Saturday, November 28, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Tom Hanks literally phoning it in
It would be silly to call Steven Spielberg America's worst film director - there are many worse directors, but perhaps it would be fair to say that Spielberg is the American film director who disappoints us the most. Not because he makes bad films but because he churns out such consistently unchallenging, mediocre fare year after year. A typical Spielberg movie will be a solid B- or a C+ with some lovely crane shots, competent acting, a soaring John Williams score and loads of schmaltz and bathos especially in the third act. Spielberg makes films for people to watch on planes - a harmless two hours that'll keep you moderately entertained while the kid behind you screams and kicks your seat and the lady next to you scoffs from a Kentucky Fried Chicken bargain bucket that she somehow smuggled onto the aircraft. At the end of every single Spielberg movie you sort of shrug, sigh and think: well that was ok. 
Bridge of Spies is no different. Tom Hanks turns in his usual Tom Hanks performance as the insurance lawyer who was sent to East Germany to negotiate the repatriation of U2 pilot Gary Powers in 1961. The overpraised Mark Rylance plays the character he always plays on film, soft spoken, still, with a slight twinkle in the eye. (Early on in his stage career Rylance must have met Richard Burton or Lawrence Olivier who told him "the secret to acting on film, dear boy, is to do nothing!" And he's been doing next to nothing ever since.) 
In Bridge of Spies Spielberg has the amazing ability to take a script written by those enemies of schmaltz, the Coen Brothers, and schmaltz it up to the point where even lovers of chicken soup must have been gagging. Spielberg has said that he doesn't mind being called "sentimental". He should. James Joyce called sentimentality "unearned emotion" and this pretty much covers every film Spielberg has made for the last three decades. Professional critics love Spielberg and they love Tom Hanks and Bridge of Spies might win the Oscar for best picture, which will be a pretty sad state of affairs. I reckon the best place to see this is on a plane with the chicken woman and the annoying kid and when its over and you're 2 hours closer to your destination you'll think yeah that was all right. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Cartel

Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog was one of the great American crime novels of the last decade. Indeed Winslow and James Ellroy so raised the bar of American crime fiction that every other writer in the genre has been struggling to keep up. You can't get away with weak prose and poor characterisation in US crime writing any more. (If you're a shitty prose writer and you don't care about your characters you should probably write literary fiction - they still tolerate that kind of thing over there.) 

The Power of the Dog told the story of Art Keller a DEA agent fighting the drug wars in the 1970s and 80s particularly in Mexico where he ran afoul of Adan Barrera, the dauphin of the Sinaloa Cartel. Bloody, violent, scary and brilliant The Power of the Dog was not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. But Winslow was not being deliberately sensationalist he was just telling it like it was. 

The Cartel is the sequel to The Power of the Dog which again takes up Art Keller's story. Dog ended with Keller divorced and trying to live in anonymous motels as his various Mexican enemies tracked him down. After Barrera escapes from his prison and resumes his quest to be the patron of patrons of all the cartels in Mexico, Keller is recalled to the life by the DEA. 

The Cartel is a fictionalised account of what's really been happening in Mexico for the last decade and as such it is terrifying. We get to see the Narco wars between the cartels, the corruption of all branches of the Mexican army and police and finally the appearance of the good guys - the Mexican Marines and in particular their special forces unit the untouchable FES. The Cartel isn't so much a crime novel as a war novel and Keller and his comrades are soldiers in that war. If you don't like war novels this probably is not the book for you as there are some pretty strong scenes of combat and violence. My favourite part of the book comes near the end when an old Mexican gentleman named Don Pedro defends his house against the Zeta Cartel, Straw Dogs style...

Keller's character - Catholic, half Mexican, smart, honourable, is brilliantly drawn as is the character of his nemesis the chilly, intelligent, cunning Adan Barrera. Winslow's women are written as well as his men and there are many extraordinarily brave women in the book who are based on real people; indeed The Cartel is a tribute of sorts to the incredibly courageous Dr Maria Santos Gorrostieta (right) who appears, thinly veiled, as Keller's love interest (and who was - in real life - tortured to death by the narcos). 

No book is without its flaws and I'll admit that I grew a wee bit weary of all the murder, mayhem and mutilation in the final third of the novel. Still, like The Power of the Dog, The Cartel is a crime masterpiece. It is being taken very seriously by serious reviewers (that cool image (top above right) is from the New Yorker review.) If there were any justice they'd be giving it the National Book Award instead of the ponsy horseshit that usually ends up winning that prize, and at the very least it should get the Edgar next year. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Come On Feel The Noise: Slade House by David Mitchell

Fifteen pages into Slade House my heart sank as I realised that for the third novel in a row David Mitchell had chosen to write about a fictional war between soul sucking vampires and the protectors of the human race known as horologists. This dreary theme, a subplot in Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, became the main story of 2014’s The Bone Clocks with Slade House apparently a kind sequel to that book.
The story begins in 1979 when Nathan Bishop and his mum are invited for a soirée at the posh Lady Grayer’s house somewhere in the English West Midlands. The party is a ruse to get Nathan up to the attic where he is attacked by the immortal Grayer twins: Norah and Jonah. The action moves on nine years to 1988 where another victim, a policeman, is lured into the spider’s web.
Thus proceeds the book, victim after victim, until the palpably foreseeable conclusion. Coming in at a slight 233 pages this is Mitchell’s shortest novel by a long way. My hunch is that Slade House was initially a chapter of The Bone Clocks which got cut when the book became unmanageable. Those of us who have read a lot of Mitchell will not be surprised by the appearance of a character from De Zoet and The Bone Clocks in the denouement to the story who arrives to save the day. Indeed but for a change of location and personnel Slade House has almost exactly the same supernatural arc as the two previous Mitchell novels.
Perhaps the time has come for David Mitchell’s editor to invite him in for a chat about his future. Mitchell needs to be firmly guided away from the baleful influence of Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett and Michael Moorcock and back onto the straight and narrow of sophisticated, psychologically penetrating English literature. Every writer has their obsessions. For JG Ballard it was empty swimming pools and low flying aircraft but Ballard’s pools and planes were always used inventively. Evelyn Waugh’s worship of the rich got us some good jokes and Graham Greene’s fixation with Anglo-Catholicism produced some crapulous soul searching. Mitchell’s soul sucking vampires are not half so interesting.
English fantasy writing can be a terrain for exploring big metaphysical and moral issues – Angela Carter was a writer who had the heft and ability to do this – but it takes great skill to navigate the fantasy minefield chock full of camp and cliché. Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel, The Buried Giant, is an other example of how not to do it. If he keeps going the way he’s going David Mitchell’s next novel will be indistinguishable from Clive Barker or Stephen King, which some of you will think is a jolly good thing; but for many of us this would be a disappointing path for a writer who debuted on the list of Granta’s Most Promising Young British Novelists a dozen years ago and who should have won the Booker Prize for the magnificent Cloud Atlas.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Comfort Reading

When the news is full of terrible stories - like this week - I'll often put aside what I'm reading or listening to and go straight into my comfort reading mode which always chills me out. Typical comfort reading authors for me are Douglas Adams or PG Wodehouse or Jane Austen or Evelyn Waugh. But when times are really bad I always end up reaching for the Patrick O'Brian. He's the one novelist that I admire whose series actually grew stronger as the books advanced. After a brilliant opening novel Master and Commander (which someday should really be made into a film)* there was to my mind a slight dip in quality until the excellent The Far Side of the World and the extraordinary Reverse of the Medal where Captain Aubrey gets convicted of rigging the stock exchange and is then struck off the navy list. The next five books in the series are as good as anything in modern literature. In particular I loved The Thirteen Gun Salute where almost nothing happens at all and the principal villain of the entire fleuve is actually killed off-screen as an aside. Take that Cormac McCarthy.** The Thirteen Gun Salute's metaphoric and emotional heart is a sedate walk up a series of steps to a ruined Buddhist temple in a Malayan jungle. This doesn't sound so awesome, but trust me, somehow, it is. The sequel to Salute is the sublime Nutmeg of Consolation where, again, almost nothing happens but for a deep exploration of the main characters' mind and character. Wonderful stuff. The final book in this quintet is The Wine Dark Sea where HMS Surprise sails over the boundless Pacific for page after trance inducing page, while Stephen Maturin observes sea birds and looks after the declining mental, physical and spiritual health of his crew. The Wine Dark Sea flirts with genius in nearly every chapter and attains the kind of brilliant lyrical intensity you don't normally associate with historical novels or sea stories.
O'Brian wrote four more books after The Wine Dark Sea and they, alas, are not quite up to the same standard as the previous septet, but, Patrick O'Brian, at least for me, is the exception that proves the rule of the serial novel. Perhaps I should say that I enjoy listening to the books even more than reading them. My preferred narrator is Patrick Tull.
*Peter Weir's film Master and Commander employs almost none of the plot from Patrick O'Brian's novel of the same name which is a shame because it's one of O'Brian's most psychologically rich and interesting. The dynamic emotional triangle between Aubrey, Maturin and James Dillon was never bettered in the series.
**I'm referring to McCarthy's off screen hero killing bit in No Country For Old Men

Monday, November 16, 2015

Yekîneyên Parastina Jin‎

There's no point in me saying anything about what's happening in the world at the moment. I don't know anything. I am as affected as everyone else but I'm no expert on geopolitics. I've lived in Paris and in 1999 I travelled around a bit in Syria. But it's my little brother who is the person to ask about what's going on. He was an intelligence officer who did a tour of duty in Iraq back in 2008. He got to know Iraq and its people well and the people he was most impressed by were the Kurds. At the weekend the Kurds liberated Sinjar from ISIL. A picture from that liberation showed up yesterday on twitter that I quite like. The Peshmerga have a large contingent of female soldiers fighting ISIL in Iraq and the PKK have entire platoons of female anarchist feminist warriors fighting ISIL in Syria: the YPJ (women's protection force). Confused about who to back in this conflict? Me too but these dudes seem like the shit to me. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bond And The British Critics

the last man on Earth to think watches, windsor knots and cufflinks are cool
Daniel Craig seems like the most boring, humourless man in the world and as such he's perfect casting for James Bond who is a dreary, humourless bore in the books. All the lightness and fun of James Bond was more or less invented by Sean Connery and riffed on by his successors but Craig doesn't seem to have the skill set to do that. I have not really enjoyed the 3 Daniel Craig James Bond films I've seen. Casino Royale was really long and really stupid with a bathos ridden final act. Quantum of Solace everyone now agrees was a total disaster (I walked out of that one I was so fed up). I was marginally less annoyed by Skyfall although I thought the 3rd Act of that one was completely ridiculous (Straw Dogs meets the David Niven Casino Royale meets Home Alone?) 
But having grown up in the UK where Bond and Carry On films and The Great Escape were shown at every bloody bank holiday and Christmas Eve I guess I'm a Bond completist. I've seen every single James Bond film except for the aforementioned Quantum of Suck. (My favourites are Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service & Live and Let Die). So should I see the new James Bond film, Spectre? If I was to believe the British critics Spectre is the best thing to have been shone on the silver screen since the Lumiere Brothers started showing trains coming out of tunnels. Five Star reviews in The Times, from Robbie Collins in The Daily Telegraph, from Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian (!) etc. etc. But British critics can't be trusted when they're reviewing British films, especially when they are reviewing James Bond. Boosterism, peer pressure and media junkets create a bad climate for objective film criticism in Britain. You can happily piss all over an American product but God forbid you say something bad about Richard Curtis or Sam Mendes or Ridley Scott when you might bump into them at the Groucho Club or the BFI. I wonder too if the cliquey private school world of British high culture plays a part in all this. Most British film critics and most British film directors (and an alarming number of British actors) went to the same private schools and the British private schools teach school loyalty as the primary virtue above all things. There were some heroic dissents from the British Bond worship but those dissents were few and far between.
So what do more objective critics think about Spectre? When it first came out it was getting a staggering 95% rating on rotten tomatoes because it had only been shown to the British critics, but now it's at a seemingly more accurate 63% which is even lower than the grisly Quantum of Solace at 65. Hmmm, maybe I'll give this one a miss.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

13 Ways of Looking

my review of the new Colum McCann book from last week's Weekend Australian.

Colum McCann’s new book contains one long novella and three short stories; the novella is called ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ and is a murder mystery of sorts set in New York.
            Peter Mendelssohn is a retired Jewish judge in his eighties who lives in a well to do building on the Upper East Side. His Irish wife Eileen has only recently died and in the first chapters of ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ we learn about Peter’s childhood in Vilnius, his family’s flight from the Nazis, first to Paris and then to Dublin (where Eileen was his neighbour), and then finally to Brooklyn.
            Eileen joins Peter in America, they marry, prosper and have two children: a do-gooding daughter living in Israel and a creepy son Elliot who wants to ride his father’s coat-tails into a political career. The day of the murder begins typically for Mr Mendelssohn. He deals with the indignities of night-time incontinence, he charms his Trinidadian home-help Sally and he reminiscences about his wife’s affection for Irish literature and the autographs he got for her from Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon.
            It’s snowing but Mendelssohn decides to have lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant where he is joined by a distracted Elliot. On the way home from lunch he is the victim of a one-punch killing.
Each chapter of the novella begins with a verse out of sequence from Wallace Stevens’ famous poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird’ and like that poem, each chapter is told from a slightly different emotional and lyrical perspective. Parts of the novella are from Mendelssohn’s stream of consciousness and at other times we get the point of view of the detectives investigating the murder. The most fascinating aspects of the story are when McCann gives us an impersonal look at Mendelssohn’s last day as seen through the city’s silent security cameras. This reminded me of the great Eoin McNamee story – also a murder mystery – ‘Corpse Flowers’ which is almost entirely unpacked through descriptions of CCTV footage.
Peter Mendelssohn is a fairly convincing character, similar in outlook to Saul Bellow’s Artur Sammler, but perhaps there’s a little too much of Colum McCann in him; Mendelssohn is well versed in Irish poetry but doesn’t name-drop any Jewish writers and for a Litvak doctor’s son is oddly reticent with the Yiddishisms.  
In an afterword to Thirteen Ways of Looking McCann explains that he was half-way through the writing process of the book when he himself was mugged and badly beaten in Connecticut. Going back to his work in progress became part of the healing process. Jorge Luis Borges, in his influential essay ‘On Blindness’, states that “whatever happens [to a writer] including embarrassments and misfortunes, all have been given like clay, like material for our art.” McCann similarly mines his own misfortune and the book is a more powerful, poetic and melancholy one because of the rude incursion of real life into art. The murder mystery is solved agreeably and I don’t think many readers will begrudge McCann his rejection of the Law & Order ending regarding the verdict.
There are three other stories in Thirteen Ways Of Looking that appear to be more or less just tacked on at the of the book end and have little in common with the themes of the opening novella. In McCann’s two most recent story collections TransAtlantic and Let The Great World Spin – all the stories resonated, interlinked, bounced off and informed one another in artistically satisfying ways. Not so here, alas, where the links, such as they are, seem forced.
‘Treaty’ is the story of an Irish nun who was raped in South America by a terrorist now claiming to be a man of peace. She encounters her rapist in a London café and uncovers the truth about his supposed transformation. (This may be an allegory for Gerry Adams whose arrest and release for a cold case murder was very much in the New York media during the story’s composition.)
‘Sh’khol’ is about a Jewish-Irish woman whose deaf adopted son goes missing on a swimming trip in Galway. She’s a translator looking for an English equivalent of the Hebrew word Sh’kol (a parent who has lost his or her child). For her son to actually have drowned would be bathos worthy of O’Henry so there’s no real tension in this tale and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the characters or the situation - since when do Galway hookers have white sails?
The most interesting story of the three is ‘What Time Is It Now Where You Are?’ about a female US Marine in Afghanistan about to call her girlfriend back in South Carolina on New Year’s Eve. This story is rather brilliantly written as a meta-narrative in which Colum McCann races against a deadline to write a New Year’s eve story building the characters, the setting and the themes in his mind as the story progresses. It’s the most original and daring part of the entire book and it’s a shame that it’s so short.
         Thirteen Ways of Looking proves that Colum McCann is a fine miniaturist but I’d like to see him delve deep into a single subject again like he did with Dancer, a novel about the life of Rudolf Nureyev, a book that was lyrical, well researched and profound, and which remains his masterpiece. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Double

The Double is the kind of film you make if you are obsessed by Terry Gilliam and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and fortunately these are two good things to be obsessed by. Dostoyevsky invented the existential crack up novel 60 years before the French existentialists thought they had done it and Terry Gilliam invented steam-punk 30 years before everybody started doing it. The Double is a happy blend of both those ideas. A Dostoyevsky story set in a Terry Gilliam world with a little bit of Franz Kafka thrown in for fun. It's the story of a put upon office worker, Jesse Eisenberg, who has a crush on his workmate Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) but cant get up the courage to ask her out. One day he discovers that he has a doppelgänger in his office, someone who looks exactly like him but who is funnier, more confident, more charismatic, more aggressive and immediately more popular than he ever was. What unfolds next is witty and unsettling and if you've read your Kafka or seen a lot of Gilliam you'll know pretty much how things are going to work out. The Double was co-written and directed by Richard Ayoade who directed the equally brilliant and interesting Submarine a few years ago. Ayoade is the kind of eclectic and intelligent director who seems capable of turning his hand to any genre. When I first saw Submarine I assumed he was an introverted Welsh boy from the valleys (he's not). The Double feels like a very British film but nearly everyone in it speaks with an American accent and with its Eastern European tower blocks and steampunky Gilliamesque machines its sense of place is quite disconcerting. Avi Korine (Harmony Korine's brother) was the other co-writer and I imagine that quite a bit of the film's weirdness was down to him. Indeed the 'world building' of the Double is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie. Its a little bit Computer Chess, a little bit Brazil, a little bit Delicatessen and if you've seen any of those films you'll know exactly what I mean. If that sounds good and you're looking for a diverting, different, slow boiling thriller then the Double might be the very movie to add to your Netflix queue. Wallace Shawn and Noah Taylor have small parts in the film and if you're really observant you might just spot the legendary Chris Morris doing a cameo. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sean Duffy #5 Rain Dogs

If you wanna read the first six chapters of Sean Duffy #5, Rain Dogs, then click the link below. Feel free to read it here or cut and paste it into your portable device. This is the draft before the page proofs so some of this will change before the final version comes out in 2016, but its pretty close. 
Sean Duffy #5 chapters 1-6

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Alan Moore's Providence

Alan Moore's new comic Providence is set in 1919 in the New England world HP Lovecraft was creating for his Cthulhu mythos. This is nascent Cthulhu in its very beginnings as it came together in the author's mind. Moore imagines Lovecraft (and various avatars for Lovecraft) travelling around northern Massachusetts gathering folk wisdom, archaeological tidbits and weird historical facts that reveal a secret cult that is attempting to infiltrate the "Old Ones" into human society. 
I recently read Providence #3 and was pretty impressed by what Moore and his artist, the excellent Jacen Burrows, have set out to achieve. As in Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Stephen King's various Maine based fictions and in Lovecraft's work himself Moore imagines an America overflowing with the supernatural and that supernatural seems to come to a well-head most particularly in New England. As Thomas Hardy did in Wessex HP Lovecraft invented his own personal northern Massachusetts that was a mix of real and imagined towns. Providence #3 is set largely in one of these towns, Innsmouth, and thus prefigures the famous Lovecraft story Shadow Over Innsmouth. This being an Alan Moore comic we also get J Edgar Hoover, the women's suffrage movement, prohibition, the 1919 Equity Actors strike and a very odd, gothic and terrifying dream sequence where images from the future WW2 leak into the present relatively peaceful 1919. 
I think this is the most ambitious thing Alan Moore has done for years and the comic is beautifully produced, drawn and lettered. There are sly references to many other fictional characters in Lovecraft's world and the occult stylings of other writers including homages to Gaiman, King and even True Detective. If I have one complaint about Providence #3 its this: Moore has set his fictional Innsmouth in the wrong place. He's put it south of Cape Anne in Salem. Sure Salem is a resonant name but it's simply wrong for Innsmouth. Innsmouth is said to be on the water close to Ipswich and Rowley and just south of Newburyport. Salem is nowhere near Newburyport, Ipswich or Rowley. I spent every summer on Plum Island, Massachusetts from 1992 - 2009 so that part of Massachusetts is an area I got to know very well indeed. And if you've read Shadow Over Innsmouth (I read it for the very first time in the Newburyport Public Library where the hero of the story goes to find out about Innsmouth!) you'll know that the island with the tricky reef just off the coast where the demons live can only be Plum Island itself. In all the summers and a few winters I spent on PI I never noticed any fish people, undersea demons or Cthulhu himself but that's not surprising because Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn*... If by R'lyeh Lovecraft meant Rowley then Cthulhu is probably hanging out at this place if he's got any sense.
Still, this griping about the location of Innsmouth aside, Providence is a fine piece of work up there, I think, with the best of Alan Moore. 
*in his chamber at Rlyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming...

Monday, October 26, 2015


the Spanish edition has the best cover I think
Soumission is the new novel by Michel Houellebecq. Set in the France of 2022 it imagines the growth in the far right National Front party and the possibility of Marianne Le Pen becoming President of the Fifth Republic; in out-right panic the French left unifies behind a moderate Muslim candidate for president and he wins. The moderate Muslim turns out not to be so moderate: sharia law is introduced, the burka is made compulsory dress for women, harsh Islamic penal codes are introduced (including the return of the death penalty) women are banned from most jobs and building on decades of political correctness heavy censorship is introduced. In Houellebecq's fiction these reforms prove to be very popular - especially the full employment that is created when women are forced back into the home and the grisly penal system which satisfies a latent blood lust. The French people adapt to life under sharia with a gallic shrug just as most French people adapted to life under Vichy. 
Much ink has been spilled on the implausibility of Houellebecq's book but I don't think it's as implausible as all that. Certainly in 2022 this is an unlikely scenario but if demographic trends continue (4 words that you should always take with a pinch of salt) France could have a Muslim majority by 2050. And as for the rise of the far right? Well yesterday a very right wing government came to power in Poland, in Hungary the far right rules and anti immigration parties are increasingly relevant across much of Europe. No, the plausibility or implausibility of the book is a red herring, what's more important to ask is, is the book any good? And the answer to that is no not really. With rare exceptions most writers lose their sense of humour as they get older. The gift of melody and the gift of humour don't seem to flourish much past the age of 40 and Houellebecq's best books seem to be behind him now. Platform, Lanzarote, Atomised and to a lesser extent The Map and the Territory were biting and funny satires of French life and culture, Soumission is not quite up there with those, I'm afraid. I don't mind when a writer grinds his axe and shows you the grinding of the axe page after page as long as that axe grinding is entertaining or arresting or lyrical or funny. Soumission is axe grinding for the sake of axe grinding and the targets are pretty easy: French Islamists, Parisian left wing intellectuals, self important actors and politicians etc. Who couldn't make a book out of mocking those dudes? To borrow from Truman Capote: Houellebecq isn't so much writing this story as typing it. 
Soumission is a book with a lot of baggage. Houellebecq was on the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine when two unhinged Islamists burst into the offices and massacred most of the staff. Houellebecq himself went into hiding and now has a 24 police escort. You want to recommend Soumission just to spite those lunatics who threaten civil society and freedom of speech in the west, but I can't recommend it because I didn't really like it that much. (A fortiori I didn't like The Satanic Verses either (Rushdie - it seems to me - like Joseph Heller, really only had one book in him.)) I don't know if Houellebecq has shot his bolt now. He's living in a dismal part of Paris in a grim flat under more or less house arrest. I think maybe a holiday in Thailand might be good for him and for the rest of us who'd enjoy a return to his earlier, funnier, better books. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015


Magheramorne is a tiny hamlet on the A2 between Carrickfergus and Larne. My dad (not pictured) was from Magheramorne and my granny was born and lived there her whole life (also not pictured) well into the 1990s in a two room weaver style cottage. Magheramorne only has about 70 people living in it and there are still several McKintys around those parts. I spent quite a bit of my childhood in Magheramorne and a few years ago when I heard that a new HBO show Game of Thrones was filming in Magheramorne I was pretty excited. Before the show debuted my little brother and I had a gander around the sets that had been built in the old Magheramorne quarry. If you know the show you'll know that Castle Black is there and the Great Wall of Westeros. When we went there no one had heard of Game of Thrones and the sets had zero security. That has all changed of course and now you can go on many different Game of Thrones tours in Northern Ireland (the place where most of the show is filmed).
Game of Thrones won the Emmy Award for best drama last year and without doubt the best episode of the entire season was Hardhome (pictured) which also was entirely filmed in Magheramorne but this time on a set built on the shores of Larne Lough to simulate a village up in the polar regions of Westeros. While Jon Snow is up there trying to persuade the Wildings that they should flee south of the wall the village of Hardhome is attacked by the Night King and an army of the undead in a scene that left me and everyone else watching gasping in horror for 15 minutes. The very end of the scene is a Leone style staring contest between Jon Snow and the Night King and is probably the best things Thrones has done since season 3's The Red Wedding. The only weird thing about that scene is the fact that they filmed it exactly where my little brother and I used to go swimming as little kids and its where my dad used to swim across Larne Lough to Islandmagee every Sunday to visit his Granny McKee (my great grandmother). This (the final bit) looks like a scary situation but I assure you that safety from the White Walker army is only a three hundred metre swim away in the village of Mill Bay in Islandmagee.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back To The Future Day

Today, Wednesday 21st October 2015, is the future day that Marty McFly travels to in Back to the Future Part 2. I think we all can agree that the actual future 2015 sucks compared to the imagined future 2015 from the 1980s. In the imagined future we had flying cars, hoverboards, fossil fuels had been replaced by portable fusion reactors, clothes adjusted and cleaned themselves and things were just generally cooler. In the 1980s it was confidently predicted that in 30 years time space shuttles wd be taking off every week, we'd have a base on the moon and people wd have walked on Mars. Cancer wd surely be cured by now and with detente happening between the USA and the USSR the future wd have fewer wars. The actual 2015? Uhm, none of that. Sure we have smart phones (or at least you do as I don't have a mobile phone of any kind) but I think we'd be willing swap those for antigravity devices and emission free fusion reactors, right? 
By the time BTTF came out the DeLorean Motor Company had already gone bankrupt, John DeLorean's final attempt to save the company by becoming a major international cocaine smuggler (!) having failed miserably. In 1984 my dad took me and my little brother round the Belfast docks where we saw hundreds of gleaming DeLoreans sitting in limbo while the bankruptcy courts decided what to do with them. Most of the DeLoreans were unlocked and you could sit inside them as me and my brother did. Back To The Future came out the next year and the DeLorean became something of a cult car - two years too late to save the Belfast factory. What happened to all those DeLoreans in the Belfast docks I don't know but a good condition DeLorean today sells for about 30,000 USD.
If you're interested I wrote a book sort of about the DeLorean scandal in Belfast called I Hear The Sirens In The Street. It begins, of course, with a quote from Back to the Future... 

... Thursday update: ok this was pretty cute:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Moon In A Dead Eye

Big thanks to Cary Watson of this parish for turning me on to Pascal Garnier who is a kind of a cross between JG Ballard and Jim Thompson with a distinct Gallic twist, if you can imagine such a combo. At a crisp 120 pages Moon In A Dead Eye reminds me of those brisk Ballard novels from the early seventies that wd have a simple 3 act structure. Act 1 introduces the characters and the problem, Act 2 the problems mount, Act 3 everything falls apart. 

Sick of all the young people disturbing their peace Martial and Odette Sudre move to a gated retirement community Les Conviviales in the South of France. They're the first to arrive and for a long time they're on their own wondering if they have made a huge mistake. It rains all the time and there's nothing much to do. Then Maxime and Marlène Node show up with their baby grand piano and gold jewellry. Max is an ex soldier and he thinks of himself as a lady's man and a player but he seems harmless enough. The two couples get to know each other and the caretaker, Monsieur Flesh, and Nadine who has been hired to organize group activities. One day the gate gets stuck and the couples are trapped in the complex. When the gate is finally fixed the feeling of paranoia increases as M. Flesh is seen killing a wild cat and when he informs the couples that a "dangerous band of gypsies has moved in down the road." Then another mysterious new comer arrives, Léa, who appears to be a bit unbalanced. Max produces a pistol to protect everyone from the "gypsy menace." The small group of five beings to argue with each other and gradually the shoddily built complex of Les Conviviales begins to fray. 

There may be an entire sub genre of French literature about this topic but my cultural references aren't so deep. For me it was a happy blend of Bonjour Tristesse, JG Ballard's Supercannes (and High Rise) and a little bit of Edward St Aubyn's Never Mind thrown in for fun. Moon In A Dead Eye has been described as a noir but to me it was much more a black comedy (and quite a funny one at that). It would make an excellent film perhaps starring Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu & Catherine Deneuve.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Brief History of 7 Killings by Marlon James

This was the only one of the Booker Prize shortlisted books that I'd actually read. The others looked pretty dull and in truth this book wasn't the best either. Not bad certainly but not great either. The story was a good one - an assassination attempt on Bob Marley - and the events leading up to the hit and the consequences that flowed from it. But for me the book went on far too long and it just wasn't engaging enough. This was the flaw in The Luminaries too, a nice idea, good setting but after beating you over the head for 400 pages with pretty dense prose you finally just grew weary of the whole enterprise. This is the second crime novel in 3 years to win the Booker Prize so I guess its nice that the Booker judges are finally acknowledging crime fiction, it's just a pity that the crime novels that excite the Booker judges are a little on the tame and turgid side. It's also interesting that yet again the Booker judges are willing to give the prize to just about anyone anywhere in the world as long as they're not working class and living in the British Isles.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Allez Les Verts: Why All Irishmen and Women Should Support Northern Ireland FC

a sort of recapitulation of an old post in light of recent events...
On Thursday night in Belfast the football gods smiled. The day had begun well with Jurgen Klopp being appointed as Liverpool's manager and things just got better. Northern Ireland beat Greece 3:1 to qualify for their first tournament of any kind in 30 years: the 2016 European Championships in France. They will be joining Wales, England and probably the Republic of Ireland too who - incredibly - beat the world champions Germany in Dublin also on Thursday night. Northern Ireland are top of Group F and have qualified for Euro16 against impossible odds and when every pundit and bookie in the business said they would likely be fifth in the group below the European football power houses of Finland, Romania, Hungary and Greece. Now, if you live outside of Ulster you won't be hearing much about Northern Ireland's incredible achievement. Why is this? The answer is because everybody hates Northern Ireland. The meta-narrative of the Northern Ireland football team is seemingly not a good one because it is connected to Northern Ireland the state. This meta-narrative runs like this: when Ireland became gloriously independent in 1922 a tiny rump of six counties decided to stay with Britain. These largely Protestant fanatics ran Northern Ireland as a kind of Boer South Africa until 1968 when the whole statelet erupted into civil war. A civil war that did not abate until the 1990's with thousands dead. The name Northern Ireland therefore is stained with the legacy of sectarianism, racism, colonialism & war. The Republic of Ireland football team by contrast is Ireland's real football team that every Irishman and woman and every Irish exile should support. This is the meta-narrative and its why Northern Ireland seldom gets positive coverage in the press anywhere in the world outside Belfast. N. Ireland is something of an embarrassment. Of course a lot of this is true and it doesn't help that Northern Ireland's home games are played at Windsor Park the home of Linfield which has been described as the Glasgow Rangers of Ulster. Not exactly a welcoming place for Catholic supporters. And in the 1980s it was a pretty terrifying environment especially in the old kop stand where you could get roughed up by skin-heads (this happened to me) and where racist invective was all too prevalent. To shoot itself further in the foot these "fans" would sometimes barrack Catholic players and so some Catholic players decided reasonably enough that they wouldn't play for Northern Ireland at all and preferred to play for the Republic. So this is a pretty easy meta-narrative to embrace if you live outside of NI (or if you're a nationalist living inside Northern Ireland) - if you want to cheer for an Irish football team cheer for the Republic. 
Unfortunately for a world that wd prefer the N Ireland football team to just go way, the team is actually pretty damn good. In fact in terms of per capita population its one of the best teams in the world. Northern Ireland has qualified for three world cups. 133 countries have never qualified for a world cup and Northern Ireland has qualified three times. What's also very weird is that when they get to the world cup Northern Ireland always does very well. In fact some people have argued that in terms of per capita Northern Ireland is the most successful country ever in the world cup finals. You heard me right. Poor, benighted, ignored, loathed Northern Ireland always seems to shine on the big stage. And now we're doing it again. We were in Group F in the European Championships against 4 teams that when the qualifying process began had higher FIFA world rankings than us. We were expected to end up second from the bottom in this group. But it didnt happen. While all the media types were talking about England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland very quietly, off screen as usual, just kept winning and drawing against superior opposition gradually moving up the table. 
There's another problem with the meta narrative of a wicked Northern Ireland team and a cheerful plucky Republic of Ireland team that represents true Irishmen and women everywhere and its this: Northern Ireland is, in fact, the true Irish football team and it always has been and it's the Republic of Ireland & FIFA who divided soccer on the island of Ireland. In rugby, boxing, hockey, pretty much every sport you can think of there is only 1 Irish team but not soccer. Why? The answer is this: The IFA, the Irish Football Association was founded in Belfast in 1880. This was the period of the Gaelic Revival in Ireland and soccer was considered to be a foreign game by the intellectuals down in Dublin so they didn't care about it. It was only after the partition of Ireland in 1923 that the Free State authorities rebelled against the idea of having such a popular game as football controlled from a "foreign land", so they set up a rival organisation called the FAI and applied to FIFA for membership. It was the Irish Republic, the FAI, who divided football in Ireland. Sensibly the IFA in Belfast ignored this usurper organisation and continued to select players from all over Ireland for its team. It wasn't until the 1950s when that pernicious and corrupt organisation FIFA noticed that some players were playing for both the FAI team and the IFA team that they decided they had to put a stop to it. They insisted the IFA call its team Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland call its team the Republic of Ireland. The IFA didn't want to do this but FIFA makes the rules. So since the 1950s the IFA has only been allowed by FIFA to select players from the six counties of Northern Ireland. The FAI selects from the 26 counties down South (and anyone who has an Irish grandparent anywhere else in the world). The IFA reluctantly accepted this six county rule but didn't actually change the badge that Northern Ireland players played under until the 1980's when the worlds "Northern Ireland" where added to the IFA logo, again after FIFA pressure. But historically the IFA which is still headquartered in Belfast is the true Irish football team and until FIFA's meddling was the Irish football team from 1880 - 1954. But for FIFA's corrupt shenanigans the IFA wd still represent all of Ireland. De jure if not de facto we still do. We have been robbed of our birthright. We are princes in exile. We are kings over the water. Take a look at this George Best #11 replica shirt from the 1970s NI team that I own. The only thing it says on the shirt are the words: Irish Football Association.
This is the underdog story that no one but me will ever tell you about. Northern Ireland always ranks number 1 or 2 in the FIFA top 50 rankings per head of population. We always do well in the world cups. We always beat teams that are consistently ranked above us. But you'll never see a movie about the plucky NI team because the prevailing meta narrative is too strong. That's not our only burden. FIFA despises us, the Republic of Ireland is indifferent or hostile to us, Windsor Park is not a nice place to play football, Belfast is not a beautiful city, much of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland prefers to root for the Republic team. But that, however, is changing. A jubilant Rory McIlroy and many other Catholics were there on Thursday night to support a religiously and ethnically diverse NI squad. And even the Guardian think this team just might be able to bring both sides of Belfast together.
Still Manicheans  (those who simplify the world into good and evil) hate nuance and to support Northern Ireland you need to be able to embrace nuance. The Northern Ireland football team is too much associated with the toxic legacy of sectarianism and the Troubles for most people. It's so easy (too easy in fact) to be an England supporter or a Scotland supporter or a Brazil supporter or a supporter of team USA where nationalism for these nations is easily consumed, packaged, boring and simple. But to be a Northern Ireland supporter you need to have a heterogeneous mind able to do Scott Fitzgerald's trick: the bifurcation of your consciousness into opposing ideas. You need to be able to appreciate Ireland's complex past, you need to be able to ignore the rump idiocy of sectarian supporters on the terraces and cheer for a plucky bunch of 2nd rate players who somehow manage to raise their game on the international stage again and again and again.
Northern Ireland, Wales, England and probably the Republic of Ireland too will all be playing in European Championships next summer. If you're an Irish exile I don't mind a bit if you cheer for RofI, but spare a thought, a prayer and a cheer for the original Irish football team who will be playing there too. I'll be there. Allez les verts. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Catch Me Daddy

Bleak, misanthropic, grim, depressing, nihilistic, melancholic, sad. . .these are some of the adjectives that have been used to describe the film Catch Me Daddy released on DVD and itunes last week, which I am going to try to recommend to you despite all of that. A crime drama set in West Yorkshire Catch Me Daddy tells the story of a young couple on the run. The boy is Scottish, the girl a second generation Pakistani Brit and this, of course, is the rub. The girl's father not only wants to find her but he wants to murder her for running off with a non Muslim. Although the words "honour killing" aren't mentioned in the movie this is clearly the motor for the story. Beautiful, stark and minimalistic are three other adjectives I would use for Catch Me Daddy's cinematography and acting. There really isn't much of a plot here but the way the movie is shot and the performances from the largely untrained local cast are naturalistic and superb. There's a depth, honesty and integrity to these performances that the Cumberbatches and Cavills and Hiddlestones of this world will never reach in a million years. Indeed Catch Me Daddy might be the best acted and shot British film since Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank which also features an unknown lead actress and cinematographer Robbie Ryan. (Robbie Ryan has been the cinematographer on 3 of my favourite films of the last 3 years: Catch Me Daddy, Slow West and Fish Tank.) Daniel Wolfe directed Catch Me Daddy, wrote it with this brother and this is his debut feature after making a number of award winning music videos. 

Still this is tough material to watch and it isnt for the faint hearted. Peter Bradshaw writing in the Guardian calls Catch Me Daddy John Ford on the Yorkshire moors. I imagine he's thinking of The Searchers but if you'll recall The Searchers has some fine comic light relief moments from Ken Curtis. There is no such easing of the mood in Catch Me Daddy. This is an England of drugs and poverty and tribal loyalties and violence. This is an England where civilisation is broken and the moral law has failed and everything is going to the dogs. 

The soundtrack features 3 of my favourite songs - 1 mainstream hit and 2 cult classics. Patti's Smith's Horses is the one everyone should know (which plays during a dance sequence) but the other two songs which you might not know are My Name is Carnivale by the great and largely forgotten Jackson C Frank and Exuma's Dambala, which I haven't heard for years and years and which immediately reminded me of the sound of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.  Good music, beautiful imagery, great acting, tough noir story telling. Caveat emptor. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Andy Weir's The Martian or Potato Growing For Beginners

a post from June that I'm reblogging to coincide with the movie release...

Last year The Melbourne Age newspaper asked me (and a whole bunch of other much more interesting people) to pick two books which I had enjoyed recently that I thought deserved a wider audience in Australia. The two books I picked were H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald and The Martian by Andy Weir. I'm not normally on the cutting edge of things but shortly after I mentioned how much I had enjoyed H Is For Hawk it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for best non fiction work and became a best seller; shortly after I mentioned The Martian the book found a publisher, got optioned by Ridley Scott for development as a movie and it became a best seller too. If only I could apply this voodoo to my own bloody books.
Anyway what I wanted to talk about is potatoes. The Martian is a story about an astronaut, Mark Watney, who gets stranded on Mars, set roughly 20 years from now at around the time of the first manned mission there. Mars tries to kill Watney in a million different ways though mostly by cold, lack of air, lack of water and starvation. The fun of the novel is watching how the self mocking and resourceful astronaut manages to solve a series of engineering problems in an attempt to keep himself alive for a few days longer. And then there's the potatoes. He doesn't have enough food to survive for very long but he remembers the Thanksgiving potatoes that NASA gave them and because he studied botany as a minor at college (there is some good botany humour in the book) he manages to mix enough potting soil, Martian regolith and freeze dried shit to make sufficient earth to grow a supply of potatoes that will save his life. The growing of the potatoes sequence is one of the most fascinating and indeed exciting (I'm not kidding) portions of the book. 
A few months ago I wondered how easy it would be to grow a potato plant on Earth so I took an ordinary small red potato and shoved it in a pot in the back garden. I forgot all about until this morning. Potatoes must clearly like it when you forget all about them. I never watered the plant or did anything else to it at all and this (above) is the result. This is the first thing I've ever grown from a root or tuber. Thank you Andy Weir you've made a horticulture convert out of me in a way that my previous favourite sci-fi botanist, alas, could not. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Black Mass

Whitey Bulger much more afraid of the dentists chair than the electric chair evidently
Wow was this movie dull. Not a brilliant idea to cast Johnny Depp as iconic Southie mobster Whitey Bulger and then sideline him so his story is told through a bunch of dreary, uncharismatic secondary characters nobody cares about. Depp is actually pretty good as the chilly, psychopathic, paranoid, kind-of-stupid Irish-American hoodlum but his performance is buried in a film of breathtaking tediousness. The cast includes Matt Damon's ginger cousin, Aussie leading man Joel Edgerton (who is great in the creepy drama The Gift which is still playing in some cinemas) and it-boy Benedict Cumberbatch (as Whitey's brother Bill) but none of them are remotely interesting on screen. Bulger himself wasn't that interesting either in real life but the story of Whitey and his senator brother should have been electric. It wasn't. The screenplay was written by Mark Mallouk (who I hadn't heard of) and the great Jez Butterworth (of Jerusalem fame) but Mallouk is from Kansas City and went to, ahem, Pepperdine and Butterworth is a posh English boy. What the hell do they know about Boston, never mind Southie? Seriously, was Dennis Lehane not available? We're in Boston in the 70s and nobody mentions busing or the Sox or race riots or clam chowda or Larry Bird? Did the writers even visit Boston? 
Black Mass is dismal stuff. The story plods along for about two hours and then just sort of gives up. It's an incredible waste of talent only leavened a little by some hilarious attempts at Boston accents. If you'll remember the last time they sort of did the Whitey Bulger story it was called The Departed starring Jack Nicholson and that movie famously had the worst Boston accents of all time. (The recollection of Martin Sheen arguing with Alec Baldwin brings tears of joy to my eyes to this very day.) The Boston accents in Black Mass are also hilarious. Benedict Cumberbatch is my new favourite worst Boston accent on film - comedically it's almost up there with Sheen - but admittedly this bit of mirth does take you somewhat out of the movie. 
Whitey Bulger is probably not a compelling enough character to have a third movie made about his life and for this the muse of drama is grateful but the muse of unintentional comedy is sad. Here's Benedict as William Bulger in his most exciting scene in the entire film.

Never Start A Land War In Asia, Never Go In Against A Sicilian When Death Is On The Line, Never Mess With A Belfast Hipster

A little under a year ago two brothers, Alan and Gary Keely, from Belfast opened a cafe in Brick Lane in the East End of London. The cafe is called Cereal Killer and sells only cereal, milk, pop tarts and a few other breakfasty treats. The hook is that it has over 100 types of breakfast cereal and dozens of different types of milk. The brothers are hipsters and the patrons are hipsters. A bowl of milk and cereal costs three quid. So far so completely harmless. What a lovely idea everyone thought until a journo at the official opening asked one of the brothers if he thought it was ethical to open a hipster cafe charging three quid for a bowl of cereal in a deprived part of London. That remark got the ball rolling and the Cereal Killer cafe over the last year has become the target of a hate campaign by anti-capitalist protestors, anti-gentrification protesters and by the anarchist group Class War. The paper I read, The Guardian, has largely been pro protester publishing articles from various factions who cannot abide the presence of the Cereal Killer cafe in their midst. The protests have rumbled along in the background for about a year until last weekend when Class War decided to march down Brick Lane and attack the Cereal Killer cafe. The Class War protestors were carrying severed pigs heads and brandishing torches and rather in the manner of Kristallnacht bricks were thrown at the cafe's windows, paint was daubbed on the walls and the patrons were prevented from leaving. The Guardian article on the attack has video from inside the cafe as part of the assault was happening. Children can be heard crying inside the cafe while Gary Keely assures the customers that they will be kept safe. 
Over the next two days the Guardian newspaper published an article from someone who took part in the march where he sort of apologised if children were upset by the incident but insisted that the real criminals were the people who were destroying Brick Lane with their trendy ideas (you should read the comment thread under that one); and a day later they published an interview with the founder of Class War who not only approved of the attack on Cereal Killer but said that it was much more effective to go after an independent cafe rather than the nearby chains of Starbucks, Costa Coffee etc because it got a lot more publicity for the cause and an independent could be much more easily intimidated and driven out. 
Well yes, except that the brothers are from Belfast and people from Belfast don't go to pieces because a bunch of upper middle class chinless wonders carrying torches are trying to intimidate them. The average kid from Belfast is a hell of a lot tougher than the Seumas Milnes and Ian Boneses and Russell Brands of this world. And a beardy twin hipster boy from Belfast would have had to have been very tough indeed not to get the shite knocked out of him walking home from Lavery's come a Saturday night. The whole episode moreover is rife with irony: one of the banners the mob was carrying said "Refugees Welcome" just not, apparently, refugees from Ireland. It should also be remembered that the East End of London used to proudly display signs in shop windows stating "No Blacks, No Irish." The journey from fascist to fervent anti fascist and back again is not the journey of a million miles. 
In a response article in the Guardian last Tuesday Alan Keely said that he and his brother had grown up under the shadow of sectarian gangs in Belfast and the Class War mob didn't scare them. They weren't going to let anyone frighten them out of their cafe and furthermore they would do everything they could to protect their customers. This is a promise I would take seriously if I were one of the Class War social justice warriors commuting back to mummy's home in Hampstead. To add to the list of classic blunders Wallace Shawn talks about in the Princess Bride, let me add never mess with a Belfast hipster when his business is on the line. Posh boy from north London wearing a Dolce & Gabbana hoodie v working class kid from Belfast defending his customers? I know who my money would be on.