Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The End Of Theocracy In Ireland

"yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."
--Molly Bloom

The triumph of the "yes" vote in Friday's gay marriage referendum in Ireland is another nail in the coffin of the power of the church in Ireland. The Catholic Church vehemently urged its parishioners to vote "no" to gay marriage but the parishioners didn't listen and the yes vote won by a comfortable margin. Ireland is the only country in the world where gay marriage has become law by a popular vote in a plebiscite rather than by a vote from parliamentarians or a diktat imposed by a Supreme Court. 

The Catholic church's power has been waning in the Republic of Ireland for decades. The 1937 Constitution of Eire brought in by Eamon De Valera in consultation with the fundamentalist Archbishop John Charles McQuaid is a remarkably sectarian document that begins thusly:                                                                                                

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial.

No "We hold these truths to be self evident" or "We the people"; nope in Ireland the laws come direct from heaven and heaven's administrators are the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was given control of the schools and many aspects of life in the Republic. Drunk with power the church spent the next five decades abusing altar boys, raping kids, beating boys and girls, sending unmarried mothers to work as slaves in laundries etc. etc. etc. In the 1990s two things began to happen. First, the Celtic Tiger economy allowed many young Irish people to stay at home and work rather than emigrate. Second, an emboldened Irish media began to report on negative stories about the church. With the dissenters staying home rather than leaving and with scandal after scandal finally making the papers a tide of revulsion against the theocrats began. Once the floodgates opened and the Catholic Church began obfuscating and lying about the decades of abuse heaped upon children in its care the sensible people of the Irish Republic turned their back on what Christopher Hitchens called a "creepy cult of professional virgins." The gay marriage referendum is a sign of how far the Church's status has fallen. The church desperately wanted a no vote - the people voted yes. The next thing the Irish will have to do by plebiscite is change their - still - extremely restrictive law on abortion that regularly kills women (!) but, you know, one step at a time...Also it cannot be forgotten that the Catholic church controls education in the Irish Republic and in half the schools in Northern Ireland, but again one step at a time... 
In Northern Ireland things, however, are still pretty damn terrible if, like me, you believe in the sensible libertarianism of John Stuart Mill. Abortion is illegal in Ulster (the only place in the UK where this is the case), racism is still endemic in parts of Belfast and gay marriage is a long way off. Indeed Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay marriage is not permitted. Northern Ireland is roughly 50:50 Protestant/Catholic; northern Catholics appear to be only slightly more conservative than their fellows down south but it's the unionists particularly the DUP who have blocked gay marriage in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Prominent members of the DUP would like to see creationism taught in schools as part of the science curriculum and many of their elected representatives believe that the Bible is literally true and that the scientific consensus on man made global warming is some kind of global conspiracy. Sheesh. The north still has some catching up to do if it wants to enter the twenty first century. Yes, you can attempt to impose a liberal morality on a reluctant population (Brown v Board of Education is an example where this has worked) and in Ulster the recent gay cake saga has attempted to do a similar thing, but its much better if the morality comes from the bottom up. (I agree with Simon Jenkins on this one) 
I wonder what would happen if a referendum on gay marriage were held in Northern Ireland? I think the politicians on all sides might be surprised by the results. There is some evidence that in the quiet privacy of the ballot booth the people might vote yes despite the Biblical rantings and ravings of their elected representatives. The population of Ireland is getting younger and young people have no truck with this kind of nonsense. The theocrats and Biblical literalists are on their way out. Plug Alert. You only have to read my, ahem, award winning novel, The Cold Cold Ground, set in the nightmare year of 1981 when homosexuality was punishable by 3 years imprisonment to see how far we have come since then. 
Ireland is marching into the future and there's not much the people in silly hats (mitre, bowler or beret) can do to stop it. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

My Favourite Swimming Books

These are my favourite books about swimming, swimmers and the writers who have reflected on swimming. They are not coaching books or how to books. They are also in no particular order. 

Find A Way - Diana Nyad. Diana Nyad's life and what inspired her to try - again - to swim from Havana to Key West and succeed this time at the age of 64. Diana Nyad is one of my heroes. 

Waterlog - Roger Deakin. The eccentric Englishman's attempt to swim wild (in rivers, canals, loughs, lakes & seas) all over Britain. A classic of the genre. 

Hell And High Water - Sean Conway. An unemployed man living with his mum decides to swim nearly 1000 miles (in stages) from Land's End to John O'Groats and raise money for the charity War Child. 

Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer As Hero - Charles Sprawson. The best look at swimming through literature and attempting literary swims (the Hellespont, The Grand Canal etc.) Everyone should read this book even if they don't actually swim. 

Swimming to Antarctica - Lynne Cox. Maybe the greatest long distance swimmer of all time the amazing Lynne Cox recounts her adventures all over the world including, of course, swimming to Antrarctica. 

The Man Who Swam The Amazon - Martin Strehl. Another ordinary bloke who decided one day to swim the Amazon River. Why? Cause no one else had done it, of course. 

Swim: Why We Love The Water - Lynne Sher. Does what it says on the tin. A nice book to have if you liked Sprawson's Black Masseur and want some more in a smiliar vein. 

The Swimmer - John Cheever. A classic. No point in buying this though. One of my alma maters (can you have more than one mater?) has put it online for nothing, here. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Two Questions for the Game of Thrones Showrunners

When I read the first Game of Thrones novel in 1999 I liked the book's complexity, psychological depth and particularly the fact that it had empowered female leads. Until the 1970's fantasy fiction had a poor record of female empowerment. Just look at the covers of most fantasy books written between 1968 and 1978 and you'll see what I'm talking about. However the great Ursula Le Guin, the great Angela Carter and the great Julian May et al came along to shake up the assumptions of that tedious boys club. And then in the 1980s queer and feminist critics started making fun of the horrible writing and gender stereotypes in science fiction and fantasy and by the mid 90's when George RR Martin began GOT the old misogynous shit just didn't play anymore. Martin's female leads were just as ruthless, clever and brilliant as the men and the book was all the better for it. 
Game of Thrones the TV show initially was praised for the same reasons. Strong feisty female leads but lately the show has taken a backward step. If you're a regular reader here you'll know that I've supported GOT many times in the past. GOT is filmed largely in County Antrim where I grew up and its been a joy for me to see my beautiful home county shared with the wider world. Before GOT aired my little brother and I broke into the Castle Black set, I've talked about accents on GOT, I've raved about Peter Dinklage and I wrote a long piece for the Guardian unpacking some of the criticism of Thrones that it was just a cod medieval soap opera....
But Game of Thrones, the TV show, has had some very troubling gender politics and lately its been getting much worse. In this week's episode Sansa Stark was brutally raped on her wedding night - an event that does not happen in the book; last year Cersei Lannister was raped by her own brother - an event that does not happen in the book. Three of the four female leads in the show now have been raped in front of the cameras. Raped by the writers and showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff that is, because Cersei and Sansa were not raped in the books. The only major female lead left who hasnt been raped is Arya Stark who is played by 15 year old actress Maisie Williams...give them time I suppose.
Game of Thrones's treatment of female nudity has been preposterous and asymmetrical from the start. HBO is a pay channel with no content restrictions so they are free to show female and male nudity without worrying about sponsors or government censorship. And yet they do worry. My guess is that well over 30 female actresses and young female Irish extras have appeared nude on the show, whereas unless I'm misremembering only 2 male actors have been exposed to full frontal nudity. The male directors, writers and show runners have no problem asking young women to get naked but seemingly they do have a huge problem asking male actors to do the same thing. 
A real backlash has set now against this nonsense. The three best articles dealing with Sansa Stark's rape on the show were written by very pissed off women. Laura Hudson in the Wired recapJoanna Robinson in Vanity Fair and Melissa Leon in the Daily Beast. Men need to be as angry about this bullshit as women are. If you're a Thrones fan you should read all three articles.
My two questions to the Game of Thrones showrunners are these: 
1) why use rape to debase, disempower and humiliate the female leads in your show when this wasn't in the books and is entirely unnecessary for the plot? 
2) why are you so fucking prude about male nudity and yet so cavalier about female nudity? Why the asymmetry?

Monday, May 18, 2015

The American Dream Always Comes True: Mad Men's Unironic Denouement

Happy endings all around: Everyone got what they wanted in the final episode of
Mad Men (except for Betty who was disposed of like the wife
in the golf joke in episode 1) 
I was there at the beginning so I felt I had to be there at the end. Like the Sopranos, the show where Matthew Weiner cut his teeth, Mad Men ended with a whimper not a bang. When I reviewed the pilot episode a million years and two trouser sizes ago I said that it was an "intelligent, reflective television show that cast a witty and introspective light on the recent past." 
Mea culpa. Mad Men wasn't as smart or as introspective or as piercing as it or I thought it was. As if digesting fully David Foster Wallace's criticism that "irony is the song of the bird who has learned to love its cage" Mad Men decided to ditch irony and go for sincerity as the series progressed. In the final season Don quits McCann Erickson, has a mid life crisis, drives through the west having adventures like John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley or Kane in Kung Fu and then in a hippy colony comes up with the idea for the I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke ad and returns to work. That was it. Mid life crisis leads to a great idea for an ad for sugar water. This was basically the plot of every season of Mad Men. Mid life crisis, attempt to introspect or extrovert or find love and this attempt leads to a great ad idea for a client. Mad Men wasn't a rejection of post war American materialistic culture it was an attempt to shore it up. It wasn't Matthew Weiner's critique of his parents generation. It was a love letter to these parents. Even Ad Men Get The Blues: ahhhh. Occasionally Mad Men would have a straw man hippie attack Don as "the man", but we were supposed to know better. Don was on a journey, Don thought about things, you're wrong greasy hippie. But the greasy hippie was right. The Mad Men martini shakers, Mad Men tie clips, Mad Men whisky decanters attest to the fact. Mad Men wasn't a TV show at all really, it was just a vector to sell us ads on AMC, DVD box sets and Mad Men merchandise. 
You don't have to have an interesting political message if you can dazzle us with your writing. True Detective, for example, had a hoary old plot and old fashioned archetypes but my God the writing on that show: the brilliant structure, the superb dialogue, the idea that working class characters could be philosophically literate. Mad Men's writing declined precipitously after the first season when the ideas began to run out and then even dumb TV critics noticed that it was going in circles (but they thought the circles meant something). In the final episode the inconvenient first wife gets terminal cancer, the flighty second wife never gets mentioned at all and everyone else gets a happy ending: Peggy and Stan get engaged, Eyepatch guy gets to be head of advertising at his father in laws company, Roger marries again, Joan forms her own company, even Pete Campbell (who I guess we're supposed to forget raped a German aupair in Season 2) goes off with Trudy to run LearJet and become super rich. Everybody wins except boring Betty and Don takes the cake by creating the most iconic ad of the 70s.  
I'm not going to talk in depth about the overrated acting on Mad Men

Jon Hamm can do two emotions, this:     :|    and this:     :\   

but I will talk about Mad Men's production values. Mad Men always looked cheap compared to an HBO or a BBC show. The sets looked fake, the few exteriors that were filmed were always in California, the back projection in the car driving scenes always looked terrible. (In a sitcom you can get away with horrible back projection but it doesn't work in a drama that's going for neorealism.) For a programme that made a boatload of cash for the network, the cast and the showrunners they sure didn't spread a lot of that cash around to the people who did the actual filming.
I suppose we get the culture we deserve. And we deserved Mad Men. We're a shallow, silly lot, who don't like to challenge the status quo and prefer things the way they are. We're not going to swim the Hellespont or work in an orphanage in Lesotho. We're going to watch telly and drink Coke and eat caramel corn. The Prime Minister of the UK is man who went to Eton and Oxford like a score of Prime Ministers before him. The 2016 Presidential Election will be another round of Clinton V Bush. Mad Men was perfect for us & that's why there's been so much lamenting about its departure. But don't worry, like a bad Coca Cola ad or an insincere politician or an entirely invented pop band there will be another Mad Men along soon enough to distract you and me from what's really going on. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Max Tegmark's Multiverses

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Swimmer As Hero

(a post from the blog's infancy with a new video...)
I had never heard of Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur - The Swimmer as Hero until I read a review of the book by JG Ballard in an essay collection. Ballard endorsed it so strongly that I ordered it immediately. It is a cultural and literary history of swimming through the ages, enlived by Mr Sprawson's own swimming exploits: learning to swim as a boy in India, bathing at Pliny's house in Como, dodging Russian tankers as he attempts the Hellespont, lounging in the pools of Hollywood. Sprawson is one of those people who have read everything and he must have dozens of notebooks full of swimming references which he generously doles out for our amusement in lovely, streamlined prose. Byron gets his own chapter as do the Romans, Greeks and German romantics and many likely and unlikely figures in between. The book is charmingly illustrated and bound. It would be flawless but for the fact that it lacks an index. Though published by the small University of Minnesota Press it has been continually in print since 1993; so I would urge U Minn to hire an indexer for the next printing and if they don't Mr Sprawson should jump to Penguin or NYRB who would, I'm sure, love to have him on their lists. I found this video (below) on youtube in 2015. Its an excerpt from a longer documentary that I wd love to see.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Poetry In Oxford

Haven't quite had your fill of elections in the UK? Boy are you in luck with this blogpost. My old friend Alicia Stallings has been nominated for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Every five years the university convocation (all its graduates and current professors) elect a new professor of poetry - they've been doing this since 1708 and there have been quite a few notable profs who have gotten the job: WH Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney etc. You can read the full list and what the post entails, here. The first Professor of Poetry I encountered was Seamus Heaney who was giving a memorable lecture on Hero and Leander when he was interrupted and heckled by a foaming madman who was railing against the lack of metre & rhyme in modern poetry. The madman was dragged out by an aged security guard and Heaney, unruffled, continued. With me that day was Alicia Stallings who was my flatmate at Lady Margaret Hall. I was studying for an M Phil in politics and philosophy and she was doing an M St in classics. Alicia was then already an accomplished classicist, completely at home translating Latin and Greek poetry. 
Alicia was born and grew up in suburban Georgia before attending the University of Georgia at Athens. This was an exciting time to be in Athens as it was the heyday of a little band called REM and Alicia has written about the experience of being at the birth of the alternative music scene, here. When I knew Alicia she was already writing fiction and poetry. One of her stories was selected for the prestigious May Anthology of Oxford & Cambridge Short Stories and this was only the first of Alicia's many honours. Her debut poetry collection, Archaic Smile, received the 1999 Richard Wilbur Award and was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award. Since then she has won or been shortlisted for nearly every poetry prize going including the Pushcart Prize, The Eunice Tietjens Prize, The James Dickey Award and The National Critics Book Circle Award. In 2011 she was given a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" and was picked by Penguin Classics to do the new translation of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura. 
Alicia has lived with her husband and two sons in Athens since 1999 and has regularly reported back on the chaos and surprising normalcy of that turbulent city for National Public Radio and the Times Literary Supplement. Alicia's poems have been published in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine and just about everywhere serious poets get published. She writes verse in a number of modes both modern and neo classical. She's not afraid to rhyme or to write in free verse. One of my favourite AE Stallings poems is this one: 

The Machines Mourn the Passing of People

We miss the warmth of their clumsy hands,
The oil of their fingers, the cleansing of use
That warded off dust, and the warm abuse
Lavished upon us as reprimands.

We were kicked like dogs when we were broken,
But we did not whimper.  We gritted our cogs—
An honor it was to be treated as dogs,
To incur such warm words roughly spoken,

The way that they pleaded with us if we balked—
"Come on, come on" in a hoarse whisper
As they would urge a reluctant lover—
The feel of their warm breath when they talked!

How could we guess they would ever be gone?
We are shorn now of tasks, and the lovely work—
Not toiling, not spinning—like lilies that shirk—
Like the brash dandelions that savage the lawn.

The air now is silent of curses or praise.
Jilted, abandoned to hells of what weather,
Left to our own devices forever,
We watch the sun rust at the end of its days.

Alicia faces some stiff competition for the Professor of Poetry position. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka is up for the post and he's the early bookies favourite. He's the choice of the old establishment and he's also gotten the most celebrity endorsements. In a previous election he may have been the right man for the job but really it's time the men stepped aside. They've never had a woman as Professor of Poetry in the entire history of the university and even when Ruth Padel was actually elected to the job in 2010 she was driven out by a disgraceful whispering campaign against her and she resigned before formally taking up the post. Yes gentlemen women do write poetry and they've been doing it since the very beginning (Anne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is a book no house should be without.) Incredibly the home nations of the UK and Ireland have five female poet laureates at the moment but Alicia is still the only female candidate for the Professor of Poetry at Oxford. It's time to end this absurd boys club. But lets put that argument aside for the moment. The Professor of Poetry job should go to the best poet and if you actually compare the candidates work in poetry its obvious to me that Alicia is the most accomplished and deserving of the nominees. Forget celebrity endorsements, forget fame, forget what the establishment want, just look at the poems and this choice is pretty simple. Alicia will be an engaged, energised, youthful and brilliant Professor of Poetry and is definitely the best person for the job.  
If you are a member of the Oxford Convocation (a graduate or current professor) you can register to vote, here. You can read a great interview with Alicia, here. You can read all about the job, here

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Antecedents Of The Detectorists

yes that is the great Toby Jones with Mackenzie Crook
Mackenzie Crook's new(ish) BBC show The Detectorists initially appears to come from a toxic legacy. When I first heard about it I was uncomfortably reminded of the long running BBC 1 comedy Last of the Summer Wine which no one of my generation ever willingly watched. However back in the days of 3 channels in the 1970's you had very little choice between Summer Wine, an awful Bob Monkhouse gameshow on ITV and some Open University programme about vulcanism on BBC 2. Summer Wine seemed to be on every Sunday night for decades just after the doleful Songs of Praise and pretty thin gruel it was too. It was basically about 3 old blokes who acted like kids in rural Yorkshire. Beautifully shot on location in Holmfirth in the West Riding, Summer Wine was a comedy of friendship, class and manners with a style of humour so broad that it could only have appealed to the demographic who enjoyed music hall in the 1930's. 
The Detectorists is set in Essex and is about two blokes who are part-time amateur treasure hunters. As the title suggests they use their metal detectors to look for gold or silver but usually only ever find Coke can ring pulls and pennies. Like Summer Wine The Detectorists is a rural, gentle, comedy of friendship, class and manners but its antecedents lie pretty far from Summer Wine. Mackenzie Crook first came to the public's attention playing Gareth in Ricky Gervais's The Office and his deadpan brilliance was often the comic heart of the show. The Office drew on many comedic traditions: the silliness of the Pythons & Spike Milligan but also the satirical work of Beyond The Fringe and especially the dry irony of The Larry Sanders Show and what Chris Morris was doing on Channel 4 in the 1990s. After The Office Crook then went on to do notable stage work, appearing in the first production of my favourite play of the last five years: Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. Jerusalem explores what Englishness actually means today (if it means anything at all) and in a very funny way clashes together such diverse elements as: Samuel Beckett, Roald Dahl, Pete & Dud, George Orwell, William Blake & Chris Morris again. 
Mackenzie Crook has taken all of these antecedents for The Detectorists and thrown in a healthy dose of the Ealing comedies and Michael Powell too, especially the early classic films I Know Where I'm Going, A Canterbury Tale and A Matter Of Life And Death. Gentle, patient and filmed in a dreamy sunlit Essex of rolling wheat and barley and rape seed fields The Detectorists is funny but more than that it's very sweet (not however cloyingly sweet). I think I was perhaps the only person in the world who was disappointed when he learned that Trainspotting wasn't actually about train spotting. I like shows about geeks, nerds, weird hobbyists & outsiders. Trainspotting was - yawn - about heroin addicts. We've seen a million movies about junkies. Junkies are boring narcissists. Real life trainspotters are fascinating. Why do they do it? What do they hope to get out of it? What drives them? What do their wives and girlfriends think? Do they have wives or girlfriends? Are there female trainspotters? Similarly those blokes you see on the beach with their metal detectors. What the hell are they up to? The Detectorists takes you inside that world and of course it's not boring at all. Trainspotters like Detectorists are heroes standing athwart the march of history attempting to impose order where there is only disorder and trying to salvage information or artifacts from the chilly embrace of entropy.
The Detectorists is a wonderful little series with a proper opening title song (a great one too by Johnny Flynn (click this link and you'll see what I'm saying)) and is worth looking out for if it ever makes it to your country or if the Beeb ever repeats it. It certainly deserves a second season. As they used to say in Russia: long live the sun - may the darkness be hidden.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Poetry In Belfast

a post from last year...
Sinead Morrissey's recent win of the TS Eliot Poetry Prize confirms Belfast as one of the world capitals of contemporary poetry. More premiere league poets have come out of Belfast in the last half century than just about any other city or region on the planet. It probably all started in the 1950's with Philip Larkin (the greatest English language poet of the second half of the twentieth century) and John Hewitt setting up shop, but things really got hot in the late 60's and early 70's with The Belfast Group that was established by Philip Hobsbaum. Over the next couple of decades Heaney's circle - Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Edna Longley, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Seamus Deane et. al - won just about every major poetry prize in the world between them from the Nobel to the Pulitzer. Whether the darkness of the violence in that period was a spur to creativity or not it's a fact that some of the best writing about the Troubles and some of the best poetry written in the British Isles was done by the Belfast Group poets. 
Poetry of course has long antecedents in Ireland and it is recognised in all four provinces as the queen of the arts. Traditionally every minor kingdom in Ireland had a court poet and the wandering bard was a figure of respect and renown. Warriors were required to memorize large chunks of poetry and a man was not considered to be well rounded until he could fight and compose verse at the same time. Poetry has always been important to me. I grew up in Victoria Estate, Carrickfergus about a five minute walk from Louis MacNeice's house and a five minute bike ride from the house where Jonathan Swift lived. The name McKinty is from the Irish Mhac an tSaoi which, of course, means son of the poet and while I've never been tempted to write poetry myself I do take trouble over the words I put into my books, especially the opening sentence and the opening paragraph of my novels. The words matter. Joseph Conrad famously said that a "work of art should justify itself in every line" and while I certainly don't take it that far as a genre fiction writer I do sometimes despair of the crime novels that drop through my letter box for review that don't have a well crafted phrase (or a decent joke) in the entire book. 
My generation was brought up to memorize poetry by rote. Pages of text that I've never forgotten. And good stuff too: Shakespeare, Swift, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Dickinson, Kipling, Auden, MacNeice and all the way up to Heaney (we skipped Larkin but now everyone does him). I think this still goes on in schools in Northern Ireland where old habits die hard and trendy teaching hasn't quite destroyed memorisation and rote learning. When I watched Sinead Morrissey read last year I noticed that she too had memorised not just her own poems but a John Hewitt poem that she recited. 
Is poetry in Belfast still thriving? Well the Seamus Heaney Centre certainly helps, the Arts Council for NI do a good job, but more importantly I bet you every child in the greater Belfast area over the age of 12 can still recite at least one poem and that's down to ancient cultural habits and old school teaching methods. I don't live in Belfast anymore but Irish fathers still have certain responsibilities and by the time my two daughters turned seven they could swim, ride a bike and recite all of WB Yeats's The Song of the Wandering Aengus. Yes you can Google anything you want at any time but there's something to be said for knowing a poem in your bones and being able to recall it at will.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Rich Can Teach Us Nothing

a couple of billionaires using Africa as a backdrop for their Louis Vuitton ad 
It's an old trope that wealthy musicians do not make good music. I think this can be fairly easily disproven just by the career of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones alone, but the trope does, I think, capture some nugget of truth. When a musician is poor, angry and with nothing to lose they do tend to produce their best and most original material. The five most important musical genres invented in America: the blues, jazz, country, R&B, and hip-hop were all bottom-up inventions by disenfranchised and impoverished people. I can't think of many bands where you listen to their tenth album and say "ah, now they are hitting their stride" (although again the Beatles are a great exception here). It can be true of writers too I suspect. Anger against the world is certainly not the only motivating factor in fiction but it is an important one and if you're a successful novelist you definitely lose your edge. Millionaire novelists tend to produce bland, conformist, bloated, dull fictions that they hope will appeal to as many people as possible. Writing is a craft and you do get better at it as you go along but there are many writers who do their best work with their unpolished first book when they throw in all their angst and anger - and then as they mellow out they chill and get boring and conventional. Success can be and often is a creativity killer. Obviously this is a generalisation and like all generalisations its a bit silly but I do think its true that it helps to be an outsider to successfully critique society and what the poisoned chalice of acclaim brings is an end to your outsider status as the system absorbs you and makes you part of the body politic. 
A fortiori the mega rich and successful. If you've ever seen a rich guy being interviewed on Charlie Rose (he worships rich guys and tennis players) or giving a TED talk you quickly realise that they have nothing to say. They speak a lot of words but those words seldom amount to anything. Rich guys don't seem to read much or think much. They're too busy being rich. And when they speak they have nothing to teach us about the human condition or how to live. Thats not that surprising because the only thing they ever did was find a way of making a lot of money & greedily they decided to keep all this money for themselves. So, you know, fuck them...
If you're someone still struggling to write that first book and you don't quite have the technical prowess don't worry about that. Authenticity is your advantage. And think about William Faulkner working the night shift in the power station or Jamie O'Neill working the day shift in the mental hospital or Charles Bukowski typing in the rooming house toilet. Rich people can and do write interesting books and innovative music but they - mostly - don't.
That was going to be end the of this blogpost but then I read this review of Mumford and Sons' latest album in the Guardian. The British attitude towards Mumford & Sons highlights an interesting difference between the UK & the US that the review unpacks. I don't hate Lewis Mumford (anyone who's won the heart of Carey Mulligan can't be all bad) but he shares with Bono a humble bragging Christian evangelism that I find distasteful in a multi-millionaire. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

My 12 Favourite Film Noirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Why I Never Make Mistakes. . . Except When I Do

a Gurkha soldier on patrol in what is clearly Lancastarian Street, Carrickfergus
A few weeks ago on twitter someone pointed out to me a mistake in Gun Street Girl...Apparently Sean Duffy drives down the M40 motorway to Oxford a couple of years before the M40 was actually finished and when in fact it was still a dual carriageway. I thanked the person on twitter for their close reading of the text and their observational skills. I was worried that the mistake might have spoiled some of the enjoyment of the story so I then explained to my twitter interlocutor that one way of looking at it was to consider Sean Duffy's fictional universe as more or less identical to our universe but with a few subtle differences: among these differences were the somewhat extraordinary events of Gun Street Girl itself and the fact that M40 motorway was finished several years earlier in Duffy's universe than it got finished in ours. My twitter correspondent was satisfied with this. 
I have played this hand before. A couple of years ago someone emailed me to complain that the Gurkha regiment was never posted to Northern Ireland yet (entirely for the purposes of a joke) I had Sean Duffy stopped at a checkpoint manned by Nepalese soldiers. I explained that Sean Duffy's universe was almost identical to our universe but one of the differences was that in 1982 Gurkha regiment soldiers were indeed sent to Northern Ireland. And at a reading in Scottsdale once an aggressive man came up to me to explain that I had made a mistake in one of my Michael Forsythe novels: "The Glock 17 you gave him in Bloomsday Dead does NOT have a safety on it. You wrote that it had a safety! Everybody knows Glocks dont have safeties!" he said triumphantly. I am not a firearms expert by any stretch of the imagination but I was not non plussed. "No, sir, that's not a mistake," I said. "Michael Forsythe inhabits a fictional universe that is nearly identical to our own universe but one of those differences is the fact that in his universe all Glock 17's come with safeties." The man's look of triumph changed to one of mild irritation.* If you are a novelist or short story writer please feel free to use this excuse free of charge. But I should warn you that it doesn't always work. Also on twitter a few weeks ago someone pointed out that in one of the Duffy novels he's driving his trusty BMW but later on in the same chapter it becomes a Land Rover. Now this is what I call a mistake! (A copy error that slipped into the first printing and which now has been mercifully fixed for the mass market pbk.) By no species of logic can this possibly work. And that's the key isn't it? If a book is not consistent by its own rules of physics and logic then the author needs to own up and admit it. I did and hung my head in shame. 
*Later I found out that the guy was talking shite anyway. Nearly all Glocks come with a variety of safety features...

Friday, April 24, 2015

5 New JD Salinger Books?

A few years ago The New York Times claimed that five new JD Salinger novels were on their way beginning in 2015. We've heard about the new Harper Lee novel but where are these Salinger novels? No one I've talked to in the book business has any idea. Why were they supposed to start appearing in 2015? Well this will be five years after Salinger's death so presumably that was a stipulation of the old boy's will, whose faithful executor is his son Matt, but like I say no one has heard of a publication date or has even seen a hint of an ARC. If you have seen an ARC or heard a rumour please let me know...
What are the five new Salinger novels about? Well the Times really has no idea but apparently two anonymous sources have revealed to Shane Salerno (the director of a 2013 biographical film 
a rare photo of Staff Sergeant Salinger
about Salinger's life) some intriguing details. One of the books is going to be "a story-filled manual of Vedanta religious philosophy, with which Mr. Salinger was deeply involved with" which doesn't, admittedly, sound so terrific. Another book is going to contain several new stories about the Glass family who have already featured in Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High The Roof Beams & Seymour An Introduction. For those of you who, like me, struggled to say awake through the latter book this will not be particularly welcome news either. But it's not all doom and gloom: apparently there's also a novel or a collection of stories set in Holden Caulfield's extended family which is quite exciting to me because they really are an interesting bunch: Holden, DB, Phoebe and even poor Allie were all smart, introspective and funny writers. Another Caulfield family book? Maybe even a sequel to Catcher in the Rye? Ok I can handle that. 
But the bit of the Times story that made me choke on my cornflakes was the news that Salinger has written not one but two World War 2 novels. JD Salinger, as I've blogged about before here, had a very interesting war...He was in the Counterintelligence Corps and participated in D Day, the Normandy campaign, the liberation of at least one concentration camp and he also fought in the notorious Battle of Hurtgen Forest. In another well known incident JD Salinger and Ernest Hemingway together "helped liberate" the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Even a mediocre writer could make a good book out of that material and Salinger, well...

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

1000 Words A Day Is Not A Rule For Everyone

a post from last year...
I think a big myth about writing is the idea that to become a good writer you need to write a 1000 words a day, every day. Preferably before breakfast. This of course was and is the habit of a lot of great writers. Trollope and Somerset Maugham were the masters of getting their work done early in the morning and then taking the rest of the day off.  JG Ballard (my favourite British novelist of the twentieth century) would get the kids off to school, pour himself a stiff glass of whisky, line up the typewriter and force himself to write a 1000 words, rain or shine. It's good discipline if you can do it but it's not me. Not me at all. First of all my brain doesn't function that well before breakfast or indeed for a good while after breakfast and then there's the 1000 words themselves. 1000 words a day is 7000 a week and before you know what's happening in 3 months you've got a new novel. But if I was to do this it wouldn't be writing it would (to borrow a line from Truman Capote) merely be typing. I go slow. I spent a month working on the first page of The Cold Cold Ground: on a good day I think I managed a couple of sentences. Many many combinations of lines and sentences went into the wastepaper basket. Indeed the great Isaac Bashevis Singer said that the "wastepaper basket is the writer's best friend." At the end of the month I had a couple of pages that I felt worked and a few weeks later I had a chapter that I thought worked. If I'd been under an artificial pressure of 1000 words a day I would have stressed out and I wouldnt have come up with anything. In my opinion the first page of a novel is very important. It deserves to tinkered and fussed over like a poem. You should spend however long it takes to get page 1 right. And even more important than the first page is the first line. That deserves to be tinkered with even more. I read so many books with a shit opening line and my heart just sinks because I know the author didn't put any thought into it at all. Whereas: "A screaming comes across the sky." or  "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen." or "Mother died today." or "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K."
I'm not really working on a book at the moment so I'm not doing any writing at all. And this too I think is a good thing. If you're writing 1000 words a day when do you take time off to reflect and to read? Reading and reflection is what keeps a writer fresh not more bloody writing. Even the prolific Philip K Dick would take time off to read and play with his favourite kitty. So what am I saying here? Nothing very radical. I'm saying that if the 1000 words a day thing works for you that's great, but if it doesn't don't sweat it. Taking your time and making your book good is far far more important than the arbitrary word count on your computer. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lost River, Mystic River, Frozen River, Cold River, Red River, Hidden River, River Horse, River's Edge

Lost River is the directorial debut film of Ryan Gosling. Booed at Cannes and savaged by the critics Lost River's badness does not live up to the hype. Heavily influenced by David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Nicholas Winding Refn (3 really good influences if you ask me) Lost River has some striking images of a ruined Detroit. Not much of a story but its no worse than Malick's last 3 films.
Mystic River is a book by Dennis Lehane and a film by Clint Eastwood. The book explores the impact of a brutal crime upon a close knit neighbourhood in working class Boston. A contemporary crime classic this is probably the high point - so far - of Denny Lehane's career. The film is good too if you can stand the sight of a lot of grown men blubbing on cue to camera. (I can't.)
Melissa Leo's extraordinary central performance is the heart of Frozen River about a poverty stricken middle aged woman trying to cope with life on the edge of the Mohawk Indian Reservation in upstate NY. Throw in people smugglers, an actual frozen river (the St Lawrence) and some beautiful cinematography and you have a rare portrait of blue collar American life that - mostly - doesn't condescend. This was one of Roger Ebert's favourite films of 2008 and it won the Jury Prize at Sundance. 
Cold River: I liked this little indy YA movie. I'm taking this synopsis straight from John N Daly's perfectly concise IMDB entry: Based on the novel Winterkill, by William Judson, Cold River is the story of an Adirondack guide who takes his young daughter and step-son on a long camping trip in the fall of 1932. When winter strikes unexpectedly early (a natural phenomenon known as a 'winterkill' - so named because the animals are totally unprepared for a sudden, early winter, and many freeze or starve to death), he suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving his two children to find their own way home without food, or protection from the elements.
Red River is a big sprawling 1948 Howard Hawks western starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift who are driving cattle north to the railhead. Wow, is this not my cup of tea. My preferred classic western is - I suppose - The Searchers. My preferred Howard Hawks movie is the wonderful His Girl Friday. 
Hidden River is my 2005 novel about a disgraced ex cop from the RUC trying to achieve redemption by finding out who murdered an Irish girl in Denver. Struggling with a heroin addiction Alexander Lawson screws everything up on arrival Stateside. This book was a big flop when it came out getting almost no reviews and selling less than a 1000 copies. It more or less killed my career in America after the good reviews but poor sales of my debut Dead I Well May Be. I haven't been reviewed in the New York Times since...Still I have a lot of affection for this story and in 2015 I resurrected Lawson and put him in my book Gun Street Girl (which takes place several years before the events of Hidden River) as a newbie trainee cop. And some day I hope to release the crazy 150,000 word director's cut of this book if I can get the rights back...(the actual released version was 99,000 words long)...
River Horse is a travel book by William Trogdon whose nom de plume is William Least Heat Moon. Ever wondered if its possible to travel by boat entirely across America with as few portages as possible? William LHM also wondered that and then attempted to do it and wrote a terrific travel book about the whole adventure. 
River's Edge: a high school slacker kills his girlfriend and shows off her dead body to his cynical jaded druggie friends. Tim Hunter conjures superb performances from Crispin Glover and Keanu Reeves and a whole bunch of other kids who - amazingly - are all in their 50's now. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Locke is an exercise in film minimalism. Going one better than Vertigo, Drive and Bullitt Locke takes place entirely in the car of Ivan Locke in real time as he drives from the West Midlands to London on a damp winter's night. To provide too much of the plot would be to spoil everything so I'll just give you the set up. Locke is the manager of a building site, who on this particular night, is in charge of preparing the foundations for the concrete pour ("the biggest non military concrete pour in Europe"). The foundation concrete pour we learn is the most crucial part of the construction of any building and a disaster at this stage will cost everyone millions of pounds. Instead of remaining on site to supervise the arrival of dozens of cement lorries from all over England, Locke drives off in his BMW X5 SUV to deal with an entirely different situation. Over the next 85 minutes we watch Tom Hardy as Locke attempt to manage 3 different crises over the phone while also having a Hamlet style conversation with his dead father who abandoned Locke when he was a boy.*
If all this doesn't sound promising then you probably shouldn't rent Locke but for my money this is one of the best films I've seen in a while. How Tom Hardy didn't get an Oscar nomination is beyond me because his performance is underplayed, focused and utterly compelling. I watched Locke on Saturday night and I spent all of Sunday talking to everyone in a calm South Welsh baritone...You'll probably end up doing the same. Locke has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It should be higher. Many directors these days feel that to entice people into the cinema you need striking visual images and awe inspiring special effects. In Locke Tom Hardy's beardy face is all we're given and all we need. The close up has been a cinematic tool for over 100 years and wise directors know that humans love looking at other humans, especially humans undergoing extreme emotional turmoil. If you enjoyed The Passion of Joan of Arc or the close ups at the end of The Good The Bad & The Ugly or the work of Kelly Reichardt you'll love Locke...Locke was written and directed by the great Stephen Knight and apart from Hardy it has a stellar cast of other voices that you will definitely recognise. 
*(Anthony Lane in the New Yorker found this part of the story "hokey" but I thought it was the key to the entire narrative and completely fascinating. Maybe it's a Celtic thing (?) because I'm pretty sure that a high percentage of Irish, Welsh & Scottish men do indeed talk to their dead fathers....)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Bicycling Without A Helmet

This (below) is an incident that happened to me last week. I don't come out of it looking
particularly well but the other guy is definitely worse in my opinion. I wish I'd taped the whole thing on my ipod but I am not a very fast thinking chap. (I've been saving up the civil disobedience line for 2 years when someone hassled me before about not wearing a helmet). I did take a pic of the other guy as he was cycling away but I have decided not to post that here for legal reasons. And for the record I do agree with bicycle helmet laws in general but I think cities that enact them often see helmet laws as an end in themselves and they really ought to do a lot more to protect cyclists from cars. Studies have shown that drivers will get closer to cyclists wearing helmets and take less care of them in traffic. Helmet laws can discourage casual bike riding and bike sharing schemes and thus (unintentionally?) promote car driving. If a municipality is going to make cyclists wear bike helmets that does not end its obligation to protect bike riders, it's only the beginning of a process that requires it to build more dedicated cycle lanes and to segregate bikes from cars in those lanes. Melbourne does very little of that. Anyway this is the encounter from last week on the St Kilda cycle path (above) where there are no cars.
2 characters:

Me cycling on the St Kilda bike path in shorts and a T shirt with my helmet off at my typical very low speed. (It was a lovely sunny day and I decided to put my helmet in my bike basket for a bit.)

Him cycling the opposite direction in the full lycra getup with helmet on.

Him (as we passed): Oi, you forgot your helmet!
Me: (cheerfully) I didn't forget. I'm practising civil disobedience.
Him (braking): What?
Me: (braking): I'm practising civil disobedience.
Him: Where are you from?
Me: Melbourne.
Him: Before that?
Me: That's none of your business.
Him: In Australia you are required to wear a bike helmet when riding your bike.
Me: I am aware of that. I am practising civil disobedience. . .As in Thoreau?
Him: It's against the law not to wear a helmet.
Me: I know.
Him: I should report you to the police.
Me: I wouldn't be surprised if you reported me, you have an informer's face.
Him: What?
Me: You have the face of a police informer.
Him (clipping his feet back into this bike): Fuck you.
Me: Fuck you too.
Him (cycling away): Fuck off back to Ireland.
Me: Fuck off back to wherever you come from you busybody cunt.

You can read Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience here.
The CRAG has some interesting stuff on helmet laws, here. This site is a bit more objective about helmet laws and has some good links. In Victoria the minimum fine for not wearing a helmet is $159.00 but apparently you can be fined up to 5 penalty points which wd take the fine up to $750.00. Of course the police officer has to catch you before he can ticket you which isn't so easy if he's on foot or in a car and you're on a bike...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Australian Magpie

If you're like me then you probably spend much of your "writing time" staring out of the window looking at birds. In our backyard we typically have 4 daily visitors: the common pigeon, the crested pigeon, the rainbow lorikeet and the common myna bird. They are all charming except perhaps for the myna bird which is an invasive species, very territorial and a sometime pest who frequently attacks children and cyclists and who drives out other birds. Mynas have twice come into our house to lay waste the land. Our cat will not go outside if there are myna birds around because he is terrified of them. Occasionally we also get seagulls, parrots and ravens; crows, of course, and now and again Australian magpies. I do miss having songbirds in my backyard but the lorikeets are a lovely splash of colour and they do sing or rather chirp in the morning. But the bird I want to talk about here is the Australian magpie. The Australian magpie has a strange throaty call but he is also an incredible mimic who can reproduce the calls of other birds, cars, dogs barking and machinery. Until very recently I had assumed that the Australian magpie (lower picture) was a corvid, a related species to the Eurasian magpie (pica pica) (above) which looks very similar. Its obviously a bigger bird more like a rook but since corvids began in Australasia and have more or less conquered the entire world since I thought that the Australian magpie was the original form and the European magpie a variation. This is not the case at all. The Australian magpie is in fact one of the cracticinae. As wikipedia explains:

The cracticinae gathers together 12 species of mostly crow-like birds native to Australasia and nearby areas. The cracticines have large, straight bills and mostly black, white or grey plumage. All are omnivorous to some degree. The female constructs bulky nests from sticks, and both parents help incubate the eggs and raise the young thereafter. The cracticines are highly intelligent and have extraordinarily beautiful songs of great subtlety.

But are Australian magpies of the class cracticinae as smart as their European non cousins? This is what a clearly impressed wikipedia says of the European magpie:

The Eurasian magpie is believed not only to be among the brightest of birds but among the most intelligent of all animals. Along with the jackdaw, the Eurasian magpie's nidopallium is approximately the same relative size as those in chimpanzees and humans, significantly larger than the gibbon's. Like other corvids, such as ravens and crows, their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to most great apes and cetaceans.

Magpies have been observed engaging in elaborate social rituals, possibly including the expression of grief. Mirror self-recognition has been demonstrated in European magpies, making them one of but a few species and the only non-mammal known to possess this capability. The cognitive abilities of the Eurasian magpie are regarded as evidence that intelligence evolved independently in both corvids and primates. This is indicated by tool use, an ability to hide and store food across seasons, episodic memory, using their own experience to predict the behaviour of conspecifics. Another behaviour exhibiting intelligence is cutting their food in correctly sized proportions for the size of their young. In captivity magpies have been observed counting up to get food, imitating human voices, and regularly using tools to clean their own cages. In the wild, they organise themselves into gangs and use complex strategies hunting other birds and when confronted by predators. 

Furthermore European magpies carry with them a lot of folk magic which I assumed also applied to the Australian kind but which probably doesn't now. Magpies have been seen as ill-omened, or lucky depending upon your point of view and I've told my daughters the one for sorrow rhyme which they sort of half believe but shouldn't because the magpies we're seeing in the park every day aren't the same birds at all. The Australian magpie is confusingly named but it is an intelligent, interesting, curious bird that I'm happy to see hopping about in the back yard, especially since observing only one of them is not the unlucky event I used to think it was now that I know it is of a different class entirely. 

Anyway here's the Spencer Davis Group singing the one for sorrow rhyme for the ITV series "Magpie" a kind of edgier funkier Blue Peter than ran from 1970 - 1980.