Reading newspapers, video store browsing, cinema without distraction, film processing anticipation and other pleasures killed off by the digital revolution

I still get immense pleasure from reading the newspaper, accompanied by a cup of coffee.

It's not the same reading an iPad on the toilet

It’s not the same reading an iPad on the toilet

It’s not that I don’t get most of my news from other sources (I am a Twitter addict, and the most used apps on my iPad are those for ABC News, The Guardian Australia, The Age, the BBC, CNN and of course the AFR), it’s just there is a certain pleasure that I get from reading the newspaper that cannot be replicated digitally, even with e-ink.

In a digital world of endless distractions and diversions – a newspaper is a finite sum of its parts and that’s something to cherish.

And so it seems to me utterly unfathomable – even though the boffins say its inevitable – that there may one day be a world without this compendium of daily stories, facts and figures, photographs, commentary, weather reports,  obituaries and trivialities.

For me it’s still one of life’s great pleasures – reading the paper, but it seems a dying one too, or on life-support at best.

And it got me thinking about other things I took for granted while growing up that have all but disappeared thanks to the digital revolution.

Like…

14196995087_160e0fed5b_zThe uninterrupted movie

– the ability to sit through a 90 minute movie in a darkened room, transfixed by the screen, without any distraction, appears lost for ever. It seems every time I go to the movies, I must also sit through a second viewing via a giant screen lighting up in front of me the size of a human head as someone in the audience gets bored and scrolls through their Facebook account on their smartphone. Cinema etiquette – that you sit quietly and focus on the film you are watching (and forked out a small fortune to watch) – has long disappeared. I don’t even bother complaining anymore, sometimes I check my own phone.

Remember these?

Remember these?

Developing your camera film

Remember those bygone, halcyon days when you put film in your camera, took 24 or 36 what you thought were well-considered shots and then handed the film into a man behind a desk in a little shop. The next day you would return with knots in your stomach in anticipation of your artistic genius as you received an envelope of glossy pics (Remember the little sleeve for the developed negatives?). Now I can’t remember the last time I bought a roll of film. Do they even sell film anymore? Didn’t Kodak go bankrupt? Now its all instant gratification, you can take thousands of shots and see the results immediately. You don’t even need a camera, just a good quality smartphone. And does anyone print out their photos anymore? Or create albums of their holiday? It’s all just digital folders marked “Holiday, August 2012” on your computer.

16571720284_4de9e13b6e_z-1The writing and receiving of letters

I used to love getting hand-written letters, but I can’t remember the last one I received, or, the last one I wrote one myself, affixed a stamp and dropped in the letter box. Emails, texts, Viber messages, are instantaneous  – and brilliant in many ways – but what happened to the anticipation of receiving a hand written letter from a far off country covered in stamps and post office markings?

4165217347_ec1dabe345_zChoosing a movie in a video store

I have previously blogged about the demise of the suburban video or DVD store – we have none left in our suburb – killed off by video streaming services, video kiosks and – dare I say it – online piracy. Once a part of the Saturday night ritual for many lonely hearts, kid-weary families and movie geeks, prowling the aisles, the local video store is disappearing fast.

751707089_c25111d1c8_zPsychiatrists & psychologists

Ah, lying on the couch and talking about your problems. I have no hard evidence for this but surely demand for the services of shrinks is plummeting when you have Facebook. This seems to have become the place where everyone pours out their problems. And while I groan at every “oh woe is me” post, I can see the appeal: There’s instant feedback ( you can count the ‘likes’) and advice from your pop psychology Facebook friends via the inane comments they write.

There’s plenty more things killed of by the internet, or dying slowly – here’s a list of 40 compiled by the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

I wonder how many of these things my five-week old son, Aubin, will know of when he is older?

Will there still be newspapers around when he is old enough to read them? Will he laugh in disbelief when I tell him of the time I forgot to put ‘film’ in my camera on my first visit to London? (Yes that did happen).

Perhaps like the skateboard and vinyl records, some will make a comeback…

hoverboard_shoes

Perhaps a hover board instead of a skate board?

The Junkie in literature: A review of ‘The Lotus Crew’ by Stewart Meyer

lotus crew cover

Cover of the original novel The Lotus Crew

Of all the junkie authors I have read and reviewed on this blog – Burroughs, Welsh, De Quincey, Garner etc – for my mini-project “The Junkie in Literature” Stewart Meyer would undoubtedly be the least well-known.

Meyer, a protegé, friend and chauffeur of William S. Burroughs and a regular at Burrough’s Bowery apartment writer hangout known as ‘The Bunker’  published The Lotus Crew in 1984.

Lauded to a degree at the time of its publication – no doubt helped by Meyer’s association with Burroughs and his Beat Generation entourage – The Lotus Crew has been largely forgotten by the literary establishment, but has been given a fresh audience with its recent re-publication in e-book format by Open Road Media.

The Lotus Crew is a gritty, moment-in-time novel about the hectic drug scene in Alphabet City on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early years of the Reagan era.

Meyer throws you into the junkie cesspool – at street level – amidst the “blanco” junkies full of sickness and the Hispanic drug lords and their “crew” who peddle dope bags from abandoned tenement flats and underground parking lots and where the threat of a police bust is ever-present.

A misleading calm prevailed as they descended on Alphabet City. The biggest smack emporium on the East Coast stretched before them as they drove through narrow bombed-out streets. Blacks, Latins, blancos, shadows in somber colors; lips tight and drawn down, eyes dead but active with the scuffle. Waiting, watching, copping, splitting.

You only have to look at photos taken of Alphabet City and other parts of the Lower East side around the time the novel is set – 1982 – to see the appalling, run-down state of the streets and the desperate characters that walked them looking for a soothing fix to cure junk sickness.

A photo of the Lower East Side of NY in 1980s

A photo of the Lower East Side of NY in the 1980s

There’s a lyrical street poetry to Stewart Meyer’s prose reinforced by him assembling a collection of half a dozen quintessential “junkie” characters who tell the story of what it was like back then to be immersed in that type of desperate society of the powerful, cruel, sick and tortured.

There’s thoughtful, introspective and loyal Alvira, who tried to get clean in LA but who returns to New York having relapsed and who “felt like the proverbial incongruity when not opiated”.

There’s Tommy (or T) who dreams of becoming the emperor of Alphabet City selling the best heroin in town. We meet 16-year-old heroin scholar and drug pusher John Jacob (JJ), eager for a slice of the action and his weak-minded, doomed sidekick Furman.

And there’s the ‘blancos’, the white guys with big heroin habits who are easy pickings for knife-wielding gangs, like Jewish taxi driver Eric Shomberg who cannot “resist the sweet ambiguity of opium, the way it softened the real world without negating it altogether like booze did” or Bronx bartender Dave Skully “a few hours away from severe withdrawal”.

Like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (read my review here) which is written in the Glaswegian Scottish dialect, much of the dialogue in The Lotus Crew is written in the broken down, sing-song Hispanic English and street slang of the time.

This street authenticity combined with Meyer’s snappy writing style and short, punchy, action-filled chapters that describe episodes in the lives of junkie players gives it a vivid, documentary quality and a engrossing depiction of the heroin game.

And while perhaps not as powerful a text about heroin addiction  as his great mentor’s “Junkie” (perhaps because Meyer was an observer, not – it seems – a user) he knows his subject well and has the narrative skills and poetry to give it life:

Desperation was part of the game, and no matter how long you did bizz with someone, if you caught them at the wrong time you’d be chumped and scumbagged for every cent you had. Just a rule of the road, a piece of the code.

Stewart Meyer cooking a meal for Burroughs (from his Facebook page)

Stewart Meyer cooking a meal for Burroughs (from his Facebook page)

“In Youth is Pleasure”: exploring the forgotten literary talents of Denton Welch

cover61513-mediumWere it not for his untimely death in 1948, aged just 33, Denton Welch might have become a household name in modern literature, perhaps spoken of in the same breath as George Orwell, Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski.

Until very recently, I had never heard of him (Thank you to Open Road Media for sending me a review copy of ‘In Youth is Pleasure’ and getting me acquainted).

That he was admired by the likes of Beat writer William S. Burroughs, celebrated English playwright Alan Bennett and literary giant E.M. Forster says something quite significant I think about his concise career. Denton Welch was struck by a car while out cycling in Surrey when he was 20. He suffered permanent damage to his spine, an injury that would eventually lead to his early death. Despite his chronic ill-health, he continued to explore, observe and write, acquiring a distinctive literary voice set within the English countryside and acquiring many admirers of his vivid prose and precise descriptons.

He produced numerous novels including In Youth is Pleasure plus many short stories and was a prodigious diarist. As a classically trained painter at Goldsmiths College, London he had mixed success, but did produce a striking, colourful self-potrait showing a gaunt, thoughtful young man in glasses and a purple collared shirt that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

In Youth is Pleasure’ is a deeply autobiographical novel with Welch transformed into Orvil Pim, a 15-year-old public school boy, who spends his summer holiday with his father and two older brothers in a grand old hotel in the English countryside.

It should be an idyllic time, indeed the novel begin in almost fairy tale fashion:

One summer, several years before the war began, a young boy of fifteen was staying with his father and two elder brothers at a hotel near the Thames in Surrey…

But, adolescence is never that much fun especially for a sensitive soul like Orvil Pym whose only wish is to be left alone so he can explore the hotel gardens, or take walks along the river, set sail on a canoe, ride a bicycle to an old church or search for curios in an antique shop.

Welch beautifully creates a portrait of the adolescent mind with all its longings, desires, pangs of guilt and rich imaginative powers.

Orvil’s dealings with strangers from the adult world beautifully describe adolescent confusion, most notably in Orvil’s unsettling encounters with an eccentric holidaying schoolmaster, with whom he forms both a fatherly attachment and something of a homo-erotic crush.

Welch’s compact writing style reminded me of George Orwell and his dictum not to use too many words when few will do. The text is sparse, pared back, the descriptions of Orvil’s adventures and mis-adventures precise, creating vivid pictures of the English countryside in summer and the inner world of Orvil’s imagination.

Upon entering an empty church on one of his ramblings, Orvil is filled with a “tingling expectancy”. Later on, discovering a gothic brass tombstone inside, he suddenly “without knowing why” lies down at full length on the cold slab and put his lips to the brass lady’s face, kissing her “juicily.”

The novel bristles with undertones of sexual expectation, desire, uncertainty and excitement: Orvil is voyeuristic, he takes off his clothes when alone and unobserved, he consumes different medications at once, he steals great gulps of communion wine in an empty church and smears his lips and cheeks red with stolen lipstick.

Mostly, like every rebellious adolescent, he longs to be left alone and not forced to return to boarding school, with its “iron beds like black enamelled skeletons”

He saw himself refusing to go back to school and disappearing completely. He was alone in a small London room with a gas-ring. He was working on something at a desk. It might have been a book, or a painting, or even a wool mat. It didn’t matter; it was real work, all alone, full of joy.

Self-potrait of Denton Welch hung in London's National Gallery

Self-potrait of Denton Welch hung in London’s National Gallery

The last third of the book is given over to a delightful detail-rich account of Welch’s walking tour as an 18-year-old through southern England called I Left My Grandfather’s house.

He recounts his lonely walks along country roads and through fields, his meetings with fellow travellers and eccentric hostel dwellers (not much has changed in that regard) and descriptions of ancient, ruins, old churches, architecture, art, food and the English countryside.

Here, again, Welch displays his talent for painting vivid scenes and for creating that longing in the reader to join him in his lonely wanderings.

In an article published in The Guardian in 2005 following the publication of a biography of Welch, Alan Bennett writes of his admiration for Welch’s vivid writing style, sensitivity and his ability to speak directly to him as a young man who read his journals in the early 1950s. 

“Utterly unlike any person I had come across, he seemed a sympathetic voice and – a characteristic of books read when young – seemed to be speaking particularly to me,” Bennett wrote.

William S. Burroughs pays Welch the highest compliment, saying that he was the writer that “most directly influenced” his own work – a statement that should encourage others to explore this forgotten writer.

With the publication of Welch’s novels in e-book format, a new generation may yet discover his talents.

Literary adventures in the female perspective: four books worth reading

FullSizeRenderFor anyone interested in exploring the female point of view, I can recommend four excellent books I read recently.

They’re all written by women. Two are novels by post-apartheid South African writers being Marita Van Der Vyer’s  ‘Entertaining Angels’ and Pamela Jooste’s  ‘Frieda and Min’. The third is ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by English writer Jeanette Winterson  and the fourth is a collection of three autobiographies by the late New Zealand novelist and poet Janet Frame called ‘An Angel at My Table’.

All are prize-winning writers, all broke new ground and while each tell very different stories set in different places and times, there is a common thread running through each: they tell stories about women that go on painful journeys of self-discovery and emerge stronger, more complete and with a defining sense of who they are.

While all four novelists would, I am sure, happily where the tag of “feminist” they are really “humanist” writers, telling stories about the female human condition.

For me, it was an un-expected journey into the female psyche that began by accident when I picked up the two South African novels in a tiny little second-hand bookshop in Norwood, Johannesburg, run by two elderly African ladies, while on holiday last year. Later, back in Melbourne, I found the two other books on a shelf of ex-library books for sale outside our local library.

entertaining angelsEntertaining Angels (translated from Afrikaans) was the first book I read. Set in 1989, just before the collapse of apartheid, it tells the story of Griet whose life is in a downward spiral: her husband has thrown her out, she lost her baby and her attempt to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven – a la one of her literary heroes, Sylvia Plath – failed (rather comically) because a dead cockroach inside put her off. Griet starts to see a therapist and begins writing fairy tales as a path to healing.

It was a ground breaking South African novel when first published in 1992 in the early days of the ‘new South Africa’. Van Der Vyver broke free from her conservative Afrikaans culture with the story of a young, well-read, enlightened Afrikaans woman writing about grief, sex, Mandela and ‘The Struggle’ and literary heroes like Germain Greer, Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin.

Van Der Vyver’s writing has a magic realism to it as it flits between Griet’s contemplation of her real life journey – alone and barren living in an unfurnished flat with cockroaches – and her fairy tales adventures and travels back in time to Grandma Hannie and Grandpa Petrus’s old farm-house in the stillness of the Karoo.

Written from the perspective of an intense, questioning, deeply thoughtful young Afrikaans woman trying to heal herself in the days before the end of Apartheid, Entertaining Angels is deeply nostalgic, quirky, tender and wryly funny.

But everyone knows it’ easier for a man to live out of a suitcase. What do you do if you begin menstruating in the middle of the night and you discover you didn’t pack your Lil-lets? Or if you forgot your imported night cream….

frieda and minFrieda and Min is a ‘coming of age’ novel spanning three decades of friendship between Frieda Woolf, a Jewish girl growing up in a traditional, poor family in a South African mining town near Johannesburg and Min, a fiercely principled young girl of the same age who dreams of becoming a rural doctor to black South Africans, defying the orders of the Apartheid regime and its puppets. Being Jewish and having grown up in the same mining town as the novel is partially set (Germiston is Frieda’s home town) gave it a deeply personal resonance, but for anyone else, it’s a classic story of two friends from different backgrounds and beliefs and how their lives unfold and diverge, and eventually come back together amidst personal and political upheaval. Despite having many stereotypical characters – the idealistic white girl taking on the evils of apartheid, the Jewish girl looking for a husband and marrying the wrong (rich) man – and plotlines, the writing is superb and fresh. Each girl tells their story in their own words and in the first person as they lose their innocence and come of age. In parts it reminded me of Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs‘ but with the Jewish family in South Africa and the apartheid themes of Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the ‘Beloved Country’ with a dash of JM Coetzee‘s stoic fatalism.

Frieda: My mother loves shul. She’s there twice a week. You have to take either a train or two buses to get there and everything costs money, but you couldn’t keep her away if you tried. Where we live in Germiston she may be the Jewish woman, but when she gets to Waverley, she is the Queen of the Waverley shul.

orangesOranges are Not the Only Fruit, is written from the perspective of Jeanette, a young gay girl growing up under the thumb of her religious, adoptive mother in an ultra-conservative English Pentacostal Community in a Northern industrial town. Jeanette has been indoctrinated into her evangelical beliefs, but as she grows older, she questions them. Then one day she falls in love with and has an affair with Melanie. There follows an attempt at exorcism, she returns to the fold, but later after another affair with a woman she runs away, discovering her independence and identity. Drifting into allegorical fairy tales, it has a dark humour (chiefly Jeanette’s at times terrifying mother) and provides a ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess (exorcism and fiery sermons) and obsession.

I knew that demons entered wherever there was a weak point. If I had a demon my weak point was Melanie but she was beautiful and good and had loved me.

an-angel-at-my-tableAn Angel at My Table is the title of three autobiographies that trace the life of New Zealand’s most famous literary hero, Janet Frame, from her birth in Dunedin to her impoverished childhood in the coastal town of Oamaru and later her great journey to live in London and the island of Ibiza, returning seven years later as a famous novelist. The first volume deals primarily with her family – her sacrificial mother, her early attempts at poetry, the musing of a bright, highly sensitive, creative mind and the death of her sister Myrtle, who had dreamed of a life in showbiz. The most famous part of her life – Frame’s lengthy stay in a mental institute where she was wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic and narrowly avoided a lobotomy. Part three follows her journey to the North island of New Zealand, where she meets the short story writer Frank Sargeson, who invites the intensely shy Frame to live at his guest house and encourages her talent and is the impetus for her seven-year overseas odyssey.  Perhaps no one has written as intimately about the inner workings of a fragile, doubting, creative mind as Janet Frame. Reading all three intricate autobiographies is an extraordinary adventure that requires a devoted reader, but the pay-off – sharing the monumental journey with Janet Frame – is well worth it.

(Back in London from Europe)…my own past continued to loom. How could I regain my confidence when I had never been able to tell ‘my side of the story. I knew it was time for me to find out ‘the truth [about my schizophrenia]’…In the meantime I found a job, a literary agent, and I bought an encyclopaedia of sex.

Writing well really does pay according to a new survey

slide_272894_1944735_freeAs a journalist, there’s nothing more annoying than finding spelling mistakes or grammatical errors in your own work.

I confess that I always read my own stories first in the Australian Financial Review – the newspaper I write for – and feel gutted if there is a glaring error – spelling, punctation or grammar. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen too often.

Writers hold their own written work in high esteem, as they should, as it represents their personal brand.

Errors make you look stupid and can be downright embarrassing – or very funny if it’s not your own work.

A while back, a bestseller called “Eats, shoots and leaves” by British radio journalist Lynne Truss attempted to, very humouresly, highlight common punctuation mistakes and how they often change the meaning of a sentence. Her aim was to lift writing standards which have arguably gotten worse since publication of the book given the popularity of Twitter, Facebook and text messaging.(Embarrassingly, Truss made mistakes of her own, in her book).

You may scoff as you type out a garbled text message on your phone or dash off an unreadable tweet, but new research has found that there is a high correlation between how accurately you write and how well you do your job – and very importantly – the level of pay you earn.

Regardless of whether you are a salesman, lawyer, engineer or accountant – those who make fewer mistakes in their emails, reports and presentations are better regarded by those that employ them, and, they earn more money.

This came out of a study of  448 profiles on freelance jobs website Elance by Grammarly, a start-up proofreading web application that finds and explains in-depth grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes online.

Grammarly found that an engineer who made 10 or fewer errors per 100 words written in their online profile earned on average $521 per project while an engineer who made 30 or more errors earned less than half that.

Similarly, lawyers who made less than 10 errors per 100 words earned $372 per job, while those that made three times as many errors earned only $198.

Overall, it found that freelancers who made the fewest mistakes received the highest reviews from their employers – those who made the most mistakes were rated much lower.

In short, accurate writing increases credibility, hireability and pay.

writing_skills_matter(1)-001

Grammarley survey: writing well pays better

Journalists and others that write for a living will be pleased to know that – according to the study – writers make the fewest mistakes, followed closely by those in admin and  legal roles.

While it was perhaps not surprising to find that IT professionals make more mistakes on average than any other professional – almost one in every five words – it was alarming to learn that those in leadership positions (in finance and management roles) are almost as bad.

Perhaps it explains why big companies all hire expensive public relations executives – to find and correct all those top management mistakes, before they become public relations disasters.

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Freshlyworded.com is also giving away one free premium access account to Grammarly. Just send your name and email to freshlyworded@gmail.com – The first email received will win the premium pass.

In memorium: the suburban video store

The joy of browsing for a movie...fading fast

The joy of browsing for a movie…fading fast

We watched a lot of DVDs on our recent family holiday on Phillip Island, courtesy of the local video store. We found Phillip Island Video Hire by chance, on the second evening of our holiday, while taking a stroll after dinner. Behind the counter, the spectacled, purple-haired proprietress, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt saved us from a twentieth viewing of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (in video format!) and the ultimate horror, enduring Jar-Jar Binks again and ‘The Phantom Menace’. Our holiday home was a cozy little cottage with a wood-burning fireplace, a TV the size of a postage stamp, one of those technological relics – a combination video and DVD player – and a small pile of reject videos and dust-covered DVDs. Thank god for the local video store! In the evenings, once our little girl was sound asleep, we’d brew tea, bring out the Tim Tams and stretch out in the darkened lounge, illuminated by the flickering orange fire, and watch a movie. (Our selections included the excellent ‘Kill the Messenger‘, the very watchable ‘November Man‘ and Australian-made crime drama, Son of a Gun) While it’s perhaps not that surprising to find a video store still in operation in a coastal holiday town like  Phillip Island (alongside second-hand bookstores and surf shops) in the suburbs of Melbourne and around the world, video stores are dying out in their droves, losing customers to a plethora of cheap video streaming services (Stan, Presto, Netflix, iTunes to name a few) that deliver movies instantly to your home TV, illegal downloading and DVD piracy. Rising rents have also hurt. In the past six months, two local stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy  – have closed in Niddrie, leaving our northern suburb without a video store. (For more stories on video store closures read here, here and here). In place of our local Blockbuster, there is now a giant Pet Warehouse (with DIY dog wash) while a little further down the main road, Video Ezy has been consumed by the neighbouring medical centre. Like the demise of newspapers, the internet or ‘technological progress’ has killed the suburban video store – what was once a fixture of every retail strip, high street and shopping complex alongside Chinese takeaways, bottle shops and pizza joints. More than that, it’s killed a tradition that I, as a child growing up in South Africa in the late seventies, eighties and nineties, remember fondly. In those day, a trip to the local corner video store in Germiston – a mining town about 20 minutes from Johannesburg –  was something to get excited about. It was a family outing!

betamax

We had a Betamax player, similar to this

Our store, Cachet Video, rented out not just movies, but video players as well, firstly Betamax and later VHS players, decades before the arrival of DVDs. I remember, fondly, our top-loading bulky brown Betamax player with a remote control that connected to the machine by cord and which was at one point, the envy of our street. There was the fun of browsing and choosing and I loved turning over the age-restricted movies – when no one was looking – to see what scenes from the movie were on the back. The video store proprietor stood behind a counter in the corner, like the lord of home cinema (also the owner of the attached convenience store South Africans call a ‘cafe’), who would pull out a hand written card bearing our account information when the time came to exchange our empty boxes for actual movies. Having checked we still had credit, he would then disappear into a cavernous back room and return with the precious movies.

Where Cachet Video once stood, an iconic childhood memory

At one time ,the premises of Cachet Video, Germiston, South Africa

A rental transaction always concluding with my mother or father asking: “How many moves do we have left on our account?” Being a conservatively-minded family, my parents only allowed age appropriate selections, but I confess, that on holidays, when my parents were at work and my siblings were elsewhere, I’d race down to the video store on my maroon-coloured 24 speed bike, rent a movie like Police Academy or Revenge of the Nerds, where there was a guaranteed fabled topless scene. The proprietor looked me up and down – shaking his head, or so I imagined – but never said anything when I sheepishly handed over the video box. Then I’d race back to watch the film, fast forwarding to the ‘important scenes’ and then furiously cycle back to return the movie, before my parents returned home. Later in life, when slightly more mature (and having a car), I made many trips to Johannesburg video establishments like Video Spot on Jan Smuts Avenue, Hyde Park, with its vast collection of art house films and foreign movies to choose from.I remember what I thought at the time were ingenious arrangements of films by actor (Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino etc), director (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorcese, Allen etc) and franchise (The Godfather, James Bond etc).

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

The Blockbuster store, Golders Green

Later, living in London, there were numerous trips to the Blockbuster video store on Golders Green High Street  (now also closed). In the afternoon, we’d wonder down in a group to choose a weekend movie or two, stopping on the way back home at the local Turkish Shop for cheap wine, pita, dolmades, dips and snacks. On one occasion, we forgot to return a movie before going on holiday for three weeks – the Blockbuster bill was about 60 quid. Living in Sydney, my wife and I and often the dog walked up William Street, past the drunks and prostitutes to the video store in Darlinghurst to rent episodes of The Office and The Sopranos. In Melbourne, it was Blockbuster of Video Ezy (or Video Sleazy as some called it) where browsing the aisles for a movie became a regular weekend fixture, invariably accompanied by a Thai curry. Even in the comparatively boring Niddrie Blockbuster, there was always the $2 section of classics, where you could find an old Woody Allen or re-acquaint yourself with a Clint Eastwood early Western. And there were the familiar faces – the small Asian man who ran the shop (and dished out the fines) who was close to tears when it closed down, the geeky guy with the half-formed goatee often on the phone reminding customers their movie was due back three days ago and the nerdy film buff – plus the huge selection of American candy, merchandise and figurines. Now all that’s left are a couple of self-service kiosks where there’s invariably someone standing behind you sighing heavily, while you try to choose something from a pathetically inadequate collection. So, I shed a tear for the video stores of my youth, my adolescence, my adulthood and my fatherhood and raise a glass to the nerds, geeks, rude bastards and eccentrics who worked in those stores. In fitting tribute, the classic video shop scene from Clerks:

Andre Agassi’s odyssey and the death of flamboyant tennis

agassiReading Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, you realise how boring men’s tennis has become.

No wonder they are trying to re-invent the game with a new idiotic format, Fast 4 tennis.

Tennis players these days by and large remind me of Ivan Lendl, the gaunt Czech number one who dominated the game in the late 1980s winning eight grand slams. Lendl had the charisma of a can of tuna (the no name supermarket brand). Expressionless, machine-like, Lendl wore opponents down with relentless accuracy. (Jim Courier was another mind-numbingly boring player to watch and even worse, to hear these days as a commentator).

The current world number one, Novak Djokovic, is very much Lendl-like, and while we all admire Roger Federer as the greatest player of the modern game – Agassi calls him “the most regal player I have ever known” – flamboyant he is not. Ditto Andy Murray. Perhaps only Rafael Nadal in full flight has something to captivate the imagination.

Andre Agassi burst onto the tennis scene at about the same time Ivan Lendl was at his peak and as the game’s other great entertainer – Enfant terrible John McEnroe – was nearing the end of his career.

Complete with enormous hair (actually a hair piece because he was going bald), earrings, colourful outfits and the most amazing return of serve and ground strokes the game has ever seen, Agassi shook the tennis foundation to its core, reaching his first Grand Slam final at the French Open in 1990 aged just 19 and winning Wimbledon two year’s later, a tournament he admits to hating for its rules and snobbery.

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Winning Wimbledon in 1992

Agassi ended up winning just as many grand slams as Lendl, (he won all four majors, something Lendl never achieved) doing so in an era dominated by another machine-like competitor, Pete Sampras. Without Sampras to thwart him, Agassi could have won as many majors as Roger Federer.

All the more amazing his success, given that Andre Agassi hated playing tennis.

“I hate tennis most of all,” he tells his friend, the actor Kevin Costner soon after winning Wimbledon, in Open.

“Right, right. I guess it’s a grind. But you don’t actually hate tennis.” – Costner says. “I do,” Agassi replies.

This conversation repeats itself throughout the book, becoming almost its mantra.

Forced to practice for hours and hours under the Las Vegas sun by his mad Iranian father and later sent away to be force-fed tennis at the Nick Bollettieri academy, Agassi says he despised tennis.

The problem is, he wasn’t much good at doing anything else, so he stuck to it, becoming, against the odds, one of the all time greats.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Open is the window Agassi gives into the world of professional tennis. The endless travel and hotel rooms. The dieting and fitness regimes. Overcoming injuries. Dealing with hostile sports journalists. Encountering rivals and finding ways to beat them. The physical and mental strain of competing and the agony of losing.

Of course there is also the joy of numerous come from behind victories, his most incredible being at the French Open in 1999 – a tournament which marked Agassi’s comeback from injury, disillusionment, dabbling with drugs and extracting himself from a soulless marriage to the actress, Brooke Shields. Agassi, ranked 141 in the world, fought back from two sets to love down against Russian battler Andrei Medvedev to win in five sets. Rousing himself from the jaws of defeat, Agassi writes brilliantly about how he started to win the mental battle after winning the third set:

He’s (Medvedev) has had too long to think about winning. He was five points away from winning. Five points, and its haunting him…

Open is a real ‘rags-to-riches-to-rags-to riches’ tale and Agassi tells it well, especially when he’s in the cauldron of the packed arena slogging it out, somehow finding the will to win. His battles with Pete Sampras in particular are riveting blow-by-blow accounts of epic encounters.

Agassi comes across asschmaltzy, painfully honest and very likeable – the same can not be said for Jimmy Connors (a pompous prick), his ex-wife Brooke Shields (a vacuous airhead) and to an extent Pete Sampras (the accountant of the tennis world).

His coach Brad Gilbert, who helped turn his career around, comes across as an eccentric genius.

Agassi’s pursuit of Steffi Graf – told with embarrassing relish – is quite comical, particularly, the numerous rebuffs, but the lashings of syrupy cards and flowers leave one feeling a tad ill. The same can be also be said of Agassi’s choice of inspirational music which includes Michael Bolton, Celine Dione and Kenny G and his brief dalliance with “finding God”.

Whatever his musical shortcomings or sugary sentimentalism, no one has since entertained quite like Andre Agassi, who played his last professional match – almost ten years ago – at the 2006 US Open.

And Open is one of the best accounts of a life of tennis you will ever read.