Category Archives: Book and movies

Travels through literature, alcohol and America: A review of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by Olivia Laing

The trip to echo springErnst Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver had at least two things in common: they are all giants of 20th Century American literature and…they were all confirmed, raging alcoholics.

These two commonalities are the basis for ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ by English author Olivia Laing, a writer and book reviewer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers.

The title of the book refers a line said by the sexually conflicted character Brick in Tennessee Williams’ great Southern play ‘Cat on a Hat Tin Roof‘.  He says it to indicate he is going to get a drink of whiskey: to numb the pain of his “mendacity”.

Laing sets out to explore how these six writers – whom she admired greatly and who shaped the course of American fiction – experienced, thought about, wrote about and dealt with their addiction to alcohol.

She does so by undertaking a physical trip across America in the Spring of 2011 starting in New York and staying in the Elysee, a hotel in Manhattan’s theatre district where Tennessee Williams spent his last days, and finishing in Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the upper north corner of Washington State, where Raymond Carver lived the last years of his life  and wrote some of his best short stories while living with the poet Tess Gallagher.

In between, Laing heads down to New Orleans to sit at the hotel bar where Tennessee Williams came in for a drink and to pick up young men and to attend the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, flies south-east to balmy Key West, Florida to visit Hemingway haunts, takes a train west to Baltimore and North Carolina to follow Fitzgerald’s own journey and then chugs out west to Illinois and Minneapolis, tracing the fatal path of the poet, John Berryman.

Amongst all this travel, are Laing’s reflections and contemplations of the alcoholic lives of these writers interwoven with meditative observations of the vast, constantly changing American landscape, mostly from her train window. She writes:

“In Alabama the earth was red and their was Wisteria in the trees. Somewhere deep in the country the train stopped in a pine forest. It was very quiet. A needle dropped lazily through the warm air. The woman beside me was on the phone…”

“Between Tuscaloosa [Alabama] and Meridian [Mississippi] we ran through uninterrupted miles of forest. The hills were covered in bone-grey timber, split and weather-worn into fantastic shapes. Then open country with cows grazing…

I awoke again at dawn. This time the world outside was white. North Dakota, flat as an ironed sheet.

The constant travel not only gives the book it’s part travel-guide feel, but also it’s momentum. Laing is not only on a journey to discover more about her literary heroes and their afflictions, but is also on a journey of self-discovery; making sense of a disjointed, dysfunctional upbringing and one washed through with alcohol. Her mother’s partner was a violent alcoholic.

One of the great strength of ‘The Trip to Echo Spring” and a sign of its success is that makes you want to go out and read (or re-read) the works of Williams, Hemingway, Cheever, Fitzgerald, Berryman and Carver, reminded as you are of their massive contribution to the world of literature despite the booze, blackouts, collapses, rehabilitations and relapses.

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

Just off the top of my head I could reel off a dozen books, plays and poetry collections I’ve now added to my “must read” list:

- The Glass Menagerie (Williams)
– Sweet Bird of Youth (Williams)
– For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
Death in the Afternoon (Hemingway)
– Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald)
– The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald – AGAIN!)
– Cathedral (Carver)
– Dream Songs (Berryman)
– Recovery (Berrryman)

Already, a copy of Cheever’s novel “Falconer” about a jailed heroin addict is waiting beside my bed and I’ve begun to read the opening scene of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from an old paperback that was tucked into the book shelf. And I am waiting for the opportunity to watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as Maggie and Brick.

Laing has great empathy for her heroes because of the writing they produced,  but she does not sentamentalise them, brush aside their faults or criticise their weaker efforts. Nor is their any glamorization of alcoholism:

[On Cheever’s drinking in 1966]: “…his drinking had passed well beyond normal measures now, even bearing in mind the norms of the time. When he wasn’t on location [filming his short story ‘The Swimmer’] he wrote in the early hours of the morning and by half past ten could be found twitching in the kitchen waiting for his family to disperse so he could administer the first self-soothing scoop of scotch or gin. If they didn’t leave quick enough he’d drive himself to the liquor store, where he’d buy a bottle, motor on to some pretty back street and sit there suckling, inevitably spilling a good slug down his chin.

All six writers were at times monstrous personalities, capable of inflicting great cruelty on their wives, children, lovers, friends and families: Raymond Carver almost killed his wife and was resentful of his own children, Tennessee Williams once defecated in a university hallway, John Cheever projected his closeted homosexuality into rage against his wife.

The book is rich with analysis of the works of fiction these writers produced as well as their non-fiction articles and memoirs. But she is no literary snob, relishing the opportunity to join a tour group visiting Hemingway’s home and museum in Key West or do a Tennessee Williams walk in New Orleans or enjoy meals with retired farmers on her train journeys.

The conclusions she reaches about these writers are not surprising – that they drank to deaden the pain of their childhood, their parents, their sexuality, their broken-ness, their perceived and real failures, while writing was a way to try to become whole again.

None,  apart from John Cheever, managed to stop drinking though they all tried. None lived into old age and two – Berryman and Hemingway –  died at their own hand.

But ultimately it is the journey that Laing takes you on through the minds and immense body of work of these giants of fiction that is the real joy

Not the destination.

Links:
An interview with the author, Olivia Laing  (Buzzfeed)
A review of The Trip to Echo Springs by The Times Literary Supplement
Olivia Laing’s personal website

Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“The story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO – “My Eyes Glaze Over”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

- Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

- Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.

The most dangerous animal: Was the Zodiac Killer Earl van Best?

zodiacA new book claims to have unmasked one of the most notorious serial killers, the Zodiac Killer who terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and 70s, murdering at least seven people, terrorising the city and taunting the police and newspapers with cryptic notes and undecipherable cyphers and cryptograms.

It’s written by Louisiana businessman Gary L. Stewart and has the enticing title: “The most dangerous animal of all: Searching for my father and finding the Zodiac Killer.”

So enticing (the title refers to a letter the Zodiac wrote claiming ‘Man is the most dangerous animal of all’) that I picked up a copy and read it. And so have millions more, with the book earning a place on the coveted New York Times best-sellers list backed by a big name publisher, Harper Collins.  All of which lend kudos and credibility compared to the many alternative theories about who the Zodiac Killer may be.

Stewart tell the story of his father’s crimes in a “novelistic manner” and while it’s no ‘In Cold Blood’  events moves a long at a fair pace, and are neatly described with the help of journalist and crime writer Susan Mustafa.

The book begins in 2002 with Stewart, adopted at birth and now in his late 30s, the director of a Louisiana cleaning company, who receives a phone call from a woman called Judy, who says she is his birth mother.

They eventually meet in San Francisco, form a relationship and then the question about who his father was becomes something he must answer.

Judy is reluctant to tell him and for good reason. It later emerges that she fathered him at age 14 in 1962 after running away to Mexico City and later New Orleans with a manipulative, creepy man twice her age called Earl Van Best Junior or ‘Van’ as he was known. The case attracts media attention with the San Francisco papers calling it the “The Ice Cream Parlour Romance” because met Judy outside an ice-cream parlour when she got off the school bus.

ice-cream-romance

We are told the story of Earl’s early life as the son of a highly respected army minister, but later forced to live with his mother, Gertrude, a cold, unloving adultress whose only contribution to her son’s development is to teach him to play the organ.

As an alienated, unhappy young man, Stewart narrates his father’s obsession with  13 year old Judy, his various arrests and imprisonments, his numerous trips to Mexico to obtain antique books and manuscripts to sell in San Francisco, his mingling with Satanist Anton LaVey’s harem in Haight Ashbury and his violent, spontaneous crimes, cryptic notes and games with the police and newspapers.

Stewart recounts the various disturbing murders as they have been told so many times before in books, true crime documentaries and movies, but using the chilling words “my father” when referring to the horrific stabbings and shootings.

He later discovers that Earl Van Best died in Mexico City in the 1994, choking on his own vomit and visits his unmarked grave. Here he makes a startling confession:

“I loved this man in some inexplicable way. He was my father. We were bound together by some invisible, unbreakable rope.

Among Stewart’s reasons for thinking his father was the Zodiac are:

  • his resemblance to the police identi-kit of the Zodiac Killer
The police sketch of the Zodiac Killer and Earl Van Best

The police sketch of the Zodiac Killer and Earl Van Best

  • the army intelligence skills Van had learnt from his own father to create undecipherable ciphers
  • his cruelty and criminality
  • that his time and out of jail corresponded with the murders
  • that the name “Earl Van Best Jr” can be found in the ciphers
earl van best cipher

One of the Zodiac cyphers which Gary Stewart says reveals the Zodiac’s real name – Earl Van Best Jr

  • matches in the handwriting of ‘Van’ and the Zodiac letter, corroborated by a hand-writing analyst
  • a scar on his father’s finger that appears to match that of a fingerprint taken off the Zodiac Killer

The book is quite convincing, not least because you’d wonder why anyone would wish to assert that their father is a notorious serial killer, unless they were fairly certain. Of course, there is also the lure of some kind of celebrity and the royalties earned from publishing a best seller.

But the one key piece of  evidence tha would prove Stewart’s claim beyond doubt, namely DNA matching, is missing.

(It is DNA matching which appeared to prove that Jack the Ripper  was a Polish immigrant called Aaron Kominski but this has since been disputed to an alleged error by the scientist)

Stewart writes of the many years he has battled to have the partial  Zodiac Killer DNA (taken off a stamp affixed to one of the taunting letter he sent out) compared with his own DNA to prove his father was the serial killer.

He claims a San Francisco police cover up has prevented this from ever being tested. The reason for the cover-up: his mother Judy’s marriage to ground-breaking homicide detective and later deputy mayor of San Francisco Rotea Gilford (the first black man to achieve both those positions), who worked on the Zodiac case and who died in 1998.

The SFPD, Stewart suggests, has stalled the testing to protect Gilford’s name  were it to emerge that he married the teenage bride of the Zodiac Killer.

As with Jack the Ripper, a veritable community of amateur sleuths and conspiracy theorists exists to weigh up the evidence and suggest theories about who the Zodiac Killer really was.

The most comprehensive website is zodiackiller.com, which recently celebrated its 16th anniversary and claims to get 10 million hits a month. It’s run by Zodiac fanatic Tom Voigt. He gave Stewart’s book just one star in his review on Amazon.com, systematically dismissing any link Stewart has claimed between his father and the Zodiac Killer:

Stewart claims his father looks like the Zodiac – Voigt writes: “Open any high school yearbook from the 1960s and half of the males pictured will resemble the sketch of the Zodiac killer. It’s not “evidence” of guilt. Not impressed.”

Stewart says his father’s name is in the codes – Voigt’s response: “So is mine. So is yours. People have been finding what they were looking for in the codes for 45 years. This is nothing new. It’s not evidence” of guilt. Not impressed.”

(On this point, I have to confess, I have trouble understanding Stewart’s explanation for finding his father’s name in a Zodiac cryptogram.)

There are a dozen people who claim to know the identity of the Zodiac Killer. These include Dennis Kaufman who claimed that his stepfather Jack Tarrance was the Zodiac Killer, but whose claims were later discredited.

The most famous suspect is Arthur Leigh Allen a schoolteacher, named by former San Francisco Chronicle journalist Robert Graysmith in what is considered the best book on the murders, ‘Zodiac’.

Graysmith’s book formed the basis for the exceptionally disturbing and very good 2007 David Fincher movie. Arther Leaigh Allen denied all his life he was the Zodiac killer and his DNA was later found to not be a match for the partial DNA obtained from the stamp. (The DNA itself may be a red herring, as there is no proof the Zodiac Killer licked the stamp affixed to the envelope, something Stewart does admit to in his book.)

But Gary Stewart remains convinced that his father, Van, is the Zodiac as he writes at the end of the book:

 I have handed the SFPD their killer. I’ve given them motive, means, opportunity, a forensic handwriting match, identical scars, and my father’s name embedded throughout the Zodiac cyphers. And I have DNA profile of my father waiting for comparison.

The legion of Zodiac ‘experts’, disagree and why wouldn’t they, after all – what would they do, if the mystery was solved.

Black people with cockney accents and London flatshares: A tribute of sorts to Clive James

clive james bookI’ve started re-reading Clive James‘ second wonderful memoir “Falling Towards England” which recounts ‘our hero’s’ migration from Sydney to London in 1962.

I loved reading all of James’s hilarious, witty and erudite memoirs and it is a real treat to dip back in to the early year’s of one of Australia’s finest literary exports.

It is an endeavour tinged with sadness and nostalgia: sadness because Clive James has a terminal illness and because reading his memoir stirs up so many London memories for me.

I am only 40 or so pages into “Falling Towards England” where we find ‘our hero’ virtually penniless, rejected for numerous writing jobs, ill-prepared for the English winter and frequently surrounded by ill-mannered boorish South Africans, or ‘voortrekkers’ as he calls them who don’t like it when the ‘bleks’ talk back to white policemen on television.

James captures perfectly the harsh Afrikaner accent and the mentality of the neanderthals he was living with at the time:

“That’s what’s rewning Efrika,” said a voice from a winged chintz chair, ‘litting a keffir talk to them like thet.” Another chintz chair agreed. “Thet’s right,” it said. “They mist not be allowed to enswer beck.”

I remember with great clarity on my very first trip to London with my mother, aged 13 in 1987, when there was still an anti-apartheid protest moored permanently outside South Africa house on Trafalgar Square, walking into McDonald’s for the first time (that too a novelty) and hearing the black man in dreads behind the counter ask me what I wanted in a thick cockney English accent. I got the shock of my life.

“The bleks are not supposed to talk like thet,” is probably what raced through my naive South African head at the time.

Beyond that funny re-collection, Clive James’s depiction of flat sharing in the 196os  reminded me of my own early years in London (I was there from 2000 to 2004), when I lived above a kebab shop on Brent Road, Hendon.

The top floor flat above "Flame" kebab shop was my home for three years

The top floor flat above “Flame” kebab shop was my home for three years

Of course, I didn’t have to feed money into a heater to generate some warmth as James did and my finances were not quite as dire as his – my first full time salary was £16,000 a year working as a ‘content developer’ for Accountancy Age on Broadwick Street, Soho.

I do though remember the barrenness of my little room with its pigeon-shit encrusted window that overlooked some miserable discount shops, a ‘caf’ where you could get breakfast for a few pounds and my local Tesco, where I witnessed numerous disputes between the staff and local yobbos, attempting their daily ritual of shoplifting bottle’s of Winkleigh’s White Lightning cider.

My landlord was a kindly, jovial Jewish man called Harold Schogger who ran the local bridge club on the floor below our third-floor flat. Coming home from work, I’d have to make my way past a posse of bride club players filling the air with a dense cloud of tobacco smoke (One later had a heart attack and died on the landing).

My first flatmates were as follows:

  • Andy and Dave, who both hailed from Rochdale, near Manchester in the North of England. Andy, a chubby, bearded fellow, fond of eating but not washing up and Dave, a quieter, intellectual type with the eyes of kindly badger, whose chief pre-occupation was smoking marijuana on a fairly continuous basis
  • Sagey, a lanky, pony-tailed Israeli, who spent large parts of the day and night in his lair (the biggest room in the flat) smoking dope, and shagging women (the moans reverberated through the passage walls). Sagey would sometimes invite me into his darkened den for a smoke and to watch a movie.  I would sit on a large poof in the cozy lounge area he had created next to his bed, getting deeply stoned, watching something or other on Sagey’s television.
Brent Street Hendon, where I Lived above the kebab shop

Brent Street Hendon,

My evening activities home from work via the Northern Line began with concocting some kind of meal in our narrow little kitchen usually piled up to the ceiling with dirty plates, or grabbing a kebab from the Afghanistani  who ran the shop below our flat. Then I would sit with Andy or Dave watching something or other on television (the Frank Skinner show was a favourite) as they passed joint after joint around the pungent room.

I must confess here to mild theft – having asked Dave, for a bit of weed one evening, I discovered that he kept it in a drawer by his bed. Later, when my own stash ran low, I’d help myself to some of his when he’d left work for the day – never too much to arouse suspicion, but enough to get me “nicely toasted”. For this act of treachery, I do apologise to Dave, where-ever he may be these days (probably stoned somewhere).

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

Thus I spent much of my first two years in London in a weed-induced trance, often finding myself up past midnight flicking through the endless channels of Sky TV. Or else, taking the bus up Finchley Road to visit my friends in a share house in Golders Green.

Over three years, a whole stream of eclectic and eccentric characters came and went from the three bedroom flat above the kebab shop. There was:

  • Debbie,  curly-haired aspiring singer from Cape Town, who aroused the passions of the local drunks in the nearby pub, when she sang show tunes for them (and who rejected my advances on the living room couch)
  • Jacqui,  a lovely ‘older’ woman (she was in her 40s to my late-2os) with a high-pitched voice, red-cheeked face, who took up the violin with little skill but great passion
  • Joe, a googly-eyed school assistant, drug fiend and cyclist, fond of opium-dealing in our living room, whilst quietly building a North London property portfolio
  • A good-looking Spanish guy (his name has disappeared from memory) who received phone calls on our landline from Europe at all hours of the night and whom I distinctly remember hating.
  • Two Israeli girls, one fond of loud bonking (though not with me), the other…sleeping (she worked the 11pm to 7am shift at John Lewis)
  • and many others whom have disappeared in the marijuana haze.

I remember those flat-sharing days in much the same way as  Clive James recalls his formative months in London with poignancy, hilarity, shocking embarrasment and a great deal of nostalgia.

There was also plenty of rejection and a fair degree of loneliness too among those years.

I recall being turned down for half a dozen other flat-shares,  inviting places with big open plan lounges, people that dressed well and leafy gardens.

I remember those experiences like Clive James wrote them, where each incumbent resident “wants to interview you personally before okaying you for the shortlist, after which the final selection is by written examination”.

In the end, I think I got the room in the shabby flat above the kebab shop because no one else wanted it, but at the time it was a cause for major celebration: London, I had arrived!

The flat is no longer there, given way to some apartment development, but the bridge club has remained.

And the kebab shop, where I paid frequent late night visits drunk or stoned, is still there, serving its greasy fare.

Jewish humour and shame: why I loved “The Making of Henry” by Howard Jacobson

henrynewIt’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed reading Howard Jacobson’s 2004 novel “The Making of Henry”.

Not a lot happens throughout its 340 odd pages. The reader is largely stuck inside the head of retired English lecturer Henry Nagel, 59, Jewish, morbid, mildly misanthropic and with little libido (His chief love was his aunt, Marghanita, who introduced him to books).

After an utterly unremarkable career as an English literature lecturer at an undististinguised academic institution in the Pennines (where his chief accomplishment was to have slept with most of the wives of his friends and colleagues – and to have published virtually nothing), he finds himself living alone in a grand old St John’s Wood apartment, given to him for life by a mystery benefactor, whom he assumes was his father, Izzy’s, mistress.

This is just one of his many ruminations.

It might have all been so very different for Henry if his estranged best friend and rival Osmond “Hovis” (because his head was shaped like a loaf of bread) Belkin hadn’t called him a “girl” on their first day of grammar school or if his father hadn’t chosen a career as a fire-breathing children’s entertainer or if Henry had had plan for his life or a desire for one in the first place:

“I’ve cocked up my life.” Henry told himself, early on the first day of his first term as an assistant lecturer at the Pennine Way College of Rural Technology. That was not simply a description of what had happened, it was also a statement of intent…”I’ve cocked up my life”, as Henry inflected it, also contained the meanings “I will have cocked up my life” and “There was never a time when I wasn’t going to have cocked up my life.”

Not exactly an inspiring figure, but in my eyes the true Jewish male intellectual anti-hero.

Without any real ambition, without any noteworthy achievements, great wealth, wives or children (the standards by which many Jewish men are judged) Henry obsesses over his own mortality, finds his life to have been mostly pointless, but who drudges along anyway, holding out a flicker of hope that some meaning or purpose may yet come, even at this late stage.

He encapsulates what Alvy Singer, the neurotic main character in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall means when he says, telling an old joke, that: “Life is full of heartache and misery – and over far too quickly.”

Now 40 and wondering how I got here so fast or where the years went,  I could relate to this passage (though not quite so morbidly):

Does Henry feel, then, that his has been a disappointing life? No. Henry feels his has not been a life….There was his childhood – say from zero to twenty-one; all right, say from zero to thirty – then whoosh! (he teaches, he is borrowed by his friends’ wives, he resigns, he moves to St John’s Wood, he meets a dog) and suddenly it’s now.

Where has the time gone? What have I achieved? Is it too late? Should I be ashamed? What would my parents think of me now?

Howard Jacobson has been celebrated for being the unofficial laureate of the Jewish male persona and in ‘The Making of Henry” he has  unearthed many of its characteristics.

Also, ‘The Making of Henry” made me laugh out loud, particularly at Henry’s interaction with the outside world, of which his experiences are mainly bad, shameful or unsatisfying.

In one scene, Henry, reluctantly agrees to walk a friend’s dog, who then pisses against the tyre of a BMW:

“Hey!” someone calls.
Neither Henry or Angus (the dog) take any notice.
“Hey! I said hey!”
Henry looks up. They are outside Bar One or something similar. A man in shiny metallic suit…is standing in the doorway, pointing rhythmically. He is on his mobile phone, and expects Henry to put up with his half attention.
“Your tyre?” Henry wonders.
“My wife’s tyre”
“Well I’m sure she drives through worse.” He does not intend to apologise. Not on Angus’s behalf. For Angus, Henry will now lie on a bed of broken glass.
The man goes on shaking his finger. “You should know you’re not  to let dogs foul the footpath.
“That’s not the footpath. He wants the gutter, but your wife’s car is in the way. And on double yellow lines.”
“In the way! You shouldn’t be walking him here at all.”
“I take my dog,” Henry says, “For walks where he wants to walk.”
“And my wife parks where she wants to park.”
“Then your wife and my dog have much in common.”

Henry may be morbid and depressing, but he is also witty,darkly comic, free of the burden of being polite, considerate and nice.

Salvation, and a re-awakening of  Henry’s  loins comes when he meets  and falls in love with flat-shoe wearing, yet flirtatious, Moira, the Eastern European scented waitress who serves him his coffee and cake at the Viennese pâtisserie he frequents on the St John’s Wood high street.

It is Moira who brings Henry back to the world of the living and literally snaps him out of the moments when he disappears into his own head and thoughts about his dead parents, or lost friendship with Hovis Belkin.

So, really, The Making of Henry is a love story.

Serial killers: a reading list for the obssessed (or uninitiated)

jack the ripperIn 1997, I went on the famous Jack the Ripper walk through the East End of London, visiting all the spots where he had committed his grizzly Victorian-era murders. The tour ended at the Ten Bells pub in Whitechapel, where two of  ‘Jack’s’ victims – prostitutes Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly – were said to have regularly frequented.

Our guide on the night was Donald Rumbelow, one of dozens of writers who had theorised about who Jack the Ripper might have been. I remember I bought a copy of his book after the tour and devoured it in a hurry.

At the time and throughout my twenties, I had perhaps an unhealthy interest in these evil monsters, reading book after a book, utterly fascinated and repelled in equal measure.

I had and still do have a fascination with the darker side of human nature, particularly when the crimes are committed by seemingly ‘ordinary people’.  But doesn’t everyone?

Recently, it was revealed that testing of DNA on a shawl that belonged to one of the Ripper’s victims – Catherine Eddowes – was a 100 per cent match for the sister of a Polish-born hairdresser called Aaron Kosminski, a suspect in almost any reputable book about the crimes. This, it seems has dealt a body blow to 120 plus years of speculation and intrigue and an industry of ‘Ripperologists‘ comprising amateur sleuths and published writers.

zodiacThis re-ignited my interest in the subject of serial killers, which had already been stirred by a book I came across in Big W of all places.

I was intrigued by the cover and its title: “The Most Dangerous Animal of All – Searching for my father…and finding the Zodiac Killer.” by Gary L. Stewart.

I have not read it yet – I am still making my way through, of all things a comic novel by Howard Jacobson called “The Making of Henry  – but it’s next on my reading list.

On the back cover it says tantalizingly:

An explosive, revelatory memoir of a man who discovers that his father is one of the most infamous and still-wanted serial killers in America.

Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer – who murdered seven or more people in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was never caught. In another similarity, the Zodiac Killer also sent cryptic notes to the police, one in which he stated that man “is the most dangerous animal of all”.

There were numerous books written about the Zodiac killer and a very good 2007 film called “Zodiac” directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal,  Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo.

If this Zodiac book is as convincing as the back cover claims, than that would be two famous serial killer mysteries solved. Never mind, countless others remain as does the question: who or what makes these monsters?

Here’s my list of six of the best books I’ve read about serial killers:

1. Written in Blood by Colin Wilson
This is actually a book about forensic science, but within its dense pages are countless tales of serial killers including Bela Kiss, Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Albert Fish to name just three plus insights into their psychological make-up and motives. Wilson, a prolific writer on crime, the occult, philosophy and countless other topics sadly passed away last year.  “Will enthrall connoisseurs of violent crime”- is on the cover of my well-thumbed paperback edition.

2. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
The most chilling and fascinating book every written about a serial killer. Ann Rule was a friend of  the charming, well educated and good looking Ted Bundy, only later to discover to her huge shock and revulsion that he was a vicious serial killer.

3.  Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy
The story about one of the most infamous murderers in British history, John Christie, and the wrongful arrest and execution of his neighbour Timothy Evans. Made into a brilliant, hugely disturbing film starring the late Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 1971.

A poster for the movie "Ten Rillington Place" starring Richard Attenborough

A poster for the movie “Ten Rillington Place” starring Richard Attenborough

4. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Noted crime writer Brian Masters tell the story of Londoner Dennis Nilsen, who brutally murdered 15 men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, kept them as companions and then later buried them under his floor or dismembered them and flushed them down the plumbing. What haunted me was that he had lived close to a cousin of mine in Muswell Hill, North London.

5. Lust Killer by Ann Rule
The story of Jerry Brudos, a married man with children in Portland, Oregon, who kidnapped, murdered and violated women in the workshop of his family home in 1968 and 1969. His wife had no clue.

death in belmont6. A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
Written by the author of “The Perfect Storm” it tells the story of Albert DeSalvo who by an incredible coincidence worked on a construction job in Junger’s family home in the early 1960s and who later confessed to being the “The Boston Strangler”. Junger theorises that DeSalvo was also the murderer of an elderly woman in the neighbourhood, not a black man called Roy Smith, who was jailed for life for the crime. Deeply disturbing, the book has on its front cover a photo of DeSalvo posing in a family photo with the author as an infant.

Greed is not good: Our dangerous love affair with American-style capitalism

capitalism_a_love_story_xlgIn one of the early scenes of Michael Moore’s scathing 2009 documentary on free market corporate greed “Capitalism: A Love Story”, the filmmaker interviews a farmer and his wife, who are having their property repossessed.

It’s recurring image in the film, the sheriff knocks on the door, working class people are thrown out onto the street with their furniture, and the house is boarded up, later to be sold for a quarter of the price.

The farmer, his life packed into the back of a van, says he tried everything “except robbing a bank” to save his farm.

“I’m thinking about doing that. It’s one way someone can get their money back. They did it to me. I don’t know why I can’t do it to them,” he says.

As the camera pans back over the abandoned farm buildings, Moore narrates:

“This is the capitalism of taking and giving…mostly taking.”

Later, Moore questions how capitalism allows commercial airlines to pay pilots less than $20,000 a year forcing them take second jobs or apply for food stamps.

To which he answers: “I guess that’s the point of capitalism, it let’s you get away with anything.”

Australian-style capitalism

That’s the exact sentiment I felt when reading about the multi-million dollar handouts to executives at the scandal-ridden Commonwealth Bank financial planning division. People like retiring CBA banking executive Grahame Petersen (total pay $5.6 million), who oversaw the division responsible for the systematic destruction of customer retirement savings through investment in risky products recommended by the bank’s licensed financial planners in return for millions of dollars in commissions.

I thought that the retirees who had lost everything to this free market system that rewarded greed and deception could be forgiven from thinking about doing something similar to the American farmer: walking into a Commonwealth Bank branch and “asking for their money back”.

This is something Michael Moore does in the documentary in his typical sardonic style, walking up to the head office of Goldman Sachs in New York to perform a citizen’s arrest of chairman Lloyd Blankfein (2013 annual salary: US$23 million), after accusing the bank of “stealing’ US$170 billion of American taxpayer’s money to save it from collapse. Later he wraps police crime scene tape around the whole building.

henry paulsonAs Moore explains in the film, the bail out of the banks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers that sparked the Global Financial Crisis, was orchestrated by former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson (one of 25 people Time magazine blames for the crisis happening in the first place).

The then US Treasury Secretary cut a backroom deal that gave the banks $700 billion of US taxpayers money to keep them afloat. Paulson was apparently unaware of the irony that he had broken the basic law of capitalism – that you don’t ask the government for help, you either sink or swim on your own.

It seems this form of failed American style free-market capitalism – so brilliantly depicted in Moore’s film – is what the current Australian government wishes to mimic with its plans to increase the cost of car fuel, doctor’s visits and university education while Australia’s poorest paid workers earns a minimum wage that is the lowest in history relative to average full-time pay (currently $640.90 a week, or $16.87 an hour).

The 3% pay rise they got this year was more than double what the The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the powerful lobbying body, which represents big business, wanted. It suggested a 1.25% pay rise, less than half the projected cost-of-living increase of 2.7%.

Perhaps Treasurer Joe Hockey – a man who proves himself time and time again to be completely out of touch with most Australians – and his investment banking advisors should watch Moore’s documentary to see the longer term outcome of such policies in the US before and after the GFC: hundreds of thousands of job lay-offs, the poorest people unable to afford basic health care, the boarding up of whole suburbs and ruination of cities like Detroit and Cleveland.

Of course, there is also a message of hope at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story as Moore documents the fight back by ordinary Americans against the systemic free market failure (this appears to be happening in Australia too, at least in political opinion polls)

He tells the story of the employees of Chicago Republic Window and Door factory, who, having been told they will lose their jobs in three days time without being paid their wages lock themselves inside refusing to leave until they get what is theirs. The local community rallies around them providing food and encouragement. Then there’s the story of the Warren Evans, Sheriff of Wayne County, Detroit who decides to stop all home foreclosures, when he realises the hypocrisy of what is happening to working class homeowners after the US$700 billion hand-out to the banks.

More widely, Moore reports of how Barack Obama’s form of democratic socialism has been embraced by young American voters (33%), with only 37% favouring capitalism and the rest undecided.

As explained by Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders, democratic socialism means “the function of government is to represent middle-income working people rather than just the wealthy or the powerful”.

He goes on to say that America “worships greed”

“We put on the front cover of magazines guys who have made  billions of dollars, rather than the cops, fireman, policeman and nurses, who are doing so much in the lives of people. We have to change our value system.”

Sound familiar?

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You can watch the whole documenatry ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ for free on YouTube.