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 had 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 xenophobic calls of fear and hatred, in pursuit of recreating a fantasy vision of Rule Brittania.

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. That was, after all, Margaret 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' he meant 'that mess I am 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, literally in the case of his primary school, 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 a fact universally acknowledged that it is the best national anthem in the world. I was happy 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.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

JOHN GRISHAM'S CAMINO ISLAND

John Grisham has, as I have written before, the knack for keeping the pages turning. He does this by creating a protagonist whose character gives you reasons to be sympathetic, and then immersing that character into a plot where the other characters are drawn thinly, but to emphasise their potential danger. Camino Island begins as a caper novel, where the target is the F. Scott Fitzgerald collection at Princeton University: the original manuscripts of his five novels. The heist is pulled off, but with the efficiency of Donald Westlake as Richard Stark, if not the gritty prose, things go wrong, and the authorities bust half the crew.

The action then shifts to the world of rare books, and a struggling novelist, Mercer Mann, about to lose her creative writing lecturer's job at a university and unable to get a second novel underway after the underwhelming attention paid to her first. By coincidence, she happens to have spent her childhood summers on Camino Island where, by coincidence, there is a rare books dealer who is being investigated by a firm employed by the university to get the manuscripts back.

And the surviving thieves, who sold their haul off on the cheap, now want to re-negotiate their deal.

At times you see things building up to a Lionel White or, yes, a Richard Stark denounement, bringing all these folks, and maybe the FBI, together in the sleepy beach town. But Grisham is more interested in the activities of Bruce Cable, the rare books dealer whom Mercer is supposed to be getting close to, and his own world of writers' tours and an exotic open marriage with his antique dealer wife. Because what this story is, in many ways, is the education of Mercer Mann. Not necessarily to the ways of crime, but to the ways of the wider world. In that Cable and his wife seem less characters than instruments of instruction, and the other eccentric writers in the Camino Island community are there for contrast. There's a lesson for would-be writers here, about that world, and although Mercer becomes enthralled with her work as an agent, it takes second place to the bigger lesson, which is about isolation and knowledge.

This is an off-beat kind of thriller, with just a touch of Fitzgerald around its edges. Grisham is an acute enough plotter to keep you waiting for something, and whether he manages to deliver enough to justify it depends on a lot on how much you can sympathise with or believe in Mercer Mann.


Camino Island by John Grisham
Hodder & Stoughton, £20, ISBN 9781473663725

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

Saturday, 3 June 2017

THOMAS H. COOK'S TRAGIC SHORES

Note: This review appeared last week, in a somewhat different form, in the TLS. It had been shortened from the original edited version, where it had been improved greatly by some reordering and a change of focus, which I appreciated greatly, because this is a deeply-layered book that provokes often conflicting reactions. The printed piece is locked behind the TLS paywall; I recommend the new-look paper if you are interested. But I thought I would offer you the chance to chance my original version, improved by sensitive editing, which I think get further into and closer to the heart of a moving book.
Thomas H. Cook is one of the finest crime writers in the world. His protagonists tend to be observers; his books are often set in the world of their memory, dealing with the dead and the past. Stories tend to become clearer gradually, like a photograph developing, and his style, while displaying gothic overtones, is measured and straightforward. “My characters are fighting inevitability”, he told me once in an interview. “The sense that life is not designed to live up to our imaginations. Instead it’s incredibly cruel.” There is an autobiographical touch; in two of his novels, characters are writers who have specialized in travel to dark places. One of them is a man who has lost his son, kidnapped as he waited in the rain for his father to pick him up from school; the father, caught up in his writing, had forgotten the time.
Tragic Shores begins with a prologue, Cook's visit to Alcazar, where in 1936 the commander of the fortress refused to surrender to Republican forces, then listened over a telephone as the commander of those forces murdered his son. Later in the book, Cook tells the story of waiting in the rain for his mother to collect him after school. He refuses the offer of a lift from the mother of a classmate. 'Get in, Tommy, I won't hurt you,' the woman says. 'That's what they all say,' the young Cook replies.

On the surface, this is a journal of “dark travel”, to places where human cruelty and tragedy have left their marks, where they remain a living presence and have not, as Cook puts it, “retreated into history”. It proceeds from Lourdes to Auschwitz; from the leper colony at Kalaupapa to Hiroshima; from Cambodia’s Year Zero to New York’s Ground Zero; from New Echota, capital of the Cherokee nation before the Trail of Tears, to the site of massacres in Ghana; from Machecoul in Northern France, where Gilles de Rais, the West’s first recorded serial killer, preyed on local youths in the fifteenth century, to the cliffs of Okinawa from which Japanese parents threw their children, then followed them to their deaths, rather than face the atrocities they believed the Americans would visit upon them. At Verdun, being told “no one comes here anymore”, Cook ponders the “well of forgetfulness” into which so many lost lives have sunk, and attempts to pull those memories back into the light.
It is not schadenfreude; he does not seek comfort from the fact that the tragedies visited on others have somehow passed him by. Yet, this might seem an unattractive basis for a travel book. Indeed, much of the description can seem mundane in the face of such overwhelming emotion. Cook, his wife Susan and their daughter Justine try bravely to become travellers absorbing new places, rather than tourists carrying their own worlds with them. But many of these sites rest uneasily with the tourist trade; watching the mothers of Cinco de Mayo in Buenos Aires disperse after their weekly demonstration for their “disappeared” relatives is not the only scene that provokes a sense of disconnection.. But the more everyday the picture, the more intensely the reader perceives Cook’s real intent, which is easy to miss even though he states it clearly in the first line of his prologue: “I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life”.
After touring a small hall dedicated to the Apprentice Boys of Derry commemorating the siege of the city in 1688–9, and the origins of the staunchly Unionist Protestant association, his guide offers a hand, saying, “we’re not bad people”. When Cook takes the hand, responding “most people aren’t bad”, it sounds like a wistful warning, recalling his mother's long-ago advice. This is the central dilemma with which Cook wrestles, the reason why he immerses himself in the darkness, the question of why, if most people are not bad, so much evil seems to define their lives.
Oddly enough, in this worldwide compendium of human misery, a hint of an answer comes from a tragedy visited on birds. It is perhaps the saddest tale in the book, sad because of its seeming inevitability. The extinction of the heath hen on Martha’s Vineyard followed, not evil, but the requiste callousess of humans, when a century ago a forest fire destroyed the preserve in which they had been protected from human agency. Most of the female birds died protecting the nests they would not abandon; the last male disappeared a few years later in 1932. His disappearance speaks to a sense of selflessness with which Cook, with a novelist’s sense of climax, intended to end his book.
But soon after his visit to Martha's Vineyard, his wife took ill. Susan Terner died before this book was finished. Before she died, she admonished Cook to remember the “value of knowing”, and though the heath hens had brought the book to conclusion, he still needed to explain what that knowledge meant.
The Cooks had visited the tomb of Abelard and Héloïse in Père Lachaise, the graves of Elvira Madigan and Sixten Sparre in Landet, Denmark; two sets of lovers who ended their own lives when faced with society's refusal to allow them their loves. But that sense of despair finds contrast at the jumping point on the Golden Gate Bridge, where thousands of suicides have taken their last steps, when a passerby seems pleased and relieved to see him walking back from the spot. In that man's relief, Cook senses “life’s ultimate gimmick”, the “selfless, anonymous care” that persuades humans to live. It is altruism, an engrained instinct to protect the wider nest. That is the light which the dark places have revealed. Tragic Shores is not tragic at all. It is a love story, and a hymn to our ability to go on, in the face of the ultimate darkness.
Tragic Shores by Thomas H. Cook
Quercus, £20.00, ISBN 9781849163262