Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sean Duffy's Driving Music

Some of my favourite bits of the Duffy books are having him zoom around Carrick, Belfast and the Irish countryside in his car listening to music. Duffy can get his Beemer up to a ton and change on the Bla Hole road, which if you've been on that road, you'll know is terrifying...What's he listening to? Well, when it's not classical on Radio 3 it's stuff like this:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Three Chords And The Truth

When I first started reading the novels of James Lee Burke, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtyDaniel Woodrell, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner it didn't initially occur to me how strange it was that I understood all the dialect words. Burke and McMurty's great westerns and McCarthy's early books set in rural Tennessee often used such Ulster Scots colloquialisms as "sleekit," "skitter," "shite," "piece," (for bread or a snack) "wean," "fixin," "crittur," etc. all of which were very familiar to me growing up in Northern Ireland. Later I understood why this was so. Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee books in particular paint a vivid picture of the Ulster Scots migrants to Appalachia and the world they live in: clannish, violent, musical, economically poor but culturally rich. I liked the fact too that these novelists wrote about blue collar working people (an increasingly rare phenomenon in American literary culture). The Ulster Scots (or Scotch Irish if you prefer) migrated from northern Ireland to America in the eighteenth century taking their customs, dialect, poetry and especially their fiddles with them. It's been well said that America's greatest contribution to world culture has been its music. African Americans invented Jazz, Blues, R&B and Rap, but the Ulster Scots invented country music or rather country music grew organically from their preexisting folk music and country music has a largely pessimistic outlook on the universe that comes from the bleak, fatalistic folkways of the Ulster Scots.
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Too few people realise that the history of the Irish in America does not begin with the potato famine but goes back a century earlier to the 1740 migrations from Ulster. The best book about this hidden history is probably Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer, but Senator Jim Webb has written an entertaining primer called Born Fighting, both of which are well worth a read. Part of Jim Webb's premise is that the Ulster Scots' fighting and a feuding ways meant that they were predisposed for military service and that Scotch-Irish officers were the backbone of Washington's Army, the Union and Confederate Armies in the Civil War, the Doughboys of WW1, the GIs of WW2 and Vietnam. There may be some truth in this. Although I've never had any desire to serve in the army (all that shouting in the cadet force put me right off) my little brother has served 2 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, my dad was in the Royal Navy for twenty years and my grandfather fought in the trenches in WW1 for the duration. And of course it's well known that the British peacetime army was largely made up of Irish and Scots. Biology and culture are not destiny but maybe this is why I write (fairly) violent crime novels, not romance fiction. Mercifully though all the country songs I wrote as a teenager have gone to that great storage locker in the sky.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review This Book!

Hey folks, I'd really appreciate some reviews of my novel The Sun Is God on amazon, amazon.co.uk or good reads. All the time on Twitter I get asked "how come you don't write more standalone" novels and my answer is usually because nobody bloody buys them! Readers prefer series and although I enjoy writing standalones more than series (because you dont know what is going to happen at the end) I probably won't do any more of them if they just continue to tank in sales...As of this writing I have 2 reviews for SIG on Amazon.com (a 3 star and a grumpy 2 star) and 4 reviews on amazon.co.uk (an average of 4 stars). I have a feeling that this book might resonant better with British readers who understand the context (and how people used to talk in 1906) but hopefully all the American readers wont be as annoying as Ms 2 star above. 
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This little appeal is my version of kickstarter. I'm not asking for your money in return for a stupid T shirt, all I'd like is a minute or two of your time to review one of my books. C'mon people, I've got 269 followers on here and I get a healthy number of comments for every blog post. I've never once charged for content and I've pretty much responded to every comment I've gotten over the last 5 years, so do me a friggin solid, eh? 
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As a weird little standalone with an unconventional untrendy setting, I havent had many newspaper reviews either of The Sun Is God but I did get nice notices in The Times and The Irish Times and I'm copying the entire review from David Prestidge on CFL below because this was a reviewer who really got what I was trying to do: 
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Adrian McKinty has made his name with three crime trilogies, the latest of which featured Catholic cop Sean Duffy in the midst of sectarian turmoil in 1980s Belfast. So, The Sun is God is a bit of a departure. Here we meet Will Prior, once a junior officer in The Military Foot Police who served during The Boer War.

When he becomes involved in a  serious incident at a concentration camp set up by the British to contain the Boers near Bloemfontein, he becomes a hero overnight, at least in the eyes of his military superiors. For Prior, however, it is the start of a nightmare both literal and metaphorical. Angrily casting aside his Distinguished Service Order he gets himself dismissed from service and seeks a new life in the colonies.

Prior fetches up in a place which McKinty describes (from personal experience) as being as close to hell on earth without there being devils dancing around with sharp tridents. German New Guinea in 1906 was hot, wet, malarial and home to every kind of flying, stinging, scuttling insect and arthropod. Prior is manager of an ailing rubber plantation near the principal settlement of Herbertshöhe. His days are spent languidly enough, living with his native servant-mistress, Siwa, but his peace is disturbed when government officer Hauptmann Kessler seeks his assistance.

Prior’s police background is useful to the colonial administrators. Corpses are ten-a-penny in Herbertshöhe, but one particular mortuary resident is causing Governor Hahl concern. On a tiny island ten miles away, an eccentric group of sun worshippers have set up a community dedicated to becoming one with nature, and eating only coconut. They call themselves The Cocovores. One of them has died, ostensibly of malaria, and the corpse has been sent back to the main island for burial. The postmortem reveals that Herr Lutzow actually died from drowning so Governor Hahl despatches Prior, Kessler, and a visiting English anthropologist, Bessie Pullen-Burry, to investigate.


the real life August Engelhardt, leader of the Cocovores...
The mismatched trio find a bizarre world of nakedness, drug taking, totem worship, and a relaxed view of sexuality. Alarmingly, Miss Pullen-Burry begins to join in, while Prior and Kessler struggle with both the debilitating climate and the charismatic Cocovore leader – August Englehardt. Answers of any kind, let alone straight ones, about the death of Lutzow are impossible to find.

Surprisingly, many of the characters in The Sun is God actually existed, and the broad events described are largely factual. In the author’s preface, however, he states that ‘where the interests of the novel and strict historical accuracy have collided I have put the demands of the former first.’

Don’t be deterred by McKinty’s enigmatic assertion that the crime remains unsolved to this day. Here, the crime is solved, and with great effect, in one of the best climaxes to a novel I have read in a long time. I do wonder if this is more a period drama than a crime novel, but of one thing I am certain – this is brilliant writing. There is wonderful sleight of hand in the final pages, when rescue comes from an unlikely source. McKinty handles the mood and tone like a master. There is wry comedy, social satire, horror, compassion and tension. This is a brave and successful change of direction from a fine writer, who spoke to us about his earlier work here.

Serpent’s Tail
Print/Kindle
£2.57

CFL Rating: 5 Stars
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Anyway if you can help me out with an amazon or good reads review I wd really appreciate it, esp Amazon.com where the combined 2 1/2 star rating looks like shit and now that Amazon mirror their reviews over onto audible and amazon.co.uk its a real PR disaster...
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And if you'd like to review any of my other books, well, I'd very much appreciate that too. 

go raibh maith agat


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ireland Is A Railway Poster - Philip Larkin in Carrickfergus


Every year in and around Philip Larkin's birthday I like to reblog my favourite poem of all time, Larkin's Aubade...So below, you'll find Aubade and a little post from last year on my discovery in Larkin's Collected Letters, that Larkin had paid a secret visit to my hometown, Carrickfergus...
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Aubade
BY PHILIP LARKIN
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
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For years I've been single handedly peddling the concept that my hometown, Carrickfergus, is the centre of the universe, with admittedly, limited success. What I particularly like are the literary connections which are surprisingly rich in so small a place. Famously Louis MacNeice lived in Carrickfergus and wrote about it more than once. He brought WH Auden to the town to stay with him but what he thought is not recorded. Jonathan Swift lived in Carrickfergus (at Kilroot) where he wrote A Tale of a Tub (and possibly plotted Gulliver). Anthony Trollope lived in Whiteabbey near Carrickfergus where he wrote The Warden. William Congreve lived in Carrickfergus as a boy. Charlotte Riddel - best selling Victorian pot boiler novelist - was from Carrick. William Orr, United Irishman and poet, (with a famous poet brother) lived and was, er, hanged in Carrickfergus. Currently the best selling science fiction writer Ian McDonald lives not a million miles away from Carrick, science fiction writer David Logan lives in Carrickfergus and for his sins Carrick is the first thing Colin Bateman sees from his chateau when his butler opens the curtain windows every morning. Several episodes of Game of Thrones have been shot at Red Hall in Carrickfergus (but none yet at Carrick castle which is a bit odd as its the best preserved castle in all of Ireland!) My favourite Irish female poet, Sinead Morrissey, lives just up the road from Carrickfergus at Jordanstown. And speaking of poets I've just found this letter (below) from Philip Larkin to Monica Jones talking about his lonely visit to Carrick in 1950 when - who knows - he could have seen my mum and dad out for a walk around the harbour. Larkin is on fine miserable form thoughout...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Neddies

I'm very pleased to announce the fact that my novel, In The Morning I'll Be Gone, has been shortlisted for Crime Novel of the Year at the 2014 Ned Kelly Awards. In The Morning I'll Be Gone is the third book in the Sean Duffy series and is the one where Duffy gets mixed up in the plot to kill Mrs Thatcher at the 1984 Conservative Party Conservative Conference in Brighton. These are the what the Neddie judges said about it:
“In his use of humour with the grim realities of Belfast in 1984, coupled with a wonderfully constructed locked room mystery, McKinty has produced something really quite extraordinary. There’s a fine line between social commentary and compelling mystery and not many writers, crime or literary, can do both.”
Also on the 2014 shortlist are the excellent PM (Pam) Newton, Garry Disher, Kathryn Fox, Angela Savage & Stephen Orr. I know Garry, Angela & Pam personally and have read their wonderful books, and I'm looking forward to reading Kathryn and Stephen too. 
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This is the second time I've been up for the Ned Kelly Award. Last year I Hear The Sirens In The Street got shortlisted (Sean Duffy #2) for the big tin helmet. I think Sirens might be the more lyrical book (I love the opening page of that one) but I reckon Morning might be the better constructed novel. Anyway we'll see what the judges say in a month or so. Best of luck of course to my fellow shortlistees....
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If you want to get any of the Sean Duffy novels please try your local bookshop (and bug them if they dont have them) and you can of course get them on Amazon, B&N, Audible etc.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Wearing Shorts All The Time

Obviously humans weren't meant to sit at desks for 8 hours a day or live in little concrete boxes. Homo sapiens are a migratory biophilic species adapted for life on the savannah in Tanzania and Kenya, dodging lions and chasing gazelles. But after hundreds of thousands of years in Africa now a majority of us live in in stressful cities next to a bunch of strangers with all their hang ups and weird smells and bad music. I think men might suffer from the stress of this urban nightmare more than women. Men don't hunt together, don't hang out together, don't bowl together, don't really do anything together anymore. (Not in big numbers anyway.) I suppose one of the methods of coping with all this is to retreat into a man shed or a fantasy world, either in films or TV or in online gaming. Geek culture is increasingly mainstream culture and it has its eloquent defenders such as Patton Oswalt, but of late I'm becoming less convinced that retreating into fantasy world is an appropriate way to live. 
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Camille Paglia isn't everyone's cup of tea (and she's dead wrong in her shrill attacks on Gloria Steinem) but I did like these paragraphs from a editorial she wrote in the NYT a few years ago:

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure. Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women. Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium.

Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity...


In a similar vein (but from a different angle completely) I just watched a fine BBC documentary about how we were all turned into hedonistically addicted online consumers. In episode 3 of the series Jacques Peretti investigates the deliberate move by toy and game companies to target adults as if they were children and children as if they were adults. Getting adults to buy childrens toys and play video games was the smartest move they ever made. I originally had a link for ep 3 of the series on youtube here but it has already been removed by the BBC. You can watch ep 1 on vmeo, here. 

More and more Hollywood makes movies for teenage boys or teenage girls and the rest of us have to just go along with it. Do you remember in the 70's when Hollywood was making films for grown ups? Well that's more or less over now because those films just aren't profitable, or at least not as profitable as Transformers IV or the latest Marvel-DC nonsense. TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory (which I love) and Podcasts like the Nerdist.com make arrested adolescence into a virtue. And people like Patton Oswalt (who I mentioned above) tell us that reading comics and going to superhero movies in your 40's is completely fine. And of course Comicon has become a place of pilgrimage for men of a certain age and girth size. (Its also a place where the toy companies make a shit load of money getting adults to spend a fortune on pieces of moulded plastic.)
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And I am one of those men of a certain age and girth size. I played D&D as a kid (favourite module Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), I love Star Wars and Star Trek and Game of Thrones and I've watched Blade Runner maybe 20 times. But I sometimes wonder if perhaps Camille Paglia is right. Maybe all this stuff is stopping us from growing up, whatever that means...You dont have to be a conspiracy theorist or a follower of Herbert Marcuse to appreciate that one click consumerism and infantilisation are methods of social pacification. If Marcuse were alive today he might say something like "well the rich are demonstrably getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and you chubby guys in the middle don't give a shit about it because you're all waiting for the new bloody Star Wars movie to come out..." Our fathers and grandfathers could fix things and build things, but we can't, can we? If the zombie apocalypse ever did happen the most valuable guy in town wouldnt be the guy who's watched every episode of Walking Dead it would be the guy who could fix the boilers and get the lights working and thats not going to be you or me...
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The below clip would have more resonance if Brad Pitt wasn't a movie god who advertises watches & clothes, but he is and he does. Still...

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So all of this isn't really a coherent argument and I offer no solutions, its merely a lament or a cri de coeur and maybe I'm completely wrong and everything is ok. Maybe shorts and X Men movies and comic books are just fine. Maybe the culture hasnt become infantalized or dumber at all. What do you think? 

Monday, August 4, 2014

How Not To Run A Bookshop

Me at No Alibis with some of the Belfast Noir authors' excellent books...
I was in Belfast last week and on my way out of town I dropped in on a few bookshops to sign stock. First stop was No Alibis on Botanic Avenue, Belfast's only mystery bookshop and a veritable institution that's been supporting local writers for nearly two decades now. Dave Torrans, the owner, knows how to run a bookshop in these troubled times for book sales. Dave has an event every week, be it a poetry reading or a jazz night or a conventional book reading. Dave also knows how to market books, is internet savvy and he has laid out his shop in helpful sections. Most important of all I think, Dave promotes local authors. If you've written a book and you're from Belfast Dave will have your bloody book. Chances are that if you're from anywhere in Ireland Dave will have your back on sale somewhere in the shop. 
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Contrast this with another famous bookshop in Belfast that I dropped in on to sign stock. ("Dropped in" isnt the correct phrase here, I wouldn't presume to come to a shop and demand to sign books, in fact, I had been asked to come in...) I won't name this place because I don't want to embarrass anyone, but it was a fine example of how not to run a business. When I came by to sign I was told that now was not convenient and could I return later. "I'm leaving on a plane in an hour," I explained and was huffily shown to a chair while someone looked to see if they had any of my books "lying around". Apparently they didn't, until about twenty minutes later when someone found half a dozen copies of The Sun Is God (in a storage room?) Those twenty minutes gave me ample time to look over the bookshop. Mysteries are a huge part of their turnover and they had a display for Jo Rowling, for Jo Nesbo & for some other people not called Jo. They also had a table full of Nordic Noir (which included some pretty obscure authors). There was however no display for Brian McGilloway or Stuart Neville or Colin Bateman all of whom are from Northern Ireland and are best sellers. I looked in vain for other well known Irish mystery writers. Many Irish writers with an international reputation were simply not in the shop. "You have a display table for Nordic Noir but you don't have one for Irish mystery writers? Surely that would be really popular, no?" I asked the person who brought me my books to sign. I got a dismissive grunt in response. 
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Yes I know retail bookshops are being crushed by Amazon and other online businesses but it is not smart business sense to retail only the big anonymous best sellers in your shop. Jo Nesbo is a fine writer but he's not any better than Neville or McGilloway or Tana French or John Connolly or Alex Barclay. Why not engender a sense of excitement about local writers who are doing amazing things in the genre? Why not be a bit more savvy and involved? Is that too much to ask? 
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There's a bookshop near me in St Kilda and its almost the same story. No local writers section, no sense of excitement about promoting local authors. It's an error. Not a moral error, a business error. I'm not telling bookshop owners to do this out of a sense of local responsibility, I'm telling them to do this because I think it makes sound economic sense. Yes some people want escape in their fiction choices, but other people would love to know what local authors are making of the place where they live. I worked in a bookshop for 3 years so I know a little bit about what I'm talking about. Get people excited about reading, about the local community, about your bookshop. That's how you defeat Amazon, not by slavishly selling all the boring best sellers. Yeah, it will require a little more work and a little more imagination but try it for a month or two and you'll see what I mean...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Arts Extra

Mary Louise Muir host of Arts Extra
Me on BBC Radio's Arts Extra programme:

 

I'm on near the end. Its live radio and you have no idea what questions they are going to ask so I'm not quite sure how this happened but at one point I start quoting Goethe, in German...
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The Beeb being the Beeb this programme will only be available to listen to for about another week and then it will be gone forever...
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2 funny things happened in and around the interview. The band who came on after me hadnt said how long their song was going to be and as they were playing they were getting closer and closer to the live news break at the top of the hour. The producers were in a bit of a panic because they wanted to tell the band to end the song before the news. They told Marie-Louise (the host) to hold up a note for the lead singer, but it didnt do any good because he was singing with his eyes closed. Everyone was in a real tizzy and I was sitting next to him in the studio and I was wondering whether I should poke him or something when purely by luck he opened his eyes with 30 seconds to go, saw the time and ended the really rather lovely song much to everyone's relief. The other funny thing was coming out of the interview & seeing my daughter who was in the Green Room outside. She was so excited and happy and I immediately thought that hey maybe the interview had gone particularly well or something. "What's up?" I said waiting for the compliments to pour in... "Daddy, guess what? They have free wi-fi here and I got to watch the new video from One Direction on my ipad!" 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Anthem Do They Play For Northern Ireland At The Commonwealth Games?

The surprising answer is the lovely "Londonderry Air," which is seen as a neutral anthem by both traditions in Northern Ireland. Of course its usually a moot question because N.I. doesnt often get gold medals but at the last games they in fact won three golds (one of their highest totals ever) all in the boxing. I wish they would play The Derry Air (nice pun for our Francophone readers) at N.I. football matches too, instead of the doleful God Save The Queen, but football is more politically charged than the Commonwealth Games so I wont hold my breath.
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For those of us engaged in the war against stereotype and cliche it is somewhat disheartening to learn that half of Northern Ireland's entire medal total came last time in either boxing or shooting.
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The Londonderry Air has got an interesting history - this is what Wikipedia says about it:

The air was collected by Jane Ross of Limavady. Ross submitted the tune to music collector George Petrie, and it was then published by the Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland in the 1855 book The Ancient Music of Ireland, which Petrie edited.[1] The tune was listed as an anonymous air, with a note attributing its collection to Jane Ross of Limavady. This led to the descriptive title "Londonderry Air" being used for the piece; the title "Air from County Derry" or "Derry Air" is sometimes used instead, due to the Derry-Londonderry name dispute. The origin of the tune was for a long time somewhat mysterious, as no other collector of folk tunes encountered it, and all known examples are descended from Ross's submission to Petrie's collection. In a 1934 article, Anne Geddes Gilchrist suggested that the performer Ross heard played the song with extreme rubato, causing Ross to mistake the time signature of the piece for common time (4/4) rather than 3/4. Gilchrist asserted that adjusting the rhythm of the piece as she proposed produced a tune more typical of Irish folk music.[3]
In 1974, Hugh Shields found a long-forgotten traditional song which was very similar to Gilchrist's modified version of the melody.[4] The song, Aislean an Oigfear (recte Aisling an Óigfhir, "The young man's dream"), had been transcribed by Edward Bunting in 1792 based on a performance by harper Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh (Denis Hempson) at the Belfast Harp Festival. Bunting published it in 1796.[5] Ó Hámsaigh lived in Magilligan, not far from Ross's home in Limavady. Hempson died in 1807.[1] In 2000, Brian Audley published his authoritative research on the tune's origins. He showed how the distinctive high section of the tune had derived from a refrain in "The Young Man's Dream" which, over time, crept into the body of the music. He also discovered the original words to the tune as we now know it which were written by Edward Fitzsimmons and published in 1814; his song is "The Confession of Devorgilla", otherwise known by its first line "Oh Shrive Me Father".
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For those of you who have read Julian May's fantasy novel The Golden Torc, The Derry Air has an entirely different and fascinating imagined provenance which involves time travel and aliens...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

John Le Carre's A Delicate Truth

John Le Carre is a writer who nearly always gets great reviews for what, in the end, are often pretty mediocre books. A Delicate Truth however isn't a bad book and at 83 years old I marvelled at Le Carre's economic and skillful plotting and his nimble use of metaphor and simile (at least in the first 50 pages or so). The John Le Carre of today is a less patient writer than the master who brought us Tinker Tailor 40 years ago, but his impatient breathless prose is more in tune with our tech savvy distracted age than the languid wordsmithery of the Smiley books. I bought A Delicate Truth at Dubai airport and had read it by the time we landed in Melbourne, which is a tribute to Le Carre's power to hold the reader's attention and make those pages turn.  
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A Delicate Truth is about an "extraordinary rendition" attempt gone wrong in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar which leads to the death of an African asylum seeker and her child. For the Americans who botch the operation it's just one of those things that happen, but for the Brits involved it's a moral disaster that poisons all of their lives. It's an effective story device and I liked the temporal and POV shifts and the ruthless analysis of what guilt does to a certain class of man. 
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Where A Delicate Truth falls down is in its didacticism and dialogue. Le Carre hates Tony Blair, New Labour, Americans (especially Republican Americans) and loves stiff upper lip One Nation Tories of the old school. A writer is allowed to like and hate whomever he wants but when his hatreds infect the text and he starts banging on his drum it can become wearisome. As for dialogue, well I know its heresy to suggest it, but I think Le Carre has always had a tin ear for dialogue. His experience has been limited by his background. He has largely sequestered himself in a farm in Cornwall for the last 50 years and his formative years were spent at boarding school, Oxford, Eton (where he taught classics) and then MI5. His Englishmen often talk like characters from PG Wodehouse's golden era or occasionally like characters cribbed from an episode or two of Eastenders; his Americans have a tendency to be unsophisticated Bible thumping simpletons and in one hugely embarrassing chapter in A Delicate Truth he has an Ulster-born RUC policewoman (a Protestant who is called Brigid no less!) who talks like a cross between Jamie Oliver & Lily Allen.
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Still A Delicate Truth is a fine airport novel that will keep you entertained on a long haul flight. If you've read Le Carre's last 3 books you'll know exactly what happens at the end but if you haven't I won't spoil it for you now. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Rest Is Noise

Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise is an impressive if not completely comprehensive history of classical music in the twentieth century. Ross does a good job explaining the culture, the geography, the personalities, the context and even the theory of modern classical music in a lucid and interesting way. I particularly enjoyed the stuff on turn of the century Vienna, a milieu I knew a little bit about from the novel The Man Without Qualities. The dynamic between Mahler, Richard Strauss and Schoenberg was fascinating and the five or six pages on the debut of Strauss's opera Salome was brilliant. Like Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, it seems that everyone who was anyone was either there or later claimed to be there. (Ross is skeptical of Hitler's claims to have been in the audience.)
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A lot of the information in the book was eye opening: even after he became famous (but not well off) Philip Glass worked as a plumber and taxi driver, for whatever reason half of all the important American classical composers were gay, Thomas Mann was consistently the most important novelistic influence on composers of the century, and it seems that the really important classical music in the century came from only four cultures: Germany, Russia, France and the US.
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After finishing The Rest Is Noise I still wasn't sure that I understood the formal difference between a musical and an opera (he doesn't discuss any of the famous musicals of the 60s, 70s and 80s) and I think Ross underplays the role of pop music but not, of course, the intellectual's friend - jazz. I was also a bit annoyed that the playlist which the publishers have promised to maintain on their website (and on iTunes) doesn't seem to be working anymore - it would have been handy to read about a composer and then hear an example of their work, but alas it was not to be.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Duffy's Carrickfergus in 2014



I've been back in Carrickfergus for the last few days. This time I took daughter#1 with me. I thought you might be interested in a few Sean Duffy vids and images. Above is Duffy's street Coronation Road as it looks today (a little bit overcast even in July). Below left we're at Carrickfergus Police Station's bullet proofed glass entrance gate. Below right is the really quite lovely sea front painted pink for the Giro d'Italia. Below are 2 murals from the UVF showing that they still seem to have a presence in the area? The one at the very bottom is new to me and was done in the last year or so in a fairly sophisticated Banksyesque style. I looked for it but couldn't find it so maybe it too was painted over for the Giro?




Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My 12 Favourite Film Noirs


"40's style with added robot"
The 70th anniversary of the release of the quintessential film noir, Double Indemnity (1944), is as good an excuse as any to watch a classic noir. But what exactly counts as film noir in the first place? It's a tricky definitional problem. Although the classic noir era is over it’s not easy to define what noir was or when the noir period definitively ended. If you're going to say that nothing after 1959 counts as a proper noir (which a lot of film historians do) then many of my favourites below aren't going to make it. But the following is my list and my rules so I'm going to say that the cut off date is August 1987 when John Huston died (director and actor in many of the greatest noirs) which allows me to cheat a little. Obviously these are idiosyncratic choices and apologies if your favourites (Night and the City, Pickup on South Street, DOA, Night of the Hunter, Out of the Past, Cutter’s Way etc.) didn’t quite fit into the top 12.

12. The Asphalt Jungle
Directed by John Huston (1950)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in a robbery, but the real fun is watching the gang unravel under the pressure of success. Crosses and double crosses, a cameo by a purring Marilyn Monroe, an impressive Sam Jaffe as Doc  Riedenschneider; this is one of the all time great heist-gone-wrong films.

11. The Killing
Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1956)
Sterling Hayden gets himself mixed up in another robbery and again everything goes wrong after it all goes right. Hayden’s  Johnny Clay is a pacing, muscular, cerebral criminal, but while lady luck is on his side at the track it isn’t at the airport.

10. The Third Man
Directed by Carol Reed (1949)
Orson Welles is dead, or is he? Orson Welles is a bad guy, or is he? Joseph Cotten tries to find out or does he? Sewers, a Ferris wheel, duffle coats, the cuckoo clock speech, oh and the greatest existential ending of a film ever...

9. The Postman Always Rings Twice
Directed by Tay Garnett (1946)
Huge rip off. There is no postman or doorbell. Lana Turner smoulders and John Garfield is sucked willingly into the gravitational pull of her platinum sun. The plan is to kill her old man and take the insurance money. They know it’s not going to work but they do it anyway. Brilliant.


8. The Big Steal
Directed by Don Siegel (1949)
Don Siegel began his career directing the montages for Casablanca and finished it directing various Clint Eastwood vehicles in the 70’s, which isn’t a bad career at all. Along the way he made this slice of noir about an army lieutenant wrongly accused of robbery who pursues the real crook through Mexico. Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer stand out in a terrific cast.

7. Strangers On A Train
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1951)
Two strangers meet on a train and realise that they both need someone bumped off.  Based on a slyly brilliant book by Patricia Highsmith with a script by Raymond Chandler and an uncredited Ben Hecht, Alfred Hitchcock entered his great 1950’s period with this perfect stomach churning noir. Robert Walker chews the scenery as Bruno, a charming psychopath who wants out from under the heel of his father. Farley Granger provides able support.

6. Rififi
Directed by Jules Dassin (1957)
Jules Dassin got his start directing Yiddish films in New York, then he moved into mainstream Hollywood movies (directing the great Night and the City), then he got blacklisted, moved to France and directed this noir classic, with a cynical, bitter Jean Servais as an excon with a plan for a robbery on a jewellery shop. The heist itself is the highpoint of the film with its famous 10 minute zero dialogue, zero music, coming-through-the-ceiling scene. Everything succeeds perfectly but this being a noir you know that somehow it isn’t all going to end with expensive plonk and cottages in the Dordogne.

5. The Maltese Falcon
Directed by John Huston (1941)
Humphrey Bogart is tough guy private eye Sam Spade who helps Mary Astor locate a missing relic from the Knights of Malta that might be knocking around the streets of San Francisco. Also after the “black bird” are a snivelling Peter Lorre and a lugubrious Sydney Greenstreet. The ending is a bit contrived (although faithful to the novel) and fits with the best traditions of downbeat, pessimistic noirdom.

4. The Big Sleep
Directed by Howard Hawks (1946)
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall star, William Faulkner wrote the screenplay, Raymond Chandler wrote the novel. I’ve seen this half a dozen times and I still don’t really get the plot: something about a missing Irish rebel, a pornographer and dodgy films, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the chemistry between Bogie and Betty Bacall. Hawks runs a tight ship throughout but lets the future Mr and Mrs Bogart really rip in their scenes. Grainy, dirty, rainy and slick, this is probably the highpoint of Hawks’s impressive career.

3. Double Indemnity
Directed by Billy Wilder (1944)
Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck star in Billy Wilder’s adaptation of the James Cain novel. It’s another knock-off-the-hubbie-and-get-the-insurance scheme. Babs rocks the sunglasses and angora sweater look and poor Fred doesn’t stand a chance (neither does the husband of course). Raymond Chandler argued with Billy Wilder, drank like a fish and somehow wrote the screenplay. He has a brief cameo at 16 minutes in (his only appearance in a movie.)

2. Blade Runner
Directed by Ridley Scott (1982)
Some people are under the mistaken belief that this is only a science fiction movie but in fact it’s a classic noir. Filmed on The Maltese Falcon set on the Warner’s back lot, it’s the story of half a dozen people trying to make sense of life before they themselves die. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a Blade Runner, whose speciality is hunting androids who have returned to a dystopic, ruined Earth. Along the way he falls for the beautiful replicant, Rachael, who’s so convincingly human that she doesn’t even know that she’s a machine. Based on Philip K Dick’s short novel of ideas: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, Ridley Scott has turned this material into a metaphysical detective story where the detective finds out not who done it, but how to be a good human being.

1. Chinatown
Directed by Roman Polanski (1973)
You know what happens to nosy fellows? They get their noses cut off. No, really, they do and it's not pretty. Robert Towne wrote this gloriously depressing tale of a 1930’s Private Eye (Jack Nicholson) who uncovers a plot to steal water from the city of Los Angeles and divert it to land in the San Fernando valley. The man who finds out the truth and his wife (Faye Dunaway), hires ex Chinatown cop, Nicholson, to find out who did him in. The villain of the piece is John Huston, playing Dunaway’s rapist father with gleeful malevolence. Roman Polanski’s direction is lush, romantic and old fashioned. His cameo as a knife wielding maniac is disturbing on all sorts of levels. But all the performances are pitch perfect (look out for James Hong who plays the butler in this and a genetic designer in Blade Runner). The ending of Chinatown is melodramatic and a little rushed, but it still works, and as in all the really best noirs the hero is thwarted and beaten. Noirs teach us that defeat lies ahead for us all; learning how to deal with this defeat and ultimately death itself is the only meaning of life we’re ever going to get in this world of tears.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mr Mercedes

My review of Stephen King's new crime novel Mr Mercedes from yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. Don't want to bury the lede here, but safe to say Mr Mercedes isn't King's finest hour... 

Many bad crime novels begin with graphic violence, particularly violence towards children. Bad crime writers fear that unless the stakes are raised sufficiently at the start, their story-telling skills alone won’t be deft enough for potential readers to continue with the book. But if the villain is a depraved monster who does terrible things by, say, page six then the angry reader will be hooked. It’s instructive then that Stephen King begins his first foray into the private-eye genre, Mr Mercedes, with a car ploughing into a crowd of unemployed, desperate individuals queuing overnight at a jobs fair. This mass slaughter kills eight people, including a mother we have just got to know who is nursing her new-born baby. 

After this bloody prologue the action shifts to retired Mid-West homicide detective Bill Hodges, who spends his days watching Jerry Springer, drinking beer and contemplating suicide. King knows that this is a cliche, but mentioning what a cliche it is in the book is not the meta-textual inoculation from criticism the author thinks it is. The jobs-fair killer, nicknamed Mr Mercedes by the press, is a 20-something computer geek called Brady Hartsfield who has a very unhealthy relationship with his mother. We have seen this before too, in Psycho and in King’s own Sleepwalkers. To further underline his villainy, Brady is also an ice-cream van driver who hates children and, naturally, an invective-spewing racist. 

Brady gets in contact with Bill and invites him into an online chat forum where he hopes to taunt the cop into killing himself, but the scheme backfires as the wily old detective uses the chat forum to track Brady down. The police procedural part of the story is well told. King has a handle on the mechanics of an investigation and I particularly liked the way Hodges unpacked the killer’s poisoned pen letters. King is a writer equally at home in the world of screenplays and the frequent screenplay-like shifts in chronology and point of view worked well in the first third of the book.

King name checks James Patterson in Mr Mercedes and his storytelling is very much in this mould. King seems unconcerned that writers such as James Ellroy, James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane have raised the prose standards in contemporary crime fiction. For King, like Patterson, the words are there only to service the plot. The pages must turn and they must turn as fast as possible. With unblushing chutzpah at one point in Mr Mercedes King complains about the poor dialogue in the TV shows NCIS, Bones and Dexter which is a little bit rich for someone who has an African-American character talk in a comedic slave patois for much of the book to the inexplicable delight of the white people around him. 

“Massa Hodges goan have to find hisself a new lawnboy!” Jerome exclaims, and Janey laughs so hard she has to spit a bite of shrimp into her napkin. 

King’s other démodé attempts at humour are equally disastrous and will illicit few chuckles, I suspect, in anyone not of King’s generation.*

The cat and mouse plot of Mr Mercedes and the sparring between criminal and cop will be familiar to those who have read Charles Willeford’s crime classic, Miami Blues, but this, alas, is a contemporary rewrite that lacks much of Willeford’s wit and psychological acumen.

In a review of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch last year King expressed bafflement and exasperation at Tartt’s writing pace. How could any novel take a decade to finish, he wondered, when he writes two books a year? The irony here is that with a little more time and effort and much tighter editing, King’s first attempt in this genre could actually have been pretty good.
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* I wonder too if the unabashed use of the 'N' word and the embarrassed veil drawn over the sex scenes is also a generational quirk?

Friday, July 11, 2014

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009

Clearly not a regular customer of Daniel Antony: The Modern Barber of Northampton
a post from two years ago
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Alan Moore's new comic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen III Century 2009 is the third and final part of the third outing of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In the comic book shop where I bought it, it was in a display right next to the DC Comics' Watchmen prequels which came out last week: Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Minutemen & The Comedian. If Moore had seen that display it might have given him a stroke: his brand new creation donuted by DC's "hack work." Actually I've had mixed feelings about these prequels. Initially I was opposed, thinking them a creatively bankrupt way for DC to squeeze more money out of comic book nerds and Watchmen completists. But then as I saw the impressive cast of artists and writers involved I began to wonder if DC weren't just doing what Moore was doing by appropriating such iconic characters as Raffles, Malcolm Tucker, Jack Carter etc. (without compensating the copyright holders) for his comic; so I decided to give the Watchmen prequels the benefit of the doubt. But last week I finally read the first issues of the first four Watchmen prequels and I have to say that even in this disinterested neutral state of grace I found them pretty underwhelming. The artwork was better than the story, but really if this is the best that the mainstream comics industry can come up with in 2012 then probably the doomsayers are right and comic books are in for a very tough few years ahead. The Watchmen prequels are timid, clumsy and hamfistedly literal in their interpretations of these characters. They lack a cinematic vision and, so far, bring nothing new to the table in terms of mythology. My favourite was probably J Michael Straczynski's Nite Owl, but even that was just so darn...obvious. 
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Back to Century 2009: ok so whats it all about then? Well Century 2009 follows up on what we learned in Century 1969 where Jack Carter, looking a lot like Michael Caine, tracked down the cultists who killed Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and brought East End gangland vengeance to an Aleister Crowley figure who was just about to jump into Mick Jagger's body at a free Stones festival in Hyde Park. The League of Gentlemen were also on the trail of the Crowley cultists because they feared the cult had a plan to bring forth a demonic child who would in turn somehow cause the apocalypse. In Century 2009 the demonic child has been born and he sounds an awful lot like Harry Potter something which I thought was pretty funny. Meanwhile Malcolm Tucker (from The Thick Of It), the Prime Minister's Press Secretary, is trying to defuse an out of control war in the country of Q'mar which got started under President Bartlett (from the West Wing)
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The main delight in Century 2009 is spotting these borrowings because actually the story isn't that brilliant or exciting until the very end when the most powerful faery in the United Kingdom shows up to save the world from the Harry Potter Moonchild run amok. (Alan Moore and I am in complete agreement as to who this powerful faery might be.) As an intellectual game I think I enjoyed getting the insider refs more than I dug the actual narrative (an Andy Millman here, a James Bond there, a lovely Queequeg's chain of Coffee Shops) which, alas, is probably the weakest installment of League III. 
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So is it worth buying? Aye, I reckon so. In these times of tightened belts I'd suggest that you skip the Watchmen prequels entirely until they come out in graphic novel form to your local library (I believe DC when they say that viewed all together the prequels will form an impressive multi-arcing story) but if you're into British pop culture or Alan Moore or League I and II, then League III is worth getting, just don't expect transcendence. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Game Of Thrones Investigation

Magheramorne Quarry became the Great Wall of Westeros through CGI
(A coyly written post from 4 years ago disguising the fact that my little brother and I broke into the Game of Thrones set before Game of Thrones was even a thing...)
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I've done a little investigation into the filming locations for Game Of Thrones and it turns out that the Great Wall and Castle Black were outdoor sets filmed at a disused quarry in Magheramorne. My grandmother was from Magheramorne, a village of about 50 people, near Larne. In fact the scenes along the Great Wall were shot in the quarry about thirty yards from my grandmother's house. It's not very snowy in Magheramorne and making snow would cost a fortune so I assume the snow and ice were put in later by CGI. My father used to work in the quarry itself when it was the Blue Circle Cement Works and I've been in it dozens of times. It's a credit to the set designers that they could have have envisaged this dramatic (and rather dangerous) location as the Great Wall of Westeros. 
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Before I came home I didn't think Game of Thrones had had much of an impact in Northern Ireland. It still hasn't been shown here but a lot of people know about it and have been affected by the production. My nephew Patrick went up for an extra and my brother's wife Dytania also was asked if she could appear as a background player. Ger Brennan's brother did make it into the show and I've read many enthusiastic pieces about GOT in the local papers. Filming GOT has been a very good thing for Northern Ireland which is still in recovery from three decades of low level civil war. 
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My little brother and I went to investigate The Game of Thrones Great Wall set which has a fence around it. You can see much of Castle Black covered in tarp and even what looks like the hand pulley elevator up the wall face. The security fence is easily climbable but I wouldn't recommend it, especially at night where the quarry hole appears suddenly in front of you and is a ten story drop to a hard limestone floor. If you want to take pictures the best place is from Mill Bay across Larne Lough on Islandmagee. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

My Favourite Albums Of All Time

The album sleeve for House of the Holy collides Arthur C Clake's
best novel, Childhood's End, with the most interesting
place in Ireland, The Giants Causeway, with the greatest
band in the world at the time, Led Zeppelin
Rejigging the list for 2014... 
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A list which is always changing, always evolving, sometimes devolving. At the moment the present stay of play is below and in a month or two it'll be different again. You'll notice no Beatles (not a big fan) or Springsteen (played him to death unfortunately although Nebraska might squeeze in there) or much rap. This isn't a PC list like Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums or a hipster collection like the NME list. Its merely my favourites. Old fashioned? Out of touch? Sure. I've limited myself to one album per artist and you'll notice that most of the records are in that sweet spot 1965 - 1979 when books, films and records were just better. 


1. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico
2. Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan
3. Houses of the Holy - Led Zeppelin
4. Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones
5. OK Computer - Radiohead
6. Astral Weeks - Van Morrison
7. Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
8. Pink Moon - Nick Drake
9. Liege and Lief - Fairport Convention
10. Franks Wild Years - Tom Waits
11. Parallel Lines - Blondie
12. PJ Harvey - PJ Harvey
13. I'm Your Man - Leonard Cohen
14. The Smiths - The Smiths
15. Dummy - Portishead
16. Horses - Patti Smith
17. Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
19. Are You Experienced - Jimi Hendrix
20. The Undertones - The Undertones
21. Automatic For The People - REM
22. The Black Album - Jay Z
23. Never Mind The Bollocks - The Sex Pistols
24. Dusty in Memphis - Dusty Springfield
25. The Ramones - The Ramones

Monday, June 30, 2014

Edgelands

A year ago when I blogged about Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways I said that it was almost as if the book was designed specifically to please me (in contrast to much of our current culture which seems to be designed specifically to annoy the hell out of me)...In The Old Ways Macfarlane followed some of the ancient walking routes of Europe and conjured up the literary ghosts of previous travellers on those routes, particularly the poet Edward Thomas. The Old Ways became an unlikely international best seller on the strength of its writing and by appealing to the inner yearning of urban based reviewers and readers for the beauty of the great outdoors. Edgelands (Vintage 2012) is a travel book written by two poets, Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, which is a kind of anti-Robert Macfarlane. Instead of looking for the wilderness at the top of Scotland or in some deep wadi in Palestine Roberts and Farley find the strange, wild and wonderful just down the road from us in that bit of wasteland behind the bus station or in old quarries or junkyards or abandoned factories or canals. In Edgelands the spirit is less Robert Macfarlane and John Muir and more JG Ballard and William Burroughs. The book sets out to be an exploration of "England's True Wilderness" and it reminded me of Ballard's Unlimited Dream Company and Concrete Island and Ian Sinclair's walk around the M25 recorded in London Orbital. Because the authors are poets who love poetry there is a full length poem or a lengthy extract in nearly every chapter from many great contemporary poets. Even more so than Macfarlane the authors realise that it is poets and artists who can see through the mundane to the sublime beyond.
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Roberts and Farley celebrate the weirdness of all night golf driving range, container parks, scrubby woods, motorway service stations, airport car parks and they see loveliness - as, famously, Derek Mahon does - in burned out hotels, old alleys and dereliction. This, as I say, is a kind of anti Robert Macfarlane aesthetic but it's just as good as him (better actually in some ways because the authors have a sense of humour) and it even comes with a generous blurb from Macfarlane on the back cover. I don't know if it's been published in the US or Australia but you can get it on Amazon.co.uk and you can read a bit of it there too. 
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The British documentary maker Jonathan Meades has very similar ideas about beauty on the Isle of Lewis/Harris above/right

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Creep

my essay from Radio Silence, issue 02, published earlier this year...


Even White Boys Get The Blues: Radiohead’s “Creep” 

One of the late comedian Patrice O’Neal’s most watched videos on YouTube is a short radio interview he did on KITS San Francisco where he dissects the Radiohead song "Creep". He wonders about the strange power “Creep” seems to have over white men of a certain age, speculating that it digs deep into the confusion and angst of Caucasian males in America, perhaps mining some rich seam of inadequacy, helplessness, and loserdom. For O’Neal, “Creep” and the movie Fight Club are the holy grails of contemporary American Whiteness. Black men, O’Neal says, don’t react to “Creep” or Fight Club in this strange obsessive way, but for young white males these two cultural touchstones describe perfectly what it means to be a man in an increasingly complicated, gender-neutral, multi-ethnic world.
           I first saw Radiohead play“Creep” in September 1992 at The Venue Club in Oxford on the same night that parts of the music video were shot. I wasn’t that impressed with the group, who I hadn’t heard of before and who seemed to be rather posh boarding school boys completely out of step with the times. As many of us saw it back it then, real music, authentic music, was the blue-collar stuff we were hearing from Seattle bands such as Nirvana, who had triumphantly closed the Reading Festival a couple of weeks prior. Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke came from different planets. Cobain had been a homeless junkie who lived under a bridge in Aberdeen, Washington, whereas it seemed that the worst thing that had ever happened to Yorke was a bad experience with the bleach bottle in the hairdressing salon.
           It wasn’t until I heard “Creep” again a couple of months later on the BBC that I knew it was going to be a very meaningful song in my life. The DJ said something about it being the “radio edit,” so I went out and bought the single, closed the curtains of my university digs, and listened to it on my Grundig hi-fi. The song begins with Yorke’s whispered vocals:

When you were here before
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fucking special

And it’s at this point that Johnny Greenwood hits us with a wall of noise from two open fret chords on his distorted electric guitar. The effect is jarring and disconcerting, no matter how many times you hear it. As you’re still recovering, Yorke’s scaldingly existential chorus cuts to the quick of all your teenage/twenty-something/middle-aged angst:

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

Is this a universal feeling? Almost certainly. One of Mark Twain’s best jokes was to send a telegram to a dozen of his friends that said: “Flee at once. All is discovered.” And of course, as Twain says, they did. When Steve Jobs passed away, the headline in The Onion was the apt: “Last Man in America to Know What the Fuck He Was Doing, Dies.” In 1978 Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “imposter phenomenon” in a paper in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice to describe women in graduate school or white-collar professions who felt as though they were frauds. Healthy majorities of women in every field felt this way, and subsequent studies found virtually the same feeling among American men.
            When “Creep” was released as a single in the U.S., it peaked at number two on the Alternative Modern Rock chart, and the video went into heavy rotation on MTV. The subsequent Radiohead album Pablo Honey was something of a commercial flop in both the U.S. and U.K., and Radiohead’s reputation was not cemented until their two ground-breaking mid-nineties albums The Bends and OK Computer, both of which went multi-platinum. Radiohead became famous for their intellectual, introspective sound and Yorke’s plaintive, wailing vocals.
            When I went to see Radiohead at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre in the summer of 2001, Rolling Stone was calling them “the biggest band in the world” and the NME declared they were “the world’s most important band.” Radiohead’s music was being discussed in serious newspapers and by critics in highbrow venues such as The New Yorker. One thing missing from all this was “Creep.” Somewhere around 1996, Thom Yorke grew sick of the song and so it vanished from Radiohead’s set lists. Despite the pleas from crowds, Radiohead stopped playing “Creep” completely, although occasionally Yorke would tease the audience by humming a bar or two before launching into something else. At the 2001 Red Rocks concert, Radiohead gave what was subsequently called one of their greatest gigs, but of course “Creep” was absent, and I wasn’t the only one who nudged through the traffic jam back to Denver feeling a little disappointed.  
            Yorke wrote “Creep” about a girl he used to follow around at Exeter University. He was a funny-looking kid with a skinny, asymmetric face, and the girl was unimpressed by his moody introspection. He channelled his depression into the song, which was first composed as an acoustic solo piece. The melody is not entirely original, and when it was released as a single, credit was shared with Mike Hazelwood and Al Hammond who wrote the Hollies’ song “The Air That I Breathe.” “Creep” was by no means the first song to deal with social panic, but it was perhaps the first hit since Peggy Lee’s 1969 “Is That All There Is?” to wear its existential colors on its sleeve.
            The second verse is even more wrenching than the first:

I don’t care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here

The song ends with the girl, who Yorke had been staring at and stalking throughout, running away from him in fear and disgust:

She’s running out the door
She’s running out
She runs, runs, runs…

Whatever makes you happy
Whatever you want
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong here

The genius of “Creep” is identifying this common anomie. We’ve all been to that place (the Pitts and Clooneys aside), that moment when our object of desire rejects us, often in a public and humiliating manner. We’ve all felt that the game is rigged against us and the world belongs to a club of the rich and powerful, a club we will never be permitted to join. “Creep” is a song for the kid in the corner with his hoodie up, not sporty enough to hang out with the jocks, not geeky enough to fit in with the nerds. That kid grew up and became us.
            Perhaps as Yorke won more accolades and got more praise from hangers on, he grew uncomfortable singing “Creep.” He didn’t feel like a creep anymore, and he felt like a phoney when he sang it. That changed in the late summer of 2001. My wife and I were in London when we heard that Radiohead were performing a special show for their hometown crowd at South Park in Oxford. Like thousands of ticketless others we took the train there, climbed over the inadequate temporary security fencing and watched the concert in the light English drizzle.
            It was perhaps because of this rain that during a second encore there was an equipment failure and Radiohead were unable to play the song from the album Kid A which they had rehearsed. Yorke turned to Johnnie Greenwood and asked, “Es ist kaput, yah?” Without waiting for a response, he launched into “Creep,” to the amazement and delight of the crowd.
            Steven Dalton of the NME described what happened next: “Everybody within thirty miles of Oxford sings along, soaked to the bone, bonding in the Biblical downpour that even Thom Yorke was powerless to prevent because Radiohead are not gods; but for these two hours, at least, they were godlike.” Since then the song has rotated in and out of Radiohead set lists but it is always a crowd favourite and it always will be. Solace for an alienated teenager picked on at school, solace for a middle-aged man passed over for promotion, solace for someone stood up on a date.
           African-American musical heritage is so rich that a band like Radiohead seems unnecessary for black American males. It was with wry amusement that Patrice O’Neal would watch his white friends freeze and get very quiet when “Creep” came on the radio. For comedic purposes, he pretended not to know why, but like all good observers of the human condition, he knew that there was no real mystery about it: Everyone gets quiet when they’re playing your song.