Wednesday, 14 February 2018

WHITE NOISE OF FORGETFULNESS: a poem

Because today is Valentine's Day, and because I was tinkering with this poem last week while I was in Minneapolis, I thought I'd post it now. It was written, pretty much as is absent the tinkering, in February 1987, during and just after a Jan Garbarek concert at Logan Hall in London. The title comes from a tune off Garbarek's album It's OK To Listen To The Gray Voice, in which all the song titles are lines from poems by Tomas Transtromer. So it is a poem based on a song based on a poem.

It was published, titled '...Forgetfulness' later in 1987 along with two other poems, as issue 89 of Infolio, published in Cambridge, the group called 'Solo Trio'. It then appeared by itself in the Montreal magazine Shadowplay in May of 1992. It all seems a long time ago. I decided in Minnesota to revert to the full title. The changes are small but I think telling. It was written for Theresa, two years too late.

WHITE NOISE OF FORGETFULNESS

A few more sides
of the crystal slide into
view
         if every feeling for you
turned to stone I would be
frozen, all alone for
         almost ever

somethings are never
what they seem
and never learned
                                  it's like
the whole two years have been
a dream
                my heart, locked in
a cell that only waking
can unlock, awaits

its own long day, the last
one done
& while I sleep I know
what disappears is gone

I never know the cost or
know what more
there is to tell or
what I have lost
                             or I can say.

Friday, 9 February 2018

SUPER BOWL LII: A FRIDAY MORNING TIGHT END SPECIAL

It was a great Super Bowl, but you knew that already. Back in the day, when I was writing Friday Morning Tight End, I would do a wrap-up of the Super Bowl, analysing why I picked it right or wrong (more often wrong). But now as my nfluk.com column is simply predictions, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the game with you here.

I did get the Super Bowl pick wrong, though if you read my column last week you'll see I tried very hard to pick the Eagles. In the end I switched to the Pats, and seriously, with two minutes left and New England down five I didn't really doubt they'd pull off another comeback, and I'd be right both on picking them outright and picking the Eagles plus 5.5 points as a best bet.

This season my picks were better than last year's in the regular season: 173-83 or 67.6%. It took a while for the season to fall into place, but between weeks 7 and 16, before the black hole that is week 17, I went 114-35. 173 right would have placed me sixth on the list at nfl pickwatch, ahead of everybody at ESPN, NFL Network, CBC or MMQB. Last year I improved in the playoffs to 10-1; this year I slipped to 6-5. That left me overall at 179-88 on the season (67%) compared with 178-87-2 (67.2%) in 2016. At least I'm consistent! However in the 13 seasons I have picked every one of the 267 games a year for nfluk, I have been only 5-8 picking the Super Bowl! I'm like the Vikings or the Bills.

Once again, I was lucky enough to be in the BBC booth with Mark Chapman, Osi Umeniyora, and Jason Bell. I wish you could hear the conversations as the game goes on, because it's both fun and instructive. I usually forget which things I said on air and which ones just to to guys, but early on I remarked that this was like watching Texas Tech play Baylor: a wide open offensive shootout. The absorption of college spread and option concepts into the NFL game is fully upon us when you can see both teams going empty on multiple downs. And interestingly, the one thing about the game that seemed most predictable, that the Eagles' front four would bedevil the Pats' O line, didn't come true, but what was fascinating was the way Jim Schwartz covered the Pats. Man coverage on Rob Gronkowski usually fell to Corey Graham, who was signed as a free agent after Buffalo released him; he'd played with Ronald Darby and for Schwartz in Buffalo, but you may remember him for his interception for the Ravens in the Super Bowl win over Denver. Graham is one of many sharp free-agent acquisitions by Eagles' GM Howie Roseman. I've often thought the relative failure of the Chip Kelly era in Philly was due less to lack of coaching skill and more to lack of acumen in the front office, from which he had forced Roseman out. When you looked at the 'how they were built' charts for the two Super Bowl teams, you saw a very close parallel in the way both the Eagles and Pats had rebuilt in the past two seasons, with astute and mostly bargain free agency signings.

Graham's coverage was Gronkowski wasn't simple. When Gronk attacked the middle of the field, the Eagles were often showing a cover-two look, but it would quickly morph into something like a cover-1 robber: one safety stepping up to take away the lead to Gronk, the other playing coverage deep. Also putting Graham on Gronk also left Malcolm Jenkins free to shadow the running backs: note James White's receiving role was severely limited. Tactically, that more than made up for the Pats' ability to neutralise the Eagles' front four.

Offensively, the audacity of the Philly Special play call was probably the signature moment of the game. I had no doubt Doug Pederson would go for it on fourth and goal at the one, and couldn't understand why Cris Collinsworth was making it seem such a strange call. Remember the Eagles in the last minute of the first half against Minnesota; remember too the Jags kneeling out that final minute with a four-point lead over the Pats. You don't beat New England by being conservative. That they scored running a similar play than the pass Tom Brady could not catch was indeed audacious. It also reminded me of the Brady-Wes Welker miss in the second loss to the Giants: a completion to the wide open receiver seals the game for the Pats. It seemed like a bad omen. After the Super Bowl ex-supervisor of refs Mike Pereira came alive from the Fox COMMAND CENTER, probably to reinforce the idea NBC had no former ref to give commentary on referring decisions: he said the Eagles were definitely in an illegal formation on the Philly special, but that it was a 'judgement call'. Now the story in the game was that Jeffrey checked to make sure he was on the line, and the line judge told them he was, even though he was two yards back.

The problem is not the receiver and the line of scrimmage, the problem is the officials allow players to align with the player inside them. I have complained about this with Andy Reid teams in particular, but the Eagles and their tackles too. If for example the tackle aligns his inside front toe with the guard's outside heel, the tackle can be two yards off the line of scrimmage. I believe the line judge saw Jeffrey aligned with Lane Johnson's back leg and thus told him he was OK, even though he was almost two and half yards off the line of scrimmage. It made no difference on this play, actually, as no one assumed Johnson was eligible. But allowing tackles to line up so far off the line of scrimmage gives them at least a one step advantage over pass rushers, and shouldn't be allowed.
The key to the Patriots' bend-but-don't-break defense is being able to get stops on third downs: knowing what the offense needs to do and likes to do in those situations is a key. But the Eagles were a team living on third and longs and converting them regularly—not just against the Pats and not just with Nick Foles at QB. This is where they beat the Pats, beating them at situational football.

At one point in the second half, I said to the guys 'all it is going to take is one stop', and of course the Eagles got that stop on the Brandon Graham strip sack. But part of the reason we were in that situation was that the Pats had, in effect, been stopped twice on successive drives in the first half. First when Brandin Cooks couldn't convert a third and two on his sweep and Rodney McLeod power-bombed him. The Pats then missed the short field goal on fourth and one at the eight. I wasn't surprised Bill Belichick eschewed going for it, and decided to tie the game at three, but the bad snap killed them, and the Eagles' willing to go for it on fourth and one would stand in contrast.

I was reminded or haunted by the Giants another time. Maybe it was standing next to Osi in the booth. The Eagles launched their only punt on the next drive, and the Pats then failed on third and fourth and five at the Eagles' 35. Perhaps bothered by the previous miss of the chippie, Belichick eschewed a 52 yard field goal, which reminded me of his passing from a similar distance in the 2007 loss to the Giants; Gostkowski had mishit a kickoff previously and it was as if he were being punished. The fourth down pass to Gronk went incomplete, but I wondered even if taking a delay penalty and punting might have been preferable.

The Pats missed their chance for a stop early in the second half when Johnson Bademosi couldn't tackle Nelson Agholor on a crossing route on third down and six. This was the effect of Belichick's benching Malcolm Butler. The knock-on effect wasn't just Eric Rowe starting outside: I'm not sure Butler would have made a better play on the TD to Alshon Jeffrey. But it took Rowe and his long arms out of the middle of the field, and it left the Pats in bick nickle on third downs, with Patrick Chung having to cover wideouts. When they went to dime it brought safety Jordan Richards in, and he's so awful in coverage (Clement's 55 yard catch being an example) Bademosi eventually took his spot. What no one noted was that New England's number four corner, Jonathan Jones, was on IR: Jones is their quickest DB, and his absence pushed Bademosi into that fourth spot. Butler's benching pushed Bademosi up higher. There was a moment when I thought whatever Butler was being punished for, he was clearly upset, and he was on the sidelines, and it might have been a moment to tell him to make up for his mistakes on the field.

Again, I flashed back to a previous Super Bowl, when Butler made that great play on Jerome Kearse and Kearse made the great catch which preceded Butler's goal-line pick. If you recall Duron Harmon's pick in this game, think back and you'll see Harmon jump over Kearse while the ball was still loose--not making a play on the receiver. This time, in almost the same spot on the field, the ball popped up, and Harmon made the play. 

I was also puzzled by the absence of Dwight Allen. I saw him on only one offensive play, going in motion in order to pass block, but I wondered, especially after Cooks' concussion, if two tight ends might have been an option (not that the Pats' offense was misfiring). I'd also thought we'd see more two and three tight end sets from the Eagles, but of course with Butler out, the wide receivers got more play. And I would not be surprised if the success of the Pats' offense was a major factor in their last minute 180 on keeping Josh McDaniels around.

If there were one play Brady might want back, it would be on first down from the 9 after the failed kickoff reverse. Chris Hogan was open on the sidelines 30 yards up field, and Brady just misfired on the pass. A completion stops the clock and puts them near the 40. It was interesting to watch New England give up on Gostkowski's short kickoffs, because the Eagles were getting returns out to the 25, and settle for touchbacks. New England had taken the touchbacks previously: the reverse was not well executed, partly because the coverage got to Lewis so quickly there wasn't room for a good lateral. Just as the Eagles' offense took away the third-down advantage from the Pats, they won the battle of special teams as well. The fact that the Patriots ran up 600 yards and 33 points on the league's best or second-best defense was a win for their offense, but they lost two of the other three phases.

It was also strange that the two TD catches that were reviewed took so long to be decided (although the second one did add precious time for the Eagles' D line to catch their breath!). Corey Clement's catch (a perfectly thrown ball from Foles) was to me a catch, but the way he let the ball slide across his belly from right hand to left is precisely the loss of 'control' while 'going to the ground' that the league had ruled incomplete all season long. This is frustrating, but you could just see the replay official thinking, or being reminded, not to take yet another TD away from a Patriots' opponent, because the league clearly fixes games for the Pats, as the Brady suspension proved last year. I think much of the problem would be solved if the league would simply change the definition from 'control' to 'possession': you can lose control of the ball but still maintain possession of it, which was exactly what Clement had done.

Why the Ertz TD was reviewed at such length was a puzzle. How man steps with the ball, or movements of it, do you have to make before the league considers you transformed into a runner? Again, the rule and interpretation could be simplified: by going back to the old catch rule of possession with both feet down. Sure that would lead to more fumbles, and half the time the NFL has no idea who actually recovered the fumble before the pile began, and sure that could lead to fewer scores, but really, less is more, and as we know the NFL feels more is always better, so less is better. Right?

Anyway, a pass interference call on the Hail Mary would have made things really interesting, right?

BTW, if you'd like to see more football columns during the off-season, let me know, OK? Thanks for reading, watching, and supporting. It's appreciated.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

SUPER BOWL SPECIAL: ACE ATKINS' ROBERT B PARKER'S CHEAP SHOT

I read Cheap Shot on the flight to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, and considering the plot revolves around a New England Patriots' player whom Spencer is hired to protect/keep out of trouble, it seemed appropriate.

The trouble, of course, finds star linebacker Kinjo Heywood, in a way both unexpected and more severe than we might expect when his son is kidnapped. Immediately Spenser is in his usual wisecracking trouble with the head of security for the Pats, with Heywood's agent, his business manager/brother, and the FBI, all of whom want him off the case. And it's a complicated case, going back to a nightclub shooting in New York a couple of years before, which may have involved Heywood's crew. It's as if Ray Lewis had come back to play for Bill Belichick.

I've reviewed Ace Atkins' Spenser before, you can link to that here, and he gets the tone of the Parker novels better than any of the others I've read who've been carrying on with the characters. Like Lullaby, the main villain remains off-stage for most of the book, and in some ways we wonder if at least one of the sub-plots has been overlooked in the end. It was a complicated web which Atkins wove around the star player, which reflects perfectly the world of high-paid athletes in a violent, short-career sport.

One problem with the first-person narration is trying to fill out characters so we understand, not necssarily them, but their effect on others. In this case, Heywood's second-wife seems sketchily drawn, and what we see of her leads us to wonder exactly what Heywood sees in her. While it's obvious what Hawk sees in Heywood's first wife, and long-time readers might feel disappointed not to see Hawk tamed at last.

Atkins does with Spenser what Parker did: build fast moving stories that centre on personalities, and Cheap Shot is another good example. Even if the Patriots did lose the Super Bowl without Heywood.

Robert B Parker's Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
No Exit Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781843444497 

NOTE; This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

SUPER BOWL LII: THE SUPER BOWL SHUFFLE

One of the most interesting side stories in Super Bowl LII is the overlap of players between the two teams, interesting enough for me to write this piece and send it to a website where I have written before, who forwarded it their live sports department, who lost it for a couple of days, then let me know there was no space for it. So I offer it here, as an IT Super Bowl Special. Note that it's written assuming most things need to be explained. Note too, on the topic of explanation, I will be covering the game for the BBC on Sunday....

PATRIOTS AND EAGLES: THE SUPER BOWL SHUFFLE 

In last year's amazing Super Bowl comeback victory by the New England Patriots, defensive end Chris Long made one of the game's biggest 'hidden' plays, drawing a holding penalty against Atlanta's Jake Matthews, which helped push the Falcons out of range for a field goal that might have made their lead unassailable. Last year running back LaGarrette Blount scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots, leading the league, but after a fumble in the Super Bowl, he didn't see the field again.

This year both Long and Blount are returning to the Super Bowl, but with the Philadelphia Eagles, not the Patriots. Their quest to stop the seeming inevitability of another Patriots trophy gives them a chance to do what only five other players have ever done: win Super Bowl rings in consecutive years, but with two different teams.

Oddly enough, three of those five players did it while having to beat their previous team along the way. Ken Norton, Jr, son of the heavyweight boxing champ, actually won three in a row: with Dallas in 1992 and 1993, after which he moved to San Francisco to win with the 49ers in 1994. His teammate that year was 'Neon' Deion Sanders; in 1995 Sanders won with the Cowboys.

Brandon Browner became the only player to get his second ring while beating the team with which he got his first. Though with an asterisk.  Browner got a ring with Seattle Seahawks, although he missed the second half of the 2013 season and the playoffs. The next year he was with the Patriots when they beat Seattle 28-24 in the Super Bowl; his awareness of his old team's plays helped Malcolm Butler make the game-saving interception in that one.

No one remembers Derrick Martin, a reserve defensive back who collected rings with Green Bay in 2010 and the New York Giants in 2011. Even fewer remember Russ Hochstein, another three-ring player. Hochstein, a backup lineman, played in only one game with Tampa Bay in 2002 and was released before they won the Super Bowl, but received a ring anyway. He was signed by the Patriots, where he wound up starting briefly and winning rings for the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Former Tampa defensive star Warren Sapp guaranteed the Patriots would lose a Super Bowl because Hochstein was starting, saying he had no talent. The Pats and Hochstein won anyway.

The presence Long and Blount on the Eagles' roster highlights a Venn diagram of convergence between the teams. Long made two key plays for the Eagles' in their conference championship win over Minnesota: hitting quarterback Case Keenum to force an intercepted pass which was returned for a touchdown, and then recovering a Keenum fumble which led to another score. Long had played in New England on a year-year contract, after a long career of frustration with the Rams; he sought a new challenge with the Eagles. In effect, he played this year simply for that challenge; he donated his base salary for the season to educational charities.

Long's pass rush ability was orchestrated by Eagles' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, known for his aggressive blitzing, a defensive strategy almost opposite of New England's 'bend but don't break' containment. But Schwartz got his first job in the NFL with Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, when Belichick was coaching the Cleveland Browns and hired the young Schwartz as a scout. Then Schwartz got his first coaching job in Baltimore under Belichick disciple Ozzie Newsome. Another ex-Pat in the Eagles' defense is linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, whose ability to play on special teams (kicking plays) is the core of his value.

Blount wasn't offered a new contract by the Patriots, and signed with the Eagles as the power-running part of a committee of rushers. His role diminished in mid-season when Philadelphia traded for London-born running back Jay Ajayi, who'd fallen out of favour in Miami and was thus available relatively cheaply. But the combination of the two allows the Eagles to batter and wear down opposing defenses.

It's not all one-way traffic, however. The Patriots' leading rusher is Dion Lewis, who came into the league with the Eagles, but was released after a series of injuries, and eventually signed by New England off the street when no other team was interested. The star of the Patriots' comeback victory in their conference final against Jacksonville was Danny Amendola, a slot receiver who was signed by the Eagles after Dallas released him, and then claimed by the Rams where he had five seasons before New England signed him to replace Wes Welker, which is exactly what Amendola had done in college at Texas Tech. New England's offensive coordinator is Josh McDaniels; McDaniels had coached Amendola in his one year as offensive coordinator with the Rams.

On defense, cornerback Eric Rowe will match up against his old team after being acquired in a trade last season. Rowe's price was the same as what the Eagles paid for Ajayi, a fourth-round pick in the draft of college players, so you could say everything evens out. And a key defensive player for the Pats, safety Patrick Chung, left New England for Philadelphia in 2013, to play for his old college coach, Chip Kelly with the Eagles. After one season, Chung was released, and resigned with the Pats, where he's been a starter ever since.

In today's NFL, where salary caps put pressures on the huge 53 man rosters, and free agency can price out a team's star players, building a roster in creative fashion can help perpetuate success. This is what the Patriots have been known for in the Belichick-Tom Brady era; that the Eagles are showing the same sort of acumen makes the cross-over of talent between the teams no surprise, and helps explain why the two are in the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

SUPER BOWL LII: ARE BETTORS MISUNDERESTIMATING THE EAGLES?

I wrote this piece last Friday (26/1) for Betfair: you can find it on their website here, where it looks much nicer. I thought I'd put it up here before I write my 'official' Super Bowl previews for them and for nfluk.com.  I asked, in  George Bush fashion, 'are bettors misunderestimating the Eagles?' and a few days later someone dropped a million some odd bucks on Philadelphia +5.5 at one casino in Vegas; the line has dropped to 4.5 in the meantime. I doubt he read this column...

ARE BETTORS MISUNDERESTIMATING THE EAGLES?

We did alright here in the Conference Championships last week, didn't we? Pats-Jags under, Eagles-Vikes over (the Eagles got within half a point all by themselves) and the Eagles on the moneyline. Which sets up the Eagles and the Pats in the big one.

It isn't the dream match America supposedly wanted: the home-town Vikings team becoming the first to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium against the team that unites America in hatred, the Patriots. The Eagles are in one sense plucky underdogs against the perennially successful Pats, but in another, they rank among America's least-likeable fan bases. They are the ones who attacked Santa Claus with snowballs. Whose stadium was the first with its own on-site night court to deal with drunken assaults and the like. I once described Philadelphia fans (in the context of baseball, but still relevant) by pointing out that in other places, New York for example, fans threw batteries at the opposition's outfielders. But only in Philly did they boo the thrower if he missed.

Joking aside, Philadelphia has a point about not getting enough respect, not least from the bookies. They were the top seeds in the NFC, but underdogs at home against both Atlanta and Minnesota. They could easily have lost to the Falcons, whom they outplayed but allowed four chances at a winning touchdown from inside the ten yard line. They emerged with a 15-10 win: and both Atlanta scores came off punt turnovers that handed them great field position. Minnesota was a different story. What seemed to be a balanced matchup of great defenses and effective offenses, both operating with backup quarterbacks, turned into a rout. The easiest explanation is that the Vikings' D was built not to give up the big play, especially on third down, and once the Eagles hit on a couple of those, their offense wasn't geared to come back from way down. Any time your offense becomes one-dimensional, your defense can get better, and that's what happened.

In the other Conference Final, the Jags seemed to have the Pats on the roaps. Their defense, up there in the same discussion as Philly's and Minny's, stifled them throughout the first half, until at the two minute warning, they retreated slightly, and Tom Brady carved them up for a TD in just over a minute. Then came an inexplicable bit of coaching, as the Jags, their lead reduced to 14-10, and with 55 seconds and two time outs, elected not to pursue further points. To me this seemed like running up a flag of truce in the middle of the battle. The Eagles, up 21-7 with even less time in their first half, would march downfield quickly and get a field goal to extend their halftime lead. That the Jags wouldn't try the same spoke of caution, if not fear.

And so it played out. Protecting the lead, as they had in the last two minutes of the first half, created vulnerabilities in the Jags' defense. The Pats, as they usually do, adjusted at halftime; their defense played better even as the Jags' offense became predictable. And Brady, throwing with remarkable accuracy, brought them home with the win. Special kudos to Danny Amendola, who caught the final two touchdown passes, the second with a balletic toe-touch in the end zone, returned a punt 20 yards to set up a score, threw a 20 yard completion to Dion Lewis (which Lewis 'fumbled' in the game's most controversial play) and threw a key block on the James White's TD run in the first half. My one-time BBC Super Bowl partner had a pretty good game.

The opening line on the Super Bowl settled quickly at the Patriots minus 5.5, which seemed to still be undervaluing the Eagles. Most of this is down to quarterback bias; Nick Foles is a quality back-up (who had a great year in his first year as a starter under Chip Kelly in Philly his first time around there) but he is a backup, and he has limitations. The Eagles have a five point win and the Pats a four point win among their four playoff victories, and given the similiarities between the Eagles and Jags, 5.5 seemed worth taking with the Eagles. It is likely to go down as money flows in on Philly (in fact there was a huge bet at one casino in Las Vegas which drove their line down a full point) but we'll look at the game again next Friday, and some of the ancillary bets on offer too....

Monday, 29 January 2018

CARELESS PEOPLE: THE GREAT GATSBY AND MURDER

The Great Gatsby is one of the four greatest American novels, a small pantheon which includes Moby Dick, The Confidence Man and Huckleberry Finn. It is thus the greatest American novel of the 20th Century. Sarah Churchwell's Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby is one of the most engaging studies of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, a book whose greatness was not recognised until after his death, and whose greatness also relates back to all three of those books I mentioned above, though it resembles less closely Moby Dick because its focus is perfectly minute in the same way The Confidence Man and Huckleberry Finn's are. Like them, it does not self-consciously occupy epic space, though it treads on epic themes.

Careless People is an amalgam of the book's title and subtitle. The 'People' of the title refers both to the characters of Gatsby and the circle around Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. This is the real core of the novel's 'invention', and Churchwell's depiction of the way in which the carelessness of the world Gatsby so yearns to inhabit reflects that of the world the Fitzgerald's created around them is probably the most thorough I have read. She's particularly good on now-lesser remembered figures of the New York literary and journalist world, especially those poetasters and scribes whose criticism delineated the bounds of literary success. It is like being transported back to the Twenties in New York, on Long Island, and the whole book is worth the descriptions of the Fitzgeralds and Ring Lardner, neighbours on the north shore (not the Hampton side, as people assume) of Long Island.

She provides bushels of contemporary insights. Scott's friend Alex McKaig prophetically on first meeting Zelda: "tempermental small-town Southern Belle. Chews gum-- shows knees. I do not think marriage can succeed." Mark Twain on Jay Gould (a model for Gatsby): "Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can. honestly if you must." One critic said the Fitzgeralds were "plagarizing their existence", while Zelda said flappers were '"merely applying business methods t being young" and Churchwell notes perceptively that Scott was "an instinctive critic of a society in which he was the most perfect conformist". The overall effect is to immerse in both the writer and his society in a way that illuminates Churchwell's equally erudite readings of the text. And I was pleased to discover that EE Cummings was the first user the word 'party' as a verb. Not the least of the insights to which readers may be pointed is the parallel with our own era.

There are occasional errors. For example, she refers twice to  Fitzgerald's first 'drab room in the Bronx', on Claremont Avenue and 125th Street. Except Claremont and 125 is in Manhattan's Morningside Heights, running alongside Columbia and Barnard colleges. The room may have been drab, but it was in the uptown centre of New York's intellectual community, and convenient for 125th street station.

That speaks in microcosm of the book's weak point: the subtitle of Murder and Mayhem. For it is the famous murder of the Rev. Edward Hall and one of the singers in his church choir, Eleanor Mills in New Brunswick, New Jersey which Churchwell sees as the inspiration for the killing which is central to The Great Gatsby's carelessness. Both were married, and suspicon soon fell on Hall's wife, though the presence of a 'fast' 15 year old girl, Pearl Bahmer, and her older lover, as well as, later, a witness known as 'The Pig Lady'. New Brunswick, the home of Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, is not far from Princeton, the far posher private university where Fitzgerald studied. It is not unreasonable to suppose Fitzgerald would have followed the case, which received massive publicity, perhaps even through the American papers he took in Paris.

My difficulty is there seems to be little, almost nothing in the murder that seems to reflect Gatsby, although Churchwell cites a couple of academic papers which have discussed the connection, she is making it in detail for the first time. And while she takes the case through from crime to trial, the period reconstruction of the lurid world of the murder and its coverage is not nearly as skilled as her portrait of the literary world of New York was. Other famous killings of the era have spawned more compelling portraits, for example Ron Hansen's A Wild Surge Of Guilty Passion, about Ruth Snyder. Of course such works don't have the shadow of one of the great American novels lurking behind them. When the connection between the Hall murders and Gatsby begins to seem gossamer, Churchwell doubles down like a harried professor, asserting it exists because it exists.

The difficulty is compounded by Fitzgerald's own break-down of Gatsby's nine chapters, written in the back of a 1938 novel by Andre Malraux, Man's Hope. One imagines he was preparing an article about his writing of the book, perhaps inspired by Malraux's title: because hope lies at the heart of Jay Gatsby's dreams. The first chapter references 'glamour of Rumsies'. When Churchwell later explains that Pad Rumsey was a polo playing scupltor married to the daughter of E.H. Harriman, one of the richest of the railroad barons. He died in a car accident on the Jericho Turnpike in Long Island it seems evident that this would be the particular source for the killing in Gatsby.

Churchwell herself talks about the problem of trying to think intelligently about the relationship between life and art, namely that it is "so easy to think unintelligently about it, to make literal-minded simplistic equations between fiction and reality." She has done a superb job of melding Fitzgerald's life and art, and this was one of my favourite reads of the past year because of that; the Hall murder, fascinating as it is, seems somehow extraneous to that relationship.

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell
Virago, £9.99, ISBN 9781844089686

Monday, 22 January 2018

PETER MAYLE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Peter Mayle is in today's soaraway tabloid Guardian; it went up at the Guardian online yesterday (you can link to it here). It appears pretty much as I wrote it, apart from a couple of bits of explanation that were removed for length.

I had written that Mayle disliked intensely John Thaw's TV portrayal of him. When A Year In Provence appeared on television, Thaw was at the peak of his success as Inspector Morse; the curmudgeon that was Morse was much closer to his own personality than Mayle was, and when you consider how important Mayle's relaxed, knowing forbearance was the key to the book's success, it was easy to see why he wasn't happy. I then pointed out the irony of his neighbour in France and friend from advertising days, Ridley Scott, casting another grumpy Aussie, Russell Crowe, in A Good Year , where the lead character is very much Mayle manque. Crowe's adapting to France, and to Marion Cotillard, lacked the ease of Mayle's.

For some reason this entire section got cut: "Mayle sold the house and moved to the Hamptons' village of Amagansett on Long Island, a summer playground for New York's rich. It was a good place to work; his neighbour Joseph Heller called it a 'dead-ass life,' and Mayle wrote two more French comedy novels Anything Considered (1996) and Chasing Cezanne (1997) as well as a children's book, A Dog's Life (1995) illustrated by Edward Koren. But he could not resist the lure and in 1999 returned to Provence, to a secluded mansion between the picture book village of Lourmarin and the even-tinier Vaugines. He returned to non-fiction books about Provence, and the novel A Good Year." I thought it made some sense, and wanted to explain even more the similarities between the Hamptons and what one might find with expatriate life in Provence, but I'd left that out already, for space.


Apparently it was Mayle who, while freelancing as a copywriter after leaving BBD&O, first used 'nice one Cyril' in bread adverts, but it seemed like explaining the story wasn't quite worth the importance to his career. I mentioned the great George Mikes at the top of the piece; I also toyed with a comparison of Mayle and Bill Bryson, with the common ground being telling the British what they wanted to hear; in effect reinforcing stereotypes while seeming to be critical. Mayle's exuberance is something of a different quality than Bryson's Arthur Marshall style chuckling. The link is how well they each understood their audience.

I was also tempted to point out the way Mayle's writing reflected his advertising copy-writing. It's always to the point, it usually has some kind of 'objective correlative' to hook the reader, and it reinforces its points as it goes along. When I said he sold Provence to Britain and then the world I was not kidding.

I was serious about A Year In Provence being a springboard, for better or worse, for all those tedious reality shows about 'relocating', redoing and profiting off houses, travelling, or becoming a foodie. It wasn't as predictable or inevitable as the slew of imitators whose manuscripts flooded publishers, but the influence was real. And as such he was an important writer for the post-Thatcher era. RIP.

Friday, 12 January 2018

TALKING TRUMP TRANSATLANTIC ACROSS THREE COUNTIES

I guested briefly on the morning call in show on BBC Three Counties radio, adding a non-Republican perspective (listen from the start if you want to inflict that on your ears) to the Donald Trump, US embassy, official state visit 'controversy'. I come on about 20 minutes into the show. And oddly enough, the first thing I needed to do was put Trump into some sort of trans-Atlantic context. Like most things American, Britain has their own much paler (no fake tans) versions of the worst of America.

Here's the link  The fill in host was named Tim. I'm come in around the 20 minute mark, but you might want to listen to Andy, just before me....

TRUMP AND THE EMBASSY ACROSS THE RIVER

Former US Secretary of State of John Kerry once complained that the United States was 'building some of the ugliest embassies in the world...we're building fortresses'. It was a telling metaphor. If form follows function, these buildings were designed to provide a modicum of safety for Americans often unappreciative, if not hostile, countries. In fact, much the same function as the State Department and its colleagues in intelligence perform on behalf of US 'interests' in those countries.

It is thus odd that Donald Trump should cancel his appearance to dedicate the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, given the 'special relationship' between the US and the UK, a relationship so special Trump failed to include the UK in his catalogue of 'shithole' countries from which he'd like to bar immigration. But since arrangements for the official state visit that Theresa May rushed to offer him after his election have not yet manifested themselves, any visit by Trump now ran the risk of being seen by the world as a sort of consolation prize. Especially because Britain cannot guarantee a protest-free Vauxhall, not as much to protect the President physically as to protect his fragile self-esteem, but in essence denying both the form and function of the new building.

Trump's own objections to the embassy, as voiced on twitter, are as easy to decipher as his fear of being met with demonstrations of mass disapproval. He called the Grosvenor Square embassy 'the best located and finest embassy in London', and said the new one was in 'an off location'. Donald Trump is a child of Queens, the New York City outer borough located on Long Island. He is one of the 'bridge and tunnel' people who see Manhattan as the centre of earthly delight. When he took over the family business from his father, his first moves were to rename it the Trump Organization and move it into Manhattan. To Trump, being on the 'wrong side' of the river is literally slumming, especially when the new embassy lies in a bleak development area south of the Thames River, reminiscent of the New Jersey marshlands across the Hudson from Manhattan.

Trump was also quick to blame Barack Obama for the move, saying he'd sold the Grosvenor Square location 'for peanuts' and spent the money on the new one in a 'bad deal'. Trump remains at heart a real estate hustler, and he could not pass up the opportunity to remind his followers of his own business acumen. Never mind that the move of the embassy was a product of the Bush administration, including the sale of the lease that runs until 2953 to the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund. The symbolic figurehead, the golden eagle, will remain on the building overlooking the square, to people that once this was the seat of the American presence in Britain, and was back to the days of Johan Adams, but it will also confirm a shrinking specialness for that special relationship.

The old embassy, opened in 1960, was designed by Eero Sarinen. Its fortress appearance is more the result of recent renovation than original design; it never really fit Grosvenor Square, but it did squeeze itself in without claiming domination. The structure was low and sweeping, and many years ago, quite pleasant and relaxed to use, more like a modern town hall than a fortress.

Of course it's probably best remembered for the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War, which infamously featured a young Bill Clinton. This year is the 50th anniversary of those demos, as well as the ones in France, Mexico, America and elsewhere that will provide acres of fodder for ageing pundits.

But the threat posed by those demonstrations seems placid compared to the fears that fueled the Bush administration's flight from Mayfair. In the wake of the President's 'Global War On Terror', the US government was selling fear, and the Grosvenor Square building was a vulnerable branch of the store. It wasn't large enough to house the extra bureaucracy needed to 'protect' America by making the visa process more of a trial, nor could it house the huge increase in intelligence personnel, nor could it be protected adequately from the busy traffic that still passed nearby everyday.

To its credit, the new building manages to avoid the look of a fortress, though the Kieran Timberlake design has met with criticism in British architectural circles. It certainly doesn't do anything to spoil the landscape in Nine Elms, blending in with the graceless luxury flats with river views springing up in the emptiness of the neighbourhood. Its security is guaranteed by the large open spaces and moat that surround it, as well as invisible high tech equipment. Given the penchant for nicknaming London buildings, in the spirit of the Gherkin, it most resembles an artichoke. Or perhaps an armadillo. Or indeed a kind of Star Wars death-star: one expects those glass windows to open like gun portals, and laser weaponry to emerge. And while it lacks the Stalinist-modern menace of the MI6 headquarters, also in Vauxhall, but in the 'on location' side of the Thames, it also falls short of the state department' idea that it 'gives form to core democratic values of transparency, openness and equality. Just you try to get in, and try to open one of those windows.

The Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury would suggest quite strongly that the primary concern of the Trump White House is protecting the image and self-regard of its occupant. In such a situation, the idea that he would travel to Vauxhall, which he'd probably describe as a 'shithole', to cut a ribbon on a modernist fortress in disguise rather than accept a lift round Knightsbridge in a golden carriage with Her Majesty the Queen should surprise absolutely no one. The Trump team are probably drawing up architectural plans for the new 'special relationship' as we speak.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

SUE GRAFTON: O IS FOR OBITUARY

My obituary of the mystery novelist Sue Grafton went online at the Guardian yesterday; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as it was written, including great quotes from my friend Meg Gardiner and from Jeff Abbott, both of whom were gracious enough to let me poach from their reminiscenses. I would have liked to include Meg's story about being a Grafton fan-girl: driving on the 101 in Santa Barbara she followed a car with the vanity plate THNXKNZ (Thanks, Kinsey) all the way to its home, only to realise it was Graftons husband driving! Could happen to anyone!

I opened with the word 'hard-boiled', although the Millhone books aren't really hard-boiled. Her world view isn't as hard-boiled as Lew Archer's; I would have liked to get further into the debt she owed Ross MacDonald. Where I should have gone was to point out that the alphabet titles were a good device to bring 'mystery' fans to her books: they had enough of the 'cozy' puzzle about them to satisfy those, while Kinsey Millhone was boiled hard enough to appeal to the Megs and Jeffs and many many other readers.

I also spent some time trying to see if I could make sense of a link I felt between the Millhone books (first published in 1982) and the TV series Cagney & Lacey, which also debuted in 1982, though the pilot aired in October 1981. I thought about it and concluded it was just something in the zeitgeist that meant America was ready for women in those classically male roles with some classically male attitudes. I do think there's a certain flow in her writing that reflects those years writing for television, though. I also spent some time trying to link Millhone's name and Dr Kinsey, but that didn't go anywhere. But I will have to dig up a viewing of Lolly Madonna XXX someday....RIP Sue Grafton

Friday, 29 December 2017

REFERENCE BACK: LARKIN AND JAZZ

I wrote this piece for the Daily Telegraph back in 1999. 'Not Jazzy Phil' their photo caption ran. This morning Kevin Jackson was having a bit of a discussion about the modernists and their reactions to jazz music, so I decided to dig it out and republish it here.  I use their title below:

THE MUSIC THAT CAME BEFORE THE CHATTERLY BAN

Philip Larkin may or may not have believed that ‘sex began in 1963’, but he certainly believed jazz had already died long before the Beatles issued their first LP.  In his words it was “as dead as Elizabethan madrigal singing.” This collection seeks to rebut the received view of Larkin as musical arch-conservative, but actually manages to reinforce strongly that judgement, thus suggesting a terrible paradox. How does a man who feels music so deeply and writes about it so well become so tone deaf?

Larkin discovered jazz through dance music, the pop of his youth. It became part of his “private joke of existence”. He relished the escape it provided. “I can live a week without poetry but not a day without jazz,” he said. He disliked anything that took jazz away from its roots in American folk blues, as if he begrudged jazz musicians their own aspirations to more self-conscious art. There is of course a racial element; but Larkin has been attacked enough for his retroactive affronts to political correctness. Yet while it would be churlish to use these reviews as further ammunition against his prejudice, it’s impossible to see this collection as in any way disproving it.

His complaints about be-bop taking jazz out of the realms of popular music echo those of rock fans who complain the music hasn’t been the same since Buddy Holly died. He never realised that pop music was already moving away from his sort of jazz by the time he became a fan, and it was inevitable that jazz itself would change. One may prefer Johnny Hodges to Charlie Parker, Henry Allen to Miles Davis, but would you feel comfortable asserting Hodges and Allen blew the others “out of the room”? When, eventually, he acknowledges Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in his “year’s best” choices, he does it only out of a grudging sense of responsibility to reality. 

Larkin writes precisely, so it’s hard to grant him leeway. He even has the chutzpah to criticize others for “dragging in culture references”, while himself using the adjective “Henchardian". Amusingly, the editors have culled Larkin’s poetic phrases and listed them in the book’s introduction. This has the effect, like a well-produced trailer for a bad movie, of suggesting that’s all there is on offer. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. 

While not revealing a kinder, gentler jazzy Phil, this is still a valuable collection. Yet it's most revealing when Larkin reviews, not music, but a fellow writer, the New Yorker's jazz critic Whitney Balliett. He admires Balliet, but is also almost haughtily suspicious of his catholic enthusiasms. And there is the crux of the matter. Larkin’s inability to gain pleasure from anything but the music that first gave him that exciting release when he was young is the very definition of a fetishist, and reveals him as someone more intent on recapitulating that pleasure than making a fan's progress through the seasons of jazz.

Balliett once wrote “it is a compliment to jazz that nine-tenths of the writing about it is bad.” Larkin’s writing falls into that precious one-tenth. If only he could have shared one-tenth of Balliett’s eclectic enthusiasm.

REFERENCE BACK: Philip Larkin’s Uncollected Jazz Writings 1940-84

Edited by Richard Palmer and John White

University of Hull Press, 191pp, 19.99

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

JOHNNY BOWER AND MEMORIES OF AN ERA

Johnny Bower with the Maple Leafs. Glenn Hall in Chicago. Terry Sawchuk of the Red Wings. Eddie Johnston in Boston. Gump Worsley in New York. And Jacques Plante with les Habitants in Montreal.

Six names, six teams, and a rush of memories. It was a simpler time. When I read that Johnny Bower had died aged 93, I almost immediately recited those six names, like some shamanistic incantation. I can't say for sure when all six of those guys played on those teams, but I am assuming they were all together in that alignment for a least a few of my youthful years.

Beyond that, I remember Sawchuk wound up in Toronto splitting time with Bower, an innovation which went against conventional wisdom that one goalie had to play every game to stay sharp. After all, goalies were supposed to wear number 1, and two guys couldn't do that. It was, of course, a move both goalies hated, though it likely helped both immensely. Of course every team was quickly using two goalies, if only to rest their better one occasionally.

I recall too the shock trade when the Canadiens sent Plante to the Rangers for Worsley (there were other players involved—Dave Balon and Phil Goyette among others) Plante who had come up with the goalie's mask, which was originally seen as a sign of weakness, if not fear, was perceived as the sport's mercurial genius, but at odds variously with coach Toe Blake and GM Frank Selke, who would soon be gone himself. Worsley, a native Montrealer, was seen as a steady plugger (despite being one of North American sport's most prodigious drinking men).

But Johnny Bower's was probably the most interesting career of them all. He was born John Kiszkan, and at 15 enlisted in the Army, serving in England during the war until he was discharged because of arthritis in his hands. When his parents divorced he took his mother's name, though later he claimed it was easier for sportswriters to spell.He was already 20 when he played a year of junior hockey in Prince Albert in 1944, then turned pro in the minor league AHL. He played eight seasons for the Cleveland Barons, and was generally considered the league's best goalie, before he got a shot in 1953 with the New York Rangers, where he replaced Worsley, who'd been the NHL Rookie of the Year in 1952. For the next three years he was in effect Worsley's backup, playing most of the time in Vancouver of the WHL or Providence of the AHL. When the Rangers let him go he returned to Cleveland for a year, before Punch Imlach talked him into giving the NHL one more chance.

Bower was 34 when he finally settled into the nets for the Maple Leafs, where he would play for 11 more seasons, his career no doubt extended by sharing time with his fellow Ukranian Sawchuk. He backstopped the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, the first three in a row in 1962-4. After playing just one game in the 1969-70 season, he retired, and at age 45 he was at the time the oldest player to have played in an NHL game.

Nobody looked less like an athlete than Gump Worsley (well, maybe baseball's Smokey Burgess) but Bower was another guy who you would pass in the street never thinking you'd seen a great. Six decades later, most of those six names still appear regularly in arguments about the best goaltenders ever.

Ssx decades on, thinking of Johnny Bower made me nostalgic for those days when you knew the names, and the faces (no masks, no helmets) of all the goalies (if not all the players) in the six-team NHL. Even though you didn't see them much on TV (though I was lucky, being able to pick up Rangers' games out of New York—and falling in love with Montreal as a result). My dad played hockey, so we followed it a bit. I saw the Providence Reds (post-Bower) play in New Haven when the city finally got an AHL team--I had seen the AHL's Baltimore Clippers play the EHL Blades in the old New Haven Arena). Hockey was what first drew me to Montreal; Evelyne, whom I met on the beach in Woodmont, may have been another factor). In many ways my life has balanced itself on the fulcrum of Montreal; had I not wanted to live there I would not have gone to McGill; had I not gone to McGill I would not have met Theresa; had I not met her I would never have moved to Britain. 

Perhaps it was the Christmas season, or the snow that fell this morning, that helped me spin a hockey player's death into un petit coup de nostalgie, but these were very pleasant memories. RIP Johnny Bower.