Friday, December 15, 2017

Best of the Year

I'm very pleased to say that Police At The Station And They Don't Look Friendly has been named one of the best books of 2017 by The Boston Globe. That's the third year in a row I've made the Boston Globe's best of the year list and the third year in a row I've made the wonderful Irish Times's best of the year list. So a huge thank you from me to the Globe and the Irish Times...
The Globe's taste is impeccable and you'll see a few of my friends on their list too, if you click the link. Thank you guys, no wonder they made a movie about you and gave you the Pulitzer. You catch stories and trends that, ahem, other papers seem to miss... 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Books of the Year

some of my favourites in various categories in what proved to be a great reading year for me...

History Book of the Year
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue - John McWhorter
Our greatest contemporary linguist explains how English kicked off.

Music Criticism Book of the Year
Listen to This - Alex Ross
A collection of Ross's pieces from the New Yorker.

Memoir of the Year
Hunger - Roxane Gay
Gay's honest unflinching look at her life, trauma, sexuality and her issues with food.

Geography Book of the Year
Landmarks - Robert Macfarlane
A meditation on places and the language we use to describe them.

Psychogeography Book of the Year
London Overground - Iain Sinclair
More gorgeous prose from professional flaneur Iain Sinclair as he walks around London, again.

Crime Novel of the Year
The Force - Don Winslow
Winslow reinvents the NY dirty cop novel for our times.

Australian Crime Novel of the Year
The Dry - Jane Harper
A federal Melbourne cop investigates a murder in his home town during fire season.

Philosophy Book of the Year
Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea And the Deep Origins of Consciousness - Peter Godfrey
A professional philosopher dons a wetsuit and explores octopus intelligence.

Biography of the Year
Sticky Fingers - The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stones Magazine - Joe Hagan
A gossipy, damning all access biography of Wenner written in a superior style.

Novel That Made Me Cry On A Plane Book of the Year
A Man Called Ove - Frederik Bachman
I don't even want to talk about it.

Comedy Novel of the Year
The Forensic Record Society - Magnus Mills
Blokes meet up in a pub in north London to listen to records. Nothing much happens. Genius.

Poetic War Memoir of the Year
My Life as a Foreign Country - Brian Turner
Turner's poetic memoir of his tour as an army Staff Sergeant during the invasion of Iraq.

Science Fiction Novel of the Year
Fear The Sky - Stephen Moss
An alien conspiracy to take over the Earth.

Literary Novel of the Year
Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders
Abe Lincoln's dead son wanders through purgatory.

Reread of the Year
The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach
One of my favourite baseball novels of all time now.

Audiobook Reread of the Year
The Wine Dark Sea - Patrick O'Brian narrated by Patrick Tull
My fourth time listening to this one.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kafka's Old Office

my piece in last week's LitHub...
At the beginning of November I found myself in Prague with enough loyalty points at the Accor Chain to get myself a room in a fancy hotel way out of my usual league. There was one particular room in one particular hotel that I had been eyeing for years and much to my amazement I found that it was available.
The hotel was the Sofitel Century Old Town and the room was the Franz Kafka Suite. The Century Old Town occupied the former Austro-Hungarian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute and a second floor office of this building was the place where Kafka had toiled as a lawyer from 1908 - 1922. This office and the room behind it had been converted into the Kafka Suite.
Kafka’s childhood home was long gone but for Kafka fans like me it was incredibly thrilling that for enough cash or Accor Reward Points you could spend the night in his old office.
I checked into the Century Old Town at two o’clock on a brisk November Tuesday in Prague to find that the room was not quite ready. Housekeeping was doing a quick final vacuuming I was told and I was given a voucher for a free beer at the bar which suited me just fine.
When the room was all set I walked up the wide, restored nineteenth century stair-case and found myself outside the Franz Kafka Suite where a little plaque confirmed me that this was indeed Kafka’s actual place of work. I put the key card in and opened the door.
The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and rather like – I fancied –Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.
“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.
I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.
After a bit more fumbling I discovered the fuse box and although everything was in Czech it was pretty obvious which circuit had been blown by the vacuum cleaner. I flipped the switch and hey presto the lights came back on.
Out of the hallway I discovered that the Kafka Suite was gorgeous. The back room contained a generously proportioned bed, a huge bath, a luxurious shower and dual washbasins. But the front of the suite was definitely where the action was. The front room was an enormous light filled chamber with a sofa, a dining table and a writing desk that looked out onto the street.
This had been Kafka’s actual writing office. He had mostly prepared legal briefs here (the book to read on this is Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold) but you could imagine him working on short stories and letters in his lunch break or doodling away at ideas in the margins of his jotter.
The room was minimalist and contemporary, painted a bright umber with a portrait of Kafka himself lying against the wall in one corner. There was a bookcase containing mostly French hardbacks by second tier novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, but there were also a few modern paperbacks as well presumably left there by previous guests. I had no qualms at all about leaving a copy of my novel Rain Dogs on a high shelf where hopefully it will remain unnoticed for years.
I unpacked, showered and then made a beeline for the writing desk. I had been to Prague as a student backpacker years ago so I wasn’t that interested in sight-seeing, rather, I had come here to work.
The theory of literary osmosis is dubious at best but for a writer it is hard to resist the lure of attempting to compose something in the place where great literary icons did their thing.
 I have tried this game before and it hasn’t exactly worked out. In the old British Museum Reading Room I found what was allegedly Karl Marx’s seat while I was studying philosophy at University College London. The Marxian seat didn’t help me at all with my essays which were uninspired and generally terrible. A couple of years later at Oxford I frequented the Eagle and Child pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to read and write. The epic fantasy novel I began there mercifully disappeared into a crashed hard drive never to be retrieved. 
A few years after that in Paris I toiled as a plongeur during the day while spending my evenings at the Deux Magots café. I was trying to emulate Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir’s philosophizing while drinking enormous bowls of coffee and attempting to smoke Gitanes; but all I got from that experience was a massive jittery headache and a hacking cough.  
My most notorious attempt at literary osmosis was in the piano bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana in 2008. For most of that year I’d had writer’s block and with a deadline looming I took the drastic step of flying to Havana via Mexico City so I could work in the place where Hemingway supposedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Maybe I too could write my magnum opus here I thought and initially things went quite well. I got a notepad and paper and the ideas flowed. Half a dozen mojitos later I was writing gibberish and after a couple more cuba libres and mojitos I was attempting to push the deft piano player off his stool so that I could give the well heeled clientele my version of All The Little Puffer Trains Down By The Station.
I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I was going to write at Kafka’s desk (sort of) in Kafka’s office over looking the bustling Na Porici Street.
The Kafka Suite had generously provided its visitors with paper, pens and a rather nice mechanical pencil.
I took out the pencil and a sheet of paper and stared at the blank page for a long, long time.
Then I did a little Kafka portrait in the corner of the page, then another little doodle of a cockroach. I did a pretty good drawing of myself scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Then I went to the book shelf and tried to read Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne for a bit but found it pretty hard to get into.
Back to the dreaded blank page. I wrote a couple of opening lines and crossed them out and got a fresh sheet of paper and stared at that for a while.
I looked through the window at the building opposite. This must have been Franz’s view when he was writing those bloody insurance reports. It was an attractive building and on the third floor there was a large, peculiar sheep bas relief highlighted in gold paint. If it was there back then Kafka must have stared at that sheep for hundreds of hours. He did in fact write one short story about a sheep: ‘A Crossbreed’ which is a story about an animal that is half-cat, half-sheep with odd eating habits and dietary restrictions. It’s not his best work if I’m honest.
The sheep did not inspire me. I wrote a spoof Raymond Chandler short story once set in Ireland called The Big Sheep. It wasn't a great story and The Big Sheep Part 2 didn’t seem like a very good idea.
Unlike a lot of fancy hotel rooms in the Kafka Suite it is possible to open the window and let the city smells and street noise come pouring in. I pulled a chair close to the window ledge and watched the trams, cars and tourists go by for a while. There were more tourists and cars than the Prague of a hundred years ago but I imagine the citizenry riding the #26 tram was much the same.
It began to get dark. I noticed a beer cellar across the street called La Republica. I found my laptop and Googled it and discovered that it served liter steins of Czech beer and pre war staples of Czech cuisine such as pork ribs, schnitzel and pretzels.
“Maybe I’ll just go over and have one stein and a pretzel and then I’ll come back and do some serious work,” I thought.
Unfortunately that decision put an end to the possibility of the McKinty Magnum Opus getting started in Kafka’s office, for La Republica was a very amenable beer cellar indeed. It was full of Irish people, one of whom, as is the way of such things, knew my sister.
I had a very good night with a bunch of new friends. The bar wasn’t that far away from the salon where Kafka, Max Brod and Albert Einstein used to hang out, booze and chat, so I think they would have approved. When I got back to the Kafka Suite I was in no fit state to write anything at all.
But eventually the room did stop spinning which was nice and I settled down in the enormous, ridiculously comfortable bed.

After a night of peculiar dreams I woke up next morning transformed into a middle aged bibliophile who had written nothing at all in Kafka’s room but who was maybe finally over his literary osmosis addiction and was sort of ok with that.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

John Banville's Mrs Osmond

my review of the new John Banville novel from yesterday's Weekend Australian...
...not a whole heartedly ringing endorsement I am sorry to say...
Mrs Osmond by John Banville

When a writer turns to pastiche in the later stages of his career he is either paying a compliment to the muse that inspired him throughout the difficult times or else the poor soul has run completely out of ideas. What to make then of John Banville’s Mrs Osmond which is the second pastiche he has published in the last two and a half years? Banville’s previous effort, The Black-Eyed Blonde, was a journeyman-like sequel to the Raymond Chandler novel The Long Good-bye that although lacking Chandler’s gift for simile, did echo Chandler’s skill for characterization and occasional seat-of-your-pants plotting.  
            Mrs Osmond is a sequel to Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady, a novel Banville has proclaimed in interviews to be the greatest example of the form in the English language.
            Portrait famously ends with the beautiful and brilliant Isabel Osmond (née Archer) realising that the spiteful Gilbert Osmond has married her for her money and that his long term mistress is Madame Merle. Isabel quits Rome after visiting Pansy, Osmond’s daughter, to comfort the dying Ralph Touchett in England, where she remains until his death. An unpleasant encounter with Caspar Goodwood forces her to flee again back to Rome. The reader is left in a delicious state of unknowing, pondering whether Isabel is returning to Osmond to live heroically for Pansy's sake or whether she is going to somehow rescue Pansy and leave Osmond.
            John Banville steps into the breach to tell us what he thinks happens next. We don’t, of course, immediately get the satisfying confrontation with Isabel’s dirtbag scrub of a husband Gilbert Osmond. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait, Wilkie Collins observed and Banville first gives us something of a Bradshaw’s railway tour of fin de siècle Europe through France and Switzerland where Isabel meets various characters we encountered in the original. We meet again the charming Hildy Johnson prototype, Henrietta Stackpole, with her crazy ideas about freedom for women. The villainous Madame Merle shows up and the two Osmond women circle one another like sabre wielding duellists looking for an opening. We rendezvous with the terribly nice Edward Rosier, who pursued Pansy’s hand in marriage but who was turned down by her snobbish father. Isabel seeks out her sister-in-law, Countess Gemini who, in Portrait, revealed all about her brother, and we get another run in with the delightfully batty Mrs Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, who saved her from a life of genteel dullness in Massachusetts.
            Banville does a nice job building upon and enhancing these characters although the conversations don’t do a whole lot to forward the story. Banville has garnered much praise for imitating the prose, syntax  and page length paragraphs of Henry James. His homaging skills are indeed impressive and I doubt whether even a James scholar could tell the difference between a Banville description of a French railway carriage and the actual article.
            The dialogue is a little harder to swallow, for Banville often attempts a facsimile of Henry James’s ill judged attempts at wit. James’s genius clearly did not run to banter, although his admirers urge us to overlook this defect by explaining that humour does not age well. This defence is unconvincing as Portrait shares a decade with Oscar Wilde’s first plays, peak Mark Twain and Jerome K Jerome – all of whom remain laugh out loud funny. A Portrait of a Lady becomes a great novel once the gears have begun to turn and James stops malleting us with the stale jokes and ghastly repartee of its initial chapters. When Banville tries to replicate James’s jocularity the results are almost unbearably tedious.
            The wheels of Banville’s novel inevitably turn towards a revenge plot that many readers will find satisfactory. I was a little bit unconvinced by all of this and found the set to with Gilbert as anti climactic as the Bride’s meeting with Bill at the end of Kill Bill – a touchstone I’m not sure Banville or James would wholly approve of. However, this brings me to the larger point: the ending of A Portrait of a Lady was perfect as it was and when I finished Mrs Osmond I was left wondering why Banville had done all of this.
            The popular parody Twitter account @John_Banville imagines Banville, Colm Toibin and Roddy Doyle spitting at one another in a state of perpetual feud. After Colm Toibin published his best selling biographical Henry James novel, The Master, the @John_Banville account erupted in a jealous rage, claiming he could do better and sell more. The actual John Banville, I’m sure, had more lofty goals in mind but artistically Mrs Osmond doesn’t come close to The Master’s concentrated brilliance, psychological penetration or deep emotional resonance.
            Mrs Osmond however is not a total waste of everyone’s time. Banville is a professional and nothing in this book will unduly disturb a Henry James completest. Fans of the novel and the Nicole Kidman film might well enjoy this as a harmless entertainment. Mrs Osmond is competent, safe and reliably dull. I am with Gunter Grass here, it may be an arid book, but it is a book nonetheless and therefore sacred.
           The real psychic toll of Mrs Osmond will not be on the reader but will be on the author. As a Booker Prize Winner and perpetual longlistee for the Nobel Prize (another subject the @John_Banville parody account hilariously mocks) John Banville can petty much publish anything he wants now. We can only hope that something exciting happens to him in real life or else, no doubt, a disheveled, rosy-cheeked Molly Bloom shall arise from her linen sheets and be coming soon to a bookshop near you in a quality hardback edition. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

One Football Team For Ireland?

Both Irelands exit from the World Cup qualifiers has prompted me to repost this from a while back. 
Republic of Ireland is out of the World Cup again and Northern Ireland has not played in a World Cup since Mexico in 1986 when they were eliminated in the first round. The recent success of Iceland aside I think it will be very hard for either North or South to qualify again. In the 1980's the Iron Curtain was still intact, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union only fielded one team each and Northern Ireland could usually secure a second or third seed in the group competition. The standard of play and the number of countries has increased in Eastern Europe since and typically Northern Ireland now gets a third or fourth seed with virtually no hope of making it to the World Cup finals against superior opposition. Northern Irish fans have coasted on memories of the 1982 World Cup when we came within a whisker of making it to the semis, but those glory days were more than a generation past and the current squad wd need to get very lucky to qualify now. The situation in the Republic of Ireland is better. Since their nadir in the 1980's the Republic has been to three World Cups: 1990, 1994 and 2002. Both Irelands qualified for the last European Championship but the World Cup Finals now seem like a bridge too far for both of them.
It wasn’t Northern Ireland’s fault that football - unlike rugby - became split in Ireland. Dublin was the centre for Gaelic Games on the island and Belfast was traditionally the centre for football. The Irish Football Association was (and still is) based in Belfast but during the partition, a rival federation, the FAI, was established in Dublin in 1921. It was nationalists in Dublin who divided football on the island of Ireland, not unionists in the North. Confusion reigned for the next thirty years with dozens of players getting called up by both Ireland federations until, in the 1950's, Con Martin, Davy Walsh, Tommy Ahern and Reg Ryan had the odd distinction of playing for the IFA and FAI teams in World Cup qualifiers. FIFA put a stop to this by ordering a renaming of the Irish teams and a strict division of players: footballers born in Eire would play for the Republic of Ireland, those born in the north, Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland still managed to punch above its weight, qualifying for the 1958 World Cup and then producing such stars as George Best, Pat Jennings, Sammy McIroy and Danny Blanchflower, before the heroics of the Espana ‘82 campaign. Northern Ireland fans are a small but dedicated bunch and I have been to many memorable home games at Windsor Park. The defeats of England and Germany come to mind and truly anything can happen there in that tiny, intimidating ground in the heart of west Belfast. But now that the team has been eliminated from its eighth World Cup in a row it is time to face facts, an all Ireland team is our best hope of ever getting to the Cup again and over the long term an all Ireland team might do quite well, especially if it began to draw players from all of Ireland’s football codes. Ireland north and south has a population of nearly 6 1/2 million people which is much bigger than Scotland or Wales and bigger even that Denmark, Finland and Norway who are pretty successful footballing nations.
The all Ireland rugby team is currently ranked fourth in the world and an all Ireland football team would surely rise in the FIFA rankings. There are of course many problems with this scheme. Firstly, the IFA would be furious at the loss of money and prestige if home games moved to the Aviva stadium in Dublin. Secondly, football is not rugby, rugby in Ireland is a middle class game that no one, deep down, really gets too serious about whereas football is important and comes with a heavy sectarian baggage that rugby does not possess. I concede these points, but one way to win over hearts and minds in Belfast would be to play half the home games there. Loyalist and Republican paraphernalia and flags could be banned completely as they are for Belfast Giants games and then you might even see some Catholic supporters or families with children, rarities both in Windsor Park. Sectarianism is not the universal acid it once was in Belfast and it shouldn’t be forgot that Glasgow is a city divided between Rangers and Celtic supporters who come together to boo England at Hampden Park.
Another difficulty is that many Northern Ireland players would fight to qualify for an all Ireland team; perhaps none of the current team would be good enough. But competition is ultimately a good thing, you want footballers playing their hearts out to get selected for the national team, not just assuming they’ve made it because they’re on a big club in the EPL. The Irish rugby team grants no favors to players because they are from Ulster or any of the other provinces and that has made the team stronger. Of course the diehard sectarian nutcase ‘supporters’ will never buy into this plan, but the whole point of the peace process in Northern Ireland is to build cross community bridges and displace sectarianism whenever possible. Money, patience and trust, but especially money from FIFA, UEFA and the British and Irish governments could grease a lot of wheels and make it happen. It’s already too late to get the ball rolling for Qatar 2022 but that's a bullshit corrupt world cup anyway. 2026 in North America seems like a better bet. I know some people will say, hold on a minute, it's not just about winning it's about playing the game, old chap. Yeah, pal, that may apply to some sports but not to football.
Of course none of this is likely ever to happen. FIFA, the FAI, the IFA all guard their fiefdoms jealously and most of the fans lack the imagination to see that this wd actually be a good thing in the long run. I think it wd work and be good and maybe in a parallel universe it will happen, not this one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Liam McIlvanney on Rain Dogs and Sean Duffy

as part of the Irish Times book club pick last month, the IT asked a whole bunch of writers and academics to write pieces about the Duffy series, particularly Rain Dogs. We got lovely articles from Ian Rankin, Diana Gabaldon, Val McDermid, Brian McGilloway and Brian Cliff but the one I wanted to highlight here was one from Burns scholar and Professor of Irish and Scottish Studies at Otago University, Liam McIlvanney. I think Prof McIlvanney (son of the inventor of Tartan Noir William McIlvanney and a superb noir novelist in his own right) just somehow hits the nail on the head... Judge for yourself.... 

‘I’m not a great detective,’ DI Sean Duffy says at one point in Rain Dogs: ‘maybe I’m not even a good detective, but I am bloody persistent’. As a writer, Adrian McKinty has been bloody persistent – he has seventeen books to his name – but he has also been very, very good. It has taken some time, but the rest of the world is finally getting wise to what many of us have long understood: Adrian McKinty is one of the most intelligent, daring and stylish crime writers currently at work today.
His breakthrough books have been the Sean Duffy thrillers. Set during the Troubles, the Duffy series could be construed as historical fiction. Certainly, McKinty has a deft touch with period detail and there are walk-on parts for big-name historical figures – both Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Savile have cameos in Rain Dogs. But the books don't feel like historical novels. They’re far too urgent and too topical. In Rain Dogs, powerful men abuse the vulnerable with the connivance of shifty underlings. This is Savile and the seventies, but it’s also Weinstein and now. It’s as if McKinty has found in Troubles Belfast an artful optic on the compromises and corruptions of today turning a historical lens on our own times to. 
The character of Duffy – droll, dissident, driven – anchors the series, but equally vivid is the treatment of place. Belfast and Carrickfergus are like Duffy’s on-off lovers. Coronation Road, the murderous rain, the rusting hulks of the giant cranes: he loves it all and he hates it too. The poetry of the streets is everywhere in McKinty. You can hear Ciaran Carson as well as Raymond Chandler in McKinty’s setting of scene: ‘Clouds over the Knockagh monument. A storm over the condemned city of Belfast’. But McKinty doesn’t get carried away: he never lets you forget that beneath the spurious troublespot glamour lies an impenetrable bedrock of provincial ennui. 
As a Scot, I particularly relish the Caledonian dimension to McKinty’s work. County Antrim may be the only place on the planet where you can see whole swathes of Scotland from the outside, and ‘the blue line of Scotland’ looms large in the Duffy books (as it does in that earlier Troubles masterpiece, Maurice Leitch’s Silver’s City). Mr Underhill, the begrudging caretaker in Rain Dogs, with his ‘defensive John Laurie cadence’, is perhaps McKinty’s most finely realized Scot, and his Lallans dialect – ‘I soon kenned that she was deed. So I went in and called the poliss’ – is pitch perfect. Even the Antrim locals in McKinty’s novels speak ‘a form of lowland Scots straight out of Robert Burns’, and words like ‘sheugh’, ‘wean’ and ‘wraith’ give the prose its colloquial pep. 
It was Raymond Chandler who held that ‘the most durable thing in writing is style’. If that’s true, then expect McKinty’s novels to last. He writes an insouciant vernacular prose that can somehow absorb words like ‘lepidopterously’ without breaking stride. Too much crime fiction is written in a frictionless, disposable style. McKinty doesn't do disposable, but he does almost everything else.
He can do staccato itemizing à la James Ellroy: ‘Light off. Close my eyes. Sleep. Dream.’ He can give you spare, starkly Carveresque action: ‘I aimed the Glock at his heart and pulled the trigger’. But he can also take off into lyrical flights that are beyond the scope of most of his contemporaries: ‘The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystic parabolas’. Descriptive riffs of this quality are strewn throughout McKinty’s fiction, and it’s these that finally set him apart. His prose style is vital, vigorous and – as that other Carrickfergus boy, Louis MacNeice, would have it – ‘incorrigibly plural’. If you're not reading him already, do yourself a favour: start now.

Liam McIlvanney

Thursday, November 9, 2017

How To Make A Cup Of Tea

A few years ago the Guardian stepped into the great "how to make a cup of tea" debate with its scientific "proof" that you must put the milk into the cup first and then the tea (which is hopefully after the tea leaves have been brewed in a tea pot). The comment thread under that article is a fascinating poke into the dark recesses of the British mind... 
There are many many blogs and websites relating to tea and tea making out there but if you want one of the first and best articles I think you have to go back George Orwell's famous "A Nice Cup Of Tea", which can be read here, and was originally published in the Evening Standard in 1946. I'm not going to rehash Orwell here as you should just jolly well click the link and read the piece for yourself. It's very fun reading and basically sound advice if you want to make tea the old fashioned way. Christopher Hitchens attempts (not entirely successfully) to update Orwell's tea making instructions, here, but at least Hitchens admits to the existence of something called a tea bag. The Guardian commenters and tea purists would rather see their sons and daughters run off to join a cult than use a tea bag, but I am comfortable with the tea bag and use it myself much of the time. I agree with Hitchens however that tea bags should NEVER be left in a cup of tea and when I watch the Big Bang Theory etc. I find myself utterly aghast when characters walk around the set with tea bag rat tails dangling down the side of their mugs. The tea is stewing that whole time getting more and more tannic and unpleasant. Get the tea bag out of the mug as quickly as possible is my advice. 
I make the best cup of tea in our house. My tea is a comforting brew that can be given to sniffly children or confused Jehovahs Witnesses* or people who have just had a road accident. Its not a purists tea. Its milky, often made with a tea bag (although sometimes leaves) and it often contains SUGAR. Yes that's right, I said it. I sometimes put sugar in my tea. Orwell disagrees, the Guardian disagrees, Hitchens disagrees but when the mood strikes I like sugar in my bloody tea. Tea with sugar was the drink that built and lost the British Empire. Tea with milk and sugar was the drink they drank while breaking the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, that the pilots drank in the Battle of Britain, etc. 
Anyway, this is how I make tea. Like I say if you're a purist or some kind of tea nut STOP READING NOW. 
1. Boil kettle. 
2. While kettle is boiling, add milk and either Ceylon Orange Pekoe tea leaves (in a tea infusion ball) or a strong tea bag (Twinings Assam Bold is a good one) to the mug. Let the tea and the milk mingle. No one, and I mean no one, ever does this but I do and I explain why below. 
3. Add the boiling water to the milk. (In my opinion boiling water scalds the tea and ruins it but if you add the hot water to the milk it suffuses through the tea bag or the softened tea leaves and gives you a very gentle, pleasing drink.)
4. Remove the tea bag after about 45 seconds. 
5. Add sugar to taste. I prefer one tea spoon. 
6. Stir. And there we go: a mellow, comforting, delicious beverage....
*The Jehovahs Witnesses are always confused because I always invite them in and offer them tea (everyone else on the street is always rude to them but they're not all trying to dodge doing any writing...)

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Boys Are Back In Town

I'll be doing TWO events at the Noireland festival in Belfast on Saturday, October 28th. Both of these events are taking place at the Europa Hotel on Great Victoria Street. The first event is at 11.30 - 12.30 where I will be participating on a panel on Identities...
Secondly (and this isn't on the festival programme because it's an event sponsored by the Irish Times) I'll be recording the Irish Times Book Club podcast at 1.00 pm with the Irish Times books editor, Martin Doyle also in the Europa Hotel. I believe this is a free event. So don't miss out! 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Val McDermid on McKinty and Rain Dogs

the great Val McDermid was kind enough to write an article about me and my novel Rain Dogs for the Irish Times Book Club. With permission here it is below
In the 1980s, for most people living in Britain, Northern Ireland was, to quote Neville Chamberlain, “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. But although the consequences were less catastrophic than Chamberlain’s attempts at appeasement, consequences there were for the citizenry on both sides of the Irish Sea who chose not to engage with that quarrel.
The only way to avoid history repeating itself is to make an effort to understand it. Some of that understanding comes from historians and political analysts. But by far the most effective route to getting under the skin of the past comes from the people who make it up – the novelists, the film-makers, the TV scriptwriters and even the poets.
If you doubt me, then pick up any of the Sean Duffy novels by Adrian McKinty. Duffy is a cop, but he’s a million light years away from the slab-faced monoliths who regularly spoke for the RUC during the Troubles. Duffy’s an iconoclast. A dope-smoking, music-loving, sarcastic smartarse who nevertheless can’t escape a deep-rooted commitment to the place he loves. He’s a contrarian – a Catholic RUC man who lives in the heart of the loyalist community – and that’s the ultimate key to his personality.
In Duffy, McKinty has created the perfect character to explore the fragmented, savage and often contradictory world of law enforcement in Northern Ireland, a world where the worst crimes are sometimes perpetrated by those charged with protecting their communities.

Mordant excursions

In Rain Dogs, the fifth in the series, Duffy lifts this to a new level with mordant excursions into the wider world. The book opens with a glorious set piece, a fictitious Belfast visit by Muhammad Ali, leaping “lepidopterously” on stage to sting like a bee. “He had shadow-boxed, he had waved, he had lied and told them their city was aesthetically pleasing. He could have run for Mayor on a Nation of Islam ticket and won on a first-round voice vote of the council.”
And this in spite of support from Bono, protests from the National Front and Ian Paisley’s “elderly band of evangelical parishioners, singing their discontent in… determinedly joyless psalmody”. This is a writer delighting in his linguistic facility; not showing off, but sharing it with the rest of us.
That brio never leaves Rain Dogs, even when despair and disaster visit Duffy. And there are plenty of those dotted through a novel whose murder mystery is only one segment of a disturbing journey through the dark duplicities of spider-web conspiracies. There’s an audacity to McKinty’s imagination that makes the reader draw breath sharply.
But he never relinquishes his hold on the understanding that wit and sharp observation is what keeps us reading long after we should have turned out the light. Duffy’s perversity, his sarcasm and his self-deprecation are what anchor us to these books. As well as the deft plotting, of course. Here, a stolen wallet, a Finnish trade delegation and a locked room murder cleverly lead us to the rotten core of a deeper conspiracy.
And that’s how the lessons of history seep seamlessly into our consciousness. If you want to understand where we are in 2017, read Rain Dogs. Better still, read all the Sean Duffy novels.

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty is October’s Irish Times Book Club pick. Ian Rankin and Brian McGilloway will be contributing articles about McKinty throughout the month, along with an essay by a serving Catholic PSNI officer, which will be published anonymously as his life is still under threat from dissident paramilitaries. The series will culminate in a public interview with McKinty conducted by Irish Times Books Editor Martin Doyle in Belfast’s Europa Hotel (Europe’s most bombed etc) on Saturday, October 28th, at 1pm as part of the inaugural NOIRELAND International Crime Fiction Festival, which runs from October 27th-29th. The podcast of the interview will be available on October 30th.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Blade Runner 2049's Literary Background

A short video I made looking at the literary background to the new film Blade Runner 2049. (Mild spoilers.)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Irish Times Book Club And Rain Dogs

the essay I wrote for the Irish Times on how and why I began the Sean Duffy series and a brief intro to my novel Rain Dogs which is the Irish Times's book club pick for the month of October:
It was July 2011 and I was facing something of a crisis. I had missed the deadline for my new novel by six months and I still had no book. I’d been writing thrillers and mystery novels at a pace of a book a year for the previous eight years and now the well had run completely dry. I’d been teaching during the day and at night staring at a blank computer screen with bleary eyes.
            Half a year of worsening writers block and no pages at all.
            And then one morning very late or very early I wrote: “The riot had taken on a beauty of its own now. Arcs of gasoline fire under the crescent moon. Crimson tracer in mystical parabolas. Phosphorescence from the barrels of plastic bullet guns. A distant yelling like that of men below decks in a torpedoed prison ship. The scarlet whoosh of Molotovs. Helicopters everywhere: their spotlights finding one another like lovers in the Afterlife.”
            When I woke up the next day I read the paragraph and liked it but I was immediately alarmed because I knew that this passage had taken place in Belfast. When my first novel had come out in 2003 it had been well reviewed and I’d been called in to pitch a TV show to the BBC. I’d offered them a Sweeney/Starsky and Hutch style crime drama set in Belfast during the 70’s and had been told in no uncertain terms that this would not fly. A wise old owl at the Beeb advised me to avoid Northern Ireland as a subject matter at all costs because “nobody in Ireland wanted to think about The Troubles ever again, no one in England wanted to think about Northern Ireland ever again and the Americans still thought of Ireland in terms of The Quiet Man and wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about.”
            In 2003 the Irish crime fiction scene was on life support with maybe a dozen titles per year. I saw that the Wise Old Owl was right. So, for the next eight years, I’d written about pretty much everywhere I’d ever been to in my life except Belfast.
            Until now. Not only was this 2 a.m. paragraph Belfast but it was Belfast in 1981 right after Bobby Sands’s death in the dark heart of The Troubles. I called the book The Cold Cold Ground and assumed my publishers weren’t going to be too happy with a Troubles era novel – but when everybody’s telling you not to write about a certain subject it’s almost certainly the subject you should be writing about. I sent the synopsis to my US publishers who promptly turned it down but fortunately my UK publishers said yes.
            I grew up alienated from literary fiction which I saw as a genre for and about upper middle class people, consequently I’ve always wanted to use crime fiction as a vector for making art; in Cold Cold Ground I tried to do exactly that as well as discussing a lot of interesting themes, particularly race, religion, gender and sexuality. I set the book in the terrace where I was literally born and raised, in a working class housing estate in Carrickfergus. I wanted a protagonist that would generate a lot of friction and fracture lines with the people of that street so I made him Catholic, a policeman, Bohemian, middle-class and I gave him a Derry accent.
            When the novel came out it not only got the best reviews of my career but it actually sold, which was a complete novelty. I’d always been well reviewed but no one had actually gone out and bought the bloody books. I think readers can sniff out authenticity. Before I’d been making stuff up but now I was telling the truth. Not what Werner Herzog calls the truth of accountants, but artistic and emotional truth. Thirty years had passed and people were ready to hear about had really happened during Belfast’s thirty year suicide attempt from 1968-1998.
            I thought The Cold Cold Ground was going to be only book I’d ever do on The Troubles so in the end I tried to say too much and I forgot things. I remembered the bombings and murder and racism and homophobia but I forgot that in the midst of tragedy Belfast has always used jet black humour as its coping mechanism.  
            In the subsequent books in what became the Sean Duffy series I managed to wrangle the tone closer to the way it actually was back then. Chiaroscuro works because the darkness and light are in balance.
             Rain Dogs begins in the winter of 1987. A young woman is found dead in Carrickfergus Castle just outside of Belfast. The woman is a reporter for the Financial Times who was allegedly depressed and suicidal. Rain Dogs starts as a conventional locked room mystery, becomes an almost meta reflection on locked room mysteries in general, detours to Finland and the “abortion special” overnight ferry to Liverpool before bringing it back to Belfast again.
            Two men I met in real life – Jimmy Savile and Muhammad Ali – are catalysts for the book and both of them make an appearance in the novel. 
            Rain Dogs is the fifth book in the Sean Duffy series and by this stage I understand the characters well enough to let them tell their story through me. Duffy still lives in the house where I was born (113 Coronation Road, Carrickfergus) and he is still a man out of joint with his neighbours, 80’s music, Thatcher, Reagan, the RUC, the Provos and the whole scene. The book won the Edgar Award which was a completely unexpected international breakthrough.
            There is one more Sean Duffy novel after Rain Dogs, the economically titled Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly, but Rain Dogs works as a standalone and it ends on the kind of rickety transition that I love to see in novels and music. Happiness for Sean is out there, as it is for all of us, fleeting and frail, just a little snowdrop of light, but definitely there, burrowing out of the dark earth where it’s been hiding all along.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My 12 Favourite Film Noirs

"40's style with added robot"
a post from last year
The Blu Ray 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. One man 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. (I feel that Robert Altman's superb version of The Long Goodbye also from 1973 (and also filmed in LA) is marred a bit by its satisfying ending.) 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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Max Tegmark's Multiverses

Max Tegmark
one of my favourite posts from two years ago...
Our Mathematical Universe by physicist Max Tegmark is a popular science book in which he unpacks his theory of the level 1,2,3 and 4 multiverses and then in the last third explains his theory of the mathematical universe. I understood the multiverse idea (the first 3 multiverses anyway) but I didn't really get his concept of the mathematical universe (he's either saying that all the laws of physics depend upon fundamental mathematical concepts which isn't very interesting, or he's saying that everything in the universe (suns, planets, you, me, our conscious minds,) is mathematics itself, i.e. we are living in a platonic universe of numbers that only thinks it's a physical universe - this is a very interesting concept indeed but seems completely crazy to me.) I don't have the competence to judge the last third of the book but I do want to talk about the multiverse idea which is fascinating.
The level 1 multiverse is very easy to understand. All Tegmark is saying here is that space is infinite and beyond the visible light boundary of our universe there must be other shit out there. Indeed there must be entire universes out there. This is the cool part: since space is infinite and the different way atoms in a universe can assemble themselves is huge, but, crucially, finite, then there must, logically, be universes out there with an exact replica of you reading this and me typing this. Indeed there are an infinite number of universes out there with exact replicas of you and me, and an infinite number of universes where we are slightly different, or you became President or we both swam the Hellespont or I ended up playing rugby for Ireland (I still believe this cd actually happen). Infinity is a very powerful concept and creates some surprising results. Like I say, cool stuff. 
The level 2 multiverse is also easy to comprehend. In the expansion phase of our universe just after the Big Bang a 'baby universe' was formed that became our universe, an infinite number of these formed, some with completely different laws of physics than our own, but sentient entities like you and me could only exist in one like ours, the Goldilocks one where gravity, Plancks constant, the electro-magnetic force etc. balance perfectly. But again because an infinite number of these multiverses formed there are other yous and mes out there in slightly different physical realities.
The level 3 multiverse is a trickier beast to grasp. Tegmark and what he claims are "an increasing number of quantum physicists" are beginning to reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that has been the dominant interpretation of quantum physics since the 1920's. If you remember the infamous "double slit experiment" from high school you'll recall that when an electron is fired through a piece of metal with a double slit in it sometimes the election acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. No understands why this is so and it is deeply mysterious to this day. The Copenhagen interpretation basically says that the electron both goes through one slit and does not go through the same slit at the same time. When the election is "observed" by a conscious entity or by a machine (like a camera) its probability wave collapses and it picks one slit to travel down. This has lead to the Schrodingers Cat paradox wherein a cat is both dead and alive at the same time until it has been "observed" - a thought experiment meant to ridicule the Copenhagen Interpretation itself, which I think it did. One alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the Many Worlds Theory. Here there is no need for dead-alive cats, because when the cat experiment is done 2 worlds are created, one in which the cat is dead and another in which it is alive. When you open the cat's box you don't collapse the cat's probability wave you just find out which universe you are in. Similarly when the quantum double slit experiment is carried out, many worlds are created full of scientists carrying out the same experiment. This, some people say, (smart people like David Deutsch) is how quantum computers work - an infinite number of computers exist in an infinite number of many worlds. I know this sounds crazy but I found this part of Tegmark's book very convincing and I now think that the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics invented by Hugh Everett is more logical than the Copenhagen Interpretation. Which would mean, if Tegmark, Everett, Deutsch etc. are correct, there is an infinite number of yous and mes existing in what is called Hilbert Space who can interact with one another at a quantum level. If you want to interact with another you in Hilbert space you can do so, here. 
The level 4 multiverse is the multiverse of Platonic mathematics that I didn't really understand. You can read Tegmark's short explanation of it on his MIT website here. Like I say, I didn't follow this in the book or on the website.
I would like to offer an an alternate level 4 multiverse that exists temporally rather than physically. Consider Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok's idea that the universe goes through an infinite number of big bangs, expansions, heat deaths, brane collapses and big bangs...(This is not mentioned in Tegmark's book but I just thought I'd throw it in here. If this is true then not only have I typed this sentence before and you've read it before, but we've all done this infinitely many times in the past, which I for one find depressing. (As did Nietzsche when he thought about the similar notion of eternal recurrence.)) Another possible Level 4 or maybe Level 5 multiverse is Nick Bostrom's idea that we are probably all living in a simulated universe anyway, which he proves from 2 assumptions and then a statistical argument. 
Scott Aaronson
If indeed there are an infinite number of multiverses out there it raises some interesting questions. First of all it makes what I call Strong Atheism philosophically untenable. With an infinite number of universes there must, logically, be at least 1 universe in which a universal God spontaneously came into existence. It is impossible to say whether we are living in that universe or not. Its unlikely that we're in the universe with the God in it, but its impossible to rule it out. An atheism which denies the existence of all gods is therefore logically mistaken; however a more tempered form of atheism (Soft Atheism) which merely denies that there is any evidence for the existence of God works just fine. There are other really fun consequences of living in a multiverse that this dude has catalogued here. (Seriously click on that link and it will blow your mind.)
Max Tegmark's book really gave me food for thought. I didn't get all of it, but I enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it for any of you who have ever, Douglas Adams fashion, wondered about the big questions of life, the universe and everything. It got good reviews in the Guardian and The New York Times among many other papers. The best take down I've read of Tegmark's thesis was done by Scott Aaronson on his vastly entertaining and informative computational science blog Shtetl-Optimized.(Tegmark himself gets sucked into the really rather geekily clever comment thread.)