Reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ in the age of Trump

“But why did you go,” my mother asked him, “when it was bound to upset you like this?”

“I went,” he told her, “because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

While this may sound like someone reacting to another surreal and disturbing moment in the loony Trump presidency, for example the January 6 storming of the Capitol Building in Washington by far right extremists, it is in fact an extract from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel ‘The Plot Against America’.

The people “in charge” are the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his far-right cronies in the Republican party, who in Roth’s re-imagining of American history, have swept to power in 1940 (defeating FDR) on a promise of keeping the country out of the War in Europe (“Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war” is their slogan) and maintaining cordial relations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey as they adjust – with increasing fear – to life under the anti-semitic policies of a populist leader amid the darkening perceptions of Jews in mainstream American life.

As with many of his books, Roth used his own family as the model for the fictional one in the novel.

He tells the story from the remembered perspective of his seven-year-old self living in a tidy second-floor flat in the “southwest corner of New Jersey’s largest city” which he shares with his father Herman, a hardworking insurance salesman, his loving mother Bess and his willful 12-year-old brother Stanley.

“Our homeland was America.

Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed,” narrates Philip.

Soon after newly inaugurated President Lindbergh has flown to Iceland to meet Adolf Hitler and sign an agreement of peaceful relations between America and Germany, the Roth family take a long-planned holiday to Washington DC to prove to their children that America is not a fascist country, despite who is in office.

But things soon turns sinister when after returning to their hotel from a day’s sightseeing, the Roth’s find their bags packed and lined up in the hotel foyer, because the room they have booked is no longer available.

“Dear, let’s just go,” she (Philip’s mother)  beseeched my father. “Mr Taylor [the Roth’s tour guide] found us a room nearby.”

No!” my father cried and he threw off the hand with which she tried to snatch his  arm. “This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows.”

Later on in the trip there is an ugly incident in a Washington café involving  another diner, who refers to Walter Winchell, the famed New York columnist and radio journalist – a central character in the novel who uses his public platform to denounce Lindbergh – as a “loudmouth Jew with too much power”

“Loudmouth Jew. And for the second time in less than forty-eight hours,” Roth’s young narrator remarks.

Philip Roth, an American literary giant

Philip Roth says he got the inspiration for the book from a line he read in historian Arthur J Schlesinger’s (no relation) book ‘A Life in the 20th Century’ about the isolationist wing of the Republican Party who wanted to nominate Charles Lindbergh as the 1940 presidential candidate.

“It made me think, ‘What if they had?’ and I wrote the question in the margin. Between writing down that question and the fully evolved book there were three years of work, but that’s how the idea came to me,” Roth said in a September 2004 essay he wrote in the New York Times.

He said in a separate NYT interview in 2004 that Lindbergh’s name was “loaded” because he was a hero to the entire world for his record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris.

“Then in the late 1930s he ceased being a hero in our household because he began to seem like an anti-semite. His diaries….show that he was essentially a white supremecist. Jews were distatestful to him. They were inferior to him,” Roth said.

After the family returns from Washington, Lindbergh’s newly created sinister Office of American Absorption (OAA) creates a program called “Just Folks” designed to get young Jews to work in rural farming areas. The Roth’s elder son Sandy, a gifted artist, signs up and goes to work in Kentucky where he can “live on a farm…draw all the things there. Tractors. Barns. Animals. All kinds of animals”.

To Sandy, who hides a sketch of Charles Lindbergh in his portfolio under his bed, the farm experience is idyllic. But to Herman Roth, Just Folks is merely an anti-Semitic plot to separate Jewish boys from their families.

Herman sees everything the Lindbergh administration does in its true light. This puts him at war with his eldest son and his naive sister-in-law Evelyn, who is engaged to be married to Newark’s conservative Jewish leader, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.

It is Bengelsdorf, who endorsed Lindbergh at campaign rallies, that helped legitimise the aviator’s anti-war and anti-semitic rhetoric that swept him to power in a landslide. Bengelsdorf is then appointed as executive director of the OAA.

Like Sandy, Evelyn refuses to believe Lindbergh has evil intentions against the Jews because her husband-to-be is part of his administration. She calls her brother-in-law Herman “another Jew afraid of his shadow”.

Telling the story of America’s rapid decline under Lindbegh, Roth brilliantly weaves in reimagined historical events and real political figures of the times into the story including, most chillingly, a state visit to the White House by Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (executed in 1946).

Evelyn attends as the partner of Rabbi Bengelsdorf  where she dances with Von Ribbentrop, appearing in news reel footage that Philip watches when he sneaks into the neighbourhood cinema.

“I found him a very charming gentleman and highly intelligent….” says Evelyn of her Nazi dancing companion.

While reading the novel, amid the November presidential election and all its craziness, I could not help think about Donald Trump, a populist and far right sympathiser who unlike Lindbergh did become US president and whose four years in office were marked by chaos and a rapid disintegration of American democratic values. Many have called Trump a dictator.

It also made think of all my fellow Jews around the world, especially in America, who supported President Trump because he is a so-called friend of Israel (that is the most common explanation I hear). However, they conveniently brush aside or willfully forget that Trump has been a strong supporter of the far right white supremacist movement, which is no friend of the Jews.

Poster for the HBO miniseries.

Perhaps they would identify with Roth’s brilliant creation Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who in his pursuit of power, stoops so low as to dine with Lindbergh’s Nazi friends.

In an interview with the New York Times in January 2018 – a few months before he passed away aged 85 – Roth said that while Charles Lindbergh may have been a genuine racist and anti-semite, he was also because of his flying feats a “genuine American hero”

“Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac, “ says Roth.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Plot Against America is a riveting historical novel that will surely resonate with readers in the post-Trump age as we ponder who might be the next popular figure to make a claim for the White House on a platform of lies and disinformation.

Philip Roth said in the same 2004 NYT essay that because the events he depicted in his novel did not happen in America despite many seeds for them occurring being present (other virulent and influential anti-semites at the time of Lindbergh included carmaker Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose Jew-hating radio show was broadcast to tens of millions), it shows how “how lucky we Americans are”.

While Joe Biden has promised to restore America’s democratic values, that luck may have run out.

(Footnote: The Plot Against America has been made into an HBO miniseries by David Simon, the creator of The Wire (one of the best TV shows of all time).

It stars among others Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel and the great John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – I am eager to see it.)

‘Happiness’ – is Todd Solondz’s masterpiece the most subversive film of all time?

If you want to have your mind blown cinematically, do yourself a favour and track down a copy of Todd Solondz’s 1998 independent classic “Happiness” starring – among others – the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Ben Gazzara (also now deceased), Lara Flynn Boyle, Jon Lovitz, Cynthia Stevenson, Louise Lasser and Jane Adams.

Don’t be fooled by the title (which is ironic), this is one of the most disturbing, brilliant and darkly funny films you will ever  see.

In the style of other great ensemble cast films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Happiness follows the intertwining stories of an eclectic band of misfits, losers, perverts, loners and dreamers set against the backdrop of modern American life with its condos, office cubicles and supposedly “happy” family homes.

I watched it twice in 1998, when it first came out. The second time I dragged some friends along and I recall some of them swore they’d never forgive me – it’s that kind of movie.

Then, after reading about the making of Happiness in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, which chronicled the independent film era (movies like Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction), I felt compelled to watch it again.

It was pretty hard to find it online – the film has slipped somewhat into obscurity. But with a bit of perseverance I finally tracked a bootleg version* and watched it again, astounded once again by its originality as I was 22 years ago.

Among the highlights of the film, is the brilliant performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role you will never forget.

He plays the pivotal character of Allen, an overweight and deeply unhappy office worker whose sexual frustrations and inability to talk to women (“I have nothing to talk about. I’m boring,” he tells his therapist) has transformed into a penchant for making obscene phone calls to single woman he finds in the telephone directory.

This is a central and recurring theme of Happiness – the extraordinary/unspeakable things supposedly ordinary people do behind close doors, when nobody is watching.

(Another key character, Allen’s dowdy and desperately lonely neighbour Kristina (Camryn Manheim) confesses to murder and dismemberment over a chocolate fudge sundae with strawberry ice-cream.)

While Allen may be revolting in many aspects, Solondz treats him and other unsavoury and sad characters in the film with great empathy, recognising that people are not just one shade of colour. Allen can also be kind, comforting and understanding – he just needs to find the right woman!

Allen shares his apartment block and often the lift with the glamourous, but vacuous author Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) one of three sisters whose stories are also told in Happiness.

Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) gets some phone relief

Helen bemoans the inherent phoniness in her writing  -“If only I’d been raped as a child” she moans ridiculously as she longs for some authentically awful experience.

These awful experiences rain down on her younger sister, the naive and sweet guitar-playing Joy (Jane Adams) despite Joy’s best efforts to be a good and useful human being.

The first of these humiliations play out in the brilliant opening scene of the film, where Joy is left devastated by her date Andy (played by the comic Jon Lovitz in a great cameo) after she rejects him as a romantic partner.

Andy gives Joy an expensive gift, but then angrily snatches it back telling her it’s for the girl who loves him for who he is – he just wanted to show her what she is missing out on.

Andy: “…you think I’m shit? Well, you’re wrong, ’cause I’m champagne, and you’re shit. Until the day you die, you, not me, will always be shit.

The third sister is mother hen Trish (Cynthia Stevenson)  who believes she is living the life her unhappily single sister Joy can only dream of.

All dimples and smiles, Trish’s near perfect life is centered around her solid marriage to softly-spoken therapist Dr Bill Maplewood ( Dylan Baker in a devastating brilliant performance) and the home they have made in a big double story house filled with three busy young children.

The illusion of happiness: Bill (Dylan Baker) with his son Billy (Rufus Read)

However, Bill, whose patients include the masturbatory Allen, is not quite the wholesome family man and tender father figure his wife and the world thinks he is. He’s a craven pedophile with an uncontrollable lust for young boys around the age of his eldest son Billy, who just happens to be enduring the trials of puberty and his inability to ejaculate (“Dad, when will I cum?”).

In one of the early scenes in the film, we see Bill drive to a convenience store on the way home, purchase  a teen magazine from the shelf and then vigorously pleasure himself in the backseat of his sedan as he flips through the images.

We also meet Helen, Joy and Trish’s feuding parents, unhappy Lenny (played by the gravely-voiced veteran character actor Ben Gazzara) and his neurotic wife Mona (another movie veteran Louise Lasser) who share a luxurious condo.

Lenny wants out of the marriage, but insists there is no one else. He just wants to be left alone.

Mona’s frustrations boil over into one of the funniest (and tragic) lines of the film:

“It’s OK. I’m not dumb. Things happen. I’ll get over it. I just wish you had done this 20 years ago.  NOW I’LL HAVE TO GET ANOTHER FUCKING FACE LIFT.”

Black humour is a constant throughout the film, often accompanying the most excruciating and humiliating moments.

“If there hadn’t been humour of sorts in the movie, it would be unbearable,” Solondz said in an interview in 1998.

But, he doesn’t use humour just to break the tension, nor does he use it to mock or belittle the character’s painful experiences. For Solondz, humour is the flipside of what is so sad about the characters he depicts.

“It’s often hard for me to separate what I find so sad from what I find so funny. There’s a kind of poignancy for me…things that I am very moved by I find funny.”

I think this is a fundamental truism (as seen in many great Woody Allen movies, especially Crimes & Misdemeanours). If you don’t agree with this premise, you’ll probably hate Happiness.

Solondz goes on to say: “ I didn’t know if people would laugh or if they wouldn’t laugh, but it didn’t matter. I always believe that however  [the audience] felt they would listening to what is going on…that you were seeing something you hadn’t seen before…things that are the most deeply personal are discussed in the most open and devastating way ultimately.

This is especially true of the film’s darkest character, Dr Bill Maplewood, who when confronted by his eldest son Billy  about his terrible crimes, confesses in complete honesty

The scene which occurs on the couch in the family’s living room is one of the most devastating father and son moments ever depicted in a movie. Bill, for all his horrendous faults cannot lie to his son, nor will he harm him, despite his uncontrollable proclivities.

Asked by Billy if he would do to him, what he did to his friends (rape them), Bill replies: “No. I’d jerk off instead”.

As the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Happiness: In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.”

Happiness is ultimately a film about the human condition in all its complexities, perversities, hidden layers and deep dark secrets.

It is in my humble opinion, a masterpiece (but not for everyone).

*To track down a version of Happiness, download the Russian social media app OK (trust me on this one). Login via your Facebook account and then simply search for Happiness on the app.

From Sex, Lies and Videotape to Memento: all the independent films you need to watch

52570Earlier this year I read “Down and Dirty Pictures” a hefty tome by film industry chronicler Peter Biskind that told the story of the rise of independent American cinema from the late 1980s until 2000.

Independent – or indie – films refers to low-budget films made outside the major Hollywood film studio system.

Biskind calls  Down and Dirty Pictures “something of a sequel” to his excellent “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” the book he wrote about the new wave of European-inspired film making that emerged in America in the 1960s and 1970s that I read a while back, in which film makers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola feature prominently.

“Down and Dirty Pictures” is a highly entertaining and educational account of how struggling film distribution companies like Miramax, founded by brothers Harvey (the now convicted sex felon) and Bob Weinstein, turned low-budget films made by unknown writer-directors into Academy Award winning gold and how Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival provided the  platform for these film makers to showcase their work for the first time and connect with the money men who would finance their more mainstream careers.

Biskind calls Sundance and Miramax the “twin towers of the indie movie world”.

The career journeys of directors like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino,David O Russell, and Todd Haynes feature prominently in the book as do actor/writer/directors like Billy Bob Thornton,  and emerging stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

While much of “Down and Dirty Pictures” focuses on the deal-making business side of film production and distribution (which may not appeal to everyone) it’s also a fantastic guide to some of the best films that were made during that time.

Rather than write a lengthy review of Biskind’s book – I highly recommend it if it’s your cup of tea – I thought I’d rather provide a run down of some of the films he talks about and which you might like to add to your ‘must watch’ lists:

(I have marked with a *HNS” films which I have not seen myself)

1989

MV5BNDllYWVkOTQtZjRlMC00NWFjLWI0OGEtOWY4YzU4ZjMxYzg3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR82,0,630,1200_AL_Sex, Lies and Videotape – a tale of sexual repression and perversion, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh who would go on to make films like Erin Brokovich, Traffic and Oceans 11 to name just a few. Made for just $1.2 million, it was bought by Miramax at Sundance and ended up winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. With the big spending marketing push of the Weinsteins it went on to gross almost $25 million. The movie starred Andie McDowell, James Spader and Peter Gallagher. (HNS)

 

 

My Left Foot – directed by Jim Sheridan, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Irishman Christy Brown who overcame cerebral palsy to become a celebrated writer and artist.

MV5BM2FhYjEyYmYtMDI1Yy00YTdlLWI2NWQtYmEzNzAxOGY1NjY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA3NTIyNDg@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_Cinema Paradiso – Miramax helped turned this obscure Italian film by writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore into an award winner and surprise indie hit. IMDB’s synopsis: A filmmaker recalls his childhood when falling in love with the pictures at the cinema of his home village and forms a deep friendship with the cinema’s projectionist. (It actually came out in 1988, but I am going with the chronology of the book). I watched it a long time ago, but do recall its magical qualities.

 

1991

Poison – a film by Todd Haynes, one the leading lights of independent cinema and the New Queer Cinema movement, whose later films included the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There and the American period drama Far From Heaven (HNS).  He also made the brilliant HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet. Touching on many taboo themes, IMDB’s synopsis of Poison reads: “A boy shoots his father and flies out the window. A man falls in love with a fellow inmate in prison. A doctor accidentally ingests his experimental sex serum, wrecking havoc on the community.” (HNS)

1992

GasfoodmovieposterGas Food Lodging written and directed by Allison Anders. I remember seeing this coming-of-age film at the Rosebank Mall arthouse cinemas in Joburg and loving it. Set in New Mexico, it tells the story of a single mother trying to raise her two daughters, one of whom is played by the gorgeous Ione Skye. Sweet and moving.

Reservoir Dogs  the stylish gangster movie that heralded the arrival of one of the great movie talents, writer and director Quentin Tarantino. Have seen it countless times, would watch it countless times more. Great soundtrack, cracking dialogue and great performances by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, the late Chris Penn and Michael Madsen.

The Crying Game – written and directed by Neil Jordan, a love story with a sensational twist set against the backdrop of IRA terrorism in London. I saw it years ago. My chief memory is of the American actor Forest Whittaker in cricket whites bowling in awkward fashion. Of course I also remember the famous and shocking ending, which most who saw it kept a secret for others (I won’t tell either). I would love to watch it again. Biskind’s book notes that The Crying Game grossed $62.5m and became the first indie film to earn more than $25m in America and thus become the first indie ‘blockbuster’

1994

Clerks –  written and directed by Kevin Smith, this ultra-low budget classic (made for $27,000) tells the story – in grainy black and white- of Dante Hicks’ both mundane and crazy day behind the counter at a convenience store. Truly hilarious (I watched it again recently) and witty and infused with pop culture references, its a must-watch on my list.

Pulp_Fiction_(1994)_posterPulp Fiction – written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. A masterpiece about gangsters and crooks in Los Angeles that revived the career of John Travolta and turned Samuel L. Jackson into an A-list Hollywood superstar. Filled with so many unforgettable scenes, an amazing soundtrack and long list of incredible cameos. Became the first indie to gross over $100 million and ended up making $222 million around the world on an $8 million budget. The film that made Miramax.

1995

Kids – written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clarke. A disturbing and confronting film (as I recall it) about a group of New York teens drinking and having sex, and in some cases becoming HIV positive.

Welcome to the Dollhouse – written and directed by Todd Solondz. According to IMDB.com’s summary: “An awkward seventh-grader struggles to cope with inattentive parents, snobbish class-mates, a smart older brother, an attractive younger sister and her own insecurities in suburban New Jersey.” Biskind notes in his book it was originally titled “Faggots and Retards” which he said “perfectly captures the flavour of the movie”. (HNS)

1996

Flirting with Disaster – a comedy written and directed by David O Russell and starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Tea Leoni. About a guy (Stiller) who drags his wife and young baby on a road trip in search of his birth mother. I don’t recall a great deal about the film, apart from laughing a lot. David O Russell went on to make a string of brilliant films including Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Shine – directed by Scott Hicks, the biopic about the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott played by Geoffrey Rush (for which he won an Oscar) and his battles with mental illness. An uplifting film that I have watched a number of times, plus great classical music.

Fargo_(1996_movie_poster)Fargo – written and directed by the Coen Brothers. Arguably one of the best films of all time, spawned its own TV series that was equally as good. A black comedy set in the ice and snow of North Dakota and its strange Scandinavian-esque accented characters. A movie about a dim witted and crooked car salesman’s (superbly played by William H. Macy) bungled attempt to have his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom. Heavily pregnant local cop (played equally brilliantly by Frances McDormand) solves the puzzling case.

Sling Blade – written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton. According to IMDB: “The film tells the story of Karl Childers, a simple man hospitalized since his childhood murder of his mother and her lover, who is released to start a new life in a small town.” Biskind’s depiction of Thornton’s deepen southern accent and utter contempt for Harvey Weinstein’s threats are one of the highlights of the book. (HNS)

Citizen Ruth – written and directed by Alexander Payne and starring Laura Dern. According to IMDB: “An irresponsible, drug-addicted, recently impregnated woman finds herself in the middle of an abortion debate when both parties attempt to sway her to their respective sides.” (HNS). Alexander Payne has made a lot of great movies since Citizen Ruth including Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendents.

MV5BMzA5Zjc3ZTMtMmU5YS00YTMwLWI4MWUtYTU0YTVmNjVmODZhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Trainspotting – a cult classic for many, based on the cult novel about Edinburgh junkies by Irvine Welsh. Screenplay by John Hodges and directed by Danny Boyle (the duo behind the equally brilliant Shallow Grave). Starring Ewen McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner and Johnny Lee Miller. Amazing performances, brilliant trippy dance soundtrack and astonishing storytelling and imagery.  Cost only £1.5m to make, hard to believe it grossed only $17m worldwide.

1997

Copland written and directed by James Mangold. It’s hard to think of this as an independent film, given it stars Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, but it was distributed by Miramax and made for just $15m. It was also meant to resurrect the career of Stallone as a serious actor in an unusual part, that of a tired, half-deaf, portly, do-good sheriff in a New Jersey town where corrupt New York cops have settled. I watched it recently and thought it excellent. Stallone is very good in it.

Good Will Hunting  – written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, starring them and the late Robin Williams and directed by Gus Van Sant. One of the most successful independent films of all time. Made for just $10m and grossed $225m around the world.  Distributed by Miramax. The story of a janitor from the wrong side of the tracks who turns out to be a mathematical genius, but with a deeply troubled soul. Turned Damon and Affleck into Hollywood megastars.

1998

220px-Happiness1998PosterHappiness  – written and directed by Todd Solondz with an ensemble cast that includes the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best and most disturbing roles. A film that intertwines different stories and plenty of disturbing material (sexual perversion, pederasty to name just two). This film may appall some people, but I thought it brilliant in its depiction of a diverse mix of good, weird and evil characters in a suburban setting. Saw it a long time ago (twice). Would definitely watch it again.

Pi – written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. IMDB’s summary of the black and white psychological thriller: “A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature. A true low budget film costing just $120,00 to make and distribute, Pi grossed $3.2 million. Aronofsky went on to make a number of brilliant bigger budget films including Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan. (HNS)

Velvet Goldmine – co-written and directed by Todd Haynes and starring Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale and Tony Colette. According to IMDB: “In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.”  (HNS)

2000

71DJIt8Q3OL._SL1094_Memento  – the movie that launched the career of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Batman films, Inception) and which many people still consider his best work. it tells the story of Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss, who attempts to track down his wife’s murderer. Starring Guy Pearce, a film I would like to watch again.

Independent films continue to be made past the millennium, but as Steven Soderbergh tells it in Down and Dirty Pictures “The independent film movement as we knew it, just doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it can’t exist anymore. It’s over.”

Biskind chimes in: “Miramax killed it. With success. Success that was purchased at an enormous cost” by which he means the independent studios were overrun by the major studios who formed their own “indie” divisions and through commercialization.

Got any other suggestions to add to this list? Please post them a comments or send them to” freshlyworded@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

Re-reading Into the Wild: what killed Chris McCandless?

One of my all-time favourite books is Into the Wild by journalist John Krakauer. The film adaptation by Sean Penn was also superb.

I first read Krakauer’s beautifully written investigation of the short, but eventful life of idealistic adventurer Chris McCandless – who died in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 – whilst travelling around the south and Midwest of America on an Amtrak pass in the late summer of 1997.

Having recently re-read the book whilst on holiday, it occurred to me that back then in 1997, I was the same age – 24 – as Chris McCandless when he died, alone, in a rusting bus, on the Stampede Trail overlooking the Teklinaka River.

People around the world have become fascinated by the story of a well-educated and intense young man from an affluent West Virginia family who gave away all his savings, burnt his money and credit cards and abandoned his car to tramp around America for two years on a rite of passage “to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution”.

McCandless wished to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London and test himself with a final adventure in the wilds of Alaska.

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Chris McCandless – at Bus 142, in the year he died

After the first Associated Press article was published on September 13, 1992, about a body discovered by moose hunters in a remote camp, accompanied by a diary and a final plea for help, John Krakauer wrote a 5000 word article for Outside magazine “Death of an Innocent”  based on interviews with people who had met McCandless on his wandering. He then expanded that article into a book which became a 1996 bestseller. Sean Penn’s haunting film came out in 2008.

Alongside these mainstream retellings, hundreds of videos have appeared on YouTube about McCandless including documentaries, tributes and amateur investigations. There’s also hundreds of articles online discussing the book, film and McCandless’s adventures and final misadventure most of them captured on an excellent website, christophermccandless.info

People have become obsessed with his short, but adventurous life, his unique philosophical view of the world and his tragic death. Not all are hero worshippers indeed Krakauer has received plenty of criticism for – in the view of some harsh critics – glorifying the death of a naive and arrogant young man who thought he could tame nature, but who ended up succumbing to it in the most terrible way.

chris mccandless

The journal McCandless kept at the back of a book on edible plants

I was one of those people who became fascinated about Chris McCandless, in particular  his tragic end and the mystery about what actually killed in. That fascination has never died, and I found myself, upon re-reading the book this year, scouring the internet again for clues and answers.

As John Krakauer himself wrote in an article for New Yorker magazine in 2013:

The debate over why McCandless perished, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering, and occasionally flaring, for more than two decades now.

What I discovered is that a lot has happened  – both in terms of conjecture and scientific research – to try to come to a definitive answer.

It is worth remembering that John Krakaeur first came to the conclusion – in the article he wrote for Outside magazine – that Chris McCandless had most likely died when he mistook the supposedly poisonous wild sweet pea (Hedysarum mackenzeii ) for the edible wild potato (Hedysarum alpinum) and ate its seeds.

“Wild sweet pea looks so much like wild potato that even expert botanists sometimes have trouble telling the species apart,” wrote Krakauer in Into The Wild.

As depicted in the movie, Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) is seen studying the leaves of the plants he has been eating and discovering his mistake, to his horror.

But in the book Into the Wild, Krakauer said he had got it wrong, and that Chris McCandless did not make the mistake of mis-identification and that he was not as reckless, naive and possibly even suicidal as some claim. (Even, if he had eaten the wrong plant, some food plants experts say wild sweet pea is not in fact very poisonous.)

After McCandless wrote in his cryptic keyword diary on Day 90:  “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEEDS. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP” Krakauer concluded that skinny and desperate for food, McCandless had accidentally poisoned himself by eating wild potato seeds not just the roots. Three weeks later he was dead.

Krakauer hypothesized that wild potato seeds contained a toxic alkaloid that weakened McCandless to “to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation”.

Then in 2007, Krakauer suggested that a toxic mold had grown on the seeds McCandless stored in a damp Ziploc.

“Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy. And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares,” Krakauer said.

Six years later, in the 2013 New Yorker article, Krakauer admitted he had made a “rash intuitive leap” by suggesting in the first edition of his book that the alkaloid that killed McCandless was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation.

But later analysis by Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry
department at the University of Alaska, found no trace of swainsonine or any
other alkaloids.

Into_the_Wild_(book)_coverIn his 2013 article for New Yorker magazine, Krakauer wrote of how his theories had brought scorn from many, especially Alaskans, but that he had then come across a “brilliant” writer named Ronald Hamilton who had discovered “hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death”.

Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless,” offered, Krakauer wrote “persuasive new evidence that the wild-potato plant is highly toxic in and of itself, contrary to the assurances of Thomas Clausen and every other expert who has ever weighed in on the subject.

“The toxic agent…turns out not to be an alkaloid but, rather, an amino acid [a neurotoxin called ODAP causing lathyrism, a kind of paralysis], and according to Hamilton it was the chief cause of McCandless’s death. His theory validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be.”

Worryingly though Krakauer notes that Hamilton is “neither a botanist nor a chemist; he’s a writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library.

But after further scientific testing supported Hamilton’s theory, Krakauer concluded: “considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds”.

Alas, in a 2015 article for New Yorker, titled “An Update: How Chris McCandless Died” Krakauer admitted, following more criticism from a journalist in Alaska, that he needed to do more testing to prove his theory that neurotoxins are present in wild potato seeds and publish the results in a “reputable peer-reviewed journal”.

This he did – after further scientific research – authoring a paper with Dr. Jonathan Southard, Dr. Ying Long, Dr. Andrew Kolbert and Dr. Shri Thanedar,  titled“Presence of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and its Potential Role in the Death of Chris McCandless,”  It appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in March, 2015.

The paper concluded that L-canavanine (an antimetabolite with demonstrated toxicity in mammals) was a significant component of wild potato seeds and because they made up a significant portion of his meager diet “it is highly likely” they were a “contributing factor to his death”.

Of course ‘highly likely” meant Krakauer was still not 100 per cent about his latest theory and it was again an Alaskan journalist – Craig Medred from the Anchorage Daily News – who took him to task in a highly critical and daming article titled “The fiction that is Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into The Wild'”.

Originally published in January 2015 – a month before Krakauer’s second New Yorker article – but updated in September 2016, Medred posited that it wasn’t wild potato seeds that killed McCandless, but toxic mushrooms.

Medred points out that entry 89 of the 113 entries McCandless left in his terse diary states: “Many Mushrooms. DREAM.”

“DREAM is written in the largest, boldest letters of any word in the journal, and there are large, dark arrows connecting mushrooms to the word DREAM.” writes Medred.

He also notes that photos of mushrooms appeared on film found with McCandless’s body and appeared as photos in the McCandless family’s book about their son “Back to the Wild”.

Medred says a noted authority on Alaskan mushrooms – scientist Gary Laursen, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks – had identified mushrooms McCandless had eaten as “Amanita muscaria’ a variety known to make people sick and cause hallucinations. Laursen also identified other varieties of mushrooms in the photos that made people violently ill.

(Medred’s criticism of  John Krakauer’s book extends way beyond the wild potato seeds theory and claims the chapter he wrote about the time McCandless spent in Alaska has no basis in fact and that some of the books found with McCandless’s body (with underlined passages and notes that gave clues to his view of the world) were not actually his but that of an Alaskan adventurer “who’s now a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks”).

I looked up the mushroom Amanita muscaria online: depending on the location/variety it is either bright red, yellow or orange with white warts, similar to those I have seen myself whilst walking in woods near my own home of Gisborne, Victoria.

They about as toxic looking as any mushroom could look in my opinion, and it seems hard to believe Chris McCandless would have gorged on them, let alone eat one.

Even if he had tried one, according to the research I found online, it would have made him violently ill – but not fatally so – and it is unlikely he would have tried anymore.

Then in December 2018, Medred published another article about John Krakauer and Into the Wild.

In it he quotes an “authority on wild edible plants, Samuel Thayer” who he says lumped all of Krakauer’s poison plant claims together as part of a “poisonous plant fable.”

Thayer’s main criticism is that any poisoning theory requires one to know how much of wild potato seeds McCandless actually ate.

“While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose,” said Thayer.

Medred has another monumental dig at Krakauer, writing:

“Krakauer has never been able to accept the idea that McCandless simply starved to death. To do so, would be to recognize that McCandless  was killed by his own incompetence, and that would undermine the whole “Into the Wild” myth of a bright young man on a sensible adventure of self discovery murdered by twists of fate at the hands of nature.”

That is a view held by some – though not by me.

Regardless, we will likely never know with any certainty what caused the death of Chris McCandless. It will remain an unsolved mystery, his death a tragic end to a life full of promise.

What I believe is that Chris McCandless did not intend his Alaskan trip to be a suicide mission, and that he planned to walk out of the bush and re-enter society sometime at end of 1992.

How do we know this? From his photos of course. After all, why document your travels, if not to share them with others.

RIP Chris.

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His final photo: The card reads:   “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

The bar was packed: last drinks in the age of Coronavirus

As the rest of the world went into lockdown a couple of weeks ago, I found myself, on a Saturday night, having a drink with my good mate Jonny at a bar on Carlisle Street, in Balaclava, a trendy, somewhat grungy inner southern suburb of Melbourne.

Half-jokingly, I’d set the wheels of the catch-up in motion, by suggesting we get together for a beer and a burger because it might be the last time we could do it “before the world ended”. It was also Jonny’s birthday later in the week.

At the time, New York and other major cities were already shutting down. Restaurants and bars were about to close in Manhattan and Italy was already a nation quarantined. But in Australia there were no real restrictions on daily life, except for a growing shortage of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and pasta.

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Packed no more: The Rooftop terrace at The Local Taphouse (Facebook)

‘Social distancing’ however was swiftly becoming a buzzword, but not on the rooftop terrace at The Local Taphouse on Carlisle Street at 8.30pm on Saturday, March 14.

The scene was busy, loud and convivial. People sat shoulder to shoulder at tables or stood in small, huddled groups near the bar, drinks in hand, conversing about their lives, telling stories, laughing and smiling.

Jonny and I ordered two large ciders (a craft cider, particularly tasty) and found some seats at an unoccupied table, where we sipped our delicious drinks and held our own conversation talking about our lives: our families, our jobs, gripes, the latest shows we’d watched, books read, podcasts listened to. 

Both of us, now past the mid-forties mark, reminisced about the old days back in South Africa as we always tend to do on these catch-ups and wondered, as we always do, where all the time had gone.

Around us the bar was still noisy and buzzing. We enjoyed a second round of drinks and continued our conversation.

Though I was immersed in the scene, part of its social fabric (part of the problem I guess), I couldn’t shake the feeling that this supposed normality was both strange and fleeting. It was as if the terrace of happy people existed on a different planet from the rest of society who were at home, worrying about a disaster about to unfold.

A couple of hours passed and then it was time for us to depart and return to our separate worlds of parental responsibilities.

I headed to the bathroom on the way out, where a bloke standing next to me at the urinal exchanged some sort of half-drunk pleasantry. Then, as I attempted to wash and dry my hands at the basin, I nearly collided  with two men who emerged simultaneously from the toilet cubicle looking rather sheepish after a spot of, I imagined, illicit drug-taking.

A minute later, Jonny and I emerged back on Carlisle Street and into the fresh night air. Drunken chatter wafted across the road from another pub a few shops down. Cars whizzed past and a couple waited, in intimate embrace, for the traffic lights to change.

We walked past a half-lit dessert cafe with a display window full of eclairs, pastries and cream-filled cakes.  Driving back along Carlisle Street to drop Jonny off first in a nearby Melbourne suburb we passed another busy bar full of banter, booze and music.

It was only on the long drive home along the Calder Freeway under the endless expanse of stars and black night sky, that it dawned on me that perhaps I should not have been so cavalier as all those social beings on the rooftop of The Local Taphouse, sipping their drinks, grinning, laughing and carefree. Then again, the party was only hours from ending. For everyone. The music was about to stop.

The next day, Sunday March 15, brought with it the first of the restrictions: all overseas arrivals must self-isolate for 14 days, all cruise ships banned from Australia, gatherings of over 500 people no longer allowed.

A week later all pubs, clubs, gyms, cinemas, casinos, restaurants and cafes (save for takeaway orders) were ordered to close their doors and indoor gatherings were reduced to 100 people (now cut to two people). A 1.5 m social distance from others should be maintained and all non-essential travel should stop, we were told.

And so the world as I knew it ended for us in Australia as it had already for many others in New York, Rome, Los Angeles and London –  and almost certain to never to return in the form it once was.

The Local Taphouse on Carlisle Street is now shuttered. The cider and beer taps are turned off, chairs are stacked on tables, the roof terrace empty and deathly quiet.

Just the ghosts of good times past remain as I try to conjure back the taste of that fruity cider.

 

Looking ‘Up’ – why a documentary series was my favourite show of 2019

The_Up_series_DVDYou may be surprised to learn that a 56-year-old British documentary series was my runaway favourite television/streaming show of 2019.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, The Up Series started in 1964 when British filmmaker Michael Apted interviewed 14 British schoolkids aged seven at the time asking them about what they wanted to be when they grow up.

The children were specifically chosen from different backgrounds and classes as a kind of social experiment to see how things turned out for them given their upbringing and the opportunities presented to them.

The premise of the series was neatly encapsulated in the proverb repeated at the end of each season: ‘Give me a child at the age of seven, and I will show you the man (or woman it should have said).”

While 2019 saw the release of 63 Up, the latest (and possibly last) installment, I ended up watched the whole series from 7 Up onwards over a couple of weeks after coming across it by chance on SBS on Demand, (Australian’s multi-cultural television service for those who don’t live here).

It seems strange that I should find such pleasure in watching the lives of 14 total strangers unfold every seven years, or indeed to sit through around 20 hours of documentary filming that involves not much more than a camera crew returning to interview each person after the required hiatus and find out what they have been up to.

But, very soon – as if I were watching hit shows like The Sopranos, or Mad Men or Breaking Bad – I found myself emotionally entwined in the unfolding lives of Bruce Balden, Jackie Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, John Brisby, Peter Davies, Susan Davis, Charles Furneaux, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Suzanne Lusk and Tony Walker.

When the group turned 14, I wanted to see what they were like at 21, and then at 28 and 35, as they changed from disgruntled and sulky teenagers (for some) into young adults forging careers (or struggling to find themselves), then raising families, getting divorced, growing into middle age and contemplating all that has come before as a philosophical 63-year-old. It was glorious to watch.

Of course I had my favourites, these being intense Liverpudlian Neil, whose poetic musing on his battle with mental health issues and homelessness, and his stoicism frequently moved me to tears. There was also Tony the cockney East End cab driver (and part time actor) whose dreams of becoming a top jockey never came true, but who relishes how his brief racing career gave him one the greatest moments in his life, riding in a race alongside his idol, Lester Pigott.

Of course, I felt a connection to the earnest and softly-spoken Aussie Paul, who ended up moving to Melbourne soon after filming 7 Up, after his parents divorced.

Unexpectedly, I grew to like Andrew and John, who came from the upper classes, attended Cambridge and Oxford and whilst seeming to have an easy life of privilege awaiting them in the legal profession, grew somehow humbler and more interesting (especially John) as they grew older. Of course this one of the great charms of the series, that it reveals the many layers of people, and that things are not always as they appear.

I also loved feisty East Londoner Jackie, whose spirit never wavered despite raising three kids as a single parent and ending up reliant on a disability pension and upper-class Suzy, who despite calling the series “pointless and silly” appeared in all seasons, apart from the last one.

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There is something truly magical (touching on the sublime) in watching people change over time – not just their physical appearances, (though those transformations are striking and startling), but in their circumstances, attitudes and views of life.

As one of the fourteen, Nick, a farming lad from a tiny village in rural Yorkshire who became an American nuclear physicist put it so eloquently: “The power of this series is not that it shows how one person changes, but how everyone changes.”

This idea of change and growth, compelled me to reflect on how I was at the ages of 7,14,21,28 and 35. Later, I hauled down a box of old photographs, which I thumbed through looking  at images of myself at the Up Series age milestones. I thought about what I was like as a young school kid, teenager, young man and parent, the things I dreamed of achieving and what things I have accomplished.

I also thought about what awaits me as I grow older and approach the milestones of 49, 56, 63 – assuming I make it that far (here’s hoping!) and what I might do differently, what wisdom I have learned and – sadly – what dreams had not come to pass.

Frankly, every other show I watched last year came a distant second.

(But these, in no particular order, are my other favourite shows of 2019:)

  • Get Shorty – two movie-loving gangsters end up as movie producers in Hollywood. Inspired by an Elmore Leonard novel. Originally a film starring John Travolta. Available on Stan
  • Stranger Things  – surely needs no introduction or explanation if you were a kid in the 1980s. Think: Stand By Me/The Goonies/Steven King/Spielberg + Winona Ryder. Available on Netflix
  • Inspector Morse – the world’s grumpiest and most erudite detective. I am still making my way through all the feature-length episodes, most of which can be found (to varying degrees of quality) on YouTube. Or you can splash out on the DVD box sets.
  • Mindhunter – two FBI agents establish a new division that interviews serial killers to gain an understanding of their psychology. Brilliantly acted. Available on Netflix
  • Transparent – putting aside the furore over the conduct of star Jeffery Tambor, this groundbreaking show about a screwed-up LA family coming to terms with their father’s transition to a woman is a must-watch in my book.   On Netflix.
  • 10 Rillington Place – BBC retelling of the crimes of London serial killer John Christie, who is brilliantly portrayed in all Christie’s creepiness by Tim Roth. On Stan
  • Unbelieveable – Toni Collette and Merrit Weaver play detectives trying to catch a serial rapist. Great acting and insights into the way victims are treated by police. On Netflix

If you’re looking for more comprehensive Best of Lists, here’s is The Guardian’s Top 50 shows of 2019 and the New York Times’s Top 50 list.

And these are the ones chosen by journalists at my newspaper, The Australian Financial Review. (You may need a subscription to get access.Just ask, I am happy to send you a copy).

Recurring memories: A London long weekend, lonely and lovely

The things we remember, the things we forget.

Recently, a memory resurfaced after years lying dormant in my befuddled brain.

It was of a long weekend in London, that has stayed with me I think because I spent the three or four days of its duration almost entirely on my own.

I don’t recall the month or year, but it would have been around 2003 (I lived in London from 2000 to 2004) and probably in summer, as my memory is of it staying light till late.

The emotions that accompany memories of that brief period in my life are: loneliness, contemplation, poignancy and a strange feeling of pleasure. This last feeling I connect to the enjoyment of my own company and the absolute freedom to do as I pleased for 72 or or more hours.

At 46, balancing the demands of family and work, the idea of having all that time to just wonder about at my leisure, exploring new streets and old lane ways in that ancient city, idling away my time over coffees and beers, is hard to fathom.

My time now, though incredibly rich and meaningful seems so incredibly rushed.

Foolishly, I have dived straight into a pool of warm nostalgia regarding my London days, trying to reconstruct that distant weekend.

Most of the details have disappeared with just a ‘sense of things’ dangling before my eyes. Here I must resist the urge to use some corny poetic metaphor such as ‘like dust dancing through a ray of sunlight in a quiet room’ but its true, my recollection is both tangible (and potent) and intangible (and elusive).

Who knows if what of the little I remember of that weekend actually happening or is nothing more than a wishful re-imagining of events, moments and places, like how one constructs fragments of a quickly disappearing dream upon waking up.

So what do I recall of that lonesome and lovely long weekend, long ago?

I remember (quite distinctly) that almost everyone I knew – friends and family – were out of town or worse, not seeking my company, leaving me to my own devices.

I remember that the weather was good, and that I was outdoors a lot, exploring previously undiscovered parts of North London, not far from my home base, a flatshare above a kebab shop on Brent Street, Hendon and one floor up from Harold Schogger’s Bridge Club (also my landlord).

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My flatshare above the kebab shop (third floor) in Hendon

I recall almost for certain that I walked up Primrose Hill opposite London Zoo (a feature of many London movies) and took in the famous view across to the city (now with so many more skyscrapers).

Later, I am almost certain, I explored the nearby cobbled streets lined with stately Victorian terraces, the homes of rock stars like Oasis’s Noel Gallagher and movie god  Jude Law and his former wife, the actress Sadie Frost

plath-plaqueMore than likely, I was descending into London’s rich literary history, seeking out the Blue Plaques, which commemorate the homes where famous residents once lived.

At the time I was quite obsessed with Sylvia Plath (her plaque is at 3 Chalcot Square in Primrose Hill not far from where she gassed herself  at 23 Fitzroy Road), the doomed poet whose biographical novel The Bell Jar I read so intently in London.

I even memorized one of Plath’s poems (a feat I have never yet attempted since) – ‘Lady Lazarus’ – about her numerous suicide attempts.

I had experienced something of a mental breakdown of my own – panic attacks mainly – and was undergoing therapy which I think explained something of my fascination with Plath and her poetry and prose.  Perhaps that also accounted for my solitary status that long weekend. Depressives reciting Sylvia Plath poems out aloud are not usually magnates for social invitations.

This state of mind – a search for meaning of some kind – had no doubt encouraged my interest in the more morbid side of literature more generally. I recall reading a book about Plath and suicide called ‘The Savage God’ by the English Poet Al Alvarez (who Wikipedia tells me died in September aged 90) and enjoying long periods of introspection. (I was also doing yoga at the time, one evening a week in an old church building in Hampstead and falling asleep, accompanied by snoring, during the meditation at the end of the class).

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Primrose Hill

But I am digressing from that London long weekend to general London nostalgia.

Like an iceberg, I only remember a fraction of what floats above the surface of my conscious mind: memories of walking past the still, dark green waters of canals, walking over bridges to peer down at the boats and barges below, a sandwich at Pret-a-Manger, maybe a gelato at that Italian place near the Chalk Farm tube station. Maybe Nandos?

Whatever did or did not happen, I am there, on my own. A backpack, glasses, comfortable walking shoes, lost in my own thoughts, searching for those blue plaques. Perhaps George Orwell‘s at 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town or Dylan Thomas at 54 Delancey Street in Camden Town or William Butler Yeats at 23 Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill.

Perhaps I walked all the way up to from Camden Town, through Chalk Farm, past the trendy cafes and shops of Belsize Park and into Hampstead Heath, that giant, sprawling, and in parts wonderfully untamed London park for a bit of wander.

Then finally, as the sky darkened, on the tube or bus (route 113 or 13) home to my grubby flat in Hendon, stopping for a greasy kebab and then relaxing on the blush blue sofa, perhaps smoking a joint offered by a flatmate, flicking the through the endless channels on Sky TV.

 

 

 

The real meaning of ‘insouciance’

focus photo of brown sheep under blue sky

‘Insouciance’ is a fantastically pompous word whose meaning I can never remember, no matter how many times I look it up.

It one of those words that I have never heard spoken aloud – you’d sound like a bit of a dill if you threw it into a conversation (Go on, I dare you!) – but which keeps cropping up in the books I read.

This occurred most recently on page 261 of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson when the young narrator, Ruby Lennox, describes the family car being stuck behind “one particularly insouciant beast” on a drive down a country road in Scotland.

The insouciant beast in question is a sheep, part of a herd that the family are forced to navigate around frequently on their holiday.

Just what kind of sheep was this, I wondered? Lazy, evil, cunning, naughty, haughty? I had no idea. So I looked it up – again.

Insouciant, or the noun ‘insouciance’ pronounced IN-SU-SI-ENCE means “lighthearted unconcern” according to the Merrim Webster Dictionary” or a “casual lack of concern” according to the definition Google throws up.

The Cambridge Dictionary puts a bit more meat on the bone saying it means a “relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty”, while the MacMillan Dictionary throws in a more specific circumstantial factor defining it as “not worrying about or paying attention to possible problems”.

My favourite definition comes from the Collins Dictionary which defines insouciance as a “lack of concern shown by someone about something which they might be expected to take more seriously”.

“He replied with characteristic insouciance: ‘So what?'” is the example this dictionary gives.

Synonyms include “apathy”, “nonchalance”, “indifference” and another little-used word “torpor”.

Of French origins, its fabulously pronounced AN-SOO-SAYN in the mother tongue and no doubt still used in conversation by chic Parisians, without sounding quite as silly as an English speaker would.

As for the “insouciant beast” on page 261 of my novel, I can only laugh when applying all these descriptions to the behaviour of a rather silly farm animal.

On the other hand , is does rather brilliantly describe the seemingly animalistic urge to not give a shit.

It also nicely describes the attitudes of quite a lot of people in high office, come to think of it.

#Fakenews and facts: Journalism in the age of Trump

Fake-NewsPresident Donald Trump, who has railed endlessly against the mainstream media’s criticisms of him through the popular mantra of FAKE NEWS recently turned to his attention to fellow Australian journalist Jonathan Swan, a former Fairfax Media colleague.

Swan, who previously covered Australian politics for the Sydney Morning Herald (an affiliate of my newspaper The Australian Financial Review) has made a name for himself in Washington writing for American news website, Axios and interviewing major White House players like Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser to  President Trump.

Swan recently drew the wrath of the leader of the free world when he co-wrote an article on Axios this week that claimed President Trump wanted to “explore using nuclear weapons to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States”.

President Trump responded in characteristic fashion to a story that did not paint him in a very good light:

But Swan stood his ground, replying:

Axios doubled down on its defense of the story, with CEO and co-founder Jim Vandehei writing that the publisher stands solidly behind its reporting, which he said was “meticulously sourced”

“Since we published, additional sources have corroborated our account,” Vandehei added.

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Australian journo Jonathan Swan

Axios has as a key element of its ‘Manifesto’ – ‘Don’t sell BS’ and so stakes its reputation on always been accurate.

 

This of course is the personal manifesto of any good journalist working today (including myself) and has been so since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

But its especially true now as ‘serious journalism (for want of a better word) is upended by the ability for anyone to set up a website and claim to be an authority and respected source of ‘real’ news.

However, all journalists, even brilliant ones, make mistakes from time to time, perhaps more frequently now in the age of 24/7 news and social media.

I don’t know of any journalist, including myself, who has not made an error in a story, big or small. It’s part of the job.

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President Trump 

However, a genuine mistake should never been confused with  FAKE NEWS which has been around long before Donald Trump set foot in the Oval Office and made it his mantra.

 

The tag FAKE NEWS should only be applied to news stories that are not only plainly wrong, but deliberately written so by either including untruths, half-truths, fabricated information or made-up quotes, or by deliberately excluding important information.

A story can be plainly wrong, but not be FAKE NEWS. These stories are easy to spot because a correction, clarification, retraction and/or apology will follow.

However, in the era of Trump, the boundaries have been deliberately blurred.

Trump’s favourite FAKE NEWS targets like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN are broadly regarded as good sources of objective news, while those he admires and promotes, like Fox News (most of the time) have less then stellar track records on truth and objectivity.

It also got me thinking (based on my own experiences and those of my colleagues) about the reasons journalists make mistakes..

These I suggest are the main reasons good journalists sometimes make bad mistakes:

  1. Making incorrect or dubious assumptions
  2. Misreading or misinterpreting a document or pertinent piece of information
  3. Not verifying information supposedly from a supposed trusted source
  4. Not properly understanding the subject matter.
  5. Relying on poor sources for tip-offs and comments
  6. Poor judgement
  7. Tiredness, being rushed for time (a by product of the age we write in)

My father the serial killer: discovering the real Shannon O’Leary?

out-of-the-fire-and-into-the-panIt’s hard to write an honest review about ‘Out of the Fire and into the Pan’, the second memoir penned by the Australian actor, performer and songwriter Shannon O’Leary, without confessing that a large part of my motivation for reading it was finding out the identity of the author.

Shannon O’Leary is a pseudonym adopted at the request of her family.

Her first memoir, ‘The Blood on My Hands’ which I read and reviewed almost 3 years ago, dealt with the author’s horrific childhood, where she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her father Patrick, a sadistic serial killer (never caught) whom the author witnessed murder young women on the rural outskirts of Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s.

Out of the Fire and into the Pan, which begins with the author’s move from Port Macquarie to the inner suburbs of Sydney aged 15, is the story of O’Leary’s bumpy journey through a string of failed relationships with damaged men to becoming a mother of five kids and entrepreneur. It also charts her eventful and ultimately successful career in the entertainment industry.

While I was curious from the start to know who O’Leary really is (not too many memoirs claim a serial killer for a father) the stimulus to try and solve this mystery actually came from O’Leary herself: her second memoir seemed packed full of clues about her real identity.

For instance, she writes that in 1977:

I was always busy acting. I had a guest spot on a well-known soap opera, appeared in some television commercials and gained some extra work on a few films

A footnote identifies the soap opera as ‘The Restless Years’ and so I spent a great deal of time trawling through the list of actors that appeared on the show, to try and work out which one was Shannon O’Leary.

When that proved fruitless, I tried Googling her work as a ‘reporter’ on popular television show from the early 1980s, and another, a childrens show, she said she appeared on called the Super Flying Fun Show.

Later in the memoir, she mentions a scandalous story about her that appeared in a gossip column when she was dating a much old British-born cinematographer called ‘Henry’ and again I dug around online looking for the article without any luck.

She also writes about her work on a 1980s ABC mini-series  where she agonised about having to appear topless in an embrace with a “young blond Shakespearean actor [who] was already a star in Britain”.

All these clues were enticing, but led me down rabbit holes and towards red herrings.

In the end, it was the return address on the back of the package which contained my review copy of her book which proved the most valuable clue. After a bit of digging and cross-referencing of property records, I discovered who she was and soon came across the concise Wikipedia page of the real Shannon O’Leary. I also found other stories about her and her family online.

While, I do not plan to reveal who Shannon O’Leary really is – that was never my intention – I can say that the information online corroborates the major biographical details shared in her memoirs – though unsurprisingly, there is no mention of her disturbing childhood or who her father was.

It was also nice to see a photo of Shannon O’Leary and learn a bit about her interesting family, in particurlar her kids, which have also been successful in the entertainment sphere.

As for her second memoir, it is worthy sequel to the harrowing story of her childhood, and also an enjoyable chronicle of what life was like in Australia for a young aspiring actor and entertainer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The second memoir, while not nearly as shocking as the first book, still includes graphic flashbacks to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, who continues to make sadistic appearances in her life, a hissing shadow of a man that refues to go away, and whose crimes went completely unpunished.

I heard him laugh and opened my eyes to see him pointing the gun at me. The shot cracked out, whizzing over my head making me jump and teeter on the branch.” I think you can stay there for hours,” Dad said, as he walked inside.

Thankfully O’Leary also  takes time, amid the many traumatic and sad episodes, to recount her successes, big and small along the way. Most pleasingly for the reader there is a sense of progress, of building towards something hopeful: a loving relationship, a happy family and a comfortable home in a NSW country town.

Despite her abusive childhood, O’Leary emerges as a victor, as someone who triumphs over the rotten hand dealt to her at the start of her life. That she survived at all is a wonder, even she struggles to fathom:’Why was I spared?’

If I am to make any sort of criticism of her memoir, it would be to say that the author sometimes says too much when less would be better.

But that is a very minor criticism. O’Leary is good story teller, blessed with the gift of objective self-reflection. All of her experiences are retold with a feeling of ardent authenticity. The key moments in her life, both good and bad, become her “stepping stones” towards a place of relative normality.

For O’Leary,  the act of writing and telling her incredible story, as painful as that must have been at times, is way for her to liberate herself from her past and to find healing.

“Letting people know about my childhood was like I’d experienced a coming out – a shedding of skin,” she writes towards the end of her second memoir. “By writing the book and with my father dying (in 2009), I had liberation from my past.”