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Would it be about a bicycle?*

It would. Dear reader, it would be a wonderful thing indeed if you were able to swim against what seems to be the prevailing current of our sensational seas and be happy every day, all the time, flicking the fingers to the fickle fate of the ah Fatherland as you frolic in frivolous froth. . . Sorry. I am thinking of a man whose skin is orange and who is flicking his fingers at just about everyone on earth, even the people who made him who he is today. How did he get like that?  More importantly, how long will he stay like that? When his time is run, he could be immersed in aspic, like Laurence Harvey in the film.** It would be a sure drawcard in Washington, much more than the strange remains on Red Square in Moscow. Replicas could be sold at the hotel that bears his name at greatly inflated prices, the proceeds to go to his family trust.

Sigh. Anyway it has been months since I have added to this blog. I haven’t exactly been idle – instead I have been working away on a post dear to my heart that I will now not finish for another six months! No guessing! The reason for such a long wait is that I am headed for Europe again from my home in New Zealand to another cycle tour. This trip is really ambitious, ambitious even beyond reason! It is meant to add resources to my writing so I can pen ever more interesting yarns of whatever type. It is also meant to be good fun. If it is only one of these, I’ll take. . .no, I’m not telling.

If I get a chance and have interesting things to say while I am out there, I’ll post here. . .but if not, well, if you follow the blog, you’ll hear about it eventually.

Thanks for your patience and for reading. Go well, each and every one. . .

*A frequent question from a policeman in Flann O’Brien’s comic novel, The third policeman.

**A dandy in aspic, a novel by Derek Marlowe, was filmed by director Anthony Mann and starred Harvey as a very elegant Russian spy in England.  He looks not unlike Jared Kushner. Honest! Is it life following art? Peter Cook had a minor role. Despite the title and my inspired idea – it’s yuge and bigly too –  the dandy does not really end up in aspic.

 

 

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Posted by on May 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Thomas Bernhard anew

Hello there. It is a crisp and windy morning in the quaint village near the Ruahine range in New Zealand where I am presently parked in a tranquil cottage not far from the railway line. That may seem a contradiction as the wagons roll along the track, but it isn’t – the noise, even at 3 AM, is not at all irritating.

For months I have been working through the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s memoir Gathering evidence, the second of his non-fiction books I have read. That makes it sound like a chore, which in a sense it has been – I am not the only one to complain about the small type of the edition I bought that has made the physical act of reading literally tiresome. This is especially true as one of Bernhard’s  stylistic trademarks is not to have paragraphs. He starts, and keeps going. . .and going. . .and going. The writing is however a pleasure in itself; he is arguably the best post-war writer of all I have read. That’s saying a great deal when you consider wonderful stylists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, but for me it is true.

Even though I enjoy and admire his fiction, Bernhard’s memoirs show him at his finest. There is a gritty integrity to Gathering evidence that for any writer is a challenge, as there also is to his shorter piece, Wittgenstein’s nephew. Bernhard did not flinch from the world he saw, experienced and depicted, and did not hesitate to draw tough-minded conclusions plainly if without rancour.

Celine, whose approach and style must have influenced Bernhard, wrote that “first  you’ve got to pay for it – then you can use it”. Celine’s point was about fiction, made up stories that the French writer argued needed to be based on personal experience. In Celine’s case this experience was often harrowing, if self-inflicted. Bernhard started off badly, an unwanted child born out of wedlock in the Netherlands where his mother had gone to give shameful birth, and made his mark through tough-minded assertiveness. He paid for it and paid for it, then mined it, magically transforming the dross of an often terrible youth into gold.

There were differences between Celine and Bernhard. Celine’s anti-Semitism drove him unwillingly into the arms of France’s Vichy collaborators in their outpost in Sigmaringen, Germany, while Bernhard, who began his adult life as a reporter for a socialist newspaper, turned his most cruel microscope on Austria’s Catholics and Nazis and later on the poseurs of a rekindled Austrian cultural renaissance. Yet both were anarchists. . .and felt deeply for those whose lives were blighted by the system that surrounded and shaped them.

What makes them cousins of the pen beyond perspective, however, is style. Bernhard took his cue from an apparently unending scroll while Celine famously used the ellipse, but for both, the effect was the appearance of raving that is anything but. A film of a Billy Connolly routine shows the wonder comic’s style was very much like that. Connolly tells stories, seems to wander and then comes back to the beginning to make his point. “You thought I had forgotten, hadn’t you?” he scolded his audience. “This is my technique!” Just so. What seems to effortless and even artless, is high art.

Bernhard wrote the five parts of his memoir in a certain order, ending them with his earliest experiences. The translator of Gathering evidence (or perhaps an editor) chose to put the last one first, to keep the memoir chronological. I should have skipped that one, and read it last as was Bernhard’s intention. I understand what he was doing, and I may read that section again.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Even more newvian

Hello beautiful human. Yes, it is true that I often feel, especially early in the morning when I stare bleakly at the screen with the bleary eyes of the restless non-sleeper, that I am an alien from some other place in the universe who somehow got stranded here on Earth, and that my task (which I have had to accept regardless of what the dude* in Mission Impossible had to say about it) is to schmooze with this planet’s inhabitants, meaning that I am doing a terrible job so may as well get started afresh with a well-deserved compliment. I hope you are doing very well indeed.

Anyway it is a fresh morning in the small town in New Zealand where I live. It is a very nice town that was originally settled by Scandinavians from Norway, Denmark and Sweden though there have been plenty of others jostling for their place in the community history and consciousness, among them the alien! It is a coincidence that I have settled here and that I am a fan of “Scandi” film and television, but it is a nice coincidence. A recent post in this blog was about The Killing, a Danish “noir” series that had three seasons. After finishing that harrowing excursion into the genre, I picked up almost by accident The Bridge, a Swedish-Danish co-production.

The Bridge has had three seasons and its creators promise a fourth, to be released next year. There will be endless elaborations in other countries – there has already been an American spin-off – of the adventures of Swedish detective Saga Noren and a Danish counterpart as the usual line of Scandinastian villain does ever more horrific things to a string of victims who surely, whatever their faults, did not deserve to be treated in that way.

Like The Killing, the storyline of The Bridge is mind-bogglingly elaborate, full of herrings red and otherwise. It may or may not be a sign of my own incisive mind that I picked the villain out from the lineup on first appearance, just like that.

Whodunnit is not, however, what is attractive about this series. Nor is the ever more inventive gore. Saga Noren steals the show, taking The Killing‘s Sarah Lund-style fractured personality and developing it into the most deeply read and sensitively realised portrayal I have ever seen. The Bridge might not be television as it ought to be, but it is nonetheless better not only than The Killing, but also the Swedish Wallander.

Arguably this is the result of the extended development of Noren’s personality. My usual complaints of TV series are present in The Bridge – the apparent need (presumably financial at root) to have a template that is repeated each episode may begin as something eye-catching and even heart-clutching, but after a few instalments is merely irritating.

What is amazing about Noren is the development of a personality that at the outset is already extremely intense. The actress portraying her, Sofia Helin, has said that the character she has brought to life so tellingly is autistic in some unspecified way. Noren is fascinating, and it is a tribute to the actress and to the producers that the character can not only be individual and well portrayed but change and develop through 30 episodes. As her relations with those around her become increasingly complex and the pressure goes on, her responses are heart-wrenching. One can imagine the whole of humanity, plus one alien, cheering her on.

The Killing ended ambiguously (sorry, no spoiler) and the fourth series of The Bridge may follow suit but  I hope it doesn’t. Saga! Triumph over all! We are on your side!

*The man who told the star, Peter Graves, that the tape would self-destruct in five seconds. Graves had a choice, though it seems he always accepted the challenge. See however “You don’t wait ages for a post, and then. . .” on this blog, wearing if you feel the need a tinfoil hat.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Zen of golf

Back in the 1950s one of the west’s most popular sayings about Zen Buddhism related to what are called “koans”. These are puzzles designed to help novices break through the confines of rational thinking to something more profound. The koan making the rounds back then was “you know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” It was even used by comedian Shelley Berman in his routine.

As a writer, and even as a human being I am very, very familiar with the sound of no hands clapping. The koan remains what it is.

Zen comes into my mind when I am playing golf. There is a state of mind, of consciousness, that is the key to good play. Yes, a bad hit is a bad hit and a good swing is a good one, and these are physical issues. There is a complex intellectual dimension to golf too. But avoiding the bad hits and making the good swings, and thinking the right approach, has something to do with what is going on in my head at the time.

In this sense golf is a game of temperament, and I am not always any good at it.

However, I am getting better at the course where I play and before long hope to enjoy the game completely instead of partially as now. When I am calm and focused, my play is better, and it is genuinely fun. When I am not, many interesting things may happen, but few of them are good things.

I want to play well partly because when I do it can be a great pleasure as well as good exercise, but also because it is a measure to me of shall we say spiritual maturity, and a reflection of my ethnic make-up.

Like many Americans, my ethnic make-up is a congeries. Where I live in New Zealand this is actually fairly odd. Most native-born Kiwis and those who are immigrants from Britain are at most of two or three cultures – say, English and Irish, or Scottish and Irish, or Welsh and English, possibly with indigenous Maori part of the mix etc. Despite my surname – which I adopted for personal reasons – I have no Welsh in me, but there is plenty of Celt.

My paternal half is Scots, possibly Irish, and some English.

My maternal part is Slavic. This region of the world is a kind of ethnological doormat, though not one people walked on to get into a home. They just kept on walking, usually after demolishing the structure, eating all the food, carting off the furniture, and impregnating the women. So while it would seem my mother’s parents were Polish as this is where they were born, at a time when Poland was a part of the Russian Empire, their actual ethnic makeup may very well be much more widely shared.

For my paternal half, I think of myself as Scots. The other bits may be there, but they don’t count. Scotland itself has a varied ethnic makeup and two “native” languages apart from English – one of these, Scots, is related to English. The other, Gaelic, is a Celtic tongue once confined to the Highlands though there are more Gaelic speakers in Glasgow than anywhere else.

It is the Scots in me that is attracted to golf. Golf was originally a Scottish game, presumably played with clubs and rocks in the glens running through the hills and the dunes along the shores. Today it is played all over the world, and my introduction to it, in the United States, was just one of those sports my friends were trying out during my teenage years.

Since then I have played fitfully – and mostly very badly. I not only had no skill, but my temperament was wrong. Those cartoons of men wrapping their clubs around trees in apocalyptic anger were based on me.

Somehow I improved, and today I actually enjoy playing, and am getting better, and am feeling that my nature meets this game in its essence. There is a long way to go before I can feel that I am really expressing the Celtic/Scottish part of me, that I am living up to my genetic code. Mark Twain called golf “a good walk spoiled”. It can be that. But it can be  a good walk and more. The courses of the world, their sweeping fairways among majestic forests, beautiful ponds, carpets of green and sandy expanses dotted here and there among the lushness, can be simply magic to experience, and wonderful to play.

Arnold Palmer, the great American golfer, once said that he didn’t understand poetry but that when he hit a good one, that was poetry to him. I understand that. It is the same when striking a billiard ball with a pool cue just so, knowing it will go into the pocket, or any of a number of other “bat sports”.

But there is more – the Zen of golf is real. Stepping through the contradictions and frustrations of this beautiful game is an expression of art, of humanity, of maturity and wisdom and for me in all my ethnic complexity, an existential account of how I came to be where I am today.  This eludes me still, but I will know when I get there, the sound of one hand clapping.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Scandinewvian

Hi there. It’s a time when many people eat too much, drink too much, and are miserable for lots of other reasons too. If this is you, I really am very sorry and hope things improve soon. You can console yourself with the thought that this occasion only comes once a year.

I’m no expert, but the occasion of this occasion is the birth of someone who remarked that he brought “not peace but the sword”. He went on to give some unpleasant details about this, and how right he has been proved! The “Prince of Peace” said he wasn’t, straight out, but for some reason people keep wanting to not believe it.

It is true that we don’t have to think like this. We don’t need to feel that we’ve got to get down with the swordplay, and that makes it our own doing, that we go on  doing terrible things. It’s our fault – all sides. We really can do something about it, if we want to.

This year, 2016, is about to conclude, and it won’t be back. Good.

While it’s been unraveling before my astonished gaze, I’ve been watching a Danish “noir” television series, The Killing. This had three seasons and I’ve brought the lot on DVD after seeing the final ten-part epic.

Generally I don’t watch television – see my blog post, “Scandinoirvian nights”. But like the Swedish police thriller Wallander, The Killing lifted television beyond its limitations to reach the standard of fine film-making – just. Television’s self-imposed limitations are present in The Killing, especially the apparent need to follow a template – each episode repeats the format so that by the end of the second installment the structure is an obstruction, artifice standing squarely in the way of art: the same music at the same place, the way the opening is interfaced with credits, etc. A film doesn’t have to succumb to this allure, though “franchises” inevitably face the same dilemma – witness the “Indiana Jones” spinoffs, or Star Wars, or James Bond: the very qualities that make the first take  a success, tend to render successors trivial. These challenges to film are however splattered all over television series as if they are de rigeur, and it’s not pretty.

Despite this, The Killing is worth watching. It is unlike Wallander in that the episodes are not complete in themselves; each of the three series needs to be seen entire. Fortunately the template was tweaked for each and the last series – which your unworthy correspondent saw first – is better than the first.

The Killing has a lot to say, but it is not always clear whether it means to say it. The series focused on a police homicide detective, Sarah Lund, who was the only woman on the squad. The acrress portraying her, Sophie Grabol, said that initially she had a hard time working out Lund’s personality, but when she realised the character was a man in a woman’s body, it became easier.

The brains behind the series, Soren Sveistrup, might or might not have enjoyed this characterisation. Certainly Lund is a fractured person with an intensity of focus that rattles her colleagues; once the bit is between her teeth she doesn’t let up, even when she is suspended. She is a genius at solving horrific murders, sees things others miss, and is thus invaluable. . .but. . .well, I’m not going to offer any spoilers here.

The series succeeds despite its limitations. If it is to be believed, Denmark is a festering sinkhole of envy, intrigue and corruption – still rotten despite Hamlet’s stable cleansing efforts all those centuries ago. The police force is not only not exempt, but also so flagrantly incompetent it is a wonder any crimes are ever solved, leaping to conclusion after conclusion in the rush to get a conviction. Innocent suspects are dragged into the station to be verbally abused and often have their lives ruined, to be replaced by other innocent suspects, while the police officers spend a lot of time blaming and talking past each other, when not ordering someone else to do something. Meanwhile, victims’ families’ lives are torn apart, politicians are dragged into the affair, while the culprit’s machinations suggest that Hamlet’s* ability to concoct and carry out an involved plan behind a facade was not a one-off and may even be a Danish character trait.

So Sarah Lund succeeds in a man’s world by being more than a man, and it is hard on her psyche. This says something, and for those of you who have followed this blog, you will know what I think, or if you don’t, try “Grand Larssony” and “Toiling with Troilus”. We are talking epochal realignments here, true progress – or not.

Scandinoirvian crime depiction is gruesome. Both Wallander and this series feature murders ranging from draining the blood of the victim while still conscious, torture and dismemberment, to the most brutal rapes and beyond. That the true focus lies in the human relationships of the series verges on contradiction, but ultimately that is the underlying point, and it is a political one, whether authors mean it or not. Certainly Henning Mankell, the man behind Wallander, was a “leftist” radical, and Millennium trilogy author Stieg Larsson’s politics were also well out there.

All this blood and guts and tension, and the year we are finishing up has included a new word imported from Danish into English: “hygge”, which means a kind of comfort that one finds in mug of tea and a blanket on a cold night, especially when shared with loved ones. In Norwegian the concept is given a name that is a semi-cognate of our “cosy”.

The murderers may go out and do despicable things before heading home for a quiet cuppa and a nuzzle with someone dear.

Hopefully this isn’t you, dear reader. Please enjoy this time, and head into 2017 with hope in your heart, a smile on your beautiful lips, and a song in your throat ready to greet the world.

 

*It has always seemed to me that Hamlet has been unfairly maligned for his supposed inability to act. On the contrary he was plainly a genius who overcame many obstacles to avenge the murder of his father and clean up a corrupt regime, though he was thwarted and died in the attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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So far behind the curve. . .

There is a Russian scientist who believes, or says he believes, that the United States is developing a variety of human being low in intelligence, capable of living on next to nothing, working all hours, and reproducing only when wanted. The scientist heads a nuclear research institute and his brother, a banker, is close to the leadership of the country.

While he is beetling away on nuke projects US President-elect Donald Trump – for yes it is he! – says it is ridiculous that Russian government hackers could  have swayed the election that is heading him to the leadership of the world’s most powerful country. He disputes a CIA report to that effect and has pooh-poohed Congressional concerns, including from his own party.

He says he isn’t too interested in intelligence briefings anyway because he is a “smart guy”.

It is true that he is a smart guy, and if he says it follows that being a smart guy means he doesn’t need to be told things every day, who am I to doubt him? A nobody, that’s who.

Meanwhile, in Balkania – actually it is Macedonia, but it’s probably going on elsewhere in that mercurial region – people are riding around in fine cars on the proceeds of “fake news”. “Fake news” makers cut and paste from whatever sources seem useful into plausible if sensational stories and then put the results on Facebook pages made up to look like news sites. If these generate hits, the hits generate advertising, and the advertising generates income, and the income generates BMWs, flash motorbikes, designer everything, and girlfriends or boyfriends or pet sheep depending on one’s proclivities.

Facebook’s founder, a Mr Zuckerberg, says this is actually no big deal. If a man worth billions, who is handing out zillions to fake news producers says it is no big deal, who am I? etc. Nobody, that’s who.

And the great stories! During the election in the US, people in Macedonia left no stone unturned to find and publish the secrets of the campaign, especially the devilish Clinton plans to usurp the democratic process and destroy freedom everywhere. If there wasn’t a story saying the devil incarnate had entered Ms Clinton’s body and feasted each morning on live babies, it was purely accidental.

Some of these sensational accounts found their way, as they would naturally do, being “truthful” though untrue, into the mainstream press via other websites. Flick, flick, flick – and then shazam!

A man from North Carolina was arrested in Washington DC in a fast food parlour, come to investigate to see if a cabal involving Hillary Clinton – yes, the same former presidential candidate – was going on there. Fortunately no one was injured. However, a man part of President-elect Trump’s “transition team” and the son of a general picked to be his national security adviser, lost his job over this incident as he sent a “tweet” about it to the world. The cabal hadn’t been categorically disproved, his message said.

The poor fellow’s father had assisted his state of mind by repeating other unrelated fake news stories during the campaign.

A question in my mind, insofar as I have one, is whether this is evidence that “Project American sub-human”  revealed to the world by the Russian nuclear scientist is actually much more advanced than even he realises.

Many years ago the British magazine Private Eye used to satirise the work of a man named McKay, referred to as “McHacky” by having “him” write, “Isn’t life grandy and dandy” as he celebrated the wonders of modern times. As indeed it is truly is – especially if you are a smart guy, like Donald Trump!

Well, it is troubling to this poor hack. Reality as revealed by the existence of the Russian nuke master and the illusion of reality as portrayed in “fake news” have so inflamed our imaginations that works intended to be seen as of the imagination, fiction to me and fiction to you, don’t stand a chance.  Anything a spiritually impoverished writer such as myself can dream up is made trivial when a man hits a pizza stand to see if Hillary Clinton is in the toilet or wherever she was meant to be, conspiring mightily, and a judicious and principled member of a victorious Presidential candidate’s entourage, who simply wants proof of her absence, loses his job! How can I write a novel about anything at all and expect it to be disbelieved?

If the displaced Trumpster is crowd-funding a campaign to get his job back, should I contribute?

Well, you very well may not know me, but if you did know me, you would know that I am reaching into my e-pocket as soon as I can to help the poor man out, even as I lose yet more readers to Facebook illusion. It’s unjust, but help we must.

Thanks for reading.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Thank you, Bob

Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first song-writer to receive the world’s most coveted literary award. Wow!

Of course Dylan is not only a song-writer and singer. He has written prose as well as verse, painted, acted, but to my mind beyond all these, been. Dylan has been an amazing force in the cultural life not merely of his native United States, or even the Anglophone world, but every country on earth. More than 50 years since he began to perform, he is still out there – apparently in Las Vegas as I write.

There is a post on this blog about him, and he figures in another, “Fifty years with and without Frank Sinatra.”

It is often said that Dylan’s words are what matter and that he can’t sing. This is, like much else about the man, very unfair. Dylan chooses to sing as he does, and his voice is an effective instrument. True, the words stick with us, but so does the sly, insinuating, intelligent voice that brings them to our ears.

The words do matter. They are important for what they say, and for the devices they use – as a writer, Dylan is a true genius.

But he is much more than that. He has made the words matter by who he is, has opened doors for artists of every stripe, legitimised what was previously unthinkable in popular music but far beyond it.  The huge cultural changes that have taken place in my lifetime have been charted but also partly created by this elusive force for good.

Thank you, Bob.

 

 

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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