on them are negligible.

Second, because those taxes are negligible, local council revenues are far less than they ought to be, even taking into account cuts instituted by national government starting in the Thatcher years. Councils rush to privatise services they've already cut back, and get out from the 'burden' of paying employees and giving them pensions. They close libraries, they turn off street lights (at least out here in Tory-controlled Waverly), they ignore safety concerns in high-rise buildings and try to clad them to stop offending the good taste of the wealthy who are forced to look at the buildings each day.

In the election campaign, one of the Labour party's proposals was to tax off-shore assets and income. When they costed their manifesto, they estimated the income from this tax, then cut that estimate in half, to allow for the idea people right re-patriate their money rather than face the tax. When the Institute for Fiscal Studies did their costing of the manifesto, they allowed zero income from this tax (thus creating a spending deficit) by assuming all the off-shore money would be repatriated.  Which of course would increase normal tax revenue, but no matter.

A starting point on treating the residents of social housing fairly might be to indulge in a re-rating of council tax, increasing the number of upper bands to make the tax much more progressive. It might include the imposition of an abandonment tax for buildings left empty. It might also reconsider (though this would be a decision for Parliament) placing the responsibility for property tax on the owner, not the renter, of a property.

Some of that revenue might be dedicated to building new social housing, on a more human scale. British city planners ought to be studying Jane Jacobs, not Andreas Gursky. The starting point for the housing crisis in this country was the Thatcher government's decisions to sell council houses, without provision for replacing them, while making it easier and cheaper to own multiple properties, and rent them out.

A rethink of housing policy is not really complicated. This is not a problem without a solution; it is a problem lacking a will to enact the solution. The part that will be made to sound complicated will be where the money will come from to enact such policies. The answer is that the money is staring residents of Kensington and Chelsea in the face, in the shape of empty properties owned for investment, in the shape of buy-to-let properties, and in the shape of owners getting a huge break on property taxation from local and national governments who are their friends, and don't really have time for those on the other side of the tracks. Or the Westway.


Sunday, 11 June 2017

THEIR FINEST (TWO) HOURS, (OR ERAS?)

WARNING NOTE! This review contains spoilers. If you do not want to hear about melodramatic twists before you see the film, which is reasonable enough as it is good enough to go see, then don't read the following until after you've been to the cinema. If you do read it, then don't blame me.

The other night I took my 13 year old son to see Their Finest, an enjoyable enough romantic film about making movies in Britain during World War II. Movies about movie-making tend to be fun; everyone enjoys playing with the business, and playing versions of themselves which audiences are quick to recognise. Actors adore the period costumes, and cherish the ability to chain smoke with impunity on camera. There's nothing particularly new about it, apart from the fact that the story centres on a young woman who is forced into screenwriting, as it were, and then being turned slowly into a movie pro, but that is, in itself an fascinating take.

What's most interesting about the film is the way in which, despite the modern theme, and the implicit ironic distance the film-makers enjoy, how closely their effort mirrors the movie being made about Dunkirk. It's almost like a compulsion.

For example, early on we see the interference of the government in the film that's being made. The bureaucrats have their contradictory demands, and the film has to be twisted to fit those, even to the point of inserting an American character, to be played by an actual American airman flying the RAF (which makes an interesting factual/fiction ambiguity) who's a walking hunk but can't act. Sort of a prototype Arnold.

But Their Finest was produced in part by the Welsh government, which is why Welsh locations stand in for the Devon coast, but also why Catlin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is Welsh. It's no problem, except that Arterton's Welsh accent comes and goes, but obviously that's exactly the kind of decision that the movie faced.

We don't get many looks into the actual process of movie fakery, though a lovely moment with a matte shot turning the beach into Dunkirk is wonderful, reminiscent of one of the great movie-movies, The Stunt Man. What we do get, however, is a film whose basic structure mirrors, as if unconsciously, the film-within-a-film that's being made in the Forties. We know, for example, before she does that Catlin's marriage to her artist husband is doomed, because not only doesn't he paint her, but they have none of the passionate moments we expect from love interests. This was easy to read Hollywood code from the Thirties onwards; think of Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind.  If you recognise it, it takes some of the energy from the eventual reveals, but it didn't for my son, who was amazed I could predict the inevitable moment of betrayal. It's also interesting that, to get him out of the war, they give her husband a war injury from fighting in Spain; I would have thought that his fighting there would make him suspicious to the war ministry, and that such suspicion might be enough to keep Catlin from getting a job.

It's also very much a vehicle for Arterton, who, accent apart, dominates almost every scene she's in and is very very good.. The best parts are the easy ones, for Bill Nighy hamming it up as a ham actor, for Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory as his agents, and Rachel Stirling who's very good in a classic wise-cracking 'pal' role, though it's given a slight update. Cameos by Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons work because they play Forties so well, more because their sorts of characters haven't changed that much since then anyways. What is strange is that none of the younger actors seem able to match her, not either of her love interests nor any of the people playing the younger actors and crew.  It's very much old fashioned in that way, though in the Forties you might see more character from the character actors.

The major throwback of the film, however, is it's melodrama. The Blitz is a time for that, and after the film I was talking to Nate about the English people I'd known who'd lived through the Blitz, and how, as Stirling's character tells Arterton, they felt like life was more intense and they needed to live for the moment. Paradoxically, given the horror, it was really the best time of their lives. Hence we expect some shocking deaths, like Marsan's, which occurs offstage. But we aren't really prepared when Arterton's true love, the screenwriter played by Sam Claflin, dies in a Blitz-caused accident on set.

At that point I had just been thinking how stereotypically Hollywood this all was. Girl meets Boy, Girl Loses Boy, Girl Gets Boy. But I was watching as they finally embraced, and it took place in front of a prop train (third class, no less) and I thought immediately of Brief Encounter, and had already jumped ahead in my mind to his enlisting and going off to war in a tearful farewell. That might have been more in keeping with the Forties tone.

Instead, he's killed by the equivalent of Girl Gets Boy, Boy Gets Hit By A Bus moment. 'What is this', I said, 'Truly Madly Deeply: The Prequel'? It was AN easy way to get some tears and sympathy, when quite honestly, the tears in much of the rest of the movie flow more organically. But then, in the very next scene, Claflin comes back as a ghost and speaks to Arterton. As a ghost! It WAS Truly Madly Deeply, but I suspect the producers assume that film is as obscure as those of the Forties to their audience.

I waited for my own little emotional touches. I felt sure she'd be surprised by a credit at the end of the movie, or maybe by a tribute to her dead writer partner. Perhaps I am too sentimental. Instead, the movie ends with her finding her determination to go into the movies, much like Rose's freeing her boat's propeller in the Dunkirk film, because Erroll Flynn could do it.

This shouldn't take away from the fact that it's an enjoyable film, moves well, features a fine star turn, and left the less critical audience in my town (and my 13 year old, by far the youngest person there) happy. I would have liked the original book title better though. Their Finest Hour And A Half. It's better for the play on Churchill's words (which might pass most of the younger audience by) but maybe because the film itself is two hours long they felt it would be false advertising.



Friday, 9 June 2017

JACK O'NEILL: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Jack O'Neill, pioneer of the wet-suit and founder of the company that grew into a major world-wide lifestyle clothing firm, went up at the Guardian online Wednesday. You can link to it here.
It ought to appear in the paper sometime soon. It is again pretty much as I wrote it; the only change I regret was the excising of the notice that Marjorie, his first wife, also predeceased him, in 1972.

The story of the fight over who 'invented' the wet suit was a fascinating one, difficult to reduce to one paragraph. There isn't really much question that Brandner, who had also worked on the Manhattan Project, was the first one there, but he was working on diving suits. Whether O'Neill, like the Meistrell Brothers, was aware of Brandner's work or not remains an open question. But literal invention apart, there's no question O'Neill was a constant innovator.


BRITISH DEMOCRACY & BREXIT: A BLEARY-EYED REPORT

The take-away from last night's election is dysfunction: and not just the Tories using the ballot box to try to solve short-term internal policies. The problem is assuming the nation is behind Brexit, when in reality the nation remains divided. The problem is assuming Brexit is the only issue, when social policy played a big part.

May with a 'majority' in Parliament based on 36% of the voters, asked for a mandate to move ahead with her own dream of hard Brexit, whose details she would not share with the voters, as if this were a yes/no referendum II.

Yet both major parties accepted the country's 52/48 split on a yes/no vote on an issue of massive complexity and huge constitutional change as 'the will of the people', when in truth it was a chasm in the British populace. The young, who justifiably felt the greatest loss after the Brexit vote, apparently made their presence felt yesterday.

But because the British electoral system is totally dysfunctional, a 42% vote couldn't give May a 'majority' much less a mandate, nor could the rest of the opposition cobble together one (though their popular vote--Lab/LDP/Green/SNP/PC-- would constitute an absolute majority).

You can hear Europe laughing. And after the scare tactics of the Tories and their press about Jeremy Corbyn's 'links' with the IRA, the terrorist-backed Irish tea party of the Democratic Unionists now hold the balance of power in the Disunited Kingdom.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

DENIS JOHNSON: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the writer Denis Johnson went up at the Guardian online Tuesday; you can link to it here. It ought to be in the paper paper sometime soon. The obit is pretty much as I wrote it, so there isn't much to add. I still recall reading Angels when it first came out and feeling ambivalent, as I did about Raymond Carver and much of what was being called 'Dirty Realism' at the time. It was odd too how much Johnson came to resemble Carver as he aged. It struck me that the writing, while often beautiful, was sometimes gilding what should have been a more gritty lily, and it struck me too that this sort of 'realism' was dirty only from a certain perspective, one that was very insular, literary, and creative writerly.

This of course was Johnson's background for much of his career, after the decade lost to drugs. It seemed that the dissolution and despair he wrote out was sometimes moving and shocking in its description, but often, as I hint in the obit, self-pitying. It was a Holden Caufield kind of world view, turned adult in a harsher world than the one Salinger could have imagined. I didn't get far into Tree Of Smoke; one of Johnson's strong points was being able to be concise in his best, most crystalline images. And other was, as I pointed out, his appropriation of the tropes of genre fiction which provided a sense of structure in books that cried out to be road novels. Those qualities seemed less present in Tree Of Smoke, but paradoxically, it was his most honoured book.

The style I am describing was particularly good for the screen. Hit Me is worth seeking out: Johnson's ability to create telling scenes, the strongest point of his writing, shines here, and the screenplay's structure provides that kind of framework I thought helped him out. I may seek it out too, to watch again.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

AND YET YOU CHOOSE TO LIVE HERE or ENDURING UNNECESSARY HARDSHIP: AN ELECTION MEDITATION

When we were younger, agitating for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, we used to have 'love it or leave it' thrown at us as a discussion closer. As it turned out, I did leave it, though not for lack of love for my country, and eventually I settled in Britain, where I have lived for forty years, and am a citizen (or, until recently, a 'subject') of the United Kingdom. The latter title seems more appropriate today, as we face an election to confirm, indeed, if the media are to be believed, rubber-stamp by acclimation, a minority government which asks for its minority of voters to give it an even larger majority of seats in the House of Commons.

Today's arguments are conducted in the more hermetic setting of social media, but they have grown almost as fierce as they were back in the Sixties. Which was confirmed to me the other day on facebook, when I was shocked to find a friend, with whom I've have the same arguments during the 2015 general election and the 2016 Brexit vote, but intensifying each time he wraps himself in the Union Jack, finally calling quits to discussion by saying 'and yet you choose to live here'.

Which admittedly is a little less excluding, albeit less catchy, than 'love it or leave it'. But I wouldn't let it lie, pointing out that indeed I had chosen to live here, unlike his own lucky self, fortunate to have been born a citizen of the country he loves so blindly. That was a riposte, not a reply, and I found myself wondering why I feel such despair in the face of this election, and why that translates into such disparagement of the country in which I chose to live. Was I creating the flag-waving antagonism I now felt? or was it the Union Jack-wrapped myopia itself that inevitably generated such antagonism?

My friend challenged me: “name me a country that values talent and ability more -- we may be far from perfect, but the days of the posh twit are significantly on the wane.” Well, I started naming countries of which I have some experience or some very good idea of their societal structure, which seem to value ability more. Canada, Australia, NZ, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, probably France, even my native USA. Then I realised such information was useless. His challenge was built on Little England false modesty and faux self-deprecation, distilled perfectly to a Mrs. T. I summed up his English world view that brought us Brexit: "we are far from perfect but it is a truth universally acknowledged that no one else in the entire world is better."

When I came here in 1977, following my English girlfriend who'd refused to spend a second winter in Montreal, I found Britain still endearingly backward in many ways, and I discovered George Mikes' loving dissections of the English, in particular the telling and still accurate perception that there is nothing an Englishman loves more than 'enduring hardship', and the kind of hardship that gives him the most satisfaction enduring is 'unnecessary hardship'.

The Britain I came to was civilised and caring in its bumbling ways, but this was also a Britain whose National Front was bleating hate, backed by one in seven English voters in the 1978 local elections. The rise of Mrs. Thatcher subsumed the NF at that time, but now, after 40 years of Thatcherism from both major parties, their descendants have been assimilated into our mainstream, skinheads replaced by Faragistas and Britain has become a meaner country., rallying around calls of fear and hatred.

Its caring side has also been tossed into a giant rubbish bin of greed, where need has been subordinated to profit. Everything has its price and nothing has value unless it hands the apparatchiks a dividend. Avarice promotes division, and a society where people's basic welfare takes the very last seat on the privatised bus service, is not a society at all. But that was Mrs. Thatcher's point, 'there is no society' and it was the point of Offshore David Cameron, whose 'Big Society' was the next-best thing to no society. When Cameron said 'we are all in this together', by 'we' he meant 'they' and by this 'this' he meant 'that mess we are leaving them'.

Every facet of life is poisoned by this. I came here and stayed here by choice, and I've lived here long enough to maybe adjust to enduring unnecessary hardship. But my son, who was born here, and considers himself English, didn't grow up with that old-time ethos of tug your cap and endure. He's been told there's a brighter future, but at the same time constantly being asked to trim his expectations.

Ten years ago, when my mother died, I found the letters I had written her from London in 1972, when I visited Britain for the first time. 'I could live here' I said more than once, little thinking that five years later that would be a real possibility. In fact, I moved to Montreal in 1975 and was considering that my adopted home when female circumstances intervened.

When I became a British citizen, I felt pleasure that it had come to pass. I watched the portrait of the Queen, whose eyes seemed to follow you as you took the oath. I was, according to the mayor, the only new citizen who sang the national anthem without looking at the lyric-sheets which had been provided. 'It's not the most complicated song in the world,' I told him, though I probably should have added for safety's sake, not to be thought a subversive, of course it is the best national anthem in the world. I was happy then that as a UK citizen all of Europe was now open to me, as well as to my young son. Now, when I look at the possibilities that will be taken away by Brexit, when I look at Britain snowballing downhill into American-style pay for play education and health systems, both of which used to be free here and both of which are hugely expensive over there, I despair. With the likelihood that our twisted electoral system will fail yet again to reflect the need of the electorate for change, I wonder if it's time to go home. Then Donald Trump comes on the news. This would be enduring unnecessary hardship indeed, and born an American, I am not genetically predisposed to it. But I fear even the British are going to find their endurance tested should the election polls be correct.