Saturday, 20 August 2016

ROBERT DALEY'S HANDS OF A STRANGER: A Forgotten Friday Entry

Robert Daley in the 1950s was the PR man for the New York football Giants, at the time the NFL was breaking into the national sports consciousness, and the Giants were about to challenge the baseball Yankees as the city’s glamour team. He reported from France for the New York Times, then worked for a year as a deputy commissioner, for public relations, of the New York City police department; his term, in 1971-72 coincided with one of the most turbulent in the NYPD’s history.

This led to his best book, the non-fiction Prince Of The City (1978), which was made into a great film by Sidney Lumet, starring Treat Williams, in 1981. Daley’s fiction has been less acclaimed, but a number of his novels are quite good, and were filmed: the underrated To Kill A Cop (1976) as a decent TV movie, Year Of The Dragon (1981) in an underrated movie by Michael Cimino, and Tainted Evidence (1993) as Night Falls On Manhattan (1993), again by Lumet in 1996. They are big books which read sometimes like sagas; they inevitable present the police force as an extended family, sometimes like a mafia family, and like Joseph Wambaugh’s novels of the LAPD, they deal with the strains the cop’s world places on real family life.

Hands Of A Stranger (1985) is another of those, and it is a deceptive kind of story. It opens with Judith Adler, a rare female Assistant DA, who handles rape cases and aims to be a high flier. She’s brought into an investigation in New Jersey which involves drugs, but also women who appear to have been coerced and raped for a series of videotapes. The drug connection brings her to Joe Hearn, recently promoted to inspector and given command of the drugs squad. Joe is devoted to his wife Mary, but she is beginning to chafe as the pull of Joe’s career relegates to her to second place.

As Joe and Judith are drawn to each other, Mary embarks on a flirtation with her son’s baseball coach, which winds up with her in a sleazy Manhattan hotel room, trying desperately to get out. But before she can, an armed man crashes into the room, and with the coach bound and gagged, rapes Mary.

The set-up plays out as an almost inevitable personal car crash for almost all involved. Mary has to tell Joe she’s been raped, while witholding some details, and Joe, already devoting more time than he should to the videotaping case because he and Judith are starting an affair, begins investigating the rape on his own time, eventually learning the truth and looking for his revenge.

The story works in large part because Daley is so good on the pressures of the police department: the way Joe has to choose between family and job, the way his superiors assume Mary, with a college degree and a talented artist, is what one calls a typical broad, and the way Adler has to fight twice as hard as a woman for her job, and devote even more energy to it.

But it’s also a strange novel, because although it’s set in the Eighties, it seems to be taking place in the Fifties; it could be a novel of the police in the time of Mad Men. It could be largely because the morality of the police is still drawn on the previous era, and the people involved, largely Catholic, have that sort of 50s morality ingrained in their pysches, but there is a definite sort of double standard here, something that makes forbidden fruit seem more exotic than it might be, and something that Daley makes evident when, after the story resolves itself in shooting and near madness, Judith takes a Caribbean holiday and, in the end, is too moral to lose herself to a man she meets, instead returning to her job, a virgin as it were, a bride of the DA’s office. It’s rare to see such morality laid out so plainly, and of course, Adler is not Irish Catholic and not a cop.

It’s not Daley’s best work, but it is well paced and detailed, and fascinating for its odd insight. And it has a feel of reality to it. It too was filmed, as a three-hour two-part TV movie, with great leads: Armand Asante as Joe Hearn, Beverly D’Angelo as his wife (Italians playing Irish) and Blair Brown as the DA, renamed to make her a WASP rather than Jewish. The screenplay is by Arthur Kopit which in itself is interesting, given the issues of morality and the way behaviour is repeated, as a way of coping. I haven’t seen it, but the supporting cast (Michael Lerner, Forest Whitaker, and Arliss Howard) is strong, and includes Ben Affleck as the Hearn’s baseball-playing son. I haven’t seen this one, but I will be searching it out, not least to see what Larry Elikann, a TV and TV movie director, did with the kind of material Sidney Lumet would crush.

Hands Of A Stranger by Robert Daley
Signet Books, 1986, $4.50 ISBN0451145097

Thursday, 18 August 2016

REMEMBERING CHOO CHOO COLEMAN

I noted with some sadness the other day that Choo Choo Coleman had died. Chooch was a catcher on the original New York Mets baseball team which became famous for its ineptitude, a quality magnified by the fact that it was located in America's media hub, and in effect trying to replace the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants in the hearts of New Yorkers.

Living in the New York media diaspora, but not a New York fan, I followed this with all the bemusement a 10 or 11 year old could muster, and the keen eye for baseball that was commenplace among kids of our day. Plus, for reasons that remain to this day a mystery to me, my best friend Bruce Bonessi became a die-hard Mets' fan, from the start a true believer, with all the attendant delusions such a fate implies.

Chooch was one of the iconic Mets, who came in two varieties. The first was the assortment of well-known stars recycled at Shea Stadium, mostly New York favouites like Gil Hodges, manager Casey Stengel and Willie Mays, but also the likes of Richie Ashburn. They were past their primes, but they made good copy, especially Casey, whose crazy-smart apohorisms and mangled syntax became, with the hapless Mets instead of the dominant Yankees, like something from a Beckett play. It occurs to me that Beckett might have found the Mets a worthwhile subject for theatre.

 The second group were the Mets' original products, cast-offs from other teams whom they chose to fill out the roster, the most notable of whom had the kind of self-defining (if only in an ironic sense) nicknames that make the best athletes memorable. 'Hot' Rod Kanehl. The immortal 'Marvellous' Marv Throneberry. 'The Glider', Ed Charles. And Clarence 'Choo Choo' Coleman.

The most famous Chooch story, repeated in all his obituaries, happened when the Mets' wonderfully tongue-tied announcer, Ralph Kiner, a kind of Beckettian counterpoint to Stengel, was trying to fill time during a rain delay by interview Choo Choo. It went pear-shaped when Kiner asked how Chooch got his nickname and Chooch said 'I dunno'. Flailing for a response, Kiner asked 'Well, what's your wife's name, and what's she like?' Chooch replied: 'Her name Mrs. Coleman, and she like me, Bub.'

Many years later, Choo Choo would explain he got his nickname when he was a kid, because he was fast. Indeed, Casey said he'd never seen a catcher so fast 'chasing passed balls'. Roger Angell wrote that Choo Choo 'handled outside curve balls like a man fighting bees'.

But I got another Chooch story from Bob Miller, one of two Bob Millers who pitched without memorable nicknames for the Mets. I met him at some event while I was working for Major League Baseball, and the topic of those Mets and Choo Choo came up; I may have just read that story above in a baseball book. Miller said he could beat it.

He had come in to pitch relief, with a runner on second. Choo Choo called for a curve, which he threw, and the batter was waiting on it and drove it to the wall. The runner scored; the hitter was now on second with a double. Miller calls time and signals for Chooch to approach the mound. 'Chooch, we have to change the signs,' he says,  'they read that one, he knew the curve was coming'. 'OK Bub', Chooch says (he called everyone Bub, which was easier than recalling individual names, though Miller thought he might actually be saying Bob), and holds up 2 fingers. 'We take the second sign now'. He turns to go back to the playe but Miller calls him back. 'What's wrong Bub?' 'Chooch you just told 15,000 people we're taking the second sign.' Chooch 'thinks' about it for moment. 'Youre right Bbb.' He holds up his glove and whispers behind it, 'OK we take the third sign now'.

If you don't know baseball and can't follow this, the runner on second can see the catcher's signs to the pitcher, and signal the batter what kind of pitch is coming. So by flashing three signs (but only using, in this case, the third one) they can disguise what's coming from the opposition.
Chooch goes back behind the plate and squats. He wants a fastball, so he puts down one finger, the universal fastball sign. Then he puts down one finger again. And then one finger for a third time. Miller said he laughed so hard he fell off the mound. He claimed it was called a balk by the umpire, and the runner advanced to third, but that might be apocryphal. After all, three number ones was good enough. RIP Chooch.

Friday, 12 August 2016

BEHIND THE OLYMPIC CURTAIN

I wrote this essay after the Olympic opening ceremonies in Rio, struck by the way the Olympic experience repeats itself. Sadly, that insight might better have been sold as prediction, rather than analysis, as it proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy in which no one was interested, since they had been seduced and distracted by the games.....

The Olympic Games in Rio are underway, and like a battleship’s slowly turning cannon, the media’s focus has finally been shifted away from crime, or pollution, or shoddy construction, or corruption, or even an unexpected change of elected government, and over to the competitions themselves (and the attendant questions of which athletes and federations are ‘clean’ of performance enhancing products). With swimming one of the early foci of attention, the federation quietly reinstated a twice-banned Russian swimmer, apparently deciding that if the water in the pool did not bubble or steam when she entered the water she must indeed be drug-free.

This is the eleventh Olympics at which I have worked, eight in the summer and three in the winter. The first was in my then-hometown of Montreal in 1976, and it set the pattern for virtually every games that has followed. The month’s run-up to the games produces stories about ineptitude and delays in preparation, about potential accommodation and transport disasters, and in some cases about the government corruption, mis-apprehension of funds, or political unsuitability for staging the world’s biggest sporting event. Then the games begin, and the curtain draws shut around the wonderful wizard of Olympic Oz.

Montreal was a veritable showcase of disaster, putting huge financial burdens on both the city and the province of Quebec which took decades to crawl out from under. The stadium remained unfinished because of design flaws and a constant stream of strikes by workers who wound up almost-finishing things with months of golden overtime. French Canadians were furious when it was learned the royal yacht Britannia deposited its royal wastes untreated into the St Lawrence River; a boat was dispatched each day to collect and deposit them instead into the Montreal sewer system, whence they were returned to the river, untreated, because the money for sewage treatment had been spent instead on a magnificent fountain outside the Olympic stadium.

After the financial disaster of Montreal, no one wanted the Games. Moscow already had 1980/ the IOC traditionally admiring authoritarian governments who could allocate resources without voiced complaints. I was at the Olympic Congress at Baden-Baden in 1981 when Los Angeles were ‘awarded’ the 1984 games, with no other bidders. Peter Uberroth’s committee, citing the potential huge losses, cut deals to get services donated, drew on huge numbers of unpaid volunteers, and sought sponsorship for the games. After it was over, far from the expected financial disaster, the Los Angeles Organising committee announced a series of steadily increasing profits, and bonuses for its bosses. The race, as they say, was on.

The IOC moved swiftly to appropriate sponsorship for itself rather than leave it to the organising committees. Tied to the potential bonanza of advertising revenue from American television, the IOC created a profit centre which benefited from both a worldwide audience and an assembly of competitors who did not require payment. The Olympics became a brand cities fought to stage on the IOC`s behalf, with the committee`s VIP treatment extracted from those cities. It was a  largesse which only occasionally was revealed to the public when the bribery became too obvious.

Rio de Janeiro is in many ways a poster child for the Olympics. The government was overturned shortly before the games, the kind of timing that is commonplace in Brazil, where bad news is usually run through Parliament just before Carnival begins and thus is ignored for the next weeks and forgotten before the hangover has worn off. The weeks before the games found a steady stream of disaster stories: unfinished or shoddy buildings, including the athletes’ village, the collapsed cycle path, the polluted water, the mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus, capybaras roaming the new Olympic golf course, described as `giant rodents`, which is technically true but conjured up visions of huge plague-carrying rats, rather than cuddly pig-sized hamsters.

Then came the opening ceremony: a Tonga disguised as a WWF wrestler entered the arena coated in olive oil and everyone forgot their problems. It was Vendredi Gras, and it reminded me that London 2012 was not that much different. Who in Britain tracked the property deals that saw virtually all spectators at the Olympic Park routed through a shopping mall. Who has followed the awarding of the Olympic stadium to West Ham? Who remembers the promises to Britain’s youth as luxury flats go up where once sporting arenas stood in East London? In London’s opening ceremony James Bond, The Queen, Mr Bean, and (blessedly) Ray Davies were presented to the world as the happy face of Britain. The £12 billion that came from nowhere in a country whose budget cannot be stretched to pay doctors or nurses is now forgotten. Curiously, the cost in Brazil has been estimated at $12 billion, in a city whose separation between the rich, who live vertically in gated high rises, and the poor, who live horizontally in favellas, seems like a model for a London of the future.

Yet listening to the speeches, watching the happy athletes of the world, seeing Kip Keino honoured for working with children in Kenya, seemed to make it all worthwhile, even to the most cynical of us. When IOC president Thomas Bach said we were all equal in "Òlympism"' I almost believed him enough to have my taxi driver try the lane reserved for IOC VIP vehicles next time we got caught in a traffic jam. Then experience, the little Toto of the mind, pulled back the curtain to reveal Frank Morgan pulling levers and playing Wizard of Oz. For the people of Brazil, the one-off Carnival has brought Oz to Rio. The circuses eclipse the bread for the next two weeks. Then, like London, the memories will be happy ones and the questions that linger will remain largely unasked, much less answered. Like Dorothy, Brazil will wake up, thinking `there`s no place like home`.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

EINOJUHANI RAUTAVAARA: IN MEMORIAM

Cantus Arctics is a remarkable piece of music, integrating the calls of wild birds above the arctic circle into something that both soars in an almost classical romantic Scandinavian sense (think Sibelius) and challenges with its lean modernity. It spins around the listener as birds might, drops hints and moves away, and is totally beguiling.  It was my introduction to Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died last week, and it is a record I have given to many people, not least my late ex-father-in-law, who played horn in the New Zealand national orchestra, and it seems to have captivated them all.


Of course no Finnish composer can avoid comparison to Sibelius, but oddly I see in Rautavaara a strand more like the less romantic challenges in Nielsen, or the much under-appreciated Robert Simpson. Rautavaara studied at Julliard, and while he was there worked with Roger Sessions and Aaron Copland at Tanglewood; you can see a bit of them in his work too, a mixing of romantic and what I saw called post-expressionist. What stands out for me is that he seems to use the different forms as an extension of their content--the ones that seem to fit.

I'd recommend the sweeping brilliance of his 7th Symphony, Angel Of Light, the 3rd Piano Concerto (Gift of Dreams), and if you want to feel his roots, the 3rd Symphony (which he called his Bruckner work). What Rautavaara shows is what I like to think of as the best of post-modernism, a much maligned and much mis-used term, in that his work delves deeply into the possibilities of the tools with which he works, but never loses touch with the impulses that drive us to express our deepest selves in music.  It is both challenging and accessible, appealling to both the mind and the heart. What more can we ask of art?


Friday, 29 July 2016

LINGERING WITH THE INTENT

The Intent is a gangster film which flashes its modernity while at the same time being very much old school, if not totally familiar. That it can breathe moments of life into what is a very hoary trope says a lot; that it cannot totally escape those tropes is probably to be expected.

Hoodz, Gunz, D Angel, and Mitch are a gang in waiting, eventually named TIC for Thieves In The Community. Hoodz is the man with the ambition, and wants to move beyond selling drugs and petty thuggery. Mitch is the one who wants no trouble, wants no one hurt. Gunz is the one who as a kid was fascinated by them, and D, well, D smokes a lotta weed. When their first armed heist goes wrong, and the woman shopkeeper is killed, Mitch suffers a crisis of conscience, while the other three go onto to bigger better and bloodier things.

So far, so familiar. It's at times a very flashy thing, but its most powerful scene may be early on, when Hoodz and Gunz relieve two young dealers of their new watches and chains. It has a real sense of menace, of a law of the jungle mentality that makes the streets seems truly dangerous, and it contrasts with the strongly suburban setting in both south London and in Birmingham. The flash comes mostly in the robbery scenes, the gang's masks and the fast moving motorcyles, the relentlessly upbeat progression upwards in the foodchain. Femi Oyeniran both co-directed and co-wrote the movie, and plays Mitch, and one gets the sense the action scenes may show an influence of the other co-director, Kalvadour Peterson.

It also works because the leads are good. Hoodz (played by Scorcher) and Guns (by Dylan Duffus) look like they've stepped out of The Wire (I kept seeing Wood Harris and Clark Johnson in their roles in an American remake). Oyeniran's role is smaller, in fact he simply disappears for the long central section of the movie, but it's harder to be Mitch (who tellingly has no gangland nickname, and you can guess what Mitch rhymes with) and he does well with it. In fact, most of the gangster roles are well played, Ashley Chin and Fekky are both good, perhaps because they are more fun and easier to play.

There's far more awkwardness in much of the supporting cast, especially those playing the police, who look strangely unbelievable...Sarah Akokia has a hard time seeming to be as tough as she's supposed to be. At one point I started wondering if this was intentional—a representation of what the police are really like, not that tough, not that strong, much younger than we think. I thought the same thing after the first shooting, which is not very convincing at all, badly staged and woodenly acted. But of course this is what real gunplay is like, the sounds and the drama are things added in. I would have thought this an excellent point to make, except the rest of the shootings in the film are more up to what we expect in gangster movies, and most of the scenes not set in nightclubs or shootouts have an almost Coronation Street flatness to the way they're shot.

At heart, it's a story of loyalty and intent; there's an undercover cop in the gang, who's in danger of falling in ove with the gangsta ife; Mitch has his second thoughts and quits; and there's a constant carping about family loyalties even as family members betray each other, which contrasts to the kind of family relations Hoodz has with his own mother and sister. His mother is disgusted with him, and won't take his money; his sister is more ambivalent, and her friend Naeema is very much taken with him. Even though Naeema is the daughter of the woman shopkeeper killed in their first robbery, and even though she doesn't know Hoodz was involved, she knows the life. Her father has said he is taking the family back to Pakistan, but next thing you know she's in the club in a dress revealing enough for a Trump wife, assimilation winning out in the end. Jade Asha seems far more comfortable in this part of the role, just as the guys playing the hoodlums seem far more comfortable than most of the cast. And she, like them, is much better than any of the people involved in those gangster-chiq Tarantino lite pix that plagued Britain a decade ago (Gangster No 1 or Love Honour and Obey anyone? If you doubt it, see my essay 'What Makes the British Hardman Hard?' to which you can link here).

The Intent's final problem is one that goes back to the very first gangster movies. Like Little Caesar or Scarface, the gangsters become the romantic heroes, and their lifestyles become aspirational. Who remembers nowadays that Scarface was actually titled  Scarface: Shame Of A Nation? Yes in the end crime did not pay, sometimes awkward codas had to be added on to make that point more clearly, but there was little doubt as to which characters were having the better time. It is Naeema's dilemma in a nutshell, and really it is why so many of the supporting cast, particularly Akokhia as Police Sergeant Smith, act like they'd rather been playing on the other side.

It's a story that keeps moving, and it has enough ambiguity to keep your attention. And it ends as it began, in flashback, which is truly touching and a little surprising, especially if you understand police carry rules. Impressive, derivative, inventive, and most of all promising.

The Intent
directed by Femi Oyeniran, Kalvadour Peterson
written by Oyeniran and Nicky Slimting Walker
on release from today, 29 July

This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

GUNNAR STAALESEN'S WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE

When I reviewed Gunnar Staalesen's Cold Hearts three years ago (you can link to that here) I responded to Jo Nesbo's blurb calling Staalesen a 'Norwegian Chandler' by suggesting he might better be seen as a Norwegian Ross MacDonald, though I thought his character was a bit more of a blank slate than Lew Archer's. Where Roses Never Die reinforced my idea, but it's more effective than Cold Hearts precisely because its detective Varg Veum fills in a lot more of that seemingly blank slate.

Staalesen's work is actually a bit more Noir than almost all of what is sweepingly called Nordic Noir, primarily for its moments when Veum deals with his drinking problems, and when his typically Nordic depressive detective moves through what is a great setting for a mystery: an architect designed group of houses facing in on each other, a metaphor for the people who live there and indeed for the crime Veum is hired to investigate.

Maja Misvaer hires Veum to investigate the disappearance of her three-year old daughter from a sandbox outside her home some twenty-five years earlier. The statute of limitations is about to expire, which means the policewill formally close the case, and she wants Veum to take one last look. Veum rouses himself from his own grief and his alcoholic stupor, and begins asking questions and turning over rocks and discovering connections which go back far into the past, and which merge into another case, a robbery of a jewellery store in Bergen a few years earlier.

This is very much like MacDonald at his best: buried secrets come to the surface, the past haunts the present, and Veum, who was a social worker before becoming a detective, seems to take a high moral view which implies the consequences small break downs in personal morality can have. And a case which seems set to focus on child abuse turns into something different.

Bergen is a strange setting, and not necessarily a very noirish one, but Veum moves among its lowlife and shows us the underbelly even in a small relatively prosperous town in a social democracy welfare state. This goes back to the very start of the great Scandinavian detectives, and Staalesen works very comfortably within it. There are moments which sometimes stretch credibility, of coincidence and of violence, but there are also a number of moments that are moving, and the story underneath unveils itself with a few surprises. Staalesen remains relatively unknown and hugely undervalued here; he deserves more attention.

Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen
translated by Don Bartlett
Orenda Books, £8.99 ISBN 9781910633090

This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 24 July 2016

JAMES CARLOS BLAKE'S RULES OF WOLFE

The Rules Of Wolfe is billed as a 'border noir' and it may well be just that. Eddie Gato Wolfe is 19. He's part of a clan of criminals whose legacy stretches back generations and across the Texas-Mexico border. But the family rules say Eddie can't join the real action in the family business until he's finished college, and college is not on his agenda. So Eddie disappears, and resurfaces in the middle of the Mexican desert, guarding the weekend getaway of 'The Boss', 'La Navaja'. The work is dull, and once again, there are rules. But Eddie isn't one for rules.

So when he eyes one of the women who arrives for the weekend soiree, Miranda, who's La Navaja's brother Segundo's squeeze, he ought to know, and we certainly do know, that doing anything about it will lead to trouble. But he does, and she does, and it does lead to trouble and next thing we know Eddie and Miranda are on the run, heading across the desert for the border, with all the resources of La Navaja's organisation mobilized against them. Eddie needs help, but contacting his brothers Rudy and Frank would not only be humiliating, it might alert La Navaja about where he is.

I reviewed James Carlos Blake's first novel The Pistoleer, about John Wesley Hardin, twenty years ago. His shifting narrators have a particular resonance which reminded you of how gunfighters moved into myth. I have followed him consistently since, and frequently been hugely impressed; not least with The Killings Of Stanley Ketchel, which has joined my list of best boxing novels ever.

Blake writes about outlaws, and their struggles to survive in America--with this he's added Mexico to the mix as well, with the country on the other side of Donald Trump's wall serving as a kind of wild wild west surrogate. On the surface, The Rules Of Wolfe isn't a complicated novel, basically a classic man on the run story, but the structure is actually quite neatly built--switching between the Wolfe family in Texas and their own problems, and Eddie Gato, and eventually managing to bring the two together.

Wolfe writes cleanly, which keeps the pace moving, and he is a master of that laconic kind of American voice that goes back before Hemingway into the western. It's a modern sort of western he's written here, and it's a rewarding read.

The Rules Of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake
No Exit Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781843444084

Note: This review will appear also at Crime Time(www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 21 July 2016

TIM WEAVER: THE 'MISSING' INTERVIEW

Tim Weaver's novels about missing persons investigator David Raker have been best-sellers and Richard&Judy selections. In his spare time he has also presented the Missing podcast, discussing with professionals the ways in which people disappear and how they are tracked down.

I made a guest-appearance on Missing to turn the tables on Tim, and interview him about the genesis of the podcast, some famous unsolved missing persons cases, how his fiction and the facts he discusses on the podcast are intertwined, and of course, about his new novel, Broken Heart. It was a great discussion, and I think that comes across when you listen to it.

Here's the link. You can click or go to:  https://soundcloud.com/missing-189443436. It's episode 9. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

GEORGIA ON HIS MIND: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

One of the topics much discussed in reaction to the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern has been the nature of her relationship with Alfred Steiglitz. Almost twenty years ago, the Metropolitan Museum in New York staged an exhibition of Steiglitz's photographs of O'Keeffe, itself an expansion of another show nearly 20 years before that, which revealed much about that relationship. Every couple of decades, it would seem, O'Keeffe herself and the influence of Steiglitz have to be re-evaluated. This was what I saw twenty years ago, originally written for the FT, but held until the exhibition in New York had already finished, then spiked.

AN ALMOST VIOLENT PURITY OF SPIRIT
Georgia O'Keeffe portraits by Alfred Steiglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have become commercial icons. Animal skulls dried by the desert, adobe chapels, lush sexual flowers, tall thrusting cityscapes, all part of an instantly recognisable and popular style. O’Keeffe herself has become part of that iconography, just as recognisable. Her face, with its strong sharp features, piercing intelligence, and deep eyes, echoes the visual images of her work. Yet, as this exhibition shows, that image is itself a work of art, a construct that arose from the unlikely artistic partnership of one of the major figures of modernism in America with an unknown student. Over the next thirty years, it would produce nearly 400 prints.

In 1916 Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery was the centre of modern art in America. His journal Camera Work was almost single-handedly turning photography into an art form. O’Keeffe was a 28 year-old unsuccessful artist who had taught in South Carolina and Texas and was now taking classes at Columbia. A friend had passed O’Keeffe’s drawings on to Sieglitz because she knew how much she admired him and his immediate reaction was “at last, a woman on paper!” He exhibited the drawings at 291, getting the state wrong as he billed her as “Virginia O’Keeffe”, but overwhelming with his understanding of her art O’Keeffe’s protestations at being taken up by him. And by his understanding of her art's impact. The gallery which had introduced America to Brancusi, John Marin and Marsden Hartley was now causing a bigger stir. The powerful erotic energy which Stieglitz recognised in O’Keffee’s abstract drawings disturbed many of New York’s critics, even those in the would-be avant-garde.

Stieglitz was keen to introduce women into the modernist movement (Camera Work gave Gertrude Stein her first appearance in print), but where on the one hand he was promoting O'Keeffe's work, encouraging her as an artist, on the other he also began using her as a model, and it is difficult to avoid the sense of her romantic, as well as artistic, objectification.

At the beginning, Stieglitz was taken by the abstract possibilities of O’Keeffe’s remarkably strong, sharp features. He is particularly attentive to her hands. Her long fingers both frame other objects to give them a geometric quality, and provide an abstract shape of their own. If modernism was about isolating the pure geometric volume from forms, Stieglitz was already beginning to move past that abstraction with O’Keeffe. But his photos quickly came to reflect the growing intimacy between photographer and subject. The quest for abstract shapes recedes, as Steiglitz becomes more and more fascinated with O’Keefe’s body, its combination of grace and power, of stark angles and edges softened by deep curves: her breasts against her shoulders, her hips balanced by her legs. The same qualities he had originally captured in her hands he would continue to reveal in her face.

The stark force of her face was muted somewhat by O’Keeffe’s wonderfully expressive eyes. This expressiveness turns Steiglitz’s modernism transcendental: he had discovered a human form in nature which could both generate and convey the equivalent of his deepest inner experiences. Original as it seemed to him, he was also recapitulating what O’Keeffe had already made the central aim of her own art.

By 1919-20, the photographs have become more intimate, even obsessive. Abstract nudes give way to extreme sensuality, O’Keeffe setting her hair, squeezing her breasts, displaying her feet. They caused a scandal when exhibited, and even today there is something almost fetishistic about them. The scandal was intensified, no doubt, by the fact that they were living together openly, despite the fact that Stieglitz was married. Eventually, Steiglitz would take these 'scandalous' shots off the market.

After Stieglitz was divorced in 1924, he persuaded O’Keeffe to marry him. She saw no point in the added respectability of marriage, and perhaps predictably, Stieglitz’s camera at this point appears to lose its fire. He begins producing more mundane portraits, as if the very idea of being Mr. and Mrs. Stieglitz were the antithesis of their concept of modernist art and modern life. Reflecting their increasing time apart, the pictures become almost chaste. O’Keeffe began to spend more time travelling, while Stieglitz preferred the familiar environs of New York City and his house upstate on Lake George. Some of his passion transferred to his other major series of prints, shot at Lake George, of abstract shapes from nature, particularly clouds. These correspond with his emotions, in much the same way that parts of O’Keeffe’s body once had, but they never recapitulate the total emotional commitment of his 1920 portraits.

But as their relationship, and his photographs of her, became less intimate, Stieglitz finally began to portray O’Keeffe as an artist, rather than a model. He now seemed more involved with the work than its creator, and he began to reveal the iconic O’Keeffe so familiar to us today. Now the sharp angles of her face, the deep gaze of her eyes, the dynamic power of her body reflect what the artist and poet Marsden Hartley called the “almost violent purity of spirit” in her work.

Although Dorothy Norman took O’Keeffe’s place in the passionate intimacy of Stieglitz’s life, and O’Keeffe began to winter far away in New Mexico, they spent summers together each year at Lake George. By now she was travelling through New Mexico in an A-Model Ford, with the back seat removed and converted into a mobile art studio. Her freedom seems to have fascinated Stieglitz, who photographed O’Keeffe’s hands, once again almost as abstract framing, caressing the wheel-covers of a V-8 car. The triumph of man over the energy of machines is an important part of both their work, but O’Keeffe’s hands give the picture its impact, inserting a human dimension to keep the powerful shape of the machine in its place, in fact, turning it into something to be caressed, if not an item of fashion.

There is a wonderful 1932 portrait of O’Keeffe in a head-scarf, looking out the front window of her car as if auditioning for the Bonnie Parker role in Bonnie And Clyde. As she gets older, her face seems to grow deeper, its angles more involving, stronger and more shadowy at the same time. What is clear from these photos is that a relationship which may have started very much as pupil and teacher, and soon deepened into romance, eventually extended beyond romance into art. After the passion faded, they transcended the bounds of artistic or romantic definition. If Stieglitz’s images of her helped mould our perception of her as an artist, her vision as an artist helped Stieglitz find new means of expression through his camera.

“When I look at the photographs Stieglitz took of me, I wonder who that person is,” O’Keeffe wrote for a 1978 retrospective, some 60 years after those first pictures had been taken. Whoever that person was then, she is now the figure whose features, as captured by Stieglitz, reflect perfectly Marsden Hartley's perception of her work's violent purity.

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz
Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 1997

Exhibition catalogue, expanded from the 1978 edition, published
by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997, ISBN 9780300086102


Monday, 18 July 2016

SOCCER SOVEREIGNTY: BREXIT AND THE MANAGER OF ENGLAND

The other day I read a tweet from the estimable historian Tom Holland, saying 'Yes, David was able to kill Goliath - but he could never have pulled the same trick twice" - Israeli general. To which I replied, 'He could have if Goliath had played for an English manager'. A couple of days earlier I'd written the following essay, but it passed the editors' desks unrequited...


LESSONS 'LEARNED' FROM ENGLAND'S FOOTBALL BREXIT 


Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether sport imitates life or life imitates sport or whether they are both intent on becoming artistic parodies of themselves. The confluence of the United Kingdom's Brexit vote with England's (though not Wales' or indeed Northern Ireland's) abject departure from the European football championship was widely noted. As if not satisfied with this, at virtually the same time new Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Brexit's Field Marshal, Boris Johnson, to be her foreign secretary, the Football Association was asking Sunderland's permission to interview their manager, Sam Allardyce, for the England job.

You can argue Allardyce's relative successes and failures within English football all you like. As it happens I met him last summer, and despite his place in the endless line of Big Rons, Big Mals and Big Eteceteras, Big Sam seemed relatively progressive in his thinking. This may have impressed me, but it will not be the ultimate criterion upon which his appointment will be judged. In a stark and not surprising reflection of the late referendum, it is all a question of Englishness.

The argument follows much the same twisted logic of 'sovereignty' that was the rallying cry for Brexit. Paddy Barclay, the Scottish football scribe on the Evening Standard, wrote a column recently rubbishing the idea 'Englishness is not essential' for an England manager. As he put it, 'Germany's successes have been designed by Germans, France's by Frenchmen and Spain's by Spaniards', he wrote. 'So find one'.

I am tempted to interpret that as meaning 'find a German, or a Frenchman, or a Spaniard. But it doesn't, obviously, and therein lies the rub. Paddy listed a number of candidates (Harry Redknapp 'would be fun') including Allardyce. But part of his job description includes 'anyone willing to contemplate an igominious end. Anyone English that is. To be serious: people will look at rugby and reach for the quick fix but, in the long term, principle counts.'

Ignoring his self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, and ignoring also that the long term in international football rarely extends beyond the next major tournament, the question of principle is exactly what drove 52% of voters to Brexit. And as with the referendum, it's important to note that principle is seen through rose-tinted national health spectacles.

In football, England have always ignored the rest of the world to their own great satisfaction. The 1950 loss to the American part-timers (read about it here), perhaps a bigger upset than the loss to Iceland, went ignored at home because basically no one was in Brazil to notice, and the news when it got back to England was so absurd it was dismissed. Not until Hungary thrashed them at Wembley in 1953 did the myth of innate superiority begin to spring recognisable leaks. A World Cup win playing at home in 1966, with Brazil helpfully ushered out of the tourney by the Germans (and an English referee, as any Brazilian will swear) helped resurrect that myth, but the truth is that for the past 20 years, England has been barely more successful in World Cups than, say, the United States.

In fact, a quick fix is exactly what is needed. Eddie Jones, an Aussie, turned England's rugby team around using the same players who had disappointed so gravely at home in the World Cup the previous season. Iceland, lest we forget, were not coached only  by a part-time Icelandic dentist, their other co-manager was a Swede. Xenophobic principle will win England football matches with about as much certainty as would putting the Union jack on their jerseys. The reality is not a question of nationality: England's past choices of foreign managers has been just as underwhelming as their Englishmen. It is a matter of perspective, of a change in perspective, and if history is any guide, that may be, on principle, exactly the most difficult thing for the FA to even contemplate.

Friday, 15 July 2016

THE SELF DESTRUCTION OF THE LABOUR PARTY

I don't care whether youre a Corbynista, Blairite, Millibandito, Blue Labour or whatever. The UK has just gone through the most turbulent three weeks in 70 years. 52% of the country has voted to leave the European Union; the leaders who lied and played the fear card to engineer that triumph have jumped ship; the prime minister who gave the country a referendum as the price of placating his own MPs and holding off a UKIP who gained at Labour's expense, not his, is gone.

There is a new Tory prime minister, chosen by a handful of grandees; there is the most frighteningly ideological & inept cabinet I have seen in my 40 years in Britain; the Labour party has been silent, not even a squeaking opposition, throughout the process, being more concerned with replacing their own leader and marginalising their members who elected him. The media plays their division above all the other problems, but don't blame the media for their biases, they are something you have to live with. Labour achieved power under Tony Blair with a Bill Clintonesque third-way strategy based on Clinton's core precept: where else do they have to go? Thus you focus your appeal on the undecideds, swing voters, independents, marginal seats, and you treat your core voters with a kinder gentler version of the abandonment of a conservative government. Which worked until Labour's tepid response to six years of austerity under the Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition allowed the SNP and UKIP to give those ignored voters alternatives. Tory scare mongering on immigration worked a treat in pushing Labour votes to UKIP in England and letting Tories win parliamentary majority with barely more than 1/3 of vote, but it invited the no vote that won the Brexit referendum.

Labour has been waiting for someone to stand up and marshal the opposition to what was going on--offer the country a viable alternative, help the country make sense of the disaster that is going on. Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader by party members who saw that traditional Labour values and policies were an answer, but, villfied in the press as a nutter and abandoned by many in his party as a, uh, socialist, he was not the leader to marshal the sane part of the country, not the person who could gather opposition and perhaps force a vote of no-confidence once the public schoolboys (and girls) have finished ruining the country they see by right as their playground.

My guess is a figure who was able to do that with any level of articulation and energy might have been chosen Labour leader by acclimation once the dust had settled. If a majority of the parliamentary party and their big donors wanted Corbyn out, the sensible way to do it would be for someone to step up and lead opposition to Tories, not opposition to Corbyn. Filling the gulf of leadership for the country outside Westminster, and indeed outside the party, would make the point self-evident. But who stepped forward? Who presented a vision of anything for the country, anything except a party not led by Corbyn? 

By abrogating their responsibility to the country in a cheap effort to re-establish their control, they have moved Labour closer to a split, and nullified themselves not only as an opposition but as a potential government. The lesson of the Gang Of Four in 1982 was two more election wins for Thatcher, and political wilderness until Nick Clegg's craven deal with Offshore Dave Cameron. Putting self before party, putting party before country, and ignoring the best opportunity to present a united face of sanity in the wake of the past three weeks of chaos was the only sane thing to do, and the opportunity has been pissed away. Like a pack of rabid hyenas they turned on themselves, while a lame sheep strolled past uneaten. Shame on you, Labour.

NOTE: I don't often use this platform for political party broadcasts, but this morning I wrote a quick angry rant on Facebook, & it stayed with me through the day. So I've filled out the thoughts a little, trying hard not to let my despair poke through too far. 

Monday, 11 July 2016

JOE ABERCROMBIE'S SHARP ENDS

Sharp Ends is a collection of short stories from a writer who has become one of my firm favourites since I reviewed Heroes here back in 2011. As promised, I read through the First Law trilogy, and Best Served Cold, set in the same world, and probably should have expressed my admiration of them in print somewhere. Sharp Ends comes as a welcome reminder that Abercrombie is more than just a fine fantasy writer, he is a fine writer.

The collection takes place over a 26 year period, and begins in somewhat familiar territory. Two of the first three tales are effective snapshots of the nature of the two sides in the First Law civil war, 'A Beautiful Bastard' providing a microcosm of the effete stratifications of the Union, and 'The Fool Jobs' featuring Curden Craw amidst the harsh world of the fighters from the North. But the story between those two is something different,'Small Kindnesses' bringing together the skilled thief Shevedieh and Javle, the Lioness of Hoskopp.

Their stories are dotted throughout the collection, as if they were a pair moving through this world without taking sides, and surviving on one's wits and the other's prowess. Their final tale, and the book's penultimate, 'Tough Times All Over', starts some 19 years after their first appearance; Shev remains bewitched by the highly untrustworthy Carcolf, and Javle still hasn't resolved her pursuit by the High Priestess of Thond (her mother, as it turned out in an earlier tale). It's a portmanteau story, as a document gets stolen and re-stolen again and again, but it's both amusing and touching, and very well structured within its fast-paced rollicking. I wouldn't hesitate to nominate it for a CWA short-story Dagger next year.

In Shev, the tricky thief constantly getting herself into predicaments and Javle, the warrior armed with the Father of Swords who rarely over-thinks things, Abercrombie has created a female version of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and I don't make this comparison lightly. Leiber is the one outlier of the great talents of sword & sorcery fiction, and probably the hardest to equal, and Abercrombie has equalled the master here.

I say Leiber is an outlier in sword and sorcery because Robert E Howard spawned many imitators, John Jakes and Karl Edward Wagner being the best. Howard's popularity came off the back of the Tolkein revival in the mid 1960s, and eventually writers would move beyond the lone barbarian format to the more Tolkienian bigger one of whole worlds colliding on a bigger stage. When I wrote about Heroes I compared Abercrombie to the best of those writers, George RR Martin, who needs no further introduction, and Glen Cook whose novels of the Black Company are massively under-appreciated but whose trimmed-down style melds perfectly the bigger scale of kingdoms warring and the tighter focus on the men doing the fighting, the kind of scale that Abercrombie has made his own, with prose lean like Cook's but much more layered. Interestingly, Cook also wrote a series more in the Leiber vein, the hard-boiled sorcery Garrett, PI novels.

But what makes Abercrombie stand out is his range, and that is driven home by the story that follows 'Tough Times All Over' and closes Sharp Ends. 'Made A Monster' is a portrait in exhaustion. Bethod is the most powerful Chieftan in the North, but he's tired of war and dreams of peace, among the Northmen and then perhaps with the Union. First he has to deal with Rattleneck, a rebel chief who has sworn to have Bethod's head. Bethod believes he has leverage; Rattleneck's son has been captured alive, and he can use the boy to win over the father. But he has been captured by Logen Ninefingers, the most fearsome warrior in the North, 'blood-drunk and murder-proud' as one character describes him, and Bethod needs to persuade Ninefingers to give up his captive.

Readers familiar with the First Law series will recognise the characters, but those who are not will understand them immediately. Abercrombie has the ability to create a mood that hangs over the story and the characters, and the beauty of his longer fiction is that he's able to keep doing it in scene after scene regardless of the changes. The story's ending is a surprise, though it seems in retrospect inevitable; it is one of overwhelming sadness. And it picks up added resonance when the reader realises that it is the only story in the book set out of chronological sequence; it occurs just four years after the first one, meaning everything that has followed in this wonderful book has been affected by the tragedy of that final tale, and the title of the book takes on another deeper meaning. It is, like Abercrombie's writing, deceptively simple. It is fine writing, in any genre.

SHARP ENDS by Joe Abercrombie

Orion Books, £18.99 ISBN 9780575104679