‘One of These Things First’: the joy of reading Steven Gaines’s bittersweet childhood memoir

one-of-these-things-first-360x544My introduction to the New York writer and journalist Steven Gaines came through a review copy I was sent of his newly published memoir, “One of These Things First”.

Beautifully written, with equal measures of tenderness, sadness, cheeky humour and a big dollop of nostalgia, it’s the story of his difficult Brooklyn childhood and the time he spent in the Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1962, aged just 15.

Being a gay, Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s did not make life easy for Gaines, who, fearing his “dick and balls might be cut off” because of his homosexuality, kept his predilection for the naked chested lawn-mower boy and Warren Beatty’s topless scene in Splendour in the Grass to himself.

I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside.

Keeping a dark secret manifested itself in an obssession with stealing strange objects and then an obssessive compulsive counting disorder, culminating in his suicide attempt –  punching his fists through glass in a door at the back of his grandparent’s ladies shop, Rose’s Bras Girdles Sportswear – and his commital to a mental hospital.

Luckily for Gaines, he had a wealthy and loving grandfather – “Gog” whom the book is part-dedicated too – who paid for his stay at the expensive clinic (most famous as having treated Marilyn Monroe). Otherwise he would have ended up in the Hillside Hospital in Queens with its cold bars on the window and air of despair and hopelessness.

As it turned out, Gaines’s stay at Payne Whitney became a turning point in what up until then had been a very unhappy and lonely childhood, with constant reminders that he would come to “no good” and a difficult (to put it mildly) father who referred to his son as a “nut job”.

Gaines emerged from Payne Whitney with a degree of self-acceptance and self-worth that must surely have saved his life, and also inspired his career as a writer and journalist.

Here he found acceptance and friendship among the other “crazies” including the film and theatre critic Richard Halliday, who turns out to be the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin, one of Gaines’s childhood idols.

Even his Freudian therapy with the kindly and good-intentioned Dr Myers who attempted to ‘cure him’ of his homosexuality, ultimately proved beneficial because for the first time there was someone who “seemed interested in what I had to say”.

Gaines has an endearing obsession with movies and the book is peppered with references to his favourite films – Gone with Wind, Lust for Life, Gaslight and Marty and trivia about which actor or actress received an Oscar nomination or Academy Award.

He tells Dr Myers his favourite film is Splendour in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which he saw 11 times – not because he related to Natalie Wood’s character who has a nervous breakdown, but because he got to see Warren Beatty with his shirt off.

The book is full of these painfully honest and darkly funny insights into himself as a yong man. It’s also full of the colourful characters – both good and bad – that shaped his young Jewish life for the better and for the worse, set among Borough Park, “the cognac of Brooklyn, the potent and flavorful essence” a ghetto-like place of immigrant Jews that no longer exists

Reading “One of These Things First”reminded me why I loved movies like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm with their quasi-tragic Jewish humour and quintessentially Jewish characters: the overbearing mother, the neurotic, the obsessive personality, the self-made man, the kids bound for decades of “strict Freudian analysis”.

Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, not for any suburban childhood or silver-spoon, Upper East Side private school education.

Reading about his life, I felt a connection with Steven Gaines that encompassed our  Jewishness, our capacity for mental disintegration (I suffered for a time from debilitating anxiety attacks and thought I was literally going mad), shared love of movie trivia and nostalgia for the people and places from our childhood.

Gaines-HIFF3After finishing the book, I had a peak around Gaines personal website. He is a prolific writer, the author of dozens of books including  biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and who has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Times.

I especially like his website photo. It shows Gaines, middle-aged but still youthful with a cherub like grin, and suggests a man of warmth, intelligence, kindness and cheekiness, character traits which were also part of the make-up of the 15-year-old boy in his memoir, who came of age during his stay at Payne Whitney.

Ted Bundy and I: Reviewing Ann Rule’s true crime classic, “The Stranger Beside me”

stranger beside meAmong the best books ever written about true crime and serial murder must surely be Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial killer Ted Bundy.

A former Seattle police officer and then regular contributor to true crime magazines as she struggled to raise four kids, Rule was commissioned to write the book that became The Stranger Beside Me  as the spate of murders of young, attractive girls grew longer and more baffling.

Paid a small advance, Rule was told her book would only be published if the murderer was caught.

No one at first believed that Ted Bundy, the charming, intelligent, good-looking young law student was capable of such horrendous crimes.

This included Ann Rule herself, who by the most incredible of coincidences had worked night shifts with Ted Bundy at a crisis centre in Seattle in the early 1970s.

But by the time Ted Bundy was founded guilty and sentenced to death in a Florida court, she had come to the awful realisation that the man who sat in the cubicle beside her night after night in Seattle,  saving the lives of those contemplating suicide, was also a monster.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

Apart from telling the story of Ted Bundy  and his awful crimes, The Stranger Beside Me, also narrates Ann Rules own personal journey into the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

ted bundy mugshot

Ted Bundy mugshot

The truth, as Rule found out, was that Ted Bundy, driven by a uncontrolable and never quite explained rage had used his facade of good looks and charm to bludgeon, rape and mutilate dozens perhaps over a hundred young women across America in the 1970s.

Many victims were attacked as they slept in their beds on college campuses, others were lured into Ted Bundy’s infamous beige VW Beetle as he masqueraded as someone with his arm or leg in a cast, struggling to carry his possessions.

Just before his execution in Florida in 1989, Bundy confessed to 30 murders committed  between 1974 and 1980 But many believe, and Bundy hinted himself, that the true total was much higher, perhaps over 100.

Before that, despite a mountain of evidence linking him to many murders (though much of it circumstanstial) he claimed he was innocent of any of the crimes. Often defending himself at his televised  Florida trial, he was seen by many as charismatic, brilliant and charming, which only added to the myth of his innocence.

In the end Rule, who maintained a sporadic correspondence with Ted Bundy through phone calls and letters from the time he was first arrested in Utah until his conviction and death sentencing in Florida, came to see through the facade, to see that she, like so many others, had been conned.

ann rule

Ann Rule

No one, except perhaps his long-standing girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (called Meg Anders in the book) had a more personal insight into Ted Bundy and in the annals of crime writing there are few who has painted such a three-dimensional portrait of serial killer as Ann Rule.

For she knew both Teds: the kind, sensitive, caring charmer and the psycopathic manipulator.

She describes Ted as “brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib and persuasive” who loved “French cuisine, good white wine and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films” and who “knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards” and whose “poems of love were tender and romantic”.

And yet Ted “loved things more than he loved people” who could feel more compassion for inanimate objects than he could ever feel for another human being.

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted had gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.

There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of Ted Bundy’s final interview with Dr James Dobson,  given the evening before he was executed in January in 1980, when his appeals and luck finally ran out.

In it he tries to explain the reasons for his crimes as being due to the combined influences of pornography, alcohol and violence in true crime detective magazines.

This video and shorter versions of it has been watched millions of times of YouTube, which says something about the public’s fascination with Ted Bundy, who  remains in the news, 36 years after his death at the electric chair. (An article appeared as recently as June 30 about a new  book “I Survived Ted Bundy” published recently on Amazon.com).

Rule says of this final interview that Ted was lying and manipulating to the very end, remembering a letter that he wrote her where he dismissed True Crime magazines as trash:  “Who in the world reads these publications?” he asked her.

“The blunt fact is that Ted Bundy was a liar. He lied most of his life, and I think he lied at the end,” Rule wrote. But, she said, Ted’s final performance accomplished one thing that troubled her:

Sensitive, intelligent, kind young women wrote or called me to say that they were deeply depressed because Ted was dead. One college student had watched the Dobson tape on television and felt moved to send flowers to the funeral parlour where Ted’s body had been taken. “He wouldn’t have hurt me,” she said. “All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me…”

ted bundy trial

The ‘other Ted’: The famous enraged photo  of Ted Bundy at his Florida trial

There is nothing in ‘The Stranger Beside Me that glamourises Ted Bundy or turns him into the folk hero others made him out to be, especially after his daring escape from a Colorado jail in 1977, while facing kidnapping charges.

Rule stresses time and time again that whatever the tragedy of Ted Bundy’s life – who he might have been, what he become in the end – the real tragedy were all his innocent victims whose lives he ended. Indeed, she tells with great compassion the story of each of his many victims, of who they were and who they might have been.

And yet, she could never quite shake the memory of the Ted she knew before he became the serial killer ‘Ted Bundy’ something which became impossible following the publication and huge success of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980.

Ann Rule passed away on July 26 last year, aged 83 taking with her the title of America’s queen of true crime.

She publishing three dozen crime books after The Stranger Beside Me, but it remained her signature work with fans writing to her about it and asking questions about her and Ted Bundy decades later.

In an update to the book published in 2000 (I suggest downloading the Kindle version which has all the numerous updates since 1980), Rule writes:

It has been a quarter of a century since the day Ted Bundy called to ask for my help and to tell me that he was a suspect in the disappearance of more than a dozen young women…time and time again, I have naively believed the fascination with Ted would diminish and that I would never have to think about him again. I have long since accepted that I will be answering questions about him until the end of my days.

 

 

 

In the Boston Strangler’s shadow: Reading Sebastian Junger’s ‘A Death in Belmont’

death in belmontThe front cover of my edition of Sebastian Junger‘s intriguing  true crime book,  A Death in Belmont features a grainy black and white photo of the author as a small child sitting on the lap of his mother, who looks down at him affectionately.

Behind them is a kindly looking elder gentleman called Floyd Wiggins, and next to him, looking directly at the camera is a powerfully-built stocky man in a white shirt, his hair greased up in a pompadour, called Albert DeSalvo.

The photo was taken in mid-March 1963 when Wiggins, DeSalvo and another man Russ Blomerth (who took the photo) built an artist’s studio in the backyard of Sebastian Junger’s Belmont home.

A year later, the same man, Albert DeSalvo,  would confess to being the notorious Boston Strangler, one of the most infamous and violent serial killers and rapists in American history.

Knowing this, turns the photo into something utterly chilling: a young child and his mother with a monster smiling serenely behind them.

This then is the springboard –  a very personal one – for Junger’s engrossing book about the Boston stranglings that terrified residents in the early 1960s.

Of course DeSalvo, who confessed to being the strangler after being arrested for a string of other violent crimes, is a big part of the book, but he is not the central character.

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A mug shot of Roy Smith

Instead Junger focuses on a black man, named Roy Smith and one particular murder that occurred near his childhood home in Belmont, which also gives the book its title: A Death in Belmont.

The day before the photo was taken a woman in her sixties, Bessie Golderg had been raped and strangled in her home, just a mile away.

The brutal attack, perpetrated in the middle of the day and by someone who Bessie Goldberg let into her home, occurred during a spate of 13 similar stranglings that started in June 1962 and ended in January 1964.

But this murder was pinned not Albert DeSalvo (who also never confessed to it in jail), but on Roy Smith had been sent by his employment agency to clean the Goldberg house on the same afternoon that Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled.

He was there in the hours just before her death – shopkeepers and neighbourhood kids saw him walking in Belmont that afternoon – and so he became the prime suspect.

Being a black man in a white neighbourhood also did not help, nor did his criminal history or his penchant for alcohol.

Despite this, the evidence was only circumstantial , Smith had little motive apart from robbery and there was nothing in his past to suggest he was a sexual predator. But, a court found him guilty and he was given a life sentence, only narrowly missing the death penalty.

He spent the rest of his life in jail, but steadfastly maintained his innocence during his 13 years locked up, right up until his death, from lung cancer. Tragically – if he was indeed an innocent man – he was paroled on his death-bed. Junger writes poignantly:

“If Roy Smith had not been working at the Goldberg’s residence the day she was killed, the murder would quickly have been added to the list of other Boston Stranglings. It was so similar to the previous eight killings that the police initially thought they had arrested the man responsible for all of them. They hadn’t.”

Junger’s brilliant book, investigates in great detail the lives of both Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo, the likeable man who built his mother’s studio in their Belmont backyard, but who had another dimension to his personality: a viscious and cruel man who combined an insatiable sexual appetite with sadistic violence.

While Junger does not proclaim Roy Smith innocent, he hints very strongly at the possibility  that he was an innocent man, who tragically found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Albert DeSalvo just after his capture in Boston on February 25, 1967.

Albert DeSalvo, at the time of his arrest in 1967

It’s a highly convincing argument and I finished reading the book almost certain that Roy Smith did not kill Bessie Goldberg and that more than likely, DeSalvo had raped and strangled her  while on his way to Sebastian Junger’s house to complete his mother’s artist studio. Indeed two further stranglings that DeSalvo confessed to occurred during the time he worked in Belmont.

Junger returns time and time again to his mother’s memories of DeSalvo. Most chilling is her memory of a time Albert DeSalvo asked her to come down into the basement of the house to show her a problem with the boiler. She hesistated, noticing a strange look in his eyes. Ellen Junger made an excuse not to go down into the basement, a decision which might have saved her life.  Junger writes:

“Four months earlier (before Bessie Goldberg died)  Al had stood at the bottom of the cellar stairs and called up to my mother with an odd look in his eyes. For a moment at least, our basement was a place where the very worst things imaginable could happen.”

DeSalvo died in prison, stabbed to death by a black inmate, taking many of his secrets to the grave. So there is no easy solution to the mystery of who killed Bessie Goldberg.

There are also many, including Junger, who question whether DeSalvo was in fact the Boston Strangler, or just someone who craved the spotlight. Until recently, there was little physical evidence to connect him to any of the crimes, while DeSalvo’s own confessions were full of errors.

But in 2013 – seven years after his book was published, a DNA match was found linking DeSalvo to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan providing proof he was guilty of at least one of the  13 murders he confessed to, though this list did not include Bessie Goldberg.

In the end, there can be no definite answers, only likelihoods and possibilities. Junger himself has come under fire suggested Roy Smith may be innocent with the Goldberg family angrily denying his hypothesis that their mother might have been killed by someone other than Roy Smith.

In 2006, when A Death in Belmont was published, Bessie Goldberg’s daughter, Leah Goldberg Scheuerman told the New York Times it was “full of lies and omissions” including that a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also upheld Roy Smith’s conviction on appeal.

It’s not the first time Sebastian Junger has been accused of getting things wrong. His bestselling and most famous book, The Perfect Storm (made into a Hollywood blockbuster with George Clooney) was hit by accusations of many inaccuracies.

21 cedar

21 Cedar Rd, Belmont – were Albert DeSalvo built a studio for Ellen Junger in 1963

But, reading a A Death in Belmont, which Junger spent three years painstakingly researching, you do not get the impression that you are being manipulated: the stories of Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo are carefully constructed by Junger who also masterfully recreates Boston of the 1960s with its immigrant communities, rough neighbourhoods, drinking dens and quiet suburbs.

When as a reader, you weight up all the evidence, it seems hard to believe that Roy Smith, who had no history of sexual violence would have raped and murdered a sixty-year-old woman whose house he was cleaning. If he did, he never admitted it, thus ending any chance of a life outside of prison. What guilty man would do that?

Reading Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: The inspirational story of a president in the making

dreams-from-my-fatherEven if Barack Obama had not gone on to become the first African-American president of the United States, he would have lived a remarkable life.

This much is clear, if you read his superb memoir Dreams from My Father, written after he achieved an earlier historic milestone, becoming the first Black president of the 130-year old Harvard Law Review, the esteemed student-run law journal of Harvard University.

Barack Obama was elected Law Review president, aged 28, in 1990. His eloquent comments made in an interview with the New York Times, following his historic appointment, hint at the higher role that lay ahead:

“The fact that I’ve been elected shows a lot of progress. It’s encouraging,” he told the NYT.

“But it’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.”

After being elected law review president, he received an advance from a publisher to write his life story (up to that point) and the end result was Dreams From My Father. It had modest success at first, but became a bestseller when he became US President in 2009.

What ever you think of President Obama, as his time in office comes to an end, his memoir which reveals a man of the highest integrity (but with many human failings too) is well worth reading, particularly in light of the awful possibility that a Machiavellian power-hungry loose cannon, 69-year-old real estate mogul Donald Trump, might be next in line at the White House.

It’s certainly one of the best autobiographies you will read about any public figure. It’s beautifully written, rich in detail and painfully honest. President Obama would have made a fine writer had he not chosen a path in politics.

The book charts his life, from his early childhood in Hawaii until just before he entered Harvard University in 1988. It ends with his journey to Kenya to meet his family and learn more about his gifted, but troubled father.

Barack Obama Sr was an ambitious, charismatic and larger-than-life foreign exchange student from Kenya who met Kansas-born Ann Dunham while studying at the University of Hawaii. (Like his famous son, he too would study at Harvard, obtaining a Masters in Economics).

Barack – or Barry as his family called him – was born a year after they met in 1961, but the marriage did not last long. His father returned to Kenya where he became a government official and raised his third family. He made money, but then lost it all when the government changed and he would not support their views.  He later struggled with drinking as he descended into poverty.

Barack saw his father only once again, aged about 10, when he came to Hawaii to recover from a car accident (a fearful, bittersweet and awkward time for a young boy, as Barack Obama describes in his memoir). They stayed in intermittent contact until he learned of his father’s sudden death in another car accident in 1982. At the time Barack was 21 and living in a squalid apartment in  Harlem.

“At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man…as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and my grandfather told. They all had their favourites…”

Dreams from My Father is ultimately the story of a young’s mans search to understand his brilliant, but troubled father, who despite his lack of physical presence was the foundation stone for Barack Obama’s acute sense of black consciousness, his early waywardness and rebelliousness and his desire to help others through community organising.

In his memoir, Barack Obama recalls his time spent as a kid exploring the rough and tumble back streets of  Jakarta, Indonesia (where he moved, aged 7, with his mother to live with her new Indonesian husband, Lolo) his return to Hawaii to complete his American schooling,  his teenage years partying, drinking, smoking and drug taking but also searching for himself. Later he attends college in Los Angeles where he makes his first public speech calling for a South African boycott and finds it comes naturally to him and that he likes the experience. From there he moves to New York to live in the Black community of Harlem, where he gets a good corporate job with prospects. But he feels lost and directionless and quits to become a community organiser in Chicago, where a hero of his, Harold Washington, is the city’s first African-American mayor.

Be Like Barack The Pros and Cons of a Career in Community Organizing

Barack Obama, during his time in Chicago as a community organiser

A big chunk of the book is given over to his many years spent as a community organiser in Chicago,  meeting community leaders, religious figures and ordinary citizens, understanding the harsh realities of their lives  their daily battles with unemployment, violence, drugs, poverty and neglect. Barack Obama writes candidly about his own naievety in trying to bring about change in people’s lives, his many failures and some notable successes.

In one moving scene he brings a community delegation  from a neglected, polluted and impoverished housing estate called Altgeld Gardens by bus to demand a meeting with the director of the Chicago Housing Association over fears about asbestos contamination. This after an earlier request was ignored. The delegation refuse to leave. Later a TV crew arrives and films interviews with residents of Altgeld. Amid all the publicity the residents are promised, on camera, that testing would start by the end of the day and that a meeting with the director has been arranged. They celebrate later on the bus ride home with caramel popcorn:

“As I chewed on the gooey popcorn, looking out at the lake calm and turqouise now, I tried to a recall a more contented moment.”

During his time in New York and Chicago, Barack Obama meets his sister Auma, who lives in Germany and another brother Roy who lives in Washington DC. Finally he makes the pivotal journey to Kenya, first to the chaos of Nairobi to meet some of his family and then he travels by train across the vast Kenyan plains to the Port city of Kisumu and onto Kogelo, to the tribal family homestead where he meets ‘Granny’ and hears the stories of his father, grandfather and their ancestors.

“Granny nodded and pulled me into a hug before leading us into the house. Small windows let in a little of the afternoon light and the house was sparsely furnished – a few wooden chairs, a coffee table, a worn couch. On the walls were various family artefacts, the Old Man’s Harvard diploma, photographs of him…”

From here the Young Barack Obama would make his way through the hallowed halls of Harvard and from there all the way to the White House.

It’s an amazing journey about a remarkable man, and its beautifully told.

obama family

A Young Barack Obama with his Kenyan family

 

The Sense of Ending: in praise of the concise novel

51hhJ8IdqyLDisappearing into Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending was so pleasurable an experience that I read his short 163 page novella twice.

This is rare for me. I don’t read many books more than once. They have to really intrigue and beguile me to encourage a second reading.

So I can add The Sense of An Ending to a narrow list of twice or even thrice-read books that includes JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the George Orwell novels Coming up for Air, 1984 and Keep the Aspidistra Flying and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

In each book, I found a central character whose view of the world I identified with, or with whom I made a connection in some meaningful way, or whose life I wanted to step into, even for just a little while: a chance to be angst-ridden teenage rebel and narrator of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield wondering the streets of Manhattan, having conversations with nuns and prostitutes, or rotund London insurance salesman George Bowling in Coming up for Air who escapes to the country town of his youth, before the bombs of WW2 fall, or idealistic, starving and self-destructive poet, Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

In The Sense of an Ending I instantly liked and identified with Tony Webster, the 60-year-old divorced former arts administrator who has succeeded in living a life of little bother or regret, who does not fantasise “a markedly different life from the one that has been mine”.

Webster has accepted a modestly successful and peacable existence in a small London flat with his affairs neatly in order. He’s even on good terms with his ex-wife Margaret.

I’ve made my will; and my dealings with daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren and ex-wife, are, if less than perfect, at least settled. Or as I have persuaded myself. I’ve achieved a state of peaceableness or peacefulness. Because I get on with things. I don’t like mess and I don’t like leaving a mess.

But then he is forced to re-evaluate things – love, friendship, memory, the decisions he made and their consequences – when he receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, 40 years earlier.

She is Sarah Ford, the recently deceased mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, who has bequeathed him £500 as well as the diary of his erudite, brilliant school friend, Adrian Finn, who committed suicide while at college and whose passing was described in the Cambridge Evening News under the headline: “Tragic Death of Promising Young Man”.

Adrian dated Veronica soon after Tony’s relationship with her ended. Having parted ways angrily via a dreadful, hurtful letter Tony, went travelling and in the days before email and mobile phones, only found out about his friends death many weeks later, when he returned home.

Tony’s mother wonders if Adrian killed himself “because he was too clever”. Tony comes to the conclusion that Adrian, who had great powers of reason and an amazing intellect, had come to the logical conclusion that he should end his life.

But then comes the promise of the diary, a way into his deceased friend’s mind and for Tony, who doesn’t like loose ends, the prospect of a definitive answer: a way to make sense of Adrian’s ending.

The only problem is his still very angry ex-girlfriend Veronica: she has the diary and won’t give it to him.

Instead she feeds him an extract with a complex maths equation that Tony must unravel.

In doing so he confronts his own decision to accept the path of an uneventful, non-confrontational life with no loose ends or complications, he begins to unravel the mystery of himself.

If this doesn’t quite explain why I like Tony so much (people who know me might say he and I have a lot in common)  then I think this observation in a review of the book in the New York Times explains it rather well:

Barnes’s unreliable narrator is a mystery to himself, which makes the novel one unbroken, sizzling, satisfying fuse. Its puzzle of past causes is decoded by a man who is himself a puzzle.

Chasing Peta: A review of Niki Savva’s book: The Road to Ruin

road to ruin coverThe abiding image, the one that sticks doggedly in my mind having read Niki Savva‘s book The Road to Ruin, about the rise and swift fall of the Abbott Government, is of the then prime minister racing down the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra, chasing after a fuming or teary-eyed Peta Credlin, his chief of staff.

Abbott would invariably catch up with Credlin, console her and then bring her back – with great reluctance on her part – to the meeting room, where whoever had offended her (no matter if they were a cabinet minister or senior staffer) would offer a grovelling apology: “Sorry Peta.”

It’s a recurring theme in the book. Savva, a conservative no less, paints a picture of a well-intentioned (from a Liberal voter’s point of view) prime minister, who was seemingly under the spell of this power-hungry, emotionally volatile and unpredictable woman (Credlin would verbally abuse staff, then bring in a cake the next day) and how their bizarre co-dependent relationship brought down the Abbott government in September last year, after less than two years in power.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing book, indeed a page turner which is no mean feat for a book about politics. Savva, a well-regarded columnist for The Australian newspaper draws on all her vast experience in the Canberra press gallery plus her deep knowledge of the Australian political machine (she was a media adviser to former Treasurer Peter Costello) to weave a fascinating tale of ego, stupidity and ignorance that never strays too far into the banal details of bureaucratic government process.

Across 300 odd pages, it reveals just how poorly suited  Abbott and Credlin were to their respective jobs of PM and chief of staff. Both were brilliant in opposition, hammering away at the dysfunctional Labor government of the Rudd and Gillard years, but in office Savva shows how utterly hopeless they were from the very beginning – Abbott with his dreadful captain’s picks, poor choice of ministers, unwillingness to drop poor policies and inability to read the tea leaves and Credlin with her micro-management, dragon-like temper and deliberate sabotage of the good intentions of those who sought to help Abbott save his government.

Right up to a few weeks before Abbott and Credlin both lost their jobs, the chief of staff – not the prime minister’s wife – was still immersed in choosing the decor for the refurbished lodge….a week out [Credlin] was obsessing about artwork, burying herself in trivia…their lack of preparation on that fateful night would astound even their allies

There were numerous warning signs for Abbott – all of which he ignored or dismissed – foolishly believing that the Liberal Party was not Labor, and would never turf a Coalition Prime Minister out of office, certainly not in his first term after such a resounding electoral victory.

As for Credlin, she seemed to believe her own legend of an invincible, warrior, shielding Abbott from his foes. So much in fact that as Savva reveals, Credlin framed a caricature of herself drawn by The Australian‘s Eric Lobbecke depicting her as just such a sword-wielding warrior (with Abbott hiding behind  her) and hung it in her office.

083887-eric-lobbecke

The Eric Lobbecke cartoon

These sorts of astonishing details and anecdotes pepper The Road to Ruin. They have the effect of taking the reader inside parliament or the party room or the restaurants where Abbott and Credlin dined, including that cringeworthy famous account of how Credlin fed Abbott from her own fork, just one of many similar incidents that sparked rumours of an affair (dismissed by both of them) but which more imporantly framed the bizarre nature of their relationship.

Also particularly enjoyable are Savva’s own stoushes with Credlin over the things she wrote in her column in The Australian, which put a spotlight on all the bad decisions. Savva would receive spiteful, threatening text messages and on a number of occasions pressure would be applied to the newspaper’s then editor, Chris Mitchell to sack her. Mitchell stood firmly by his star writer, to the huge frustration of Credlin and Abbott who must have felt like they were taking friendly fire from a supposed ally in the Murdoch-owned broadsheet.

As for the chief criticism of The Road to Ruin: that neither Credlin or Abbott were given the right of reply, I think it’s a fair call. It’s a basic principle of good journalism that people be given the opportunity to respond to their accusers. This is particularly the case for Credlin in light of Savva’s very unsympathetic portrayal of her, which smacks in part of retribution.

However, there is nothing to suggest that Savva made anything up, indeed many people are quoted on the record, a very powerful aspect of her book.

Savva has strongly defended her decision not too seek responses from her two protagonists, saying she believed both have a big enough public platform to give their side of events, (and which has proved true).

“They can go out there any day, any night, any day of the week and say what they think happened or give their version of history, which, I might add, is completely at odds with almost everybody else’s version of what took place,” she said in an interview with the ABC.

If it’s a flaw, then its a very minor one in my opinion and does not distract much from what is elegantly written, finely paced political saga which is certain to become a classic of its genre.

Conversations with Holden Caulfield

catcher_in_the_rye_penguin_2I picked up my old paperback copy of JD Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye after watching the movie ‘The Killing of John Lennon’ about Mark David Chapman, the wayward young man who killed The Beatles singer and songwriter, and remains in jail.

It seemed a bit of sinister that I should choose to re-read this cult novel after watching a movie about an infamous murderer and murder, but the connection is an obvious one. 

Chapman shot Lennon in December 1980, outside the singer’s apartment in Manhattan, and famously took his inspiration to kill from The Catcher in the Rye and its narrator, 16-year-old angst-ridden rebel, Holden Caulfield.

In the movie, Chapman calls Lennon a ‘phoney’ – as Holden Caulfield calls so many people in the novel – because Lennon preached ‘no possessions’ (famously in his hit song ‘Imagine‘) and yet owned mansions and yachts and was immensely wealthy.

At his trial, when Chapman was asked if he had anything to say, he rose and read the passage from The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden tells his little sister, Phoebe, what he wants to do with his life:

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.

Picking up and re-reading The Catcher in the Rye, the exact same lemon yellow copy which I had read as a young man, was both a joy (it’s such an engaging, hilarious, thought-provoking and sad story), and also a rather unsettling experience. 

Mostly because, I  noticed all the passages and sections I had underlined about ‘phoneys’, and people “never noticing anything” and “girls driving you crazy” and “being a madman”. I realised that back then, I like Mark Chapman, was also a rather lost, somewhat bitter young man (thought without any murderous intentions I am certain) who had made a similar emotional connection with Holden Caulfield.

Holden’s inner monologue about the world and its endless disappointments, as he traipsed around New York, mirrored many of my own inner frustrations and torments at the time.

In fact it wasn’t just underlining that I had done, but I’d also engaged in conversations with Holden, writing responses to the things he said. In short, I was a bit of a “madman” myself.

 At one point I wrote: “Really Holden, I beg to differ with you. You are talking shit,” this in response to Holden saying “You don’t always have to get sexy to know a girl.”

In another note, I wrote simply  “Alicia Silverstone” alongside a passage in which Holden describes a girl he has a crush on, Jane Gallagher. 

 Holden observes that when Jane got excited when talking “her mouth sort of went in about fifty directions, her lips and all”. It must have been around the time the movie Clueless came out which made Silverstone, who had this sexy, pouty mouth,  a star and ever young man’s fantasy. 

Clearly, I really connected with Holden Caulfield back then, and to be entirely truthful more than 20 years on, I still find a lot of wisdom in some of his observations. 

Across the generations, millions of others have made a similar connection to their own feelings of adolescent loneliness and frustration about a world of phoneys: The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since it was published in 1951 and according to Wikipedia, continues to sell 250,000 copies every year.

There’s so many passages in the book that just knock the lights out for me, not least his awkward ncounter with a young prostitute in his hotel room where he loses his nerve, and just wants to chat.

It really must have stunned readers back in the conservative 1950s with Holden’s frank observations about sex (“I’m probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw.”), desire (“I was feeling pretty horny, I have to admit it.”), suicide (“I almost wished I was dead.”), death and depression (“I just felt blue as hell”).

Of course, a lot of Holden’s behaviour, thoughts and opinions are those of angst-ridden, affected adolescent, too intelligent for his own good, but at the same time there is also so much truth and poignancy in what he says about people and their phoneyness, be they teachers, priests, movie stars or members of his own family (“All mothers are slightly insane”).

 It’s hard to pick out a favourite passage because their are so many. But I f I had to choose one, It would be when Holden decides to pay a visit to the Natural History Museum, which he loved visiting on school trips because “it always felt like it was raining outside, even when it wasn’t” and where he’d eat candy and chew gum and a girl would hold his hand. 

He recalls his favourite exhibits,  the Indians in a war canoe “about as long as three goddam Cadillacs in a row” and the eskimos fishing through a hole in the ice.

Holden says you could return a hundred thousand times and nothing would be different, the eskimos would still be there, except you would be different in some way. 

 He then thinks about his kid sister Phoebe, and that she would visit the museum like he did as a school kid and she too would be different every time she visited.

It didn’t exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn’t make gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad. Anyway, I kept thinking about all that while I walked.

There’s something so brutally true about this.

Don’t we all long for some things to never change? That our parents not grow old, that those we love not pass away or disappear from our lives.

Don’t we all want to be Catchers in the Rye?