Taking Stock

29 May

I started this blog in October of 2012, coinciding with the launch of the first volume of my novel SANFERMIN. And now I am calling a halt at the point where I have finally succeeded in producing (in ebook format at least) a single complete omnibus edition. It’s showing on Amazon for the Kindle. The book was the original excuse for starting to post blogs. But in the end that boiled down to a proforma announcement of the release of the latest volume. The blog became its own reason for living. At the beginning I was posting three times a week. After a couple of months of that I eased back to a pair of posts each week. I experimented with length and approach and subject matter and I basically relayed the first thoughts that entered my head on the topic whatever it was. From reading other blogs with their strings of comment which usually degenerated to misspelled abuse, I determined that I would not spend my time moderating comments. If anybody really wanted to discuss a particular post, they could take the simple steps to send me a message.

The reason this seems to be a natural breathing rest is not only the launch of the omnibus edition, but something else. These blogs average a page plus apiece – a short form style. I make a distinction between these comments on the run and the more formal style of long form essays. And what has come up, sooner or later, confronts all blog writers. You run out of things to say. I imagine the well will fill again somewhat. But I am freeing myself from the self imposed schedule of twice a week posts. (I have a whole new respect for newspaper columnists, particularly those who publish daily.)

So to make this a send off post, let me address the subject of books that are game changers. Books that alter lives and history no matter their intrinsic artistic worth. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was a game changer in American history. Darwin’s ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES ushered in a scientific revolution that is still being debated today.

Of course there are books that get heralded on publication as ground breakers. But they usually end up in the remainder bins. ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE for example. Anybody remember falling for THE GREENING OF AMERICA? I don’t hear too many people discussing Robert Ardrey’s THE TERRITIORIAL IMPERATIVE any more.

Anyway these are a few of mine. The ones that in whole or in part have made up my apprehension of the world and the business of living.

The first book I remember having a mind altering effect on me was Colin Wilson’s THE OUTSIDER. To my adolescent mind, it seemed like an instant roadmap of how to decode the business of living. The basic notion that most of us are riding bicycles with flat tyres. And it is not so hard to learn to pump them up once one is aware of the problem. Wilson, after his Outsider series drifted into writing about the occult which was far more profitable than his volumes of philosophical enquiry. But I will always be grateful for those basic insights that came through despite all the errors and garbled quotes.

Another person working in an adjacent field was Abraham Maslow. Where shrinks like Freud and Jung and Adler spent their time studying and working with troubled people, Maslow deliberately set about studying people who were mentally healthy, happy and productive – able to access peak experiences easily. An obvious notion now but it was revolutionary when he proposed it.

Karl Popper was the philosopher who dealt with concrete matters – not how many logical positivist angels could dance on Freddie Ayer’s nose. He wrote of the Open Society and its enemies (Plato for one). He was the philosopher who made real sense of the world.

Viktor Frankel and MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. A book that had earned its right to speak in blood. Frankel had been to the bottom in a German concentration camp. Yet he found hope in the world.

Jared Diamond has written a number of well known books. The most illuminating one for me, altering ones views on  geographical fate and culture is GUNS AND GERMS AND STEEL.

Every so often a theory comes along that gets embraced by some and rejected by others. Darwin’s work falls into this category. Do you immediately cry “Eureka” on being presented with the concept of evolution or do you reject the notion that the human race was sprung from a primate ancestry that we share with chimpanzees? Such a polarizing theory is Chaos theory. I read James Gleik’s book on the subject when it came out and felt a sense of instant acceptance. Quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat, big bang and string theory. I could never quite ‘get’ them. But Chaos theory. Yes, it fit.

Of the ancient Greek philosophers, I respond not to Socrates (except for admiring his forensic debating skills) but to Epictetus, a Stoic who stood for acceptance of whatever fate laid upon you. If you don’t want to take  him straight, there is a very entertaining explanation of his thinking and influence in Tom Wolfe’s A MAN IN FULL.

There of course are books that deal with smaller topics than how to make sense of the universe. I hold no brief for Malcolm Gladwell – except to note that in one book he was genuinely onto something. THE TIPPING POINT on how influence travels through society.

David Quammen’s book SONG OF THE DODO. Paul Colvinaux’s WHY BIG FIERCE CREATURES ARE RARE. Edward Tenner’s brilliant book WHY THINGS BITE BACK – all about the unintended consequences attendant upon every change or innovation in our world. Taleb’s BLACK SWAN.

For the poetry in anthropology, anything by Loren Eisely. Try THE UNEXPECTED  UNIVERSE.

Works I am still grappling with. E.O. Wilson’s works on consilience and sociobiology (or as I understand it, what ants have to teach us). Douglas Hofstadter’s GODEL, ESCHER AND BACH  (best dealt with in short doses).

That’s not so many books in a life. There are gaps in my world view that one could no doubt drive trucks through. But these are the lenses through which I view my surroundings. If I  had to describe my beliefs, nail my colours to the mast, I would go with the phrase – “phenomenonological existentialism”. It’s as good as any.

I don’t suppose that the gates are shut. A friend recently sent me a tome by Julian Jaynes. The title (wait for it) – THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND. I feel a faint twinge of trepidation. Is my mind about to get messed about with again? Adjustments are harder to make with age (witness my incompetence with streaming, tablets, smart phones, apps et al). But I do know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in anyone’s philosophy.

See you down the road.

The World Is Small – Sometimes

26 May

Quite some years ago I found myself paying my first visit south of the border to Tijuana. I went down for the weekend at the urging of Barnaby Conrad to see a bullfight. Now I had been seeing corridas for years in Spain. But I had never seen one in Mexico.

One of the differences as Barnaby confirmed was that the Mexican style of toreo was usually flashier and more varied, employing more different passes with the cape and muleta. Also the bulls were usually smaller than those to be seen in Spain.

There was one local hero in Tijuana, a bullfighter called Mayito. His speciality was placing the sticks, the banderillas. In fact the first time I ever saw ‘the violin’ performed, it was by Mayito. Normally at the moment of planting the sticks in the bull’s back, the man and the beast are face to face. In the ‘violin’ Mayito turned his back to the animal and placed them over his shoulder. He did it so well that all the T shirt vendors on the Avenida de la Revolucion had the  moment immortalized. It was his signature move. And while in later years I saw a number of Spanish toreros perform the same feat, I never felt they matched him.

But something more extraordinary was to come. Mayito took the next pair of sticks from a peon. There was something strange about them. They appeared to have speared through a pair of white globes. A murmur came from the crowd. Barnaby thumped my shoulder.

“Pay attention,” he said excitedly. “You will never have seen this.”

He was right. This time Mayito came face to face with the charging bull  and reached to plant the sticks. And out of those two globes burst forth two white doves that flew up into the sky. It was one of the most astonishing things I had ever seen in a bullring. A stunt if you will, but it was spectacular.

“My God,” I said, “if he did that in Spain, he would be going out the puerta grande on shoulders every time.”

“It’s pretty tough for Mexican fighters to get a fair chance in Spain.” Barnaby said. “A lot of politics. But I agree. He’s remarkable. That thing with the doves was something they used to do back in the 19th century. You’d never see it in Spain. And it’s very rare here. You were lucky to catch it.”

I never did see it again. Nor Mayito. But it always remained in my memory. It was something apart.

Years went by. One fiesta that I attended regularly was (and is) the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. I and a friend took the same seats every year. A couple of years ago I had to skip the fiesta so my friend Catherine arranged for someone else to take my ticket. She said he was great fun and knowledgable about the corrida. In fact he was an aficionado practico from San Diego just over the border from Tijuana.

Last year I walked into a bar with Catherine and she saw my temporary replacement from the previous year. She introduced me.  His name was Bruno. We made idle conversation. Out of nowhere a question popped into my mind. “This was years ago,” I said. “But did you ever run into a torero in Tijuana called Mayito.”

“Sure,” he said. “He’s my cousin. We started out together. Wasn’t he something?”

Ghosts In The Garden

20 May

Most lives are made up of periods where time and place unite. When we lived in the country – for example. The era of college – and so on. Some periods that we look back on seem more golden than others. One such period for me was when I worked at Covent Garden as a stagehand.

I had worked in other theatres. But the Garden was always considered the top of the tree. The sets on stage were towering and massive. The first time  you stood backstage as the curtain came down, you would jump with the shock of hearing that tidal wave of applause.  It made the applause in a normal theatre seem anemic. You were dealing with two different worlds cohabiting in the theatre and wrestling for the stage. The Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. Famous faces brushed by you casually in the wings and stood in line behind you in the canteen.

The Garden was clannish. Most of the stagehands were Cockneys and there was much intermarriage between families. So it was hard as an outsider to be admitted to the kingdom. One way to get your foot in the door was when DON GIOVANNI was in the house. The set was huge and heavy and it required a temporary crew, the ‘night gang’ to work all night breaking the set down and preparing whatever was needed for the next morning’s rehearsal which would be another opera or ballet. If you showed willing, your face and name might be remembered the next time an opening occurred.

When I first worked there, the world famous Covent Garden Market (think MY FAIR LADY) was still in full swing. That meant the streets around the Opera House were alive all night long with porters loading and unloading fruit and vegetables and flowers between warehouses and trucks. And every so often one would slip off for a quick drink at some pub like the Enterprise. British licensing laws in those days mandated that all pubs close by eleven p.m. The pubs in the Covent Garden area had a special dispensaton to stay open all night. But they were only permitted to serve the porters. The stage hands were allowed in the tent as well. Frequently you would see men coming in, dressed in full length overcoats. They were not porters. But their shoes invariably gave them away as policemen from Bow Street round t he corner, slipping in for a quick one under a barrage of good natured chaff of “here come the rozzers”. We mingled happily with each other, pleasantly aware of our special dispensation. When, the following year, the Market moved in its entirety to another location miles away south of the river, a way of life went with it. It was the only scene I knew of that was genuinely 24 hours a day. After that for a number of years, the Opera House sat in the centre of an area of shuttered warehouses and silent buildings, an odd oasis of quiet and inactivity in the heart of London. That could not last. Nature abhors a vacuum. Gradually the silent buildings were opened up and converted into shops and restaurants. The Piazza was overhauled and became a tourist trap.

But the Garden still went on. I loved working there. The rhythm of  the day. Start at eight and set up whatever was needed for a rehearsal beginning at ten thirty. Breakfast. Man whatever cues and scene changes the rehearsal needed. Lunch – usually liquid for most of the lads in either the Nag’s Head or the White Lion. Get rid of the rehearsal set and then change over the grid, rolling up and swapping back cloths and tails in preparation for the show that evening. Do the show. The stagehands judged the shows by degrees of difficulty. TRISTAN or FANCIULLA were right bastards. BARBER OF SEVILLE was good because there was only one early scene change and then you could take off. The highest mark of approval went to  ELEKTRA which was a standing set that required  no changes at all.

There was a qualitative difference between the performances on the Covent Garden stage (be they opera or ballet) and all other theatre shows. There was a heightened intensity that came from the music. And the tsunami of applause when an aria was finished came like a physical blow. No matter how enthusiastic the audience were watching  a West End play or Shakespeare at the Aldwych, their reaction seemed so much less. And at the Garden we rarely had to worry about empty houses. Once, listening to the dutiful spatter of clapping at some drawing room comedy on Shaftesbury Avenue, a friend turned to me and said “It sounds lonely out there.” It never sounded lonely at the ROH.

Atmosphere oozed out of the walls back stage. The stage machinery was out of the steam age. Up in the flies all the bars from which the cloths hang were moved up and down by hauling on ropes. It was from the Victorian era. And we acquired a whole set of particular manual skills. Loading weights into the cradles to counterbalance the weight of a back cloth. Running a 24 foot high stage flat solo into position and lassooing the line over the hook of the adjoining flat in a black out and lashing it off.  Not to mention knots. My father, a keen  yachtsman, was always exasperated with  me on the boat because I did not know how to tie a bowline. After a year at the Garden, I visited home and brought along a length of sash cord. Casually, in front of my father, I tied a dozen knots he had never seen before. That was the last time he hazed me on the subject.

But the old model of theatre work could not stand for long. Across the river the new National Theatre reared up on the South Bank. I was shown around backstage by a friend who worked there. Giant elevators. Technology to the fore. The flies were now to be operated by computer electronics. This was the future and it was coming to the Garden. I left before they transformed the building and I moved abroad. I came back for the occasional visit after the Opera House reopened. I still had friends there. But I was lost back stage. The entire space had been reworked. Everything was now geared to operate with the pressing of a button. The old days, as they had to be, were now over. But I am glad I knew it when I did. It was my Arcadia.


Unsquashable Dynasty Part 2

18 May

While Azam reigned supreme in the international softball world, Hashim sailed to the New World to extend the Khan empire to the Yankee hardball version of the game. Like nearly all softball players, he considered the American game much easier. “U.S. court smaller. You live in London you run more than Detroit” was how he put it. The Yanks were no more proof against the Khans than the rest of the world had been. In 1963 at the age of 48 Hashim took the U.S. Open title for the second time. En route, he met Roshan in the quarter finals. Somehow or other the back of Roshan’s  hand came into painful contact with Hashim’s racquet. This time it was Roshan who retired.

With the exception of  1967 the Khans between them managed to hold the American title for 22  years in a row. Twelve of those titles were won by Sharif, Hashim’s eldest son. By 1984 eight Khans were playing in the draw. Four of them were Hashim’s sons.

Back in England Azam decided to abdicate. With four world titles under his belt he retired to a small club in West London – the Grampians – where he dispensed lessons on the court and drinks from behind the bar. Full disclosure – I was a member of the club. This is where I came into regular contact with the family. Nephew Mohibullah took over the mantle by the skin of his teeth, coming from behind when he was 8 – 1 match ball down to defeat the Egyptian Taleb and make it 13 years in a row that the family had juggled the world championship between them.

The string was to break with Mohibullah. The next year Taleb could not be denied. He settled in to hold onto the title for 3 years. Mohibullah followed Hashim west to chase after the hardball crown (which he won four times). No Khan contested seriously for the softball title in those years.

Interestingly enough, it seems Azam could have taken the championship back any time he so desired. Instead he chose to polish up an eccentric young player, Jonah Barrington, a “reformed alcoholic” with a fitness obsession that was going to transform the game. Before the 1966 British Open, Jonah played almost daily with Azam. By his own account he could barely get a point off his tutor let alone a game. He was naturally in despair over his chances. Azam told him not to worry. “Keep running. You win. No problem.”

All fell out as Azam had forecast. Jonah beat Taleb and went on to win the Open for the first of 6 times. But he could hardly be blamed for harbouring the uneasy feeling that it did not truly belong to him. Michael Oddy who faced every Khan on court considered Azam was the best of them all and could, if he had wished to ignore family loyalty, have taken Hashim’s last two titles as well as all the titles right into the Barrington era. Which would have given Azam at least 12 world titles in a row…

I took lessons weekly from Azam and studying his play up close was of no help. He could be facing backwards on the court, mopping his brow with one hand while with the other he could flick the ball to land on a dime in the far corner of the court. He was beyond the conventional orthodoxies of correct technique. His racquet was wielded by a disembodied hand. One stared and marvelled.

Squash in the 60′s and 70′s were the years where Barrington and his great rival, the Australian Geoff Hunt, both preached the gospel of physical attrition. They were the apostles of the endless rally which pushed their opponents to total exhaustion. There was the famous Hunt and Zaman final of 1978 where some rallies went over 80 strokes and the first game alone took nearly an hour. The creed was to grind your enemy into the dust with superior stamina rather than beating him with the skill of your stroke play.

From his retired perch, Azam was gentlly dismissive of the new doctrine. “When I was world champion,” he told me sitting at the bar of the Grampians, “I get stitch in side running for bus. But I stay on squash court all day long. No learn squash in gym.” All the same, by the end of the 70′s Hunt was closing in on the unthinkable – beating Hashim’s record of 7 Open victories.

But the Khan saga, far from being over, was about to enter on its most dramatic chapter. Salvation was at hand. With fitting irony, it was to spring not from the children of Hashim or Azam or Mohibullah but from the sons of the unlucky Roshan. But few at the time could have seen the first incident in the turning of the tide as anything but tragedy. Playing in Australia, Roshan’s eldest son Torsam dropped dead in the middle of a match of  a heart attack, passing the torch on to the least likely of the Khans, his younger brother Jahangir.

Born with a double hernia, he was a sickly child Even after 2 operations, the doctors said he could never take part in strenuous physical activity. They should have taken note what his name meant. Jahangir – conqueror of the world.

The shock of his adored elder brother’s death was the fuse that lit the flame. He devoted himself to practise. He lived and trained like a monk under the strict eye of his cousin Rahmat who retired from competition solely to prepare Jahangir for war. And at the tender age of 17 it was Jahangir who faced Hunt in the 1981 British Open. He was all that stood in the way of the Australian taking the Khan family’s most revered record.

The battle was epic. It went to the wire. It took all of Hunt’s greater experience and every ounce of his will. He won with a last gasp effort to rack up the new record of 8 Open titles. But he knew, everybody knew, that it was his last hurrah. The future of squash was here. And once again it was a Khan. Just as Sharif finally lost the American hardball crown, Jahangir took up the original softball baton for the family. At the new World Championships (initiated in 1974)  he defeated Hunt. The following spring he took the British Open title. He had just turned 18.

It is safe to say that in the history of athletic endeavour no man has dominated any sport like Jahangir. (Not even Tiger Woods.) He won every title going for a solid decade. He went 7 years without dropping so much as a single game. There were entire tournaments when he did not give away a single point. Do you know of any tennis player who  never dropped a set or a game? And when in 1992 Jahangir won the British Open for the tenth consecutive time, even the great patriarch Hashim came to pay homage. Whatever the private rivalries within the clan, first and foremost they closed ranks as a family.

Once after a session on court with Azam, while I was towelling off, I asked him what made his family so great. He smiled at me and said simply “Hunger”.  Squash was their ticket out. In the beginning – maybe. Yet it has to be more than that.

A little anecdote. Hashim, the godfather of the clan, had the yearly custom of visiting London from Denver where he now lived. It was not nostalgia. He showed up so he could compete in the veterans division of the British Open. One day I walked into the club and saw this eagle nosed Pakistani older man talking with Azam and with a shock I realized it was none other than Hashim himself. Azam introduced us. I was thrilled merely to shake his hand.

“Why don’t you have a game together?” Azam suggested. “My brother needs the practise. He teaches hardball all year in America. He needs to get used to softball ahain before the Open.”

In a daze I found myself on court minutes later with the legend. He must have been seventy odd at the time. I looked up at Azam watching from the gallery above. He smiled, knowing just how I felt. I won the first game 9-6. And from then on I did not get a look in. I did  not stand a chance. The old man demolished me. But he was pleased at getting his eye in again so rapidly. As we left the court, I asked him if he had any squash secret he would share with me. He beamed and said, “Keep eye on ball.”

He won the Veterans division. And he chose me as his punching bag again the following year. I’ve just done some calculating. I think he’s about a year shy of the century.

Unsquashable Dynasty Part 1

14 May

We live in a sports obsessed age (war by other and ritual means). The level of competition is yearly more ferocious. Who  nowadays could imagine anyone winning the U.S. Open 10 times in a row? Or a self taught player winning Wimbledon for the first of 7 times at the advanced age of 35. No? Or a family dynasty dominating a sport for nearly half a century? Impossible, right?

Only – it’s not…

The sport isn’t tennis. It’s squash, that most sadomasochistic of racquet games. The dynasty of champions is an extraordinary family – the Khans of Pakistan.

It  begins with a small boy Hashim, whose father was a steward at a British officer’s club in India during the days of the Raj. Hashim spent his youth perched above the roofless squash courts, fascinated by this strange game the English officers played. When the courts emptied, he would slip inside to practise by playing against himself. For hours. Sometimes even by the light of the moon.

Hashim grew up and became the squash pro at an officer’s club in Peshawar. His younger brother Azam, with no interest in squash, became the tennis pro.

Then came Partition. The British Raj was split with much bloodshed into two independent states – Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. And as one mark of its new identity India sent its champion squash pro to compete in the British Open (then universally considered as the world championship). Not to be outdone, Pakistan decided to show its flag as well. A worthy representative was sought.

With some hesitation Hashim was sent – and then only thanks to a hasty collection from the officer’s mess. Just a skinny little man with a barrel chest. Less than 5 foot 6 inches, he was already 35 years old. The most unlikely world conqueror ever seen. But he hit the international scene like a one man blitzkrieg. The man from nowhere destroyed all in his path. He dethroned the world champion Mahmoud Karim with lofty ease. The hapless Egyptian mustered a mere five points in the entire match.

Hashim returned home to a hero’s welcome. School holidays were decreed in his honour. He was paraded in motorcades, feted everywhere. Thousands flocked to see their fledgling nation’s hero. For the next two years he was an ambassador for his country, giving exhibition matches around the world. To the point of exhaustion. One week he played 350 games. At times he could barely lift his arm.

But the level of his play was from another planet. He covered the court like a jet propelled bullfrog. People theorized he had extra large lungs, being a mountain Pathan. A good story but, as Azam dryly pointed out to me once, Peshawar is only 1000 feet above sea level. The truth simply was that there was nobody in his class.

Yet it was a lonely life and he needed to share the burden. It was time to think of the future. He determined to recruit his younger brother Azam, now 27, as a sparring partner and travelling companion. Azam objected and protested strongly – he was but a raw beginner at squash.  But to no avail. Hashim was deaf to his pleas. For some four months Hashim mercilessly drilled his tennis playing brother to the point of daily collapse. Then he brought him along for the British Open. The seeding committee were baffled. This was an unheard of situation. How could they give him a spot? Azam had  never played a tournament in his life.

A trial was arranged against a top British amateur. Azam passed that hurdle with despatch, got his entry to the Open and merrily sailed through – right to the final against big brother. Called upon to say some words afterwards, he forever endeared himself to this new world when he beamingly used up his entire stock of fractured English with the immortal “Mister Body, Mrs. Body, Every Body – thank you very much.”

Back at home, as squash became the globe trotting Khan brothers road show, cousin Roshan, champion of Pakistan in 1951, was feeling left out of things. He was virtually starving in Karachi. Bitterly he protested that Hashim and Azam had shut him out because they were scared to face him on court. In the end money was found to enable him to journey to England. His turn came in 1956 when at last he tasted the sweet satisfaction of beating Hashim in the Open final. Hashim, however, claiming a pulled muscle, had retired in the middle of the match, marring Roshan’s revenge a touch. It gave the rival camps a bone to argue over.

In 1957 Hashim stormed back triumphantly to retake his crown with a record 7th title. It would be his last British Open title for in 1958 he lost in the semi finals to Azam the younger brother who would no longer be denied his turn. And it was the next year in the final Azam settled the long running battle against cousin Roshan, crushing him with the humiliating score of 9-1, 9-0, 9-0.

Shortly after, a knee injury closed the luckless Roshan’s career, spelling the end of any more attempts on the crown. But it was by no means the end of the family rivalry. The wheel was already spinning on into other generations. There were new territories to conquer and add to the empire….

God’s A Joker (He Has To Be)

10 May

Just one stray thought today but you couldn’t really put anything else near it. If decades ago, you had employed a crystal ball to scan the future, what I am about to tell you now would have seemed like a hysterical jest to be greeted with ‘hoots of laughter’ and a general chorus of  ‘Good one!’

Stop the presses. Touring in an arena version across America this summer, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR the juggernaut musical will be coming to your town. In the crucial role of King Herod, the producers have procured the services of that brother in arms of Sid Viscious, one time front man of the Sex Pistols – none other than Johnny Rotten.

Surely the endtimes are at hand.

American Rootlessness

6 May

On the first day of the year 2000, I was lying in bed listening to some public radio show. It was a one hour exploration of one American man’s life told by the recollections of his progeny – nine children from five marriages and some other liaisons. Listening to it, something crystallized in my view of the American zeitgeist, came into focus. This was the tale, appropriately told the day after the 2oth century closed.

The man – let’s call him Tom for Tom Joad – was the son of Okie migrants to California. They were religious evangelicals and they found work in the aircraft  factories of Southern California. Tom started out following in his parents footsteps. He was a youth counsellor in an evangelical church. He married his high school sweetheart and rapidly had three kids. That was his first  path in life.

In his second life, he went radically off the reservation. The siren call of the movies beckoned. He threw that first life away. He decided to become  an actor in Hollywood and he had a child by a European actress as if to underline his moving on.

The movies didn’t work out as planned. Tom moved across the country, lit out for the new territory of New York. Now he was a putative playwright. The lights of Broadway lured him. That was the third reinvention of himself. And it worked no better than the previous one.

But Tom clung on. He managed to land a job as a publishing executive and married the editor’s daughter. At last he was moving in the circles of the Manhattan literati. This version of his  life seemed for a while to have some  legs. He moved out to the suburbs, became a commuter and had more kids. Updike territory.

Then came the winds of change. The swinging sixties (Updike indeed) and experimentation with social drugs. Pot and LSD. The music was different. And there  seemed to be a new world to explore. The hippie nation. To paraphrase John Lennon – “It’s easy. All you need is (to drop out).”

So Tom abandoned suburban life and followed his new bliss. He lived in a commune and, not surprisingly, considering the tenets of free love, he had another child.

But nothing lasts forever. The sixties and the seventies vanished. It was time to move on. Tom’s final career move was to become born again. I half wonder if this came about during Dylan’s Christian period. Was that the soundtrack of Tom’s new life – just as before he had heard the word that the times they were a’changing?

Anyway he moved back to California and he started up and ran an evangelical theater. And there he came to rest, back where he had begun. He seems a man who was never onto himself. But his life odyssey for me exemplifies that great but sometimed dubious trait of American life. The right to pick up and  reinvent yourself over and over in second hand dreams, looking for that next best thing.

Technology Stakes

3 May

When I played squash as a schoolboy, I used a wooden racquet made by Greys of Cambridge. The Rolls Royce of squash raquets at that time was the model named after the champion Azam Khan. And years later I was using those racquets against the very man himself when I belonged to his club in London – the Grampians. It was about that time that a seismic shift took place in the manufacture of racquets in general. The introduction of a new element. Graphite. Slowly at first and then in a rush everybody switched.

The difference was that great. What had been a sensitive responsive wand carved by craftsmen was now just a lump of wood. With the first graphite racquets the sweet spot was greatly enlarged to almost the whole face. And the gains in speed and power were undeniable. And they improved with each new generation of models. The traditionalists went down with the ship. But most of us jumped to the new technology though I felt guilty every time I played in front of Azam with the new weaponry.

In more objective terms, let me tell you of a friend of mine Trey who had been a professional tennis player. He made it into the list of top twenty listed US pros. And the reason he had one miraculous year was because he embraced the graphite revolution from the moment he tried out one of the new racquets. Others were slower to jump ship. Old veterans like Jimmy Connors still clung to the oldfashioned wooden racquets. My friend beat Connors that year. And a number of higher ranked players as well. He was under no illusion that his game had got better. He was riding on a technological assist. A year later everyone had changed to graphite and things went back to normal.

Technology bales us out. In some areas more than others. Golf is a game where the tech improvements to the clubs and the ball have made most courses an insufficient challenge for the pros. It used to be that only a handful of people could crack a ball over 3oo yards. Now it seems all of them can do it. And Bubba Watson is hitting it to 360 plus.

Other modern marvels of technology. The iPod. That I can carry a music library of two thousand songs and symphonies around in my shirt pocket still seems extraordinary to me. More relevant to the fate of the planet though – how about the work of a man like Norman Borlaug. It was his work developing disease resistant wheat strains which would flourish in third world countries that saved a billion people from starving to death.

But will our technological expertise overcome the threats that face us today? Climate change. The rise of superbugs and bacteria that no antibiotic will combat. Civil war in Syria. Slaughter in the Sudan. The death of the oceans. Ice caps melting. Critical water shortages. A formidable list of obstacles. And with what do we concern ourselves? In Georgia one town has made it mandatory for everyone to own a gun. Better that we all go postal together. The canary is screaming in the coalmine. Are we paying heed  or will we go whistling over the brink, enchanted with our new toys? Or should we put our human affairs in a blind trust administered by the next generation of robots?

Movie Musings

29 Apr

Quite often while enduring one of Hollywood’s current CGI ten minute car chase sequences that, though fast and furious, lack all shred of contact with reality, my mind wanders. Idle thoughts drift in. Here are a handful.

Scarlett Johansson gives great smirk.

Nobody should be allowed to wear sunglasses after dark except Jack Nicholson.

Oliver Stone should be prohibited from ever deploying  the whip pan back and forth. The only time that one worked was at the end of REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE

No film director should be allowed to use a zoom lens except Peckinpah and Altman. I would like to make this one retroactive. (If only I could).

A movie shot that should be generally embargoed at once is that one where you have two or three people walking together. And just to call attention to itself the camera does a 360 around them while they are walking. A totally pointless shot that inevitably takes you right out of the movie. (Maybe that’s the idea.)

A brief note in praise of an Italian writer director who deserves to be as well known as Fellini or De Sica. And you have probably never heard of him. He comes differently out of the box each time. Consider DOWN AND DIRTY a criminal family melodrama. The encounter between a housewife and a gay man under the shadow of fascism in A SPECIAL DAY. The recreation of the magic days of Italian film making from BICYCLE THIEF to LA DOLCE VITA in WE ALL LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH. LE BAL which takes place in a French music hall and has no dialogue – the acting and the music do it all. THE FAMILY which follows the life of a man from birth to his 80′s – and it all takes place in the family apartment. Virtuoso stuff. LA NUIT DE VARENNES in which Tom Paine among others gets caught up in a stagecoach ride through revolutionary France as the King and Queen try to escape across the border. Steve Sondheim’s musical PASSION is based on a movie by Scola. Then let’s not forget SPLENDOR which many people (that means me but I am not alone) is the superior version of CINEMA PARADISO.

In the 50′s and 60′s foreign films got a decent airing in the States. One of the main reasons was that they dealt with sex and nudity unlike the Hays hobbled Hollywood offerings. And once censorship in this country relaxed a bit and MIDNIGHT COWBOY an X movie could win the Oscar, the fortunes of foreign films abroad went into something of a decline. Scola is still around and has produced a number of films after the ones that I have mentioned. And nobody bothers to release them in this country not even as DVD’s. Ettore Scola. It’s a name you should remember if you love movies with some originality.

Feet Of Clay

26 Apr

The human race seems to need heroes. And once one figure is singled out from the masses and undergoes the process of “star making machinery” as Joni Mitchell acidly put it, that person starts to get projected upon from all quarters. We project what we want to believe on them. They become the receptacle of our hopes and desires.

I am not talking about the cult of celebritydom, where one is famous simply for being known. But I will digress to define that seemingly universal urge of the current generation. Back a few years you might remember (if you were a resident of Los Angeles) the phenomenon of Angelyne. All one knew of Angelyne were giant billboards of her, bursting out of a pink or purple bikini with Baby Doll blonde hair and heart shaped Lolita sunglasses. The billboards revealed nothing in the way of information or advertisement. Simply her name – and a telephone number. She wasn’t looking for work in the movies or to promote a record or to model. Apparently she just wanted to be famous. And there was some sugar daddy who was willing to indulge her. If you rang the phone number, it seemed that you could get a signed photo. That was all. Angelyne achieved her wish. All Los Angelenos knew her. Eventually she disappeared. She remains the purest example of the trend of being famous not for your work but just being.

These are not heroes. And we don’t take them as such for the most part. But in other fields of endeavour, we find ourselves investing our hopes and dreams in men and women who seem to have stood out by virtue of their efforts or positions. The talented movie director who’s a son of a bitch. The politician who makes lofty brave and moralizing speeches and gets caught taking kickbacks. The iconic sports hero suddenly revealed as a sex fiend or even a killer.

It doesn’t have to be that extreme. But over the years I have come to believe that in life there are no living angels. Not Mother Theresa. Not Martin Luther King. Not Gandhi. Not Nelson Mandela. All have their darker hidden side.  Public scrutiny can be held off until you’re dead. But at some point the flaws get revealed. Jimmy Saville, the English DJ and TV show host who occupied the position of national clown and benefactor of sick children for decades. After his death it started to come out what a sexual predator he had been all along. His much vaunted weekly stint as a hospital porter proved to be his way of assaulting underage children in their beds.

I am not saying that there are not countless people toiling in difficult, even impossible situations to bring succour to the poor and oppressed. But they don’t need to be weighted down with the burden of our expectations. Everyone has their secret sorrow, the weight they have to carry. Everyone has to wade and wash in the big muddy.

A General Lambert in the English Civil War said it precisely.

“Even the best of men are but men – at the best.”


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