Thursday, July 28, 2016

When Writers Cop Out

So I'm on the plane back from London to Melbourne and I'm watching Deutschland '83 which is about an East German agent infiltrating NATO command in yup, 1983...I'm watching episode 4 and our young, handsome Soviet agent has compromised a NATO General's secretary by leaving a bug under her desk which has been discovered by a cleaner. The agent's handler tells him to recruit the secretary or kill her. He takes her swimming and thinks about letting her drown in the river when she gets cramp but instead he saves her tells her he loves her and then explains that he's a Stasi agent. She thinks things over and decides to run away. He catches up with her in the woods. This is where the writers copped out and I stopped watching the show. Instead of having him kill her, she gets killed sort of accidentally by running in front of a car. Our hero is robbed of his moral choice by a Deus Ex Machina BMW. The writers did this because they thought we would lose sympathy for our hero if he kills the plain, decent, nice secretary.* In other words the writers don't respect you or me the viewer. They don't think we're intelligent enough to have two conflicting emotions in our head at the same time: revulsion at our hero's actions, but interest in seeing what happens to him next. Funnily enough almost exactly the same thing happened in The Crying Game 23 years ago. The writer, Neil Jordan, didn't actually have the IRA man kill the captured British soldier...instead after a run through the woods he is knocked down and killed by a big Deus Ex Machina Land Rover. Neil Jordan was afraid we wouldn't be able to watch the rest of the movie if Forrest Whittaker was actually shot in the head execution style the way the IRA actually killed all their captured British soldiers and policeman. 
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Bizarrely almost exactly the same death happened in another German production The Lives of Others - woman tormented by Stasi runs out of apartment and is killed by a tram. This, folks, is utter bullshit. Alfred Hitchcock knew this was bullshit 50 years ago when he had that scene in Psycho where Marion's car momentarily doesn't sink in the swamp as Norman Bates tries to get rid of the evidence. We are deliciously on Norman's side with our heart in our mouths as the car sits there in the quicksand not sinking...this despite the fact that we hate Norman Bates for what he's done to the lovely Janet Leigh. Hitchcock knew that audiences are capable of holding several different emotions in our heads at the same time loving and hating the hero protagonist. We're not dumb we'll still watch the movie if the hero makes some terrible moral choices. Indeed our hero wrestling with his or her morality is what makes books and movies interesting in the first place. Just read a Graham Greene novel some time - that's what they're all about and they're bloody fascinating. An unconflicted hero is boring. Unlike the rest of the world I never dug The Shawshank Redemption precisely because there was no actual redemption - Andy was innocent and virtuous all the way through...Ugh. 
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So yeah don't let writers pull that crap on you and call that shit whenever you see it. You need to be treated with more respect than that. Deutschland '83 you lost me as a viewer when you treated me like an idiot...

*I knew she was doomed, by the way, because she wasn't as pretty as the other female lead on the show. I've been watching Stranger Things and it does the same thing: killing the plainer female characters but letting the prettier ones live...this is some more bullshit right here but that's a discussion for another day...

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Are Long Titles A Good Idea?


...not the actual cover, the actual cover is much cooler but I'm not allowed to use
it yet cos they havent quite got the colours and the car sorted...
No. They're not. My new Duffy novel has a nine word title. This is most unfortunate. Everybody hates long titles: book buyers, publishers, editors, marketers, amazon, audible, book reviewers. . .you name it. If your book has a long title, especially in genre fiction it is a sign of amateurism. I was at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival last week and when I told a prominent English reviewer the title of my next Duffy book she visibly winced. My editor was with me and she gave me a knowing look after the wince. My editor and pretty much everyone at my publishers have been trying to talk me out of the new Duffy title for months now in the nicest possible way. They are all wonderful smart, intelligent people and they all, of course, are quite right about the title. Crime fiction is not literary fiction where you can get away with long titles. (Unless that is you're doing a long title as a mode of Spencerian signalling telling customers that your book is so bloody good that you can even throw away the title.) Some of my favourite books with long titles are Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West; By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept; I’ve Been To Sorrow’s Kitchen And Licked Out All The Pots; Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, but all these books are literary fiction. Crime fiction mostly has two or three word titles often with the words “blood” “death” or “girl” in the title. Long titles are off putting. But  then everything about my fiction is off putting. I set my books in Northern Ireland rather than in reader friendly Scandanavia, England or Scotland. I usually have long titles. I almost always begin my books slowly with description and with weather rather than action (in strict contradiction of the rules for writers laid down by Elmore Leonard and Stephen King). What all this self sabotaging does is winnow my audience to a core fanbase. No one casually grabs an Adrian McKinty novel at the airport. And you know what? that’s fine with me. If you get me you get me and if you don’t you don’t. If you're a crime author from Scandinavia you can write any old shite and the punters will buy it. Where's the challenge there, Sven? I’m sorry about the long title, I really am, but that’s the book that was inside me and that’s the book that wanted to come out. And to potential readers out there....if the long title or the Troubles setting or the boring beginning prevents you from becoming one of my readers that’s entirely ok with me – we weren’t destined to become simpatico and there are plenty of other books on the shelf at WH Smith called The Girl From....that you'll prefer. Please read one of those instead. We'll both be much happier. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Top 10 Movies That Are Better Than The Book

There are a couple of lists like this floating around the internet but they're all written by kids who have no idea what they're talking about because they haven't A) seen any films or B) read any books. Also you have to scroll through many screens to get their ridiculously uninformed opinions, whereas to get my ridiculously overinformed opinions you need only look below. You can pretty much stop reading any of those other lists at the point where they claim that Clueless is better than Pride and Prejudice. Ahem. Ok my top 10 or 11 if you want to be technical about it. 

10. Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban. Pretty feeble source material and a time travelling ending that ruins the logic of the series is turned into a good little film by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuaron. 
9. The Shawshank Redemption. Even though, technically, there is no actual "redemption" (because Andy was innocent (wd have been a much better film if he'd been guilty)) and despite the fact that Morgan Freeman's VO gets very annoying by the end, this is still much better than the thin on the ground source material by Stephen King. 
8. The 39 Steps. The book is ok, the Hitchcock film is breezy, sexy and fun. It's got a girl, Mr Memory, a police helicopter (in 1935!)* none of which are in the book. Jorge Luis Borges says in one of his essays that was the first film he'd ever seen that transcended the source material and he is right. Hitchcock didn't get this breezy again until North By Northwest (a kind of remake) 24 years later.
7. The Shining. Pretty good book. Excellent film. Stephen King was never happy with Kubrick's version so he made his own TV version in the 1990s which is, predictably, a crashing bore. 
6. The Silence of The Lambs. I know not everyone will agree with me on this but I found the book to be gruesome, campy and overbearing, whereas the film is...oh wait a minute...
5. Jaws. Every single person you ever met on public transport in the 1970s was reading this book which isn't actually that great. But those, apparently, were the good old days, now everybody on public transport is playing video games and texting and checking their bloody Facebook likes on their bloody phones. I was on a packed 'supertram' yesterday and there wasn't a single other person on there reading a book. God help us all. Lost my train of...what was I talking...Oh yes, Jaws: strange, clunky, slightly cheesy book with bizarre mafia subplot, 70s style affairs and then some old sea dog prose, but a lean, clever, subtle film (except, obviously, for the scene where Chief Brody gets slapped).
4. Barry Lyndon. Insufferable, long, meandering, silly, anti-Irish book, but somehow Kubrick made a minor masterpiece out of it. He does that a lot does Kubrick. Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket and 2001 could have been on this list too. The duel scenes alone are worth the price of admission...
3. The Graduate. This is a short book that you will still struggle to finish. How anyone thought there was a movie in this material is beyond me. I guess Mike Nichols is a genius or something. 
=2. The Godfather. Have you read the novel? Wow: schlocky, tacky and very much of its time. Written rapidly in the style of Harold Robbins the words kind of assault you with their clumsiness...Puzo, however, carefully rewrote the screenplay with Coppolla, they cast it well, they filmed it well and produced a masterpiece. 
=2 Goodfellas: Henry Hill's memoir has its moments but the film is probably Scorsese's best (and that's saying something). The Copacabana steadicam scene and the editing in the final 10 minutes are among the cinematic high points of the twentieth century. 
1. Last of the Mohicans. This book is so bad that Mark Twain made hay out of mocking it 150 years ago and it has not aged particularly well since then. The Michael Mann film however, is a classic especially that 8 minute long - almost silent - final sequence.
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*ok technically its an autogyro

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Theakston Crime Novel of the Year

As you may know I've been shortlisted for the crime novel of the year award 2016 for my Duffy novel, Rain Dogs. The public vote counts for 1/3 of the final vote so if you want to vote for me for crime novel of the year you can do so, here at the Theakston Site. Pretty tough competition if I'm honest (JK Rowling for example has also made the shortlist) but every tick counts. Anyway, many thanks in advance if you voted for me. In Yorkshire I will personally buy everyone who voted for me a drink and thats something Jo can't say...
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And if you think voting for this is kind of a waste of time in light of the big guns of the other shorlistees then do me a favour and review Rain Dogs over at amazon.co.uk. The poor book has been stuck on 99 reviews for a month, just one more and its triple figures which will do its confidence no end of good. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Crime Fiction Predicted Brexit Literary Fiction Did Not

Literary fiction in the British Isles is a product mostly made and consumed by upper middle class people. In England it is disproportionately a product of a Metropolitan elite who live - largely - in North London. The majority of these people went to private school but, of course, 93% of the population of the UK went to state school. Private school and Oxbridge followed by a house in Islington do not give you a particularly good grasp on what your fellow Britons are thinking outside of London unless you really try to make the effort. Apart from its outsider voices like Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Monica Ali, David Peace etc. British literary fiction has generally been pretty moribund and dull for the last 30 years IMHO but crime fiction in the UK has never been better with regional voices, women, ethnic and religious minorities at the cutting edge of an exciting ever-changing genre. Crime fiction too is pretty much the only place in British letters where you get authentic working class voices represented, not just (as in the old days) as criminals and victims but increasingly as detectives. CFL just published a great list of 12 regional crime fiction novels which shows you the diversity of the genre. I've only read half of this list so I really have some catching up to do. But what I have read has been illuminating. It's in British regional crime fiction that you see reflected the seeds of discontent that led to Brexit, not in the dull lives of wealthy Hampstead sophisticates. When I saw Will Self and Eddie Izzard on Question Time lambast the Brexiteers as racist, Little Englanders, I winced at how out of touch they were. Literary fiction has singularly failed to capture the Zeitgeist of a discontented England but crime fiction with its finger on the pulse of working class culture has been talking about the seething anger of a lost generation for a decade now. If you want to know whats really happening in UK society read some regional British crime fiction not the poncy whitterings of some posh people in Belsize Park. 
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And then, of course, there's science fiction. Dave Hutchinson's Europe In Autumn predicted Brexit and the fences between Hungary and Serbia etc. five years ago when no one else was even thinking about such things. And one of my favourite crime novels of the last decade China Mieville's The City and the City was all about the borders of the mind and the geography of difference both real and imaginary. A sophisticated exploration of frontiers, boundaries, immigration and sovereignty.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ben Wheatley Rated

My favourite new British film director rated in the standard A,B,C,D, F format. The occasional F grade, by the way, is a very good thing for a film maker because it shows you that they're willing to make non conformist non mainstream stuff that appeals to them but probably to nobody else. I'd rather watch a director who gets a lot of F and A grades and avoids B, C, D. (If I may be permitted to go a little off piste here, Spielberg and Scorsese for example have been B, C, D directors for the last 25 years or so. Nothing spectacularly good, nothing spectacularly bad.) Anyway back to Mr Wheatley. I've reviewed only his films not his TV work. 

Free Fire (2016) TBD

High Rise (2015) B

A Field in England (2013) F

Sightseers (2012) A

Kill List (2011) A

Down Terrace (2009) A

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Meet Me In The Morning, 56th and Wabasha

But let's not make it tomorrow morning and how about instead of 56th and Wabasha we try 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast? Ok? What's at 83 Botanic I hear you ask? Why, No Alibis bookshop of course. I just got the good word from those fine people at Serpents Tail that I'll be there on Saturday July 23rd at 2pm for the trade paperback launch of my Theakston and Dagger Award nominated novel, Rain Dogs. No Alibis is one of the great bookshops of the world and if you haven't been there yet you are in for a treat. I'll also be at the Theakston Crime Novel of the Year Awards on Thursday 21 July in Harrogate if you're in Yorkshire and want to say hello. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom's suicide attempt needn't become a murder-suicide if people act now. I'm talking about Northern Ireland and the possibility that it might disintegrate into chaos. Yeah, I know, I write detective novels for a living, I'm not a politician; but I am of a certain age and I remember The Troubles all too vividly. The Troubles, many people have forgotten, were a complicated struggle between Irish nationalists and the British establishment that more or less devolved into a bitter sectarian civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In a thirty year period more than 3500 people were murdered and Belfast became an apocalyptic landscape of bomb sites, checkpoints and derelict buildings. But in 1998 a fragile peace came to Ulster with The Good Friday Agreement and that peace has held ever since. 

Until last Friday, that is. Brexit day. Before Friday Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were separate political entities but they were united together in the European Union. Anyone from any part of the island could work in or travel to any other part of the island with complete freedom. Brexit has changed all that. Although the overwhelming majority of the population of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union, Northern Ireland will now go the way of the rest of the UK and leave in two years. Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, have called for reunification with Southern Ireland, Unionists, who are mostly Protestant, have angrily rejected this. And thus the whole of the hard won Northern Irish peace process teeters above the abyss. 

In my Sean Duffy detective novels I attempt to conjure up the mundane horror of daily life in Belfast in the 1980s: the random bombings and sectarian attacks; the police, army and paramilitary roadblocks; the misery of life in a province at war with itself. As one character says “If you haven’t read Thucydides, I’ll boil him down for you into a simple moral: intergenerational civil war is a very bad thing.” 

For Irish millennials this all seems like a long ago dream or nightmare. When driving along the border today it’s impossible to say where the Republic of Ireland ends and Northern Ireland begins. The fields look the same, the cows look the same, eventually you notice that the road signs are in Miles Per Hour instead of Kilometres Per Hour but that’s the only clue. Everyone who remembers how difficult it used to be to travel from Belfast to Dublin in the 1970’s is happy that the border guards and customs posts are long gone. A three and a half hour journey from city to city can now be done in a nippy hour and a half with no fuss at all. 

Brexit, however, has thrust the nightmare back into the forefront of our imaginations. Britain’s new Prime Minister, whoever he or she may be, must attend to Northern Ireland as a priority. Assurances must be given that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue to be a “common travel area.” There must be no customs posts, no army watchtowers, no border guards along the 300 mile long, meandering dividing line between northern and southern Ireland. If trucks need to be monitored travelling across the border this monitoring must be done electronically. Furthermore Northern Ireland must be generously treated by the London government to make up for the shortfall in European bursaries and subsidies. Money won’t solve all the problems Brexit has thrust at Northern Ireland but there must be no more austerity budgets and penny pinching from London. 

Brexit has made the reunification of Northern and Southern Ireland much more likely and if this happens it must come peacefully. Ulster does not need another thirty years of blood feud and sectarian conflict. Politicians on all sides of the Irish Sea must now must work over-time to prevent Brexit  turning Belfast back into a war zone. The grim days of the 1970s and 1980s must never come again. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

When To Give Up On A Book



no hard and fast rule here, but here are some guidelines:

1. If it's a classic that has stood the test of time I say hang in there until about page 50 to see if you can handle it. That's about the 1 1/2 hour mark on an audiobook. If you just can't bear it by page 50 then give up, life's too short, man, and maybe you'll pick it up again in a couple of years. It took me 3 bites of the cherry to read Middlemarch and in the end I was glad that I did. 

2. If the author's persistent racism or antisemitism or homophobia etc. is just really annoying you then you should feel free to give up immediately. Celine got on my nerves so badly by page 10 of Death on the Instalment Plan that I gave the book up in French and then again years later I gave it up in English at about page 20. The guy's just a dickhead and I didn't want to spend time in his company.

3. If the author's politics beats you over the head also feel free to give up the book. John Le Carre has always been a Manichean left wing ideologue of the Chomsky school but lately his formula (America + Britain = evil) has become tedious and thus his books are predictable and dull. Shame because Smiley is one of the all time great creations. Similarly with other authors who inject their dimwitted political opinions into their novels from the left and right and you can barely read the text for the noise made by the grinding of axes. Feel free to jump ship early. 

4. A beach book that "everybody" loves but you can't stand. Zeitgeist and luck usually explain the success of these books. And usually they're bloody terrible. Chapter 3 will suffice. Abandon ship with no guilt after that.

5. A Brief History of Time. I've heard so many people humble bragging about how they never finished A Brief History of Time (Charlie Rose for one) because it's so difficult. It isn't difficult at all. Just read it. Try some David Deutsch if you want difficult. 5 pages a day and you'll be done in two months. 

6. The Booker Prize longlist. 5 pages in and you'll have the gist of most of these. I read the first five pages of every book on the longlist and the only two I liked were Marlon James's Seven Killings and A Little Life. At the Sydney Writers Festival I met Marlon James at breakfast and wanted to tell him how impressed I was by the boldness of his temporal shifts and the polyphony of his book but I was too shy and instead I asked him how he was getting his eggs done and he said scrambled. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

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

a sort of recapitulation of an old post in light of recent events...last night Northern Ireland qualified for the final 16 (the knock out stage of the Euro 16 tournament) with their fans singing right to the end even as Northern Ireland lost to Germany. My favourite and the most devastating football chant is "you only sing when you're winning". True fans sing when they're losing. (That's the difference between Liverpool fans and Real Madrid fans.) Northern Ireland sang right to the end as they lost 1:0 Germany last night and then qualified for the knock out stage on goal difference as one of the best placed 3rd place teams. It was an amazing achievement for a team with fewer than 40 professional players to choose from and by a goal keeper who plays for Hamilton Academical...This is the post I wrote back in November when they qualified...
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On Thursday night in Belfast the football gods smiled. Northern Ireland beat Greece 3:1 to qualify for their first tournament of any kind in 30 years: the 2016 European Championships in France. They will be joining Wales, England and probably the Republic of Ireland too who - incredibly - beat the world champions Germany in Dublin also on Thursday night. Northern Ireland are top of Group F and have qualified for Euro16 against impossible odds and when every pundit and bookie in the business said they would likely be fifth in the group below the European football power houses of Finland, Romania, Hungary and Greece. Now, if you live outside of Ulster you won't be hearing much about Northern Ireland's incredible achievement. Why is this? The answer is because everybody hates Northern Ireland. The meta-narrative of the Northern Ireland football team is seemingly not a good one because it is connected to Northern Ireland the state. This meta-narrative runs like this: when Ireland became gloriously independent in 1922 a tiny rump of six counties decided to stay with Britain. These largely Protestant fanatics ran Northern Ireland as a kind of Boer South Africa until 1968 when the whole statelet erupted into civil war. A civil war that did not abate until the 1990's with thousands dead. The name Northern Ireland therefore is stained with the legacy of sectarianism, racism, colonialism & war. The Republic of Ireland football team by contrast is Ireland's real football team that every Irishman and woman and every Irish exile should support. This is the meta-narrative and its why Northern Ireland seldom gets positive coverage in the press anywhere in the world outside Belfast. N. Ireland is something of an embarrassment. Of course a lot of this is true and it doesn't help that Northern Ireland's home games are played at Windsor Park the home of Linfield which has been described as the Glasgow Rangers of Ulster. Not exactly a welcoming place for Catholic supporters. And in the 1980s it was a pretty terrifying environment especially in the old kop stand where you could get roughed up by skin-heads (this happened to me) and where racist invective was all too prevalent. To shoot itself further in the foot these "fans" would sometimes barrack Catholic players and so some Catholic players decided reasonably enough that they wouldn't play for Northern Ireland at all and preferred to play for the Republic. So this is a pretty easy meta-narrative to embrace if you live outside of NI (or if you're a nationalist living inside Northern Ireland) - if you want to cheer for an Irish football team cheer for the Republic. 
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Unfortunately for a world that wd prefer the N Ireland football team to just go away, the team is actually pretty damn good. In fact in terms of per capita population its one of the best teams in the world. Northern Ireland has qualified for three world cups. 133 countries have never qualified for a world cup and Northern Ireland has qualified three times. What's also very weird is that when they get to the world cup Northern Ireland always does very well. In fact some people have argued that in terms of per capita Northern Ireland is the most successful country ever in the world cup finals. You heard me right. Poor, benighted, ignored, loathed Northern Ireland always seems to shine on the big stage. And now we're doing it again. We were in Group F in the European Championships against 4 teams that when the qualifying process began had higher FIFA world rankings than us. We were expected to end up second from the bottom in this group. But it didn't happen. While all the media types were talking about England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland very quietly, off screen as usual, just kept winning and drawing against superior opposition, gradually moving up the table. 
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There's another problem with the meta narrative of a wicked Northern Ireland team and a cheerful plucky Republic of Ireland team that represents true Irishmen and women everywhere and its this: Northern Ireland is, in fact, the true Irish football team and it always has been and it's the Republic of Ireland & FIFA who divided soccer on the island of Ireland. In rugby, boxing, hockey, pretty much every sport you can think of there is only 1 Irish team but not soccer. Why? The answer is this: The IFA, the Irish Football Association was founded in Belfast in 1880. This was the period of the Gaelic Revival in Ireland and soccer was considered to be a foreign game by the intellectuals down in Dublin so they didn't care about it. It was only after the partition of Ireland in 1923 that the Free State authorities rebelled against the idea of having such a popular game as football controlled from a "foreign land", so they set up a rival organisation called the FAI and applied to FIFA for membership. It was the Irish Republic, the FAI, who divided football in Ireland. Sensibly the IFA in Belfast ignored this usurper organisation and continued to select players from all over Ireland for its team. It wasn't until the 1950s when that pernicious and corrupt organisation FIFA noticed that some players were playing for both the FAI team and the IFA team that they decided they had to put a stop to it. They insisted the IFA call its team Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland call its team the Republic of Ireland. The IFA didn't want to do this but FIFA makes the rules. So since the 1950s the IFA has only been allowed by FIFA to select players from the six counties of Northern Ireland. The FAI selects from the 26 counties down South (and anyone who has an Irish grandparent anywhere else in the world). The IFA reluctantly accepted this six county rule but didn't actually change the badge that Northern Ireland players played under until the 1980's when the worlds "Northern Ireland" where added to the IFA logo, again after FIFA pressure. But historically the IFA which is still headquartered in Belfast is the true Irish football team and until FIFA's meddling was the Irish football team from 1880 - 1954. But for FIFA's corrupt shenanigans the IFA wd still represent all of Ireland. De jure if not de facto we still do. We have been robbed of our birthright. We are princes in exile. We are kings over the water. Take a look at this George Best #11 replica shirt from the 1970s NI team that I own. The only thing it says on the shirt are the words: Irish Football Association.
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This is the underdog story that no one but me will ever tell you about. Northern Ireland always ranks number 1 or 2 in the FIFA top 50 rankings per head of population. We always do well in the world cups. We always beat teams that are consistently ranked above us. But you'll never see a movie about the plucky NI team because the prevailing meta narrative is too strong. That's not our only burden. FIFA despises us, the Republic of Ireland is indifferent or hostile to us, Windsor Park is not a nice place to play football, Belfast is not a beautiful city, much of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland prefers to root for the Republic team. But that, however, is changing. A jubilant Rory McIlroy and many other Catholics were there on Thursday night to support a religiously and ethnically diverse NI squad. And even the Guardian think this team just might be able to bring both sides of Belfast together.
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Still Manicheans  (those who simplify the world into good and evil) hate nuance and to support Northern Ireland you need to be able to embrace nuance. The Northern Ireland football team is too much associated with the toxic legacy of sectarianism and the Troubles for most people. It's so easy (too easy in fact) to be an England supporter or a Scotland supporter or a Brazil supporter or a supporter of team USA where nationalism for these nations is easily consumed, packaged, boring and simple. But to be a Northern Ireland supporter you need to have a heterogeneous mind able to do Scott Fitzgerald's trick: the bifurcation of your consciousness into opposing ideas. You need to be able to appreciate Ireland's complex past, you need to be able to ignore the rump idiocy of sectarian supporters on the terraces and cheer for a plucky bunch of 2nd rate players who somehow manage to raise their game on the international stage again and again and again.
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Northern Ireland, Wales, England and the Republic of Ireland will all be playing in European Championships next summer. If you're an Irish exile I don't mind a bit if you cheer for RofI, but spare a thought, a prayer and a cheer for the original Irish football team who will be playing there too. Allez les verts. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Freedom, Horrible, Horrible Freedom! Terrence Malick Rated

I once had to debate freedom of speech in law school and I was on the unfortunate side of the argument having to argue for censorship. I decided not to take any of the traditional approaches about protecting the public from affront or stuff like that but instead I argued that human culture has flourished best when writers had to chaff against censorship. Look at the most productive eras of world culture: fifth century BC Athens, Julio-Augustan Rome, Elizabethan England, Victorian England, Tsarist Russia - all eras of heavy censorship and yet they produced pretty much all the great literature of our culture. Since the 60's there's been effectively no censorship anywhere in the west and we've produced what exactly? Any novel as good as Pride and Prejudice or The Brothers Karamazov? No, I don't think so either...
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Anyway that was my argument. We lost the debate of course which is as it should be. Still, it's interesting to think that sometimes too much freedom can be bad for artists and giving them a box to play sometimes enhances creativity. Terrence Malick is a case in point. Success does funny things to film directors. Sometimes it gives them the confidence to be more daring & more interesting sometimes it makes them conservative and eager to churn out formula and sometimes it sends them off the deep end completely. Terrence Malick, it turns out, has fallen into that latter category. I am not thank God a Francis Ford Coppola completist so I haven't seen his latest films but I have seen every Terrence Malick. You know the Malick story: two early films in fairly quick succession were followed by a twenty year hiatus when he was rumoured to be teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne, living in an Ashram or selling surf boards in Malibu. In fact he was working on the screenplay for The Thin Red Line driving James Jones's widow batty with his queries and questions. The Thin Red Line should have been a total disaster (Malick's original cut was nearly 5 hours long) but it wasn't thanks to judicious editing and a strong central story that nearly hews close to the book. Malick's return was critically praised and every actor in Hollywood wanted to work with him. Malick's fourth film, however, was The New World which lost the plot in the second and third acts but was almost saved by Malick's use of the Vorspiel from Wagner's Rhinegold, a trick I'm pretty sure he stole from Werner Herzog. His next film The Tree of Life again had a piece of music that almost saved the film: Vltava by Bedrick Smetana. But nothing could save Malick's last 2 films which I'm sorry to say are unfocused, indulgent, horrible messes. Knight of Cups seems to have gone straight to video here in Australia and it's not surprising. Its like a bad student film with A list Hollywood talent. Dear oh dear. Freedom, Horrible Freedom! indeed.

Here's my ratings of his filmography in the standard the A,B,C,D,F format....

Badlands A

Days of Heaven A

The Thin Red Line A

The New World C

Tree of Life D

To The Wonder F

Knight of Cups F

Monday, June 13, 2016

So who has it worse: female writers or working class male writers?

the higher the bar the lower the social mobility in this chart
Trick question, the answer, of course, is working class female writers. There's a reason why Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice and Jeanette Winterson, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith have never won it. Peter Carey went to the poshest school in Australia, Zadie went to her local comprehensive. But my point is that its tougher for a working class man or woman to get published and taken seriously than it is for someone of the upper middle class. At least this is true in the UK and Australia - two countries where the class system still dominates and where social mobility is practically impossible. Australia pretends to be classless but it isn't and the UK doesn't even pretend. America too has almost zero social mobility and it's virtually impossible for an outsider to break into the Ivy League dominated North East coast world of letters. In America to be white and poor is to be despised and mocked. You can't get away with that kind of thing in the UK but even the Guardian is going to staff its offices mostly with posh private school types who aspire to be working class saviours rather than actual working class writers. Same at the BBC and all the other papers. Same at the New York Times. The posh, the connected, the well off who can afford to spend a summer interning for free in London or New York. 
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But back to the original question. If the talent is equal, who is more likely to be published and reviewed - a working class male writer or an upper middle class female writer? It's the latter. Power always diffuses to power. In the literary world and in the media world being of the wrong class is much more of a handicap than being of the wrong gender. There are a lot of prizes for women's writing and organisations for female writers. As far as I know there isn't a single prize anywhere for working class writing. I'm not qualified to discuss race, but I can imagine that, say, a poor black woman has the hardest obstacles of all to overcome. Wrong class, wrong gender, wrong race for the literary agents and the publishers. Get ready for disappointment. As the great Zora Neale Hurston once more poetically put it: "I've been in sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sean Duffy Year Zero

this is just a random short, not part of a bigger work or a new novel or anything like that....

Sean Duffy Year Zero




















Night coils above the eastern skyline. An occult sun sinks into an alien sea. The fog smells of rust and rot like an old bicycle.
The boat glides over the unseen water, its 25cc engine barely turning the prop. Belfast in Irish means black mouth and we are in the city’s throat, where the river Lagan is smothered by the lough.  
            Put put put goes the little outboard. The constable at the prow is waving a xenon arc lamp back and forth as I steer the skiff through the grey twilight. Dusk is falling and its not yet three in the afternoon. We are on a body hunt. The girl was last seen loitering by the Queen’s Bridge and is now nowhere to be found.
We glide over the opaque water, the surface hidden by a thin line of oil and a scum of weed. The yellow light of the arc lamp oscillates through the gloom revealing nothing. Constable Cathcart is a solemn, nervous young man and is not in the mood for conversation which suits me fine. 
From here the city looks abandoned. It has a hadopelagic air, a city of Doggerland or Heraclion or Atlantis. 
A flock of scolding herring gulls fly away from us and skid onto the greasy deck of HMS Caroline, a light cruiser dating from World War 1 that has been attached to the dock for so long that it’s now the second oldest commissioned vessel in the entire Royal Navy. (The oldest, of course, is HMS Victory in Portsmouth.)
            The stillness deepens. The odour of decomposing wood floats across from the crumbling Titanic wharf. Belfast lurks there in the night, swathed in black silence, as taciturn and broody and gruff as its populace. Even the Gazelle helicopter that hovers continually over the Falls Road seems muted, tired and far away.
            Calm the water is. Calm the heavens are. Calm the city is.
            But underneath the surface of the discernible world is another world of kin struggle and blood feud and death. An older order of ancient laws and obligations, customs that go back to the footfall of the first men through the grasslands of the Great Rift Valley in Africa.
            I steer the boat along the piers and jetties, everywhere I think a body might have washed up. Chip papers, newspapers, Coke cans, beer cans but nothing pertinent.
            “I’m cold,” Constable Cathcart finally says. “Can we go home now?”
            He’s asking me because although we are the same titular rank I am the senior constable. And realistically all of this - the boat, the spotlight, the search - is only for forms sake. The tide’s been going out for the last three hours, a body would be miles out to sea by now.
            Still returning so soon seems irreverent and unprofessional. “If you’re cold put the hood up on your parka,” I tell him.  
            He puts the hood up on his parka restricting his field of vision to about thirty degrees in front of him.
            I steer the nameless RUC dinghy into the deep water channel.
            An emerald sandpiper emerges from the murk with a crab wriggling in its mouth. It flies directly through the spotlight beam giving Cathcart a start. As it turns I see that in fact its not a sandpiper but a curlew, a whimbrel in fact, numenius phaeopus. Not that anyone cares.
            The deep water channel turns out to be far too choppy for the little boat and water starts coming over the gunwales. We’re out here in our uniforms, sans lifejacket and with our body armour on we’d sink like a stone if we went over the side.
            I turn us around and head back into the harbour towards the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the tide and current might have carried a body onto one of the slipways. Lights are coming on and a mile south across the channel are the chalky outlines of towers and steeples.
            We punt under the cranes, derrricks and gantries the whole of it like those drawings you did as a kid of factories and cities. You a sheltered country boy who imagined Derry or even Coleraine to be a place like Hong Kong or New York.
The ship looming in the dry dock is the SS Ravenscraig, a 950 foot long bulk carrier being built for British Steel. It’ll be one of the last vessels H&W will make for anyone. Not anticipating the cruise ship boom of the 90’s the Tory government will let the shipyards in Belfast and the Clyde wither on the vine. Once a third of all the ships in the world were built here but within a decade that venerable tradition will be all but extinguished.
            But the Duffy of that night doesn’t know that yet. The Duffy of that era knows hardly anything.
            The Duffy of that night starts whistling. It will take his girlfriend Beth to tell him that it’s unlucky to whistle in an open boat. The tune he is whistling is ‘Lament of the Lagan Valley’ whose last two lines are “Forgive us oh Lord the sins of the past/and may you in our mercy be kind to Belfast” which, when you think about it, is a little obvious, a little too on the nose to underscore this scene.
            Even the Duffy of that time can see that and his mind starts playing a different aquatic melody: the Vorspiel in E Flat Major of Das Rheingold, the culmination of Wagner’s work in Romantic drone music.
            “Over there along the wharves,” I direct Cathcart while I play in my head the unhurried Von Karajan version that so captures the tension within the counterpoint, as Wagner tries to hide his love/hate relationship with Heine. Love because how can you not love the poems, hate because Heine is a Jew.
            The police boat moves slowly back through the calm as the music swirls to a climax. The whiteness darkens into the shapes of buildings. Ruined buildings. Building that evoke despair. This city has been broken by ten years of bombings and murder and sectarian civil war. A city of the Aphotic zone. A city of the apocal—
“We’ve been out here nearly an hour, how much longer? I’ve a party to go to,” Cathcart mutters.
            Party? What party? What’s he talking about?
“An hour’s not enough. The sergeant will accuse us of not fulfilling our due diligence. Over there to left, mate.”
“The sergeant doesn’t give a damn about some wee doll who might or might not have thrown herself in the tide. We’ve bigger fish to fry now we’re on the Butchers.”
His hood has fallen down and I look at the back of Cathcart’s neck, white and young, quivering like a goose gizzard. He’s right of course. This whole thing reeks of pro forma. A going through the motions.
Our entire section has been seconded to the team under Detective Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, head of the CID Murder Squad in Tennent Street RUC. Nesbitt is investigating the Shankill Butchers – an Loyalist death cult who have slaughtered at least twenty people in random attacks over the last three years. Almost all the victims have been Catholics dragged off the street and hacked to death with butcher knives and meat cleavers.
The Shankill Butchers have become a cause celebre, folk heroes to some of the more warped denizens of Protestant West Belfast and bogey men to everyone else in the city.
DCI Nesbitt has been given carte blanche to try to bring the bastards in. And in fact the ring leaders are well known but no one is brave enough to testify against them so its catch them in the act or get forensic residue - neither of which is a very promising prospect.
In the end they’ll probably have to fit them up to get them off the streets.   
I look at my watch.
Yup we’ve been at this over an hour now and there’s nothing out of the ordinary. I turn the tiller to the right and head back up the Lagan.
An elderly cop waiting at the jetty throws me a rope.
“Anything?” he asks.
“Nope.”
We tie the boat and get out.
The jarring suddenness of the land. The air shivering with the smell of rain.
Cathcart and I walk sullenly to the station. The pavements are slippery. The Vorspiel in my head circles continuously around the E flat major chord before it crescendoes, resonates and gutters into silence.
            We show our faces to the security camera, go in the station and report to O’Neill the big ruddy incident room sergeant.
“What’s the story, Duffy?”
            “No sign of her, sir.”
            “Waste of my bloody time. Waste of my officers time. Remember that Duffy. Police work is about priorities. No, no, don’t take your armour off, we’re heading straight out.”
            “Right now?”
            “Aye, right now. No rest for the wicked. We’re first responders. Nesbitt and the bloody TV news are gonna be right behind us. I hope for your sake you didn’t have a fry for lunch.”
            We drive to Montague Street where the body of a trainee nurse has been found with nineteen stab wounds in her chest and back.
            “Raped first, a new low for the Butchers,” O’Neill says. Her clothes have been torn off and she’s been disembowled.
            She has ginger hair and delicate features. A shy one you can tell. Kindly. Would have made a wonderful nurse.
            We set up a perimeter and began canvassing for witnesses.
            When Jimmy Nesbbit arrives with the BBC, ITN and hacks from the English press we’ve already done all the grunt work.
            “She was a Catholic, of course,” O’Neill whispers conspiratorally to me as we take a smoke break.
            “How can you tell?” I ask him.
            “Rosary in her left hand. She’d have been better to have had a bloody hammer.”
            I nod and say nothing.
            “Did you hear me, Duffy?”
“Yes sergeant.”
He looks at me. “Christ you’re exhausted. Get on back to the station, the boss wants a word with you and when he has that word you go on to your bed. You hear me, son?”
“Yes sergeant.”
            Back to the station through the devastated streets. Past bomb sites turned into parking lots and derelict buildings and huge craters brimming with rain water. I know I’m being watched by men in doors and alleyways. A peeler on his own. A tempting target. Death is very close here. And yet I know that I am safe. Not tonight. Not this night.
            The crow filled sky has darkened to a deep trance-like blue.
The stars slink out.
Darkness.
            Go back an hour, see what the Angels saw. See what the Angels saw and did nothing to prevent.
            The trainee nurse on her way to work. The intoxicated men pouring out of the car and dragging her away. Witnesses quickening their step, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.
            Go back four hours to the runaway girl sitting on the edge of the Queen’s Bridge. Driven there by what demons? Drunkeness, domestic violence, sexual violence?
Any civilization that fails to appreciate its women is lost.
Deserves to be lost.
Rosemary Street. High Street. The station. Everyone around the telly watching Olivia de Havilland watching Errol Flynn showing off his archery prowess. 
Upstairs to the gaffer’s office.
His hand out-stretched.
            “Congratulations, Sean.”
            I shake the hand. “Congratulations for what?”
            “Obviously the higher ups like what you’ve being doing here. I pride myself on being a mentor.”
“I’m still not clear what—”
“No more foot patrols for you, my lad. You’re off the bloody streets for good. You’re the new breed, I suppose, Duffy. University men.”
“I’m being transferred, is that it?”
“Transferred? What? No. You’ve been promoted. You’re not an acting detective constable anymore. In fact, you’re not even a detective constable! You’ve been promoted to detective sergeant. Jesus, you’re really being fast-tracked. In a year you’ll probably be bumped up to DI. Some quiet out of the way station with your own team. They’re grooming you, Sean. They like the cut out of your jib. Be a good boy and keep your nose clean and don’t get bloody shot and you’ll end up a Chief Superintendent or an Assistant Chief Constable or maybe even the big prize itself with the knighthood and the house in Bangor and the six figure pension.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Downstairs again.
Rain battering against the bullet proof glass of the locker room. A detective sergeant? My own team? Maybe now I can really make a difference.
I change out of my uniform into my street clothes. White jeans, black T shirt, black parka.   
“Where are you going in this weather? Home I hope,” the desk sergeant asks.
“Just one more thing to do. I’m going to let Mrs Keeley know we didn’t find anything.”
The desk sergeant guffaws. “You’re going to let her know you didn’t find her daughter’s body? She won’t thank you for that.”
“Letting her know we’re still on the case.”
“We’re not still on the case. We’ve got dead nurses now. No one gives a shite about another teenage runaway.”  
Nevertheless I walk to Mrs Keeley’s house in a ruined terrace in the Markets.
Knock the door.
A big man answers. Big man in a white shirt, brown braces, brown slacks. “Who are you?”
“The police. Acting Detective Const. . .Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy. Is Mrs Keeley home?”
“She’s making the tea. What is it?”
“Well its just that we had a look for Louise and so far nothing has—”
“If you do find her you can tell that wee hoor from me that when she gets home she’s getting a pounding.”
“Who is it?” Mrs Keeley asks, appearing in the hall with a fresh black eye.
“Mrs Keeley just wanted to let you know that there’s no sign of Louise yet.”
“The harbour?” she asks, clutching her throat.
“We took a boat out and there was no sign of anything untoward. The eyewitnesses said she just sat there for a bit on the bridge. No one actually saw her jump.”
“That’s a relief,” Mrs Keeley says before her husband turns and glares at her and she goes back to the kitchen.
“Calling the police for the likes of this,” he mutters to her and then turning to me he adds, “you can run along now.”
And maybe it’s the exhaustion, maybe its the promotion and the knowledge that I’ll be moving to a new parish, or maybe it’s the Chief Inspector telling me to be a good boy and keep my nose clean. . .Because instead of running along I step into the house and close the front door behind me. “You like Wagner?” I ask him.
“What?”
“Wagner.”
“What are you on about?”
“Big influence on Wagner was the poet Heine but he could never admit it because Heine was Jewish. You know any Heine? Schubert liked him too. Both were inspired by Heine’s poem ‘The Lorelei’. Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten. Daß ich so traurig bin, which translates to: I do not know what this can mean, I am so very sad. The English doesn’t really do it justice though, trust me.”
“Are you off your rocker, sunshine?”
“No. I’m just sad. Sad about the way this city treats its womenfolk, sad that an evil bastard who beats his wife and beats his daughter always seems to get away with it because no one will ever testify against him. And you know what I think?”
“What do you think?” he growls, his face turning purple with rage.
I take the service revolver out of its holster and point it at his head. “I think they’d all be better off without you,” I whisper.  “I think the world would be better off with you. I think no one would miss you. What do you think?”
He falls to his knees. He starts to cry. Like many bullies, the merest hint of a pushback was enough. . .
I put the revolver back in the holster a little shocked to see that it got taken out in the first place.  
I open the front door. “I’ll be keeping tabs on you Keeley, any more bruises on Mrs Keeley or any of the little Keeleys and there will be a knock at your door. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” he sobs.
Outside the house I catch a look at my reflection in a car window. Jesus Duffy is this the kind of plain clothes cop you are going to be? Power corrupts, of course, but does it have to corrupt this quickly?
I walk back to the station through the drizzle. When I get into the incident room everyone is wearing party hats and blowing kazoos. Someone’s birthday? Surprise promotion party for me?
Sergeant O’Neill spots me. “Christ Duffy, you look terrible. I’ve seen better looking corpses down the mortuary. Thought I told you to go home. When did you come on duty?”
“Noon.”
“What day?”
“Friday.”
“It’s midnight Saturday. You’ve been on duty for thirty six hours straight!”
“What’s with the pointy hats?”
“It’s the new year, lad. It’s January 1st 1980.”  
“Happy new year, Sean,” WPC Porter says, kissing me on the cheek with motherly affection.
“Happy new year to you, Liz,” I say, kissing her back.
“Ach thanks Sean, and let’s hope the eighties are better than the seventies, eh?”
Sergeant O’Neill laughs bitterly. “Well, Liz love, they certainly can’t—”
Don’t say it! Don’t jinx it!
“—be any worse, can they?”




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Vorspiel in E Flat Major Das Rheingold