Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Just killing time with a rant about tattoos . . . and then I get to hear John Scofield again

I'm sitting in the Wetherspoon's in Heathrow's terminal 5 waiting for my flight which is not for another hour, and I find the best way to get the time to pass fastest is by writing entries for my blog. I don’t have anything in particular to say, but don’t worry, I’ll say it anyway. (That remeinds me of the observation of committee life I heard years ago: when all is said and done, some cunt will get up and say it, delaying everyone’s departure by another 20 minutes.)

I’m off to Germany for a week to help my sister and her family and friends celebrate her 60th birthday. My, don’t we all get older fast. I can still remember when she was very young taking her for walks in the country near our home. This will have been in the winter of 1958. She was born on September 2

The plan is very German (though I don’t doubt it will also be very entertaining): it seems there is some kind of small coastal cruiser with cabins for about 30 which you can hire in Holland, just over the border from where she lives in the far, far North-West of Germany, so my sister Marianne, her family, my brother Mark and I, and many of her friends are taking to the high seas for three days. There isn’t really far to sail so I should imagine we shall be going around pretty much in circles, but then when you have a glass of Sekt in one hand and a Laz Paz Wilde Cigarros whatever in the other and, crucially, fuck all to do for the next ten days – I’m not due back at work until Sunday, September 11 – who cares. If going round in circles it must be, going around in circles it will be.

. . .

I saw something yesterday which to me looked thoroughly ridiculous. But first, o give it context, I must admit that as I m now undoubtedly over 30 – oh, OK, over 65 – I am most certainly a candidate for hating change of any kind, at least on paper. In fact – and you can believe me or not – I am not really like that, and if in some small ways I am, I can assure all that there are far, far worse cases.

One change in life which has occurred in the past ten years is the proliferation of tattoos. Now, being the character who, at the age of 29 and challenged to do so by my girlfriend, got himself a single ear stud and wore one for several years after, my aversion to tattoos – yes, I do have one – might strike some as hypocritical. All I will say is that you can take an ear stud out in a matter of seconds, but getting rid of a tattoo will take a lot longer and also set you back quite a few shekels. I shall also admit that until they became popular, tattoos were only sported by those who went to sea, hard-as-nails whores and criminals. Oh, and the occasional plumber though, it has to be said, plumbers who cared little about making their way in the world much further than the station they had already reached.

Then, courtesy of rock stars and other trendsetters, getting a tattoo caught on and before you knew it everyone under 30 and their sodding dog had a tattoo. And it was not a single anchor they sported or ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ tattooed over their knuckles. Most people go the whole hog and get some scene from The Hobbit tattooed all over them, that or some piece of cod Chinese philosophy they don't understand but like the sound of, something 'The butterfly is to life what the butter never knows'. But what I find most ridiculous is the claim made by many that their tattoo somehow highlights their individuality at, that somehow they are marked out from everyone else.

Well, not as far as I am concerned, they’re not: they just look like every other crud with a fucking tattoo all up their arm, on the back of their neck and (as I noticed just yesterday while getting changed in the gym) on one buttock cheek: superficially it looked like a football club crest, but I didn’t particularly want to linger much trying to make it out. It’s not that I don’t like the sight of butt cheeks, it just that I would have had some difficulty explaining what I was doing had the chap sporting it turned around. ‘Just admiring your arse’ doesn’t go down too well as a rule.)

The tattoo I saw yesterday which caught my eye was on the right leg of a young lass just outside the office in Derry St., Kensington. Picture it if you can: there were no other tattoos there, just the one. It was face, about three or four inches across and about five inches above the lass’s knee. She was wearing a skirt (it’s summer her in Britain for a day or two) so you could only see the bottom three-quarters of the face. It looked very, very daft.

But I must now go to my gate so I shall post what I have written and carry on later…


Arrived a few hours ago in this back of beyond, though I have to say I very much like being in the back of beyond, especially as in these modern times most back of beyond, if they aren’t in Patagonia, have broadband internet. Which is why I can continue this account.

Picked up a car, which went super-smoothly, it being a mid-week pick-up, then high-tailed it off to the German frontier from Schiphol airport and finding out what I did once I arrived, I wish I hadn’t been in such a rush to get the journey over with. I was given a small Citroen C1 which is a fine enough car and even though it has a small engine, you can still crack on at a fine speed. The trouble is, as my sister told me once I had arrived rather sooner than anyone expected, is that the Dutch police are very hot on speeding. The rule is ‘don’t go above 130kph. And guess why I arrived so soon? It was – well, you are way ahead of me: I has driving at – despite the small engine a smart 150kph whenever possible.

There was a small delay when the cops had cordoned off one lane of the motorway (probably because some twat had been speeding at over the limit and got himself into a crash) and we were all obliged to crawl along at around 10kph for several miles – at least ten – but apart from that the road was clear for me to zoom along and, as it will turn out, attract several stiff fines for speeding. Fuck. That’s about the only word for it. Still I got here about 19 minutes earlier than expected, so thank the Lord for small mercies.

Everyone else has gone to bed, but I have stayed up listening to John Scofield playing with Miles Davis (on Spotify), and Daryl Jones playing with Miles Davis (on Spotify) and John Scofield playing with Daryl Jones (on Spotify). I have already, on the strength of what I’ve heard bout one CD by John Scofield, such is the ease – the nasty ease I should say, ‘cos I ain’t rich – to buy CDs on a whim on Amazon. Still, I like the music, so what the fuck.

I should already have gone to bed and I know that I shall have a thick head tomorrow after drinking several bottles of Krombacher (Lidl’s finest lager, I think), but what the hell. It will still be another nine days to do absolutely fuck all except schmooze with friends and family and go goo-goo over my nieces/god-daughters four-month-old son. Pip, pip.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Recommended (for a second time): Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States. And I give Michelle a copy of it

I’ve always been sceptical when folk talk of something changing their lives, a book, an encounter or whatever it might be, and I am not about to make a similar claim. But a few years ago, I did come across a book which slightly shifted my views on some things. It was A People’s History Of The United States by US historian Howard Zinn.

I have mentioned it before, in a blog post I wrote around six years ago when I first came across the book, but it is worth writing about again because it is a rather different kind of history. Zinn was avowedly and unapologetically left-wing. You can read up a potted biography of him here, but in brief he was a Jew from Brooklyn, the son of two immigrants who had a limited education but for whom Howard’s education was important. When he left school he became an apprentice in a shipyard and because of low pay and conditions there he became active in union politics. But it was World War II which gave him his chance of a good education and to make his way.

He served as a bombardier in the US army air force and after the war got a place at Columbia University through the GI Bill. He gained an MA and then a Phd and began teaching history. And it his take on history which makes him interesting. In his People’s History Of The United States, he criticises histories which view the progress of history from the points of view of kings and those at the top while ignoring the unnamed masses (and I have to say he puts the point far more elegantly).

So he tells the history of the US from the point of view of the indigenous people of the Americas massacred in their millions from the time of Christopher Columbus, of the millions of blacks brought over from Africa to work the land for the whites and the thousands of dirt-poor indentured whites who signed up for a number of years to work in ‘the New World’ in the hope of escaping poverty back home, only to find themselves once again at the bottom of the pile.

Like almost all revolution, the American Revolution which began in 1765 was pretty much a middle/upper class movement of those who resented having to send back much of the money they made ‘in the colony’ back to Britain. And unsurprisingly the great unwashed, the slum-dwellers of the new American cities – for conditions and overcrowding had become as bad in ‘the New World’ – were pretty lukewarm about supporting a revolt in which there was bugger all for them: it simply meant replacing one set of uncaring overlords with another, so why bother?

Now that is not the received view given – as far as I know – to US school children about the genesis of the United States. They – as far as I know – are instructed that the American Revolution was a blow for freedom and intended to throw of the yoke of British tyranny. Zinn disagrees. And I must say I find his interpretation far more convincing, given what I have so far learned of life and seen in my 66 years.

I would not want to give the impression that Zinn’s history of the US is some kind of leftie diatribe, because it is anything but: he writes well and clearly, cites contemporary source material, acknowledges that there are other historians who do not agree with him and, in my view at least, comes across as a man of integrity.

I mention it again (here is my first mention) because circumstance the other night reminded me of it. I have mentioned before that when I drive home to Cornwall from my four days of work in London, I stop of for a drink, a break and a smoke, so far usually at the Brewers Arms in South Petherton, but occasionally at the Taw River Inn in Sticklepath in Devon (which is only 40 miles from home). Because I have been stopping off for some time at both pubs, I have made the acquaintance of several regulars and will pretty much chat to anyone.

I was the Sticklepath pub the other night when I got talking to Michelle, a local probably in her late thirties. We talked this and that for a while before I ventured to ask her something specific. For Michelle is white but has unmistakable Afro-Caribbean features and I was curious. I asked her as tactfully as I could whether she had any Afro-Caribbean heritage. She did: her grandfather, who she never knew, was an black US serviceman who had been stationed locally on the edge of Dartmoor in the run-up to D Day. Her grandmother was a local Devon girl. I can’t now remember whether it was her father or mother who was the offspring of that coupling. Once the serviceman left Devon he never came back. Her other parent was a local.

I stress that I tried, and I hope succeeded, in being as sensitive as possible when I broached the subject and I’m glad I was because Michelle then went on to tell me how, as a young girl she had been teased about her looks at school and although there was nothing of complaint in the way she spoke, it soon became apparent that the teasing and being a little bit different had hurt her when she was growing up.

That is when I thought of Zinn’s book, and I told her about it, and especially of his account of the despicable way ‘freed’ black slaves were treated one the American Civil War ended until – well, as far as I am concerned, until the present day. It

You might perhaps subscribe to the view that all is now
sweetness and light for blacks since they were ‘freed’ after
the American Civil War. Here’s a reminder from the Fifties
that you might well be very wrong indeed

seems to me no coincidence that a disproportionate number of blacks (and now men and women of Latino and Hispanic origin) in the US are in jail, suffer mental health problems and are unemployed. And as Michelle was interested in reading it, I asked her for her address and that night, once I was home, I logged into my Amazon account and bought a copy, to be delivered to her home.

You reading this might have heard of Zinn’s book and you might even have read my previous entry. Either way, if you haven’t read it, I would urge you to do so, as it might change the way you view history as it changed mine.

. . .

I’ve been trying to track down my original post about how I came across Zinn’s book, but I can’t yet find it and it would be simply just to recount the how here again. I was on holiday on Ibiza (which is not all a drug den as many assume) and the weather was terrible: of the two weeks I was there we had innumerable thunderstorms and gallons of rain came pouring down. But I have to say that I didn’t really mind. For one thing I am not the kind who likes to lie gormlessly in the sun, getting red and hot, but also a break is a break is a break and you take it as it comes. If you start getting uptight about things, you’ve pretty much wasted your money taking a break.

The trouble was I had brought nothing to read with me. Wandering around the hotel I noticed a bookshelf in the communal area and went over to investigate it. All I could, at first see, as any number of bodice rippers, historical fictions by women called ‘Amber’ and the usual Jack Higgins crap. But then I noticed a volume which looked thicker than the rest. I pulled it out and took a look: it was Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States. And I began to read it. I have since re-read it once and ever since sending Michelle a copy I am re-reading it yet again.

Oh, and let me reassure you, I don’t think anyone who knows me has marked me down as some bleeding-heart lefty liberal.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Gomorrah, a few necessary comments. Very necessary comments

After my last entry recommending Gomorrah as a great series to watch, and having watched two more episodes of the first series, I thought it was perhaps a good idea if I added a few comments. OK, Gomorrah is Sky entertainment and I still think it is good. But it is a million miles away from your Sopranos, Goodfellas and the rest where, however ‘brutal’ the guys we are watching are, there is still oddly apparently a modicum of sympathy for them, although a sympathy of a strange kind. Gomorrah is very different indeed. The gangsters portrayed here are not nice, not nice at all. They are scum, each one of them and do not give a tuppenny fuck about others. None is in the slightest bit admirable.

Series of this kind are often described in the TV columns of our national press as ‘gritty’ and so we are able to sit back in the comfort of our own homes to ‘enjoy’ the grit, safe – very, very safe – in the knowledge just how unlike it all is in the home life of our dear queen. But Gomorrah is portraying real misery, real despair, and real unmitigated brutality. Moreover, as far as I know I is a misery and despair and a brutality with which thousands of blameless folk living in the ‘projects’ of Naples have to put up with.

In the episode I have just watched, a rather pleasant though impressionable young lad is suckered by one superficially charming gangster into shooting dead a high up gangster in a rival gang. He is told lies in order to persuade him to do it. Eventually, once he has cottoned on and realises he is about to be bumped off, too, he hides. So the superficially charming gangster then gets hold of his girlfriend, an innocent teenage schoolgirl who also works in a hairdressers and beats her to reveal his whereabouts. She doesn’t know. So our superficially charming gangster beats her to death. When the young lad discovers this and realises he has nowhere to turn, he uses the automatic given him to shoot himself.

None of this is shown in anyway in some kind of TV glamour way. It happens in slums and derelict warehouses. Of glamour there is none. And although it might be fiction it is more documentary. But there is no encouragement whatsoever to feel even the slightest admiration or sympathy with the lowlife scum. That is probably which marks it out so much and makes it so different to US fare. Just thought I’d add that. It shows a truly horrible life.

  PS The lad doesn't kill himsekf. He is murderdd inbtge next episode.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Introducing Gomorrah, the TV series which has taken its place in my heart and which stands head and shoulders with Deadwood, The Sopranos and Damages. And I venture a slightly more personal entry, although I still don’t have the courage to go the whole hog

After I’d seen all six series of the Sopranos twice (and bizarrely the sixth series was in two parts, so maybe there were seven series) as well seeing several of the episodes several times, I’ve long been on the lookout for something to watch on TV which reached its high standards. Sadly, in my view very little of hour homegrown thrillers and series make the mark or get even close, with the very, very notable exception of Peaky Blinders which somehow shook of its Brit roots and was able to challenge other world-class production.

Naturally, I haven’t seen everything on TV (and nor would I want to as I’m firmly of the view that TV rots your brain but am a reasonable chap and accept that a little brain-rotting is not the end of the world) and there are several notable series which I have yet to attempt. A friend as well as my teenage son keep urging me to watch Breaking Bad, and I shall eventually. But much else which his hawked as ‘brilliant’ just hasn’t hit the spot for me.

My brother was a big fan of The Good Wife, and tried it, but I could never quite get into it. Then there was Justified which he also recommended. I tried that, too, but again couldn’t quite catch the bug. One of the things I didn’t particularly like (and admittedly I only saw three or four episodes of each) was how each episode had ‘a story’ as well as the various themes running through like a thread. It reminded me too much of the series we were fed in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, each with the then obligatory end scene in which loose ends were neatly tied up, to be followed by some joke and all the main good guy characters having a laugh together (‘Ah, Cisco.’ ‘Ah, Pancho’ ho, ho, ho.)

In fact. before I go on to mention – I won’t say list because there isn’t that many of them – the series which all in their own original way managed to reach the bar set by The Sopranos, it might help to illuminate exactly what I thought was and is good by listing some of the real losers and also-rans. Of what I have seen and the real losers most certainly Blue Bloods comes top of the list. It is absolutely dire and then some, a real throwback to Seventies productions with all its lack of subtlety, though I won’t, mainly because I can’t be bothered, list the elements which make me think it is total shite.

Then I tried Scandal with the very pretty Kerry Washington (who I first saw in the excrable Django Unchained – it redefined bloody awful in my view as did Tarantino’s earlier Inglourious Basterds) and that, too, was just TV by numbers although I’m bound to admit the clichés have been updated, but they are clichés nonetheless. I seem to remember trying Suits, although looking it up just now in it doesn’t sound very familiar. Then there was House Of Lies, which sounded passable on the face of it, but which I really couldn’t warm to.

But rather than make this one long whinge, let me list the series I have thought worthwhile and whose standards were well above average. First off, there has to be Boardwalk Empire about – well, I suppose it has to be gangsters in Prohibition America. As far as I am concerned it oozed from every pore. It did though come to a relatively abrupt end with all the stories needing to be tied up. That final series was eight episodes long instead of 13 and in a curious way did seem rushed.

I read somewhere that Martin Scorsese, one of the executive producers – or simply one of the producers, whichever comes higher up the foodchain, assuming ‘executive’ in this case means ‘the guys and gals who actually do the work’ rather than schmooze around at award ceremonies basking in the glory – lost a bit of interest once he and a certain Mick Jagger (we are now obliged to call him Sir Michael Jagger and genuflect every time we hear Under My Thumb on the radio) managed to get their series Vinyl in production. It purports to portray the early Seventies record label life in New York, but in my view is very curate’s egg, not all bad but not all good, either.

My list of great series can’t, of course, ignore Deadwood, which had all the aces and then some. But that too came to an early end after just three series and no one actually seems to know why. I can’t forget Ray Donovan, either, are at least the first three

series. It stars Liev Schreiber, Paula Malcolmson (who is from Northern Ireland and played a memorable tart in Deadwood) and the inimitable Jon Voight as Mickey, Ray’s utterly incorrigible father who pretty much steals the show every time he appears. It also has Britain’s own Eddie Marsan who proves once again what a great actor he is.

. . .

I think you get the picture: TV might have progressed a little since the days of I Love Lucy and Hawaii Five-O, not least in terms of greater production values, not doubt reflecting the evergrowing mountains of moolah to be made from putting stuff on the googlebox, but it is still pretty much cliché-ridden and pretty much still plays it safe.

As far as I know it was the entry into the market of subscriber services such as HBO and Showtime which partly rewrote the rules of the game, allowing far, far more profane language (and allowing the shows to be far more lifelike), and more open on other fronts.Crucially it also gave writers and directors their heads and they could develop character and plot in a far more relaxed way. This development was further extended by the more recent involvement of Amazon and Netflix, although it has to be said that both tend to play it a lot safer still, no doubt realising that kiddiwinks have pretty much unlimited access to the net.

But all this is leading up to something rather simple: my rave about my latest fave series, the Italian-made Gomorrah. This really is something else. It’s available on Sky and although I quite obviously have no first-hand knowledge of gangs, crime

and Mafioso – or in this case the Camorra – in its depiction of gangsters not as heroes who play by the rules, albeit their own rules, but as thuggish and greedy folk you would never want to meet out on a dark night alone and without a gun rings pretty true. If you have Sky I urge you to watch it. If you don’t, go around to the house of a friend who does.

Since writing the above and then posting it after choosing the piccies, several more great TV series have occurred to me which I rate just as highly as The Sopranos and Deadwood. Well, two more, both from the same stable of writers. They are Damages with the, again inimitable Glenn Close, and Bloodline. If you ever get the chance to see both or either, don’t miss it.

. . .

Incidentally, Ray Donovan has provided me with one of my favourite TV/film quotes. It’s from the teenaged and very impressionable son of Ray Donovan, a fixer in Los Angeles, who is in awe of his dad’s assistant Avi, an Israeli who is said to have learned his tricks when he worked for Mossad. ‘When I grow up,’ the lad tells Avi after witnessing another piece of ‘cool’ action, ‘I want to be a Jew.’ There’s something which rather irritates me about writing this blog. Years ago, many years ago, far more than it seems to me now except that when I do the sums I can work it out – about 36 years ago – I began writing a diary. Well, it wasn’t quite a diary in the usual sense of me detailing what had happened to me during the day or the previous days, but more of a commonplace book in which I would record or comment on whatever I wanted to record or commentate on. I started it off after I read that John Steinbeck wrote to his publisher’s editor that he often found it difficult to get writing in the morning. So his editor suggested that he buy himself a ledger and in that ledger wrote, on the left hand page, pretty much anything he wanted to, and that once he had got into his stride, he could then, on the right hand page carry on writing the novel or the story on which he was engaged. Well, in those days I still thought of myself as a novelist/writer manqué. That I wasn’t writing much, if anything, in the way of fiction are reasoned away as me not being in the habit of writing. (I know it sounds silly, but . . . ) So, I thought to myself, all I had to do was to follow Steinbeck’s publisher’s editor’s advice, buy myself a ledger and, well, start writing. It didn’t, as I’m sure you have gathered, work.

I certainly did keep up the ledger but of ‘real writing work’ there was subsequently an infinitesimally small amount. I did, though, carry on the habit of recording in the ledger whatever I wanted to record or commentate on. I also recorded quotes I came across which amused me. And when the first ledger was full, I bought another. I carried on the practice for the following 14 years, until the year I married, in fact.

I still wasn’t a diary, of course, for who is but one thing I did do was to imagine that one day, some day, it might be read. Why it should be read, I had no idea, but I carried on.

The point was that as there was virtually no likelihood of it ever being read by anyone I could record highly personal matters, and this I did. Fast forward to February 6, 2009, and I began this blog, courtesy of the internet and the concept of blogging. (If you read that entry, however, you will see that it was not actually my first blog, but because of a technical hitch I had lost the first few entries of my first blog.

There was, though, a difference between a ‘private’ diary, which, though I hoped would one day be read by those writing the biography of one of Britain’s most famous recent novelists, and my blog. That putative biography I imagined would be written after I had died. the blog, on the other hand, could be read almost immediately, and, more to the point, almost immediately by family and friends. And so I had to be a little circumspect in that I didn’t want to publish in this blog anything which might upset them. It’s called ‘self-censorship’. Thus the whole point or, at least, one of the whole points of ‘keeping a diary’ was lost.

I must admit there are times when I want to write far more personal stuff: reflections on my Roman Catholic upbringing and how it utterly skewed my relations with women (and more to the point meant I had rather fewer shags than I might of done because of that skewed relationship). It meant that I couldn’t record my thoughts about my marriage (I haven’t had sex in almost 18 years), or my children (my daughter eats all kind of crap and is well on the way to getting rather fat and my son’s diet is equally bad), or my friends (one or two of them can be rather irritating on occasion, and I bet that’s got them thinking. Me? No, not you, other friends.). And that is something I rather regret in an odd way. ‘Why not start another blog and don’t make it public’? I hear one or two of you possibly ask. Well, there’s the rub. I can’t see the reason why I should write a blog and not make it public. It’s a conundrum. But I should sometimes like to record rather more personal stuff than I might even now have done. Perhaps I will, and perhaps I shall have the courage to brave the wrath of those closer to me than the strangers who happen upon these scribblings. Pip, pip.