Thursday, November 15, 2018

Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know

my review of Colm Toibin's Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know from The Australian..
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Colm Tóibín’s latest book Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is a slim stocking-filler treat for anyone who is interested in the golden age of modern Irish literature. The book’s subtitle – The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce – and the author’s reputation will be sufficient incentive for many readers. Fortunately Tóibín neither coasts on his repute nor stints on the research. This book may be short and fun but it is also a serious addition to literary scholarship.
            Taking as his model the late Richard Ellman’s equally slim but equally rigorous Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett Tóibín delves deep into the mores, the times and the psychology of Sir William Wilde, John B Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. It’s somewhat heretical to say this but Tóibín may be a better biographer than Ellman because he has a lighter touch and he feels no obligation to tell us everything.
            Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know begins with an entertaining walk through the streets of Dublin with Tóibín as our tour guide. The new iPhones come with something called “enhanced reality” which sounds like a nightmare out of a William Gibson novel. One can think of no person less in need of such a device than Colm Tóibín. Mad, Bad, Dangerous has two maps and we can follow along as Tóibín points out the place where Nora Barnacle stood up Joyce on a date, where Samuel Beckett’s father (alas not a character in the rest of the book) ran a quantity surveying business. We pass the famous house at 1 Merrion Square where the Wildes held court and the bit in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom gazes through the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company.
            Iain Sinclair has got London sewn up for this kind of thing. Sinclair’s dense, vastly entertaining literary walks through the Big Smoke’s “psychogeography” have yielded eight or nine books and Tóibín could definitely do the same for Dublin if he wanted to. (Tóibín’s Bad Blood : A Walk along the Irish Border remains my favourite of his books.)
            After the delightful introduction we go more or less into straight biography.
            Sir William Wilde (1815 – 1876) the son of a doctor, through hard work and an ability to make connections rises up the middle class pecking order of Dublin to become one of the most important eye and ear surgeons of the British Empire. He marries the brilliant and beautiful poet Jane Elgee (by far the most glamorous and interesting all six parents under consideration here and perhaps a flaw in this book’s structure is why the focus on fathers only?) Both father and mother are writers of note and everything is going swimmingly until a former patient, the deranged Mary Travers, writes a pamphlet insinuating that Sir William has raped her. A libel case damages Sir William’s reputation and he dies soon thereafter. The fact that his son’s career is also destroyed by a libel action and his life taken by an ear disorder William could probably have cured is certainly one of history’s crueler ironies.
            John B Yeats (1839 – 1922) was a noted Irish painter and engraver. He was no businessman and the Yeats children grew up, if not in penury, certainly with limited means. We do get some tales about John Yeats from Tóibín  but for me he is the dullest of the fathers on offer here. It’s not until he goes to America and starts slagging off the locals (especially Bostonians) that his narrative sparks into dyspeptic life.
Tóibín is very good here at explaining that most of the famous writers we think of in this era (Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Synge, Bram Stoker, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey) were all Protestants and it’s not until James Joyce comes along that Ireland’s majority population gets its Homer and Shakespeare rolled into one. But finally we do get to John Stanislaus Joyce (1849 – 1931) a Cork man, the only son of an only son who becomes a customs officer in Dublin. Gifted with a fine tenor voice and a love of politics and literature John is something of a dreamer and spendthrift who squanders an inheritance and pension managing to outlive his long suffering wife Mary by 28 years. Charming and maddening by turns John is clearly the model for Simon Dedalus in Ulysses.
            At 176 pages Mad Bad and Dangerous to Know is a delicious hors d’oeuvre of a book illuminating many a dark corner of geography and biography with consummate skill. More Mr Tóibín please.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Astral Weeks

its the 50th anniversary of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. here's a little essay I wrote for Radio Silence
on the album about 8 or 9 years ago...
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Thirty-three years after its initial release, Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks finally went gold in the United States in 2001. Success was a long time coming for a record that produced no hit singles and never got close to the top of any of the Billboard Album Charts.

It was Van Morrison’s second solo project and his first since getting released from a troubled contract with Bang Records. Born in Belfast in 1945, Ivan “Van” Morrison had grown up listening to soul music, jazz, and R&B. His first successful band, however, was the tight pop ensemble Them, who had two Top 10 hits in the U.K. and U.S.

Eventually Van Morrison left Them and moved to the United States in 1968, playing solo gigs in coffee shops and clubs in and around Boston. Liberated from U.K. tours, his contract and the constraints of writing three-minute pop songs, Morrison entered the most creative stage of his career. He invented a highly original Celtic-fusion sound of lush strings, acoustic guitars, brush drums, double bass, flute, and a singing voice whose geographic locus seemed to exist somewhere between Motown and East Belfast.

Astral Weeks was recorded in autumn of 1968 with experienced New York session musicians. The players were given no lead sheets but instead were expected to improvise along with Morrison as he crafted melodies and sometimes lyrics on the spot.

The resulting album was lush, jazzy, discursive, with a heart-on-sleeve sentimentality and an un-ironic nostalgia for the Belfast of Van Morrison’s childhood. It certainly wasn’t what America or Britain wanted to hear in the turbulent year of 1968-69. Van Morrison moved on to more R&B-inspired material that brought him commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Astral Weeks was very much the background music of my early childhood growing up in a sprawling council estate north of Belfast in the 1970s. My older brother played the record constantly, and as further torment taught himself to play many of its songs on his guitar. I was not impressed. I had little time for an album that to me was a dreary hangover from a hippie era that had now been mercifully euthanized by punk rock. The first record I bought was the Undertones’ eponymous debut, and close on its heels came records from the Specials, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Buzzcocks.

It was only in the 1990s, after I too had exiled myself across the Atlantic, first in Boston and then New York, that I began to appreciate Astral Weeks for the masterpiece that it so clearly is.

Something happens to an Irishman or woman when they’re away from their green, sodden homeland, and this can manifest itself in a mawkish love of nineteenth-century rebel songs or the dodgy poems from Yeats’ fairy phase. Fortunately Van Morrison’s deep musical knowledge meant that his homesickness album was going to be of a different order of magnitude. Yes, there would be Yeats and the Celtic Twilight, but there would also be Huddie Ledbetter and Jackie Wilson, Ralph Vaughn Williams and Phil Spector.

The album begins with the title track, “Astral Weeks,” a beautifully orchestrated string-heavy song that eschews the pop structure of verse-chorus-verse. Morrison sounds as if he is free-associating memories and images of his past in dense, lyrically rich stanzas. “Astral Weeks” bleeds seamlessly into the trippy “Beside You” and the bluesy, upbeat “Sweet Thing.” In all three songs Morrison’s vocals weave in and out of the melody, which is often carried by Jay Berliner’s classical guitar or the strings, double bass, and flute.

The emotional high point of side one is the three-chord impressionistic blues song “Cyprus Avenue” about a leafy street in East Belfast where all the pretty girls in Morrison’s childhood seemed to live. “Cyprus Avenue” features Morrison on rhythm guitar, Richard Davis on double bass, Larry Fallon on harpsichord, and an anonymous session flute player (possibly John Payne or John Elliot) who turned in an inspired, melodic jazz performance for cash-in-hand. The joyous stream-of-consciousness lyrics of “Cyprus Avenue” are deceptive, as this is really the story of a kid from the other side of the tracks longing for a world that he cannot have.

Side two of Astral Weeks begins with the upbeat "The Way Young Lovers Do" with Warren Smith Jnr a standout on percussion and then slides into the extraordinary nine-minute, forty-five-second “Madame George,” an ode to a lost world of Belfast life in the 1950s. “Madame George” is the emotional climax of the album, and the songs that follow in its wake, “Ballerina” and “Slim Slow Slider,” are the excellent post-coital Woodbines.

With a call back to side one of the record, “Madame George” begins like this:

Down on Cyprus Avenue

With a childlike vision leaping into view,

Clicking-clacking of the high-heeled shoe,

Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George.

Ford and Fitzroy, like Cyprus Avenue, are streets in Belfast where the title character of the song, Madame George, parades confidently in her pumps, much to the amazement of the young Protestant lad from East Belfast, Ivan Morrison. Much ink has been spilt trying to decipher the lyrics of “Madame George,” and Van Morrison himself has added to the confusion by telling several contradictory stories over the years. Tom Nolan writing for The Wall Street Journal in 2007 claimed that Madame George was none other than Georgie Hyde-Lees, W.B. Yeats’ wife who died in 1968. This seems unlikely. Mrs. Yeats was not the type to be seen legging it from the police along Fitzroy Avenue in 1950s Belfast. There are at least four other credible theories I've found about the identity of Madame George/Madame Joy but as the song continues it becomes obvious to me that Madame George is a brassy drag queen who either runs a shebeen or some kind of tranny knocking shop or both.

And you think you’ve found the bag,

You’re getting weaker and your knees begin to sag.

And in the corner playing dominoes in drag

The one and only Madame George.

And from outside the frosty window raps,

She jumps up and says, “Lord Have Mercy, I think that it’s the cops,”

And immediately drops everything she gots

Down into the street below.

Van Morrison again weaves his voice through the strings, flute, acoustic guitar, and stand-up bass; the musicians riffing their parts (including the anonymous flute player) heading off in half a dozen different directions but always coming together again in a kind of miracle of pace and timing.

“Madame George” is an impressionistic, wildly romantic take on a Northern Irish boyhood. I have never heard anyone within a hundred miles of Belfast say “Lord have mercy,” but it is Morrison’s absolute sincerity that adds credibility here and makes the song so wonderfully transcendent and endearing.

In some CD versions of Astral Weeks the tracks have been re-arranged so that the album ends with “Madame George,” but I like the way it is on my old vinyl, giving me two songs to recover before flipping the record and playing the whole thing again.

Astral Weeks cultists used to be proud of their hermetic knowledge, but then in 2001 it went gold, in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it nineteenth on its list of Greatest Albums of All Time, and the British rock magazine Mojo put Astral Weeks second on their list. The secret was leaking out, and Van Morrison himself blew the gaff completely in 2008 by performing two Astral Weeks concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, which were subsequently released as a live album.

For me the record is not only a perfectly conceived work of art, but it is also an emotional journey into my own Belfast boyhood, and perhaps even a glimpse of a future Belfast where the scars of the 1970s and 1980s have faded, and the city can become again an ordinary provincial town where the idle street kids dream about music and girls rather than bullets and bombs

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Flann O'Brien Review

my review of The Collected Letters of Flann O'Brien from the Sydney Morning Herald. Somehow I was able to get a Joe Orton reference in here...

The Collected Letters of Flann O'Brien
Ed., Maebh Long
Dalkey Archive, $49.95

The greatest trickster, imposter, meta fictioneer and dissembler in Irish literature since Laurence Sterne and Jonathan Swift was born Brian O'Nolan in Strabane, County Tyrone in 1911. Of course as is the way of most things in the life of this elusive genius the previous sentence is not strictly true. In fact the boy was christened Brian Ó Nualláin and grew up speaking only Irish until the age of 11 when he was finally sent to school.
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A brilliant student, he quickly mastered English and was writing verse, comic operas and plays by the time he went up to University College Dublin to study German literature. Like his near contemporary Paddy Leigh Fermor, O'Nolan seems to have spent 1933 walking through Germany, although the details of this trip (if it took place) are contested.
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O'Nolan settled down to life as a civil servant and he began his print career writing scabrous and often very funny letters to The Irish Times and other papers under various noms de plume: Brother Barnabas, Myles na gCopaleen and Flann O'Brien.
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It was under this latter pen name that he achieved the most fame, publishing his surreal masterwork, At Swim-Two-Birds, at the age of only 28 in 1939. Recognised by the reader at Longman's, Graham Greene, as a work of genius, it is a meta-textual tale about the writing of an autobiographical novel that sidetracks into Irish mythology, westerns, parody and satire. O'Nolan's luck pretty much runs out at this point. It sold only a few hundred copies before the Longman's warehouse in London was destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
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His follow-up, the brilliant, hilarious, anti-crime novel The Third Policeman, failed to find a publisher in his lifetime despite increasingly fraught attempts to place it anywhere for any fee at all.
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The early letters in this volume have a gleeful, sharp, often condescending quality to them. Well read in Irish, German, French, Greek and Latin O'Nolan knows he is the smartest guy in the room and God help you if you tried to pull the wool over his eyes with faked-up sophistication. O'Nolan himself was something of a hoaxer and his missives of complaint to The Irish Times on various topics anticipate Joe Orton's Edna Welthorpe letters by 20 years (although Orton's targets and humour have aged a little better).
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As someone who wanted to be accepted as an equal by the giants of his day the piling up of rejection slips pained O'Nolan and his false cheer wears increasingly thin even to him. The drift into melancholy in the post-war letters is a natural consequence of a job that did not challenge him, money worries, the failure of his plays and, it must be said, increasingly heavy drinking.
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In the chronology at the start I counted in one five-year period four car crashes, a random broken arm, a bus crash, blood poisoning, flu, a ruptured appendix, an eye operation and two separate bouts of "food poisoning & pneumonia".

O'Nolan's wit, charm and erudition are often dazzling but there's also a chilly quality to the man that often overbears him. The Second World War seems to not overly trouble him, nor is he particularly moved by other earth-shattering events of the 1950s and '60s. Although he mocks a visiting rugby squad from apartheid South Africa he's pretty free with the "N" word even when his friends ask him to cut it out.
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Life grinds O'Nolan down and although he writes one final late masterpiece, The Dalkey Archive (about James Joyce's existence after he fakes his own death, Elvis-fashion, and moves back to Dublin), the tone of his final correspondence is increasingly desperate. There are pleas to publishers and printers and a godawful begging letter to The Guardian asking for a job that I wish I could unread.
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O'Nolan died of various alcohol-related ailments at the age of 55 on April Fools' Day 1966. The ideal medium for his acerbic talent was launched exactly 40 years later. O'Nolan would have been a natural on Twitter, skewering the rich, the powerful, the connected – the people less clever than himself, which let's face it, would have been pretty much everyone.

Adrian McKinty's new Sean Duffy novel, The Detective Up Late, will be published next year

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Belfast's Literary Renaissance

my piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on Belfast's literary renaissance which they commissioned
me to write after Anna Burns's Booker Prize Win:

When Anna Burns won the 2018 Man Booker Prize on Tuesday (London time) there were gasps from the audience in London's Guildhall. The bookies' early favourite was Richard Powers and his beautiful multi-layered novel about trees and people, The Overstory; the late money had all gone in the direction of Daisy Johnson's superb rewriting of the Oedipus story, Everything Under.
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No one had thought Burns' Milkman stood a chance because her novel was set in Belfast, and Belfast, for a lot of literary London, is that awful place over the water where all the terrorists and loudmouths come from.
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Milkman is a novel set in the West Belfast of the edgy 1990s, but the city, like the lead protagonist, is never named. Burns is not particularly interested in the tiresome tribal struggles that characterised Troubles-era Northern Ireland. For her, Milkman is an opportunity to ask questions about puberty, identity, self-knowledge and the meaning of life for a young woman on the cusp of adulthood.
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The book begins with the appearance of the mysterious "Milkman" in the narrator's life as she is walking home from work reading Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. He offers her a "wee lift" in his sinister "shapeshifting" van that she declines. Milkman is a creepy 41-year-old married man who has a reputation as a groomer of young girls and as a player in the paramilitaries.

Successive "accidental" encounters with the Milkman make the narrator (known in the book as "middle sister") a focus of attention, and this in a town where gossip of that sort can get you shot in the kneecaps or worse.

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So far so Belfast, but as critic Eoin McNamee has pointed out, Milkman's genius lies in its ability to create its own context. Burns has created both a story of Belfast and its particular sins but also a story of anywhere.

This could be a book set in a Graham Greene or John le Carre Iron Curtain city filled with spies and informers and there are deliberate echoes of China Mieville's The City and the City, in which identity, names and seeing the Other are contentious acts.
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Intelligence pulses throughout the book. Milkman is a confident, funny, ambitious novel that mirrors Belfast's new-found confidence as a literary city.

Only 30 years ago, Belfast was a desolate war zone that you couldn't enter without going through a "search hut". The IRA's bombing campaign during the Troubles had reduced parts of the city to rubble.

In the 1970s, Belfast had a thriving poetry scene, but after his local pub was bombed Seamus Heaney moved to Dublin and the other literary stars such as Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin also began looking for the exits. Belfast became first a cultural backwater, and then a cultural desert. A moribund political scene, very poor funding for the arts, and what was essentially a low-level civil war all had an impact.

The poets had largely fled, the playwrights were going too, and a generation of young intellectuals found themselves marginalised or in exile. Many Belfast authors were told to their faces that if they wanted their books to succeed, they should switch the story to a Scottish or northern English city.
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But the Good Friday peace deal of 1998 changed all that. Slowly at first the city began to revive and grow in self-assurance. Pubs and clubs started reopening. There were new shopping malls, new cinemas, new hotels, and new plays,  poems and novels. Game of Thrones came and transformed the Titanic Quarter. Belfast acquired a Michelin-starred restaurant, then another, and another. In the wake of Thrones came The Fall and Line of Duty.

The dour city of empire that was turned into a dreary provincial town after the partition of Ireland and a war zone after 1968 had at last become normal, perhaps even cool.

Novelists such as Glenn Patterson, Sharon Owens, Ian Samson, David Park and Robert McLiam Wilson charted this new territory. Ciaran Carson was Belfast's lyrical conscience and Sinead Morrissey was found to be an able inheritor of Heaney's legacy and then came the crime writers: Stuart Neville, Colin Bateman, Claire McGowan, Anthony Quinn, Gerard Brennan, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh quickly acquired an international reputation.
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The Troubles with its macho posturing and institutionalised sexism was a particularly punishing environment for female artists. Burns is part of a movement of new female Belfast writers, along with Lucy Caldwell, Roisín O'Donnell, Jan Carson and others who are changing the game.

In the 20th anniversary year of the Good Friday agreement and with Brexit threatening to send Northern Ireland spiralling back down into the abyss, the Man Booker judges could not have sent a clearer message with this award to Burns and her wonderful novel: Belfast is back.

It is a proud cultural hub full of young people bursting with talent and ideas. Writers can show us new ways of looking at and interrogating the past but they show the lessons to be learnt, too. Let's keep the nightmare time in the realm of fiction. Let's never return to the bad old days.

Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy novels are set in Belfast during the Troubles.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Anna Burns Wins The Booker Prize

The brilliant Anna Burns is the first writer from Belfast or indeed Northern Ireland to win the Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. Here (below) is my Irish Times review of Milkman from back in May and a video I made about Milkman from my 5 reasons to read series: Well done, Anna!
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MILKMAN by Anna Burns
Faber and Faber
Adrian McKinty
There’s a moment about a third of the way through Anna Burns’s Milkman when the un-named narrator is in an adult education French class who rebel against the difficult novel their teacher has assigned as homework. The author had been describing the sky in French with a bevy of trying metaphors and finally the class mutinies. “Why all the fancy footwork when all he need say is that the sky is blue?” someone cries and a chant begins: “Le ciel est blue! Le ciel est blue!” until the teacher’s calm unnerves everyone and the chanting stops. She takes them to the window overlooking the city and demands that they look at the sky, really look at it, and tell her what they see. The amazed, bewildered, unsettled class discovers that the sky is pink, lemon, mauve and orange-red. “Don’t worry,” the teacher says. “Your unease, even your temporary unhingement in the face of this sunset is encouraging. It can only mean progress. It can only mean enlightenment.”
Burns is the teacher and we are the students. Milkman is a novel set in the Belfast of the uneasy 1990s but the city, like the lead protagonist, is never named. And Burns’s agenda is not to unpack the dreary tribal squabbles that so characterised Troubles-era Northern Ireland; rather she is working in an altogether more interesting milieu, seeking answers to the big questions about identity, love, enlightenment and the meaning of life for a young woman on the verge of adulthood. Our narrator-protagonist, known only known as “middle sister”, has just turned 18 and is kept busy working in the city, jogging with “third brother-in-law” and concealing her relationship with “nearly-boyfriend”.

Dangerous man

The book begins with the appearance of the mysterious Milkman in her life as she is walking home from work reading Ivanhoe. He offers her a lift in his sinister, white “shapeshifting” van which she declines. Milkman is a creepy 41-year-old married man who has a reputation as a groomer of young girls and as a player in the paramilitaries. He’s a dangerous man and when he encounters her jogging in the park and starts running along side her they are noticed together and tongues begin to wag in the small gossipy world of their street. Middle sister becomes “interesting” for the first time in her life – something she had never aspired to be. Better to fly under the radar than attract the attention of the paramilitary chieftains or the police.
The game Burns is playing here is psychological and sociological not historical. These people could be any people in any tight-knit community. Milkman reads like one of those Russian novels that begins “In those days, in our Province, in the town of Z-” and in its intricate domestic study of a disparate family there are agreeable echoes of Chekov, Tolstoy and Turgenev.
Middle sister has already begun to stick out from her older siblings by showing no interest in marriage and by this habit of reading Victorian novels as she walks down perfectly respectable streets. There is nothing between her and the Milkman but the gossips see logical connections. Of course the unmarried reading-while-walking weirdo will hook up with the paedo Milkman.

Names and identity

This is a book about names and identity. The wrong boy names with their hint of “over the water” can get you bashed, the wrong girl names will just get you dirty looks. Girls are lesser creatures and girls stories are lesser stories. Anna Burns is part of a movement of new and established female Belfast writers who are correcting that impression along with Lucy Caldwell, Roisín O’Donnell, Jan Carson and others.
Kenneth Tynan pointed out that a good critic perceived what was happening but a great critic also saw what was not happening. In Belfast for many years there was a lot of not happening. The men of violence who launched the city’s 30-year-long suicide attempt tried to silence the women who mocked them for their macho stupidity and faux intellectual posturing. The women were never silent but now thank goodness they are being published in increasing numbers.
Milkman is both a story of Belfast and its particular sins but it is also a story of anywhere. It reminded me of China Mieville’s The City and the City where identity, names and seeing the Other are contentious acts. Milkman shares this level of ambition; it is an impressive, wordy, often funny book and confirms Anna Burns as one of our rising literary stars.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

All The Books In The Duffyverse (updated)

Ok, so I'm FINALLY all done with Sean Duffy 7 The Detective Up Late and we're getting some pubdates together. Probably mid 2019 for Duffy 7 and possibly the last two Sean Duffy novels coming six months apart in 2020. I've written a standalone (more on that another time) and that may come out first before all of them!

I've figured out a way of tying in Fifty Grand into the Duffyverse in The Detective Up late so this is now the complete list of the Duffyverse books. However I'm more convinced than ever that the Alexander Lawson of Hidden River exists in not quite the same universe as the Alexander Lawson of the Sean Duffy novels, maybe one universe over...All the rest works fine. And yes Michael Forsythe and Killian will be appearing in the final trilogy...























Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How To Be Boring

Everybody knows the advice publishers and agents give to young writers: start in the middle and keep it fast, fast, fast to the very end! And that's still pretty good advice if you're all about story and turning pages. But what if you're not? What if you want people to focus on the words and take it easy and read your book slow? Well then you're probably living in the wrong age aren't you? We're the age of quick cuts and page turners and memes and vines. Why watch a whole movie when you can watch a youtube video telling you everything wrong with it in 15 minutes?
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When I was a kid we read a lot of Thomas Hardy novels in school and I bloody hated them. One of them, Return of the Native I think, begins with a 15 page description of a heath: the heath in winter, the heath in spring, the heath in autumn and yup you guessed it, the heath in summer. Christ it was tedious. I'll never read anything so boring in my life I thought...until I went to law school. Reading all 5 judgements in a nineteenth century probate case, now that my friend is a whole new level of boring. 
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And maybe it was the discipline of law school or maybe it was the time I struggled through bloody Les Miserables in French or maybe it was just a reaction against the begin-in-the-middle school of thought but in the last 5 years or so I've been hunting out authors who take it slow. Who don't begin the middle. Who don't cut to the chase (because usually there is no chase). I've found to my amazement that I quite like Thomas Hardy and Thomas Mann and Thomas Wolfe come to that - 3 Toms who are a little more leisurely about their story telling. 
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Last year I finished Magnus Mills's The Forensic Record Society and I think its a work of genius but everyone I sent it to as a present hated it. More fool them. This is the story: a bunch of blokes meet up in a London pub to listen to records. Nothing much happens. It ends. It's brilliant. Like all of Magnus Mills's books. The comedy of Stewart Lee is similar - Lee is often deliberately boring and repetitive and I love him for it. It's the same thing too with the books of David Peace: repetitive, deliberately slow, amazing. We've got slow cooking and slow travel, how about some slow reading, eh? Less stress, more focus on the words, more pleasure...
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Some of you will think I'm mad so feel free to ignore the below reading list of contemporary writers and a few oldies who, ahem, go at their own pace and are all the better because of it: 

Nicholson Baker
Magnus Mills
Charles Palliser
Thomas Mann
David Peace
Susanna Clark
Gertrude Stein
Marcel Proust
Anthony Powell
John Dos Passos
George Eliot
Virginia Woolf
Thomas Hardy
Hanya Yanagihara
Miguel de Cervantes
JA Baker
James Joyce
Herman Melville

Saturday, September 22, 2018

It Was A Wandering Daughter Job - Dashiell Hammett's Influence on The Big Lebowski


It's the 20th anniversary of the UK release of The Big Lebowski and it's being shown in limited release in a few UK cinemas. Here's a little nerdy essay on the Coens, Hammett & Chandler. 
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Joel and Ethan Coen have said that the biggest literary influence on their cult stoner movie The Big Lebowski (1998) was Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. And from the title and structure of their film you can certainly see what they are talking about. Both works are classic visions of Los Angeles and both films follow similar trajectories: a foil gets involved with a disabled rich man, the rich man's daughter, and a runaway from his family who gets mixed up in pornography. Joel Coen has also said that he was influenced by Robert Altman's 1970's remake of Chandler's The Long Goodbye which gave us a slightly baked version of Marlowe played by Elliot Gould. So the Chandler influences are real and obvious but I want to argue that there's a deeper structure to The Big Lebowski which comes not from Raymond Chandler but from Dashiell Hammett.
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Let's backtrack a little first. The Coen Brothers first foray into Hammett country came with Millers Crossing. This is a fairly explicit remake of Hammett's Red Harvest which the Coens apparently became of aware through Kurosawa's version Yojimbo (which later was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars and again by Walter Hill as Last Man Standing). Miller's Crossing (and Red Harvest and the others) is a classic story of an outsider playing off two rival gangs for his own benefit, however the Coens not only appropriated Dashiell Hammett's plot-line but also his entire argot: "What's the rumpus?" "She's just a twist," "The high hat," "We're not muscle we don't bump guys" etc. The Coens don't seem to have read Hammett as much digested him, absorbing his street talk, his cadences, his slang, his American tough guy voice. (As an aside here I actually think their use of "What's the rumpus?" as "hello" in Millers Crossing is a misreading of Hammett's use of the phrase in Red Harvest.) The Coens of course are suburban college boys with little experience of the actual "streets" but Hammett was a Pinkerton Detective for nearly two decades investigating murders, robberies, insurance frauds with a little union busting thrown in for good measure. The Coens seem to have used Hammett as one of their touchstones for Americana and the more you read him the deeper you see his influence on their work: Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, No Country For Old Men sometimes read like undiscovered Hammett screenplays; but so also do the comedies Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski. Hammett and humour don't seem to go together but he could be very funny in both his private life and in his books - The Thin Man is as witty as any PG Wodehouse and here's an experiment: try re-reading The Maltese Falcon as a black comedy and you'll get exactly what I'm talking about. Chandler has those great lines about a blonde so beautiful she would make a bishop kick in a window but Hammett has those lines too and a dark, satirical edge as well. 
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Yes the Coens used The Big Sleep as their skeleton for The Big Lebowski but the irony comes from Hammett: Donny's death, The Nihilists, The Porn King, The Malibu Sheriff - these seem like straight out of Dashiell's playbook not Ray's. The eccentricity and odd digressions are more like Hammett and of course the snap of the dialogue is more authentically Hammettian too. I think subconsciously the Coens knew this and they either gave us a Freudian hint or a deliberate clue late in the film when Jeff Bridges as The Dude encounters a private detective working for Bunny's parents, the Knutsons. "What are you following me for?" The Dude asks. The Private Dick played by Joe Polito (who also played one of the rival gang bosses in Miller's Crossing) shrugs and explains: "It was a wandering daughter job." And of course if you know your Hammett you'll recognise that as the opening line of the great Continental Op short story "Fly Paper". The Big Lebowski was a wandering daughter job all right and ultimately the daughter stays lost, an innocent guy dies and the bad guy keeps the money, but what else would you expect in Hammett's bleak, entropic and blackly comic universe?

The Chain

original demo by Stevie Nicks:
this blogpost is a clue...

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Handmaiden, The Handmaids Tale

The Handmaiden is a South Korean erotic thriller directed by Park Chan-wook based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Both works are about a pair of grifters (a man and woman) who attempt to con a naive young heiress out of her fortune by having her fall in love with the man and elope with him. The female con artist goes into the house as a maid to work the plan from the inside while the male conman poses as a drawing instructor. Part 2 of the plan is that after the elopement they consign the heiress to an insane asylum and split the dough. Fingersmith the novel has that set up too but it's also qot quite a lot of cool stuff about pickpocketing, the short con and the long con. Fingersmith has a famous end of the first act twist and then a great second act twist too. It is set in Victorian England and is maybe a little long but otherwise perfect as an erotic twisty thriller. The Handmaiden moves the action to Japanese occupied Korea which I thought was going to be awesome but it wasn't because they do absolutely nothing with this premise. I've never seen a movie that takes place in Occupied Korea and I was stoked for some kind cool resistance motifs or Japanese-Korean tensions but there's nothing like. I'm a fan of Park Chan-wook, though, I, like every other man in my forties, have watched the corridor hammer fight in Old Boy about 20 times. However I was expecting a bit more from him with this adaptation. Like I say, the setting is not really used much, the erotic elements are a bit too leery and male gazy (while railing against male gaze eroticism as subtext (a beautiful example of attempting to eat your cake and have it too)) and the torture scene at the end is completely unnecessary. I did like the movie but if you haven't read the book the twists will come as more of a surprise and the film will probably work better.  
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The Handmaids Tale is a science fiction novel by Margaret Atwood about a future America run by a quasi Mormon religious right that I only read recently. It's a book that everybody should read both as a warning and as, you know, a great work of art. Atwood, building on the tradition of Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell etc. creates an entirely believable universe where a young Handmaiden must endure Winston Smith type suffering simply because she is a woman. The TV series adaptation is faithful and well made and stars Elisabeth Moss who just keeps making brilliant choice after brilliant choice in her career. The book is a must-read and the TV series while a little bit sexier (!) and safer (the implied genocide of blacks and Jews has been removed) is still pretty good although maybe like Fargo and True Detective did (and Stranger Things and Westworld didn't) wrapping everything up in one season might have been the artistically smarter choice. Some of those involved in the production have been running away from the word 'feminist' which is absurd because the Handmaids Tale is transparently a feminist masterpiece. As is the Handmaiden although maybe with a female director we might have avoided some of the creepy stuff. Anyway both are recommended from me. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

JG Ballard's Great Decade 1973-1983


According to historian Eric Hobsbawm the twentieth century really began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It was a century dominated by assassinations, cars, aeroplanes, wars, mass production and American pop culture. For me the novelist who perhaps best captured the obsessions and imagery of the twentieth century was the Shanghai-born English novelist J G Ballard. Pigeon holed early as a science fiction writer, for a long time Ballard was not noticed by critics. He had his champions, of course, such as Martin Amis, but in general his books seldom broke through into the popular consciousness until the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1983.

Ballard’s early apocalyptic novels from the 1960's such as The Drowned World and The Crystal World cut against the mainstream science fiction of the time with their concern for the effects of disaster on the protagonists’ psychological states. In 1973 Ballard’s most remarkable period as a novelist began with the publication of Crash, a book famously rejected by one London publisher’s reader with the phrase “This author is beyond psychiatric help - DO NOT PUBLISH.” Crash is the story of Vaughan, a television psychologist who is fixated by the sexual power of the car crash and who wishes to die in an auto-erotic accident with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. A damning indictment of, and also a love letter to, American celebrity culture, Crash reads as fresh, subversive and lively today as it did forty years ago. It prefigures the deaths of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly and recapitulates the deaths of Franz Ferdinand, JFK and screen siren Jayne Mansfield who was reputedly (but not really) decapitated in the 1967 crash of her Buick Electra 225.

Ballard’s follow up to Crash was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Concrete Island (1974), about a man who crashes his car and is trapped in it at the junction of many motorway flyovers and sliproads, living desperately on his concrete island and finally dying unseen by the thousands of commuters passing by on their way to work. High Rise (1975) is a funny, perverse and oddly believable novel about the collapse of civilisation’s norms within an apartment building. Satires on the English sense of decorum seldom get this ribald or excoriating.

For me, though, the climax of this period in Ballard’s evolution is the willfully strange, surrealistic novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) about a man who hijacks a small plane and crashes it into the Thames in the sleepy suburb of Shepparton. It’s never clear whether the pilot died in the crash or not but certainly some kind of apotheosis takes place and throughout the novel London is transformed into a seething, primordial, tropical city (similar in many ways to the London of The Drowned World) rich with sexual and avian imagery. The Anglo-Saxon world has generally been uncomfortable with the erotic and surreal in serious fiction but Dream Company is a book which treats both these tropes with the gravity they deserve and it may be Ballard’s finest work. The short story collection Low Flying Aircraft (1976) highlights many of Ballard's obsessions: abandoned swimming pools, crashed planes, urban decay etc. and contains one of my favourite Ballard stories, My Dream Of Flying To Wake Island.

Empire of the Sun (1983/4) is a novelistic retelling of the young Jim Ballard’s imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp from 1942 - 1945. Although the story is told in conventional matter-of-fact prose the book throbs with Ballard’s usual obsessions: war, repressed sexual desire, cruelty, ruined cities, America, cars, flight. As a novel of people in extremis it is a psychological masterpiece as well as being probably the last great novel to come out of the direct experience of World War Two.

In the 1990's and early 2000's Ballard wrote more volumes of memoir and interesting novels about the growth of advertisement speak, business parks, motorways, urbanisation and the spread of pop culture into all walks of life. In 2009 Ballard died of prostate cancer and the British obituaries were respectful but somewhat restrained in their praise. Ballard had been hard to categorise and he was never completely embraced by the British establishment even after his success in Hollywood. It’s a shame because many of Ballard’s contemporaries have dated rather badly and their books read like peculiar period pieces, but Ballard has hardly dated at all. Like Philip K Dick his voice is that of the clear sighted Cassandra warning us of the perils and strange joys ahead. Ballard agreed with the poet Horace who famously said that “they change their skies but not their souls, those who run across the sea,” which is true even when the seas are black with pollution and the sky is a radioactive hell.