Friday, February 12, 2016

Donald Trump's Ulster-Scots Supporters

Politics aint my bag but you can't avoid Donald Trump these days and what I've found myself increasingly interested in is the fervent Donald Trump's supporters. Who are these outsiders who hate elites, foreigners and Washington and who love guns, God and the Good Book? Many of them of course what used to be called Reagan Democrats or yellow dog Democrats. People from middle America and the middle South and Appalachia. These are the people known as the Ulster Scots or 'Scotch-Irish'. As I said in a previous blogpost: 

Too few people realise that the history of the Irish in America does not begin with the potato famine but goes back a century earlier to the 1740 migration of Presbyterians from Ulster. The best book about this hidden history is the brilliant Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer, but Senator Jim Webb has written an entertaining primer called Born Fighting, both of which are well worth a read. Part of Jim Webb's premise is that the Ulster Scots' fighting and a feuding ways meant that they were predisposed for military service and that Scots-Irish officers were the backbone of Washington's Army, the Union and Confederate Armies in the Civil War, the Doughboys of WW1, the GIs of WW2 and Vietnam.

Now as Hackett Fischer points out in Albion's Seed these Borderlanders from Ulster loved liberty, read the Bible, were fiercely independent, loved to fight, hated central government, were suspicious of outsiders and foreigners and they really loved to go to revival meetings to hear a preacher talk. These revival meetings are vividly described by Hackett Fischer with the travelling charismatic preacher cajoling, enraging, joking with and entertaining his audience. Sound like someone we know? 

But where did Trump learn this trick? He's not a McCoy from Kentucky, he's a rich kid from New York, the son of a well off German immigrant, who, furthermore, eschewed fighting in Vietnam by dodging the draft several times (unlike Jim Webb, John McCain and his cohort). The answer is to look at Trump's Scottish Presbyterian mother, Mary Anne MacLeod. Mary MacLeod came from Stornaway on the island of Lewis-Harris in the Outer Hebrides. If you've seen the movie Highlander you already know about the Clan MacLeod (of which Trump and his mother are members) if you haven't you can find out about them here. Lewis-Harris is one of the weirdest places in Britain, indeed in all of Europe. Rainy, stark, beautiful, its the only place in the British Isles where church attendance is actually going up. There are at least six different Presbyterian dominations on Lewis-Harris all at war with one another but who all insist on strict Sabbath observance, thrift, hard work and Bible study. In some of the churches the Presbyterian practice of Psalmody is carried out in an ancient Scots gaelic which to my ears is extraordinarily beautiful. 

I grew up a Presbyterian too but we went to the Presbyterian Church of Ireland which is a dour, sensible, Calvinist, unshowy, deliberately boring faith. There were no charismatic preachers in my church and none wd be tolerated by the Elders. But there was another Presbyterian Church in Ulster at that time: the Free Presbyterian Church which was run by Ian Paisley. Ian Paisley you'll recall was a loud mouthed demagogue who was suspicious of foreigners (especially Europeans), who was Evangelical and who was bizarrely obsessed by the Pope (in Paisley's eschatology Pope John Paul was the Anti-Christ).

Trump comes from or at least is channeling this tradition. Exactly like Paisley Trump loves Israel, loves Scotland, worships guns, says his favourite book is the Bible (although he is unable to recall a single verse or book) is determinedly Nativist and he says he thinks the central government is selling out the country...Trump though seems to have dropped the anti-Catholicism (at least I think he has, I wonder if his lambasting of Mexicans is at least partly because of their religion). 

Trump's blue collar supporters seem to believe that this billionaire prep school graduate who dodged the draft and got rich by exploiting the bankruptcy laws is still somehow one of them. But, of course, he is. He was born into the Clan MacLeod and as Hackett Fischer points out Scottish and Ulster clan solidarity is a folkway that is still a very important - if almost unknown - current in contemporary American life. If any other American had attacked John McCain's war record he wd have been finished but not Trump. Why? I think to the Ulster Scots it wasnt a big deal because Clan McCain and Clan MacLeod have been fighting each other for 600 years... 

 

 If you're interested in this stuff you can buy Albion's Seed, here. The great Jonathan Meades's, wonderful, eccentric visit to Lewis-Harris is worth watching from part 3 onwards, here. A left field look at the career of John McCain, Jim Webb & Oliver North (3 Ulster Scots) and the legacy of Vietnam is the excellent Nightingale's Song which you can get, here.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Sydney Morning Herald Reviews Rain Dogs (again)

Sue Turnbull reviews Rain Dogs in the daily version of the SMH. (It was also reviewed in the Saturday paper 2 weeks ago.)

Australian crime writer Adrian McKinty is on a roll.  His last novel in the Sean Duffy series set during the troubles in Northern Ireland, Gun Street Girl, has been shortlisted  for an Edgar award by the Mystery Writers of America.  The latest, Rain Dogs, does not disappoint. The dark humour, the verbal jests, and the seamless insertion of real historical figures and events into the fictional narrative are all superbly sustained.

Rain Dogs opens with Duffy on crowd control as Muhammad Ali, the boxer who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, steps "lepidopterously" onto the tarmac in front of the Belfast City Hall.  Everyone is there, including Bono in his cuban heels, and the Reverend Ian Paisley with his "elderly band of evangelical parishioners, singing their discontent in dour Presbyterian hymnals and determinedly joyless psalmody". Also present are the disgruntled skinheads from the National Front, "yelling abuse from the protest-pen that had been rigged up for them next to Marks and Spencer".
The detail in this historical reconstruction is delicious. Ali has them in thrall. As Duffy wryly notes: "He had shadow-boxed, he had waved, he had lied and told them their city was aesthetically pleasing.  He could have run for Mayor on a Nation of Islam ticket and won on a first-round voice vote of the council." Ali, Paisley and the National Front have very little to do with this story. They are simply there to set the scene in a cleverly contrived vignette that locates Duffy in a murder mystery that will brush with the reality of Northern Ireland's economic future, the dubious career of the notorious British paedophile Jimmy Saville, and poignantly illustrate the consequences of the on-going stand-off between the Catholic church and legalised abortion.

Duffy's latest investigation begins with abandonment. His girlfriend of six months, the one who shares his bad taste in jokes but not his love for Elvis, is moving out.  Duffy is bereft – he really likes Beth even though he can't get her new-fangled kettle to work, and there is the slight matter of a 10-year age difference.

Fortunately, distraction arrives in the case of the missing wallet. This is a petty crime, but the wallet belongs to a Finnish VIP who is part of a trade delegation looking to buy one of the region's abandoned factories and secure Northern Ireland's future in mobile phones.  Everyone wants the Finns to be happy, and Detective Inspector Duffy is on hand to help. But then there's the complication of the spunky female reporter covering the Finnish trade mission for The Financial Times who is discovered dead in Carrickfergus Castle in what looks like suicide.  Duffy can't help but think that this case looks suspiciously like a repetition of the locked-room mystery he had to deal with in Gun Street Girl. This can hardly be a coincidence, Duffy muses.  Nor is it.

There is so much to enjoy in this book: Duffy's musical asides (the snide remarks about U2), the great banter between Duffy and his colleagues, and the walk-on role of Duffy's buxom neighbour, Mrs Campbell, and her cakes. And the conclusion takes Duffy and the reader somewhere completely unexpected. This is clever historical fiction with the bite of social commentary and the joy of a crime series at its zenith.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bud Light Is All That Is Wrong With The World

The Superbowl is maybe the most depressing event in the American liturgical calendar. A hundred steroidly inflated men attempt to give each other brain damage while chasing a football around a field for sixty minutes. That wouldn't be so bad if television didn't somehow drag those sixty minutes out for three hours. Einstein said that times slows down the closer you get to the speed of light, yet at the Superbowl time slows down immediately anything speedy or interesting happens on the field. As soon as you begin to have a passing fascination with the dynamics of the game itself the television cuts to ads. And this is the real reason why those poor men are running around getting head trauma. The goddamn ads. I grew up in Northern Ireland where everybody hated television ads. Ads were mocked, ridiculed or turned off. What kind of fucking idiots did these ad men think we were that we would fall for their deluded pitches? Yet in America there seems to be no shame at all shilling for some horrible product that will burn a hole in your pocket and give you no satisfaction whatsoever. Advertisers are in the business of fooling you and when you are fooled they laugh at your gullibility. Which is why the Superbowl is so horrific. The Superbowl is a great festival of new American advertising and some people are so brainwashed that they actually tune in "just to watch the ads." The "best ads" are praised in respectable publications and on social media and replayed over and over again while the creepy men on Madison Avenue rub their satanic claws with glee. 
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The worst ads are always by the most evil corporations and Budweiser is one of the most evil corporations in the world. If you want to know how evil Budweiser is think on this - until only a couple of years ago it used to own SeaWorld. Come on, it doesn't get much worse than that. 
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As some of you might know I love beer. In fact I'm a bit of a beer geek. Which is why, as a beer lover, I know that Anheuser Busch hates America. They hate America and they hate Americans. No one who loved America would dare sell the filth they sell and call it beer. They employ more marketing men than brewers for a reason because they know they are selling a substandard product to schlemiels. Which brings me to Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer's Superbowl Bud Light commercial. Let me never hear again any complaints from those two about unfair treatment in the media. Let them never say again that they are artists. To paraphrase Bill Hicks you are exiled forever from the artistic community when you decide to shill for Budweiser. 
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Bud Light of course is losing the wider war. Budweiser's market share has been plummeting for years and the only people who drink it now are 15 year old boys and virtually at gun point, John Oliver. Craft beer sales are going through the roof as people discover what real beer tastes like. Its April 1945 and Budweiser is falling back to the bunker to blow its brains out. Seth Rogen & Amy Schumer's ad will not prevent our inevitable triumph over this once mighty evil empire. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Cabin In The Woods

Dover Harbour, avant le deluge
my piece on writer's block from last week's Guardian:

The life of the professional novelist is an agreeable one. You make your own hours, you do your best work in your pyjamas and Uggs, no boss glares at you when you have crisps and Guinness for lunch.
            The only occasion when things can get a little tricky is when the dreaded writer’s block comes a calling. I’ve always liked the Charles Bukowski solution: “writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all,” but unfortunately that doesn’t really work when you’re a mystery novelist. Last August I had a deadline looming and the solution to the ending of my book was nowhere in sight. I decided that I wasn’t the problem, the problem was my family with their music and TV and annoying requests for daddy time, food etc.
Mark Twain, Roald Dahl, Virgina Woolf amongst others used to write in a shed at the bottom of their gardens into which no one was allowed to enter. George Orwell went further and moved to a damp, isolated hut on the Hebridean Island of Jura to finish 1984. Ingmar Bergman wrote and storyboarded most of his scripts on the small island of Faro, north of Gotland where he drank only buttermilk and ate biscuits.
But my model was Henry Thoreau who moved to a cabin near Walden Pond and lived and wrote far from the distractions of modern life. Well reasonably far – he did cheat a bit by walking to his mum’s house to get his dinner and his laundry done. Still, the idea was a good one. I would get a cabin in the woods and thus inspired and focused I would easily cure my writer’s block and finish my book.
I live in Melbourne and from there it’s a only 59 dollar, one hour flight to Tasmania which, when I was a boy, was an exotic land at the very edge of all the world maps. From Hobart I caught the bus south as far as it would it go and ended up in the little hamlet of Dover. From there I walked to a camp ground where I’d called ahead and reserved a cabin under the name Adrian (no credit card or surname required).
            The cabin was suitably isolated and remote. A plywood affair on the edge of a eucalypt forest it came equipped only with a gas cooker, a bunk bed, a desk and a shower. No internet, no wireless, no distractions. It was perfect. I plugged in my computer and went for a walk. It was a lovely afternoon, quiet, with not a soul in sight. I strolled past a charming little bakery and I took a photograph of the gorgeous harbour. I had nothing but praise for my decision making. I loftily recalled my Edward Gibbon: “conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” I was going to get really good work done in this place.
            And that more or less is when the rain started. And did not stop for the next three days. Bone chillingly cold rain that had come up from a low pressure system over the Antarctic. I ran back to the cabin where I discovered that it was only usually rented out in summer as it came with no heater or fireplace. That night I was so cold I turned on the cooker’s gas ring, letting the flickering blue flame try vainly to warm the place a little.
            Fearing death by asphyxiation and shivering constantly I got no sleep at all. I was too exhausted to work next day so I trudged into town to discover that the sole restaurant in the place had burned to the ground, the pub was closed and the baker had left after his wife had died suddenly. The convenience store sold only baked beans and beer so I bought beans and a six pack and walked back to my freezing cabin through the apocalyptic, unceasing, Ray Bradburyesque downpour.
            That night it was so cold it snowed in the mountains to the west (a rarity in that part of Tasmania) and I again slept with the gas ring on. 
Next morning I was exhausted and homesick and getting no phone signal anywhere I fed fifty cent pieces into a weird Bakelite payphone that somehow had survived for decades in a forest car park.  My wife told me that the only bus of the day back to Hobart was leaving in twenty five minutes. I packed quickly and ran through the rain to the bus stop but the bus driver, seeing no one at the stand, had left early. Miserable, soaked and desperate I bought another six pack and plodded back through the deluge to the fucking cabin.
I spent a third night in there and to add to my hunger, cold and lack of sleep I began to hallucinate that there was someone watching me from the eucalypt forest, some escaped mental patient who was waiting for me to drift over into sleep so he could come in and kill me. The next day I was at the bus stand an hour early.
Drenched, chilled to the bone and behind on my work by another four days I arrived back in Melbourne that night giving my children teary eyed hugs as if I’d survived a shipwreck.
And I finished the book the way professionals finish their books: by getting up early, sitting at a desk and getting the work done before breakfast. Solitude may be the school of genius but if you’re looking to cure writer’s block or meet a deadline it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Inside The Whale

It's always fun to begin the new year by reading Orwell. Particularly the essays. The one book I and you will never regret buying is The Complete Essays Of George Orwell which costs 30 bucks in the Everyman edition but for that 30 bucks you get 1400 pages of Orwell's best stuff. If you can't hack that then get the selected essays and if you can't hack that then please do yourself a favour and click the link and read one of my favourites Inside The Whale below. 
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George Orwell's Inside The Whale (Henry Miller, Auden, Eliot, Louis MacNeice & co considered in the dark days of 1940).

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Irish Times Reviews Rain Dogs

Dec Hughes reviews Rain Dogs for the Irish Times. Parts of the review were a little too spoilerish so I had to obscure them but you can still read it if you squint a bit...
It is broadly accepted that the emergence of crime fiction set in Northern Ireland was only possible once the Troubles were over. Adrian McKinty’s acclaimed Seán Duffy series sometimes feels like a contrarian challenge to that position, following as it does a Catholic RUC detective based in Carrickfergus through the 1980s. With Rain Dogs (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99), we’re up to 1987 and, speaking of contrarianism, what better case for hard-boiled DI Duffy than a locked room mystery?
When journalist Lily Bigelow is found dead at Carrickfergus Castle, suicide seems, if unlikely, the only possible solution. But her notebook is missing and Duffy keeps his nerve, charting the movements of a party of visiting Finnish industrialists whose visit Lily was recording, first to a local brothel and then to a thinly disguised Kincora Boys Home. With a flying visit to Broadmoor to interview Jimmy Savile and a near-fatal trip to the Arctic tip of Finland, DI Duffy stays light on his feet and, if he doesn’t quite get his man, a shadowy network of spooks ensure that his man is got.
McKinty has all the virtues: smart dialogue, sharp plotting, great sense of place, well-rounded characters and a nice line in what might be called cynical lyricism (“Rain. Wind. The afternoon withering like a piece of fruit in an Ulster pantry.”)
If Duffy’s relentless patter occasionally makes you feel like you’re trapped in a lift with a stand-up comedian, well, those dreary steeples cry out for a little antic distraction. Be warned, though. Rain Dogs is Gateway McKinty: you won’t stop here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A Different Oscar Snub

winter comes to Texas in a bad ass 3rd Act scene where Joy out-thinks her enemies (I love shit like that)
When Jada Pinkett Smith's husband didn't get a best actor Oscar nomination for his leading role in the film Concussion she felt that the explanation for this snub was racism and so she started an Oscar boycott campaign which has snowballed into a movement. Spike Lee felt that he too had been snubbed for his recent film Chi-Raq and the film makers of Straight Outta Compton were pissed off that only the white screenwriters out of the entire cast and crew deserved an Oscar nomination for their efforts. I haven't seen Spike Lee's film or Straight Outta Compton so I can't judge their merits but as someone who played rugby for 20 years and is a little bit worried about this issue I did see Concussion. It's not a good film and Will Smith's performance in it is poor but that hasn't stopped the Oscars in the past. Just think of the horrible films that got nominations or even won the Oscar and you'll understand that Mrs Smith has a point. 
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Still it's a complicated issue. My two favourite Oscar nominated films, The Revenant and Spotlight are both really good movies and if either of those films wins I'll be pretty pleased. The Revenant is a superior art-house action movie and Spotlight simmers with righteous anger against the Archdiocese of Boston and that evil bastard Cardinal Law who should be forced to watch the film on a loop so he can he learn what real heroism looks like (either that or someone should assassinate the evil old fuck). 
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But that's not really what I wanted to talk about, what I wanted to talk about is the film, Joy, directed by David O Russell and starring Jennifer Lawrence. 

Synopsis from Google: A story of a family across four generations, centered on the girl who becomes the woman, Joy Mangano, (Jennifer Lawrence) who founds a business dynasty and becomes a matriarch in her own right.

As in that amazing Tom Hardy movie Locke that I loved so much Joy is essentially a film about crisis management. Joy is a woman who manages a series of crises in her life, thinks her way out of her difficulties and solves her problems through intelligence, patience, hard-work, guile, more patience and cunning. Unlike in a lot of Hollywood movies Joy does not solve any of her problems by punching anyone in the face in the third act. Furthermore Jennifer Lawrence does not play an invalid or a rape victim or a prostitute or someone in the midst of a torrid love affair. She's a working class businesswoman from Long Island and that's pretty much it. Joy has not been nominated for an Oscar this year; Jennifer Lawrence has but although she gives the best acting performance of any movie I've seen in the last year she is not the favourite to win the best actress Oscar. (In fact she's placed last in the bookies odds.) 

Joy only rates a 60% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The critics who didn't like it have complained that it is "tonally incoherent" which is the kind of stupid thing movie critics say. Movies can be any tone they want. They are their own world. And in the world of Joy an intelligent woman invents a mop to make the lives of women easier. How unspeakably vulgar other critics have said...blah blah consumerism blah blah. Trust me the critics who didn't like it are wrong. Its got the pacing and structure of a thriller with the heart of a biopic and the laughs of a black comedy. Its good. Go see it. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Sydney Morning Herald Reviews Rain Dogs

CRIME FICTION
RAIN DOGS
By Adrian McKinty. Serpent's Tail. $29.99.

The release of a new Sean Duffy novel by Adrian McKinty is always one of the highlights of a crime reader's year. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, McKinty now resides in Melbourne where he writes some of the best Irish crime fiction currently being produced.

Rain Dogs is the fifth book in his series about Duffy, a Catholic officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the 1980s. Hated by both sides of the sectarian divide Duffy lives in the middle of a Protestant housing estate, where he has to check his car for bombs each day and deal with the anti-Catholic sentiment of his neighbours.

The death of a young journalist in the snowy courtyard of Carrickfergus castle seems like an unfortunate suicide, but some of the details are not quite right. Despite instructions from above, Duffy and his team continue to sift through the clues and the links between the death and a diplomatic visit to Carrickfergus by a group of Finnish investors. Gradually they find evidence of a possible, high level conspiracy.

This is a first-rate crime thriller that commands attention from the opening pages and keeps the reader gripped until the end. The writing is tight and the story is well plotted... The tale unfolds at a good pace with McKinty ably balancing the steady unfolding of the investigation, including some interesting forensic detail, with episodes of exciting action and a suspenseful trip to Finland.

As usual, the characterisations are very strong and McKinty excels in his depiction of the period from a fictional encounter between Muhammad Ali and a group of local skinheads to a telling description of landing at Belfast airport:

"As we were on the final approach we could see a riot kicking off along the Falls Road … we watched Molotov cocktails arc through the air and crash into riot shields. One of the joys of landing at Belfast."

McKinty's wry sense of humour is also well on display and he peppers his story with small details that enhance his depiction of the period, but which will also darkly amuse readers...A funny & very engaging tale that sets an early high standard for this year's crime fiction. Highly recommended.

Jeff Popple is a Canberra reviewer.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Wolf Hall And The Frick

Its many years since I went to the Frick Museum which used to be the private fifth avenue mansion and art collection of Henry Clay Frick. The last time I was there (I'm guessing the year 2000) what impressed me most were the Vermeers. They have three extraordinary Vermeers in the Frick: Girl Interrupted At Her Music, Mistress and Maid and Officer and Laughing Girl. I'm not going to reproduce them here because nothing online remotely does them justice. If you have a big resolution screen that displays a lot of colour maybe try looking at this one. When I visited the Frick last Sunday (the pay what you want day) I spent quite a bit of time in front of the Vermeers but I also had another agenda. Ever since reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies I've been very keen to get to the Frick to look at the two paintings of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell that were painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Frick displays them rather cleverly facing one another on either side of a fireplace. Seeing these two adversaries from the books (and obviously real life and The Man For All Seasons etc.) is quite an unnerving experience. The two men in question actually sat for Hans Holbein, for hours, while he painted these pictures. It sends a chill down the spine actually. And you can look from one man to another and back again. More is completely convincing as an intellectual, a dreamer, a thinker, someone not quite of this world. And Cromwell, yes, you can well believe that he is a Putney bruiser or as Hilary Mantel says: His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in a courtroom or a waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and late to bed. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Edgar Awards

Although it will obviously cramp my gloomy, dour pessimistic persona I'm pleased to announce the fact that Gun Street Girl has been shortlisted for the 2016 Edgar Award (best paperback original). It's my first time ever getting shortlisted for an Edgar so I'm actually pretty damn thrilled. This morning I got a can of Guinness and walked over to West 84th Street where Edgar Allan Poe used to live (the house is long gone but the site can't be missed cos there's 2 massive stone ravens outside it) and had a quick, sneaky can of the black stuff in the 22F (-6C) air. I gave Edgar and the ravens some too and they seemed to appreciate it. 
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Cheers also to Gordon McAlpine my stable mate at SSB who is in my category and to my old buddies Val McDermid & Michael Robotham who got shortlisted in other categories. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Theme Park Ireland

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of John Banville's Quirk novels. Banville writes these crime books under the nom de plume Benjamin Black to distinguish them from his proper literary work and he has gone on record publicly many times speaking about this contempt for the mystery genre, his contempt for its devotees and his contempt for his own readers. He boasts about how he writes a Quirk novel in 6 weeks but how a proper John Banville novel takes a year to compose. I think all of this shows in the Quirk books which are poorly crafted, sloppily constructed and lack any of the spark or zest of the best books in the genre. One doesn't so much read a Benjamin Black novel as plod through it wincing at the clumsiness... But Black isn't really my bete noir, my bete noir is the whole notion of theme park Ireland. At a talk he gave in Scottsdale in 2007 Black said that he sets his books in 1950's Dublin because that's the way most Americans see Ireland and that therefore caters to the biggest possible audience. Banville's commercial acumen can be admired by those who admire commercial acumen but at the time I saw this as a completely cynical move that would not pay off. Americans will easily see through this crude venality I reckoned. Boy was I wrong. The Quirk novels got positively reviewed in the New York Times, profiled in the New Yorker and became a huge hit. Banville, of course, was right. What the public wants is theme park Ireland: the Ireland of the 1930s or 1950s; rural, Catholic, rain-swept, poor, religious. The public wants smoky pubs and Guinness and toothless men in flat caps, red haired children in knit jumpers and nuns. Lots of nuns. 
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The problem isn't just an Irish one. Diana Gabaldon's novels Outlander etc. are a theme park version of Scotland that outsell every single Scottish novelist combined. Rather annoyingly Gabaldon wrote the first two without even having visited Scotland. The Harry Potter boarding school novels are a kind of theme park version of England (99% of English children do not go to boarding school). Films like The King Speech and shows like Downton Abbey are also a wildly successful theme park version of England whereas great contemporary English movies like Fish Tank and Catch Me Daddy were seen by a fraction of Downton's audience. 
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For me it all boils down to what it is you are trying to do as an artist or film-maker. Do you want to write artistically challenging and interesting stuff or do you want to make as much money as possible from a gullible public? Every writer or film maker must make that choice for him or herself. I've gone for the former path and let me tell you it is a long and lonely road. But that's ok, as Lee Strasberg says in The Godfather pt II, this is the business we've chosen...

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why Is Most Nordic Noir Really Bad?

Well, first of all, as Ted Sturgeon says, 90% of everything is crap. 90% of
mystery novels, 90% of science fiction, 90% of literary fiction. Maybe especially literary fiction where the measure of a book's worth is often how boring it is. But let's not get off topic. We're talking about Nordic Noir. Why is most Nordic Noir so particularly bad? The reason is this: the bar for publication of any Scandinavian mystery is very low because the commercial viability of these books is very high. Because of Dragon Tattoo and the success of Jo Nesbo, the Wallendar books etc. basically any old shit from Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Iceland can be published and there's a pretty good chance it will be commercially viable. The book's quality doesn't really matter, what matters is where the book is set. Nordic Noir outsells the noir fiction of any region in the world. It's trendy. Its cool. Everybody likes Denmark and thinks of it as a kind of liberal Utopia. Norway is a rich Denmark. And Sweden is a slightly less rich but much bigger Norway. Iceland? That's the land where the beautiful pixie like people live. 
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A bad Australian crime novel has no chance of being published in America or the UK but a bad Swedish mystery? It'll probably be a hit. A bad Danish mystery? Mega hit. A good Northern Irish mystery will have trouble finding an audience (even in Belfast) but some old corny crap from Copenhagen will be in every airport newsagent everywhere in the world because that's what the punters want and successful publishers are in the business of giving the punters what they want. NYRB press can give them what they need but everyone else has to give them what they bloody want. What they have wanted for the last 7 or 8 years or so has been Nordic Noir. And that's why there's a glut. And that's why most of those books are shite. I should know, I'm a professional reviewer and my neighbours have been complaining about the increasing number of books that get tossed across the living room and into our shared wall. Don't get me wrong: there are tons of really good Scandi/Nordic writers that I love but in the last few years we've been bombarded with a lot of terrible stuff too. 
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Ok vent over. Now, let me get a cup of tea to calm down and don't get me started about John Banville. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Shannara

I'm guessing this is Seattle in the far far future
Three years ago at a bookstore in suburban West Seattle I was browsing the stacks and doing some Christmas shopping when an announcement came over the Tannoy that a local author called Terry Brooks was in the store and doing a book signing. Now, most of you won't know who Terry Brooks is, but he was a big part of my childhood. As a kid I was really into Tolkien, CS Lewis, TH White that kind of thing and then I discovered that a whole bunch of people who weren't dead were also writing epic fantasy: Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Julian May, Raymond E Feist etc. Some of these books were good and some felt like Tolkien or Dungeons and Dragons rip offs (Feist's career began, apparently, when he decided to write up his D&D campaigns as a novel). I ploughed through Brooks's Shannara books in a couple of weeks and was particularly impressed by the Elfstones of Shannara which had a creepy changeling character that gave me nightmares. So that day in Seattle I wondered over to the signing area and found Brooks sitting there with the publicist having signed everyone's books. I chatted to him for about 25 minutes and he was a very affable, likeable guy. I told him about my liking for the Elfstones book and he told me that that was the one they were turning into a TV series. Great, I said, I'll look forward to that. 
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Be careful what you wish for. If I could spin the clock back to 1980 I would have been super excited to know that there was going to be a Hobbit movie or three, a Terry Brooks TV series, a series of Narnia movies... Unfortunately they are all shit. I think we can now all agree that The Hobbit movies were a disaster up there with the Star Wars prequels. The Narnia movies were very cheesy and the Shannara series that started on MTV on Tuesday night has apparently been designed solely for younger teenage girls. I'm guessing this because there are lots of handsome dudes with their shirts off, the story focuses on a Katniss Everdeen type character and it follows the show Teen Wolf which also has a big teenage girl audience. The acting on Shannara is of the soap opera variety (there are some very curious line readings indeed), the CGI is cheap and cheerful and the production values ain't exactly Game of Thrones. But really the problem is the focus of the show: about 15 minutes in I realised that I was not the target demo and had to stop watching. 
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The only thing I found interesting about the Shannara pilot was its opening titles which seemed to suggest that the Shannara universe is actually Earth in the far far future after the continents have changed shape and new races of sentient creatures have evolved. This echoes my own theories about where Game of Thrones is actually set and I kind of dig all that future dying Earth stuff.  Gene Wolfe is an author you should read if you like that trope. Anyway, Shannara ain't my cup of tea but I don't really think it's meant to be. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Frank McCourt's Grocery Bag

(a blogpost from way back in 2009)
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In March 2004 I had just published a novel called Dead I Well May Be to a great chorus of indifference. Although the book had gotten good reviews in the trades it was ignored (i.e. not reviewed at all) by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly etc. I was an Irish guy living in Denver and I had written a crime novel about pre Giuliani New York - the incongruities were probably too much for most reviewers to cope with, especially when their job was (and is) to cover the big names. Anyway Dead came out and more or less died. Simon and Schuster weren't interested in publishing anything else by me and I went back to teaching high school, figuring that maybe I'd try my hand again at this writing lark a few years down the line. It was a snowy Colorado day in March 2004 (let's for the sake of the story pretend it was St Patrick's Day) and I was doing class prep and probably feeling a bit depressed about the whole rotten writing business when I got an email from Sarah Knight at Scribner who told me that Frank McCourt had somehow read Dead I Well May Be and not only liked it but had written the following blurb:

If you're a writer embarking on a new work beware of reading anything by Adrian McKinty. His prose is so hard, so tough, so New York honest you'll find yourself taking a knife to your work. He is a cross between Mickey Spillane and Damon Runyon - the toughest, the best.
After the blurb got attached to the book funny things started to happen. Simon and Schuster announced that they were going to bring out a paperback edition and wanted to know if I had any other books up my sleeve. Then I got an English publisher, Serpent's Tail. Then I got a French publisher, Gallimard. I even got a Russian publisher. The book was optioned (briefly, but even so) by Universal Pictures and in the autumn of 2004 it was short-listed for a Dagger Award.
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Frank McCourt passed away on Sunday and I'm not saying that I owe my entire career (such as it is) to him, but I do think he gave me an adrenalin shot to the heart when I was flatlining. The blurb was unsolicited and completely out of the blue, McCourt merely wanted to help out a young writer, just as he helped out his friends, colleagues, and especially students for 50 years in New York City. RIP Francis, I owe you and I'll miss you.
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Incidentally the blurb came to Simon and Schuster's offices in long hand and apparently was written on one of McCourt's old grocery bags. They had to call him up and ask if he'd really sent it. He said he had. I asked them if I could have the grocery bag with the blurb on it and they sent it to me.
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It's currently on eBay priced at a very reasonable 75.00 dollars. (Kidding!)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bicycling Without A Helmet

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

10 Explanations For The Ending Of Birdman

my most viewed blog post of 2015 (maybe because it was kind of nuts?)...

Do endings matter? Can't we all just watch and absorb a piece of art without trying to impose our own meanings on it? No, we can't. Humans are pattern seeking animals and we want explanations and meanings for things. Even for magical realist movies like Birdman. If you haven't seen Birdman don't read anymore of this.
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Still reading? Ok you've either seen Birdman or don't have any intention of watching Birdman or just don't give a crap and all of that is just fine with me...
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10 explanations for the way Birdman ended:


1. Riggan could actually fly. Throughout the movie we get lots of hints that his powers are in fact only in his head, but what if they're not?

2. He jumped out the hospital room window in a psychotic state thinking he was Birdman and as he hit the ground he died imagining that he was actually flying and that his daughter was witnessing him hovering with the pigeons.

3. He really died on stage after he shot himself and imagined everything that happened after that in the final second of his consciousness.

4. He really died from the multiple jelly-fish stings in Malibu and imagined the entire movie in the final seconds of his consciousness while dying on the beach (hence that shot of jellyfish: one of the first and nearly the last thing we see in the film).

5. Riggan really died when the bystander talked him down off the building and he changed his mind and jumped again. Everything after that was imaginary as he fell to his death. I'm not so sure about this one because it creates a paradox: his flight over Manhattan seems to have been imaginary because we - the viewers - see that he got to the theatre in a taxi and didn't pay the fare because he thought he had flown there. I suppose its possible that he imagined the irate taxi driver too.

6. In the final scene he only imagined getting out of the bed and jumping out the window (since when do hospital rooms have slide open windows on the 20th floor?)

7. A la St Elsewhere the entire movie takes place in the head of Riggan Thomson's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who really is in the mental hospital we see at the end of the movie. Sam is in recovery from substance abuse issues and suicide attempts and this is her way of coping: imagining helping her father put on an artistic masterpiece and having an affair with a hot older famous actor.

8. Like #7 above the entire movie takes place in Riggan's head in a mental hospital where he has been committed because of his Birdman hallucinations. 

9. As in #8 above except that Riggan is in the hospital because the spotlight that supposedly fell on Ralph's head actually fell on his head. 

10. This is my favourite interpretation but not the one I actually believe in: Naomi Watts is still playing her character, Diane Selwyn, from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (who if you'll remember was also a minor actress trying to make it into the big time and who also had a lesbian crush on the female lead). This is going to require some explanation, so here goes. In Birdman Watts's character is simply called Lesley. The female name Lesley was popularised (some even say invented) by Robert Burns in his poem: Saw Ye Bonie Lesley. This is the first stanza of Saw Ye Bonie Lesley:

O saw ye bonie Lesley, 

As she gaed o'er the Border? 

She's gane, like Alexander, 

To spread her conquests farther. 

The 'Alexander' Burns is talking about is of course Alexander the Great who was born the night the Great Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) burned to the ground. Artemis of course is the Goddess Diana or Diane in the Roman Pantheon and the Romans referred to the Great Temple of Diane/Diana. The name "Selwyn" means one who dwells in the house/castle/temple. So the name Diane Selwyn literally means "Diana the Goddess who dwells in the house/castle/temple". Alexander himself was not only born the night the House of Diana burned to the ground but visited the temple and offered to pay for it to be rebuilt as he saw himself as the reincarnation of the God Apollo who was Diana's brother. Alexander is intimately bound up with Diana and her temple (Diane Selwyn) as is Lesley in the poem. Therefore Lesley = Diane Selwyn, the character Naomi Watts played in Mulholland Drive. In the Lynch movie Diane mixes imagination and reality for the first 4/5 of the film, but in the last reel we see the bitter reality she has left after she has paid to have her ex girlfriend murdered. Birdman could be another one of Diane's fantasies. . .Interestingly Riggan throughout Birdman hallucinates music and sees a drummer but no band, or as David Lynch has one of his characters say chillingly in Mulholland Drive: No hay banda. Silencio.
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The one I believe is the real interpretation of Birdman is #1. Alejandro González Iñárritu comes squarely from the Latin American magical realism tradition and in that tradition all such things are possible. Its also the most cheerful ending and who doesn't want a bit of cheer in these troubled times. Other possible explanations & comments below if you please:

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Gun Street Girl Makes Three Best of the Year Lists

I am not about the hard sell here on the blog but if you are looking for a good crime story as a Christmas gift then its my duty to inform you that: 


Gun Street Girl has just been picked as one of the best crime novels of 2015 by The Irish Times.

Additionally Gun Street Girl was picked as one of the best books of 2015 by The Boston Globe 


And the audiobook version was picked as one of the best audiobooks of 2015 by AudioFile Magazine

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Additionally, I've heard a rumour that copies of the first print run of Rain Dogs are being released a couple of weeks ahead of schedule in the UK on Dec 24th...There's an amazon.co.uk listing for it on my computer so I guess this rumour is true...

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Childhood's End

When you think of Arthur C Clarke (if you think of him at all these days) you dont think surrealist. A stolid, workmanlike, old school, science fiction writer with serviceable prose, embarrassingly thin characters and some great big ideas, he was very much in the 1950s Golden Age tradition of hard sci-fi. Keeping his West Country burr right to the very end Clarke was an amiable skeptic who made debunking shows before James Randi and the Mythbusters and was an atheist way before it was trendy. With his pocket protector and National Health specs and love of math he was a nerd's nerd. But his life path did take some unusual - surreal - roads less travelled along the way. If you read Sherrill Tippins' excellent Inside The Dream Palace (The Life & Times of the Chelsea Hotel) it is not that big of a surprise to find Arthur C Clarke wandering the halls with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen. While the latter three were looking for downers cultivated in the poppy fields of Kandahar, Clarke was looking for uppers from the Andean forests of Peru and Columbia. The reason he needed these uppers was to cope with Stanley Kubrick's constant script revisionism during the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The old Peruvian Marching Power will help when a frantic Kubrick is calling at 3 in the morning demanding new dialogue for HAL. A friend of a friend knew Clarke in Colombo when the Englishman decided to permanently quit one overpopulated but chilly island for another overpopulated but decidedly more temperate one. "I have come for the diving," was what Clarke told everyone about his move to Sri Lanka. Some people believed him. My friend's friend said that Clarke enjoyed playing the eccentric Englishman abroad to almost alarming degrees. Paul Theroux visited Clarke in his journey recorded in Ghost Train to an Eastern Star and found the aged sci-fi writer in melancholy mood, pining for a lost England and particularly for a boy he loved in the RAF...
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All this is to say that Arthur C Clarke was a more interesting cat than first appearances would lead you to believe which is why Childhood's End is such a weird and interesting book. I read it when I was 15 in French in a caravan park just outside Perpignan. I'd read dozens of Clarke and Asimov books by that time but when I got to the ending of Childhood's End I thought that I had made some kind of serious mistake. I took the book to the younger chain smoking kid in the caravan next door and asked him to explain the ending to me. He read it and looked at me "What the fuck is this?" he asked in English. "Mate, just tell me what happens in the last couple of chapters, I think I got the wrong end of the stick or something." He shrugged gallicly (something you must learn in primary school) "You tell me what happens at the end. This book is nuts. Ce livre est fou!" 
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So it was with some sense of excitement then that I sat down to watch the SyFy network adaptation of Childhood's End. As is typical with the SyFy network there was a lot of extraneous bullshit before they got to the point (most of that bullshit involving unecessary 'love' interests and Colm Meaney), but eventually they did get to the point and they didn't apparently fudge the ending. But even so it was all a bit rushed and far too sunny for my taste. This was the end of the world as we know it and no one was supposed to feel fine. In the book the dance of the children is erotic and unhinged and fucking terrifying and in the SyFy network it wasn't even a pajama party at Michael Jackson's house, it was just kind of blah. With its budget, sensibility and taste restraints SyFy were probably the wrong people to have adapted this material. A Childhoods End by David Cronenberg or David Lynch or Werner Herzog wd have scared the bejesus out of us and shown us what a weird, dark misanthropic mind Arthur Clarke had buried away under those glasses and tan short sleeved shirts and Somerset levels yokel voice. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My Favourite Films of 2015


I should point out that some of these were 2014 releases in some parts of the world.

1. Catch Me Daddy dir Daniel Wolfe
2. Slow West dir John Maclean
3. Locke dir Stephen Knight
4. The Double dir Richard Ayoade
5. The Babadook dir Jennifer Kent
6. Birdman dir Alejandro González Iñárritu
7. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence dir Roy Andersson
8. While We're Young dir Noah Baumbach
9. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night dir Ana Amirpour
10. Predestination dir Michael Spierig
11. The Falling dir Carol Morley
12. Sunset Song dir Terence Davies
13. The Martian dir Ridley Scott
14. Mad Max Fury Road dir George Miller