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Intrigue

Soviet life

It’s a little-known fact how much of Britain’s intelligentsia were either Soviet agents or outright apologists from the 1930s right up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. For example Nye Bevin, one of the heros of the 1930s Labour Party, stood up in parliament to praise Stalin despite the Ukranian Holomodor having already been exposed. Trade Union leaders and party officials were often paid off by the KGB. Peace movements actively tried to leave Britain defenceless against Soviet invasion and the pivotal industrial actions were attempts to bring down British government and replace it with socialism.

Needless to say, the Left doesn’t like to talk about its squalid history.

An 18 year old boy who isn’t a socialist has no heart. A 30 year old man who is still a socialist has no brain.

I was something of a leftie in my teenager years, quite naturally. The experience in childhood of having all your primary needs met by others, being exempt from earning a living, and just left to focus your attentions on your personal development. By the time a child reaches adulthood he’s had years of free schooling, free healthcare, free lodgings, presents at Christmas… is it any surprise he is reticent to go into the big scary world and suddenly stand on his own two feet? An integral part of becoming a man is to cut the apron strings, undergo a rite of passage, and then make your own way in an unforgiving world. Socialism is a negation of manliness. Deep down in the Id, teenage socialism is a wish for the easy life of childhood to continue.

My socialism lasted until I paid tax. Nothing sours idealism like suddenly becoming one of the suckers who has to pay for it. I tend not to argue with socialists anymore because they simply can’t see the horrors it causes. Living in a leafy English suburb insulates you against it’s bleak crushing monotony and for all it’s faults, Britains constantly meddling socialists haven’t succeeded in destroying our social structures. Britain is still a nice place to live.

But when you travel you really feel socialism. The greatest cure for socialist idealism is to visit a former socialist country.

I was in Cuba earlier this year and it’s a festering shithole. There are remenants of prior glory everywhere in the colonial architecture, wide boulevards, monuments but it’s like a neutron bomb went off in 1959 and they haven’t been repaired since. Locals still fly around in 1950s american cars chugging with truck engines. The Havana city hall has unrepaired broken windows everywhere and many streets are full of beautifully made old town houses that have degenerated into hovels. Cuba is ruined by communism.

A few weeks ago I was visiting friends in Lithuania. Usually I set up rooms in the beautiful Old Town but I took a chance and booked an apartment in the Vilnius suburbs. Good grief, what an education that was. If the old town is the cultural centre, drawing in the more affluent and worldly Lithuanians, then my suburb is the normal life that remains, the average Lithuanian citizen. Miles and miles of decrepit tower blocks designed to a formula that had all the life knocked out of it. There’s no feeling of spontaneously evolving organic society here, just a pre-fabricated one-size-fits-all imposition where all the streets look the same. The country has recovered well from communism and attracted lots of foreign investment and free trade so this isn’t a Cuba-esque tale of woe. But I imagine thirty years ago these same suburbs would be bleak, hopeless, soul-sucking hellholes.

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After the fight I looked like the other guy you should’ve seen

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. – Red Wind

Possibly the coolest modern First Edition collector’s book is a copy of Goldfinger signed by Ian Fleming to his friend Raymond Chandler. It recently sold for £40k and is now offered for double.

Fuck me. Epic cool.

Chandler is the king of hardboiled crime fiction, my favourite of the three subgenres* of detective novels. It always starts the same way with morose private investigator Philip Marlowe sitting in his office, feet on the desk and a quart of whiskey in the drawer. A shifty floosie comes in to ask for help without giving a straight account of herself and over the next 200 pages Marlowe dredges the cesspools of 1950s Los Angeles streetlife taking a few beatings, turning down a few come-ons, until gradually piecing together a mystery that would’ve been a whole lot simpler had his client just told what she knew.

There are few better writers of quips and comebacks than Chandler. The pages crackle with intensity.

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said. “I didn’t mean to be.” Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her. – The Big Sleep

We sneered at each other across the desk for a moment. He sneered better than I did. – Farewell My Lovely

I hung up. It was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t go far enough. I ought to have locked the door and hid under the desk. – The Little Sister

When I read him I’m furiously commanding my subconscious to store and catalogue all the one-liners for future use in conversation. It’s futile. I’ve only ever used one, when being threatened on the phone – “If you listen carefully, you can hear my teeth chattering”.

The genre was mostly invented by Dashiel Hammett with his Continental Op short stories that have aged remarkably well. Hammet worked briefly for the Pinkertons as an operative and it’s likely where he picked up his sharp dialogue, unromantic colouring of people’s character, and the technical details of investigating. Thus his stories feel real. Where Chandler completed the picture was adding dry humour. Lately I’ve caught back up with the Hard Case Crime series which carries the banner into the current era. These paperbacks are pumped out once per month with new lurid covers. Unbelievable as it is to me, the editors seem to share an identical taste as I’ve never been disappointed in a single one of the fifty I’ve read so far.

I plan to read one book per week this year. It’s important to pursue your hobbies for the pure leisure of it, without a care for if you are advancing yourself in a self-development-y sense. So I’ll read the classics, I’ll read science and history, but I shall also read whatever I damn well please no matter how little it contributes to my ongoing project of knowledge accumulation.

A man shall have his fancies.

* The other two being Police Procedural exemplified by the likes of CSI, and Locked Room Puzzles exemplified by Agatha Christie. But that’s for a different post.


Immerse yourself

It’s Saturday afternoon in a quiet corner of London’s most peaceful borough. All week now unseasonably hot sunshine has roared down to assault the pasty skin of the natives (well, the few Londoners who were actually born in England). Yesterday I picnicked in Regents Park by the lake, nibbling on homemade sausage rolls brought by the fine young English filly I’ve been seeing lately. Today both Dante and I have patches of sunburn and a lazy demeanour.

We are lying in garden hammocks under the horse chesnut trees. It won’t be long till all the conkers have fallen to the grass and we can begin the annual house conker competition. Dante is wearing a panama hat and making gin pahits. We’ve decided its 1935.

Recently I discovered a personal pattern in my hobbies to synchronise my media. Let’s imagine I’m reading a memoir of a South African mercenary, learning about life in the Liberian civil war. A good book is immersive and makes me want to experience more of the world the author is painting. What to do? Naturally I found a video game that closest represents the vibe (Far Cry 2) and listened to the music he casually mentions. Then I’ll dig around for movies of chaotic warzones in oppressively hot climate such as Apocalypse Now or Beast of War. This will often kick off a mini-cycle of interest until I’ve learned and felt alot more about this little corner of life. Then I move on.

Other examples:

  • Bioshock kicked off an art decor interest that had us listening to 1940s jazz, smoking cigars in dark lounges, reading old magazines and books such as Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead.
  • A few Hard Case Crime hardboiled novels switched me on to LA Noire, LA Confidential, and drinking neat whiskey in the middle of the day.

So right now Dantes is dipping into W. Somerset Maugham, an imperialist writer of the early 1900s who regals his audience with short stories of empire and the indolent, self-satisfied, interesting characters who always have an anecdote or two spare. Hence the panama hat and gin pahits. It’s sweltering hot now.

I fancy a game of billiards. Perhaps we’ll be bathed and dressed for seven, then a slap up meal at the Savoy and a rubber of bridge in Mayfair.


While I show you what a real man looks like….

Jobbers fascinate me.

Ok, back up. Hold on. Let me explain a jobber. And no I don’t mean a wet paper ball that you throw from the back of the classroom at the blackboard. As with everything in life, it can be explained by the concepts of professional wrestling…..

Let’s first break the kayfabe and acknowledge that inside the ring it is a co-operative activity in which two athletic performers act out a series of moves to progress towards a predetermined ending (called a “work”. On the rare occasions where no winner is planned, it’s a “shoot”). If you didn’t already know this, perhaps you’re reading the wrong blog. Professional wrestling companies are faced with a surprisingly intractable problem: how can you persuade large audiences to pay money to watch a contrived “fight” between two co-workers? It’s tough enough for boxing or MMA promoters to do that with real fights.

The answers are found in pantomine. The pro-wrestling industry structure blends together the lessons of travelling carnivals, pantomime, and soap opera so that you have four levels of show:

1. Weekly digest: Every week there is an edited highlights show broadcast on free-to-view television on a slot watched by children, such as the Saturday morning Superstars Of Wrestling I used to devour as a child. This is the “roper” (in hustler parlance) which draws a steady stream of new interested viewers and introduces them to the characters and the storylines. It’s always a few days after the event and teases more than it shows. This is so you upgrade to the…

2. Weekly live content: At least once a week on subscription cable is the standard show (WCW Nitro, WWE Smackdown etc) where all the wrestlers have normal matches and progress storylines (“feuds”). These shows are in themselves satisfying with full live matches and bring in revenue for the company (and likewise involve high costs to create steady new content). However, one thing you will never see is the matches you really want to see – the payoff bout between two stars that settles a feud. They’ll almost fight, often interrupting each-other’s matches with sneak attacks (“run ins”) or mouthing off until friends drag them away (“a pull apart”). This is because the 6 week storylines are all designed to naturally reach their climax at the….

3. Pay Per View event: This is the big moneyspinner that you’ve invested six weeks of your life anticipating so you can invite your friends around, crack open the beers, and enjoy four hours of highly scripted entertainment that is the pro-wrestling equivalent of a porno money-shot compilation in which all storylines are resolved, good triumphs over evil, and a clear champion is crowned.

That’s the 6-week structure to the industry and in the spaces between these TV programmes are the off-TV “house shows” which function like a rock band on tour, pulling in money from live gates and on-site merchandising. So we have a basic ecosystem in which free shows attract new viewers (without this the industry cannibalises itself like boxing did in the 1990s when all the stars went exclusively to PPV) and the subscription shows monetise them, with the PPVs creaming off the most-dedicated. In the 1980s it was common for performers to be wrestling six nights a week sometimes crossing timezones. A punishing schedule and the reason so few of them live beyond 50 years old after succumbing to a cocktail of drink, painkillers, and leisure drugs.

But what of the performer hierarchy?

Well, PPVs need heroes to bring in the money and we call them “babyfaces”. Think Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin. Most feuds involve a babyface being sneak-attacked by a viscious good-for-nothing (“heel”) until he decides to sort him out and restore karma to the world. The goodness of the babyface’s heroism is in direct proportion to the dastardliness of the heel’s villiany. This brings the most cheers (“pop”) when the hero openeth the can of whoop-ass.

Consider the problem – how do you prop up both the hero and the villian so both are credible opponents?

Enter the jobber.

Just as in professional boxing where a prospect can only advance to a TV-marketable 20-0 record if you have perenial losers willing to diminish their own records for a payday, in wrestling you have jobbers. A jobber is the opponent who agrees to lie down for (“put over”) the wrestler who is being pushed towards stardom. At the entry-level of the pro-wrestling TV food-chain that’s the anonymous little guy in dorky trunks who gets squashed by the famous guy on the Saturday morning show. All the stars feed on these jobbers to rack up wins and in the case of the heel, an aura of invincibility.

For one performer to win (and thus build his reputation) another must lose. If you keep having stars pair off in the weekly subscription shows then you can diminish one guy for every guy you elevate – which is bad for business. Hence pro wrestling relies on a steady stream of jobbers.

The unsung heroes of the industry.


Scaramanga

My favourite Bond movie is The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s clearly not the best one but Christopher Lee’s portrayal of elite assassin Scaramanga fascinated me as a child. Much of the Bond mythos derives from creating archetypes of the super spy and the super villians he battles. These men distill the essence of male development (mostly the warrior energy of the Jungian male archetype) as channelled through unrealistic life specialisms. I don’t believe it’s about the impossible dreams of perfection or control over your life, some kind of inadequacy and fear in a child’s real life that is overcompensated through living vicariously through fictional ideals. Bond is a flawed man, especially in the books (and later in Daniel Craig’s portrayal in Casino Royale).

“Men want to be him. Women want to be with him”

This famous description of Bond does not arise from his perfection but rather from his pure channeling of warrior energy into something larger than life. Place such a compelling character into a globetrotting, dangerous life, surround him with beautiful women and you have cracking good stories.

But of course every hero needs villians to fight. The greater the villian he overcomes, the greater his heroism. Scaramanga was my favourite because he was Bond’s equal in living the lifestyle. He was no boardroom-dwelling mastermind (like Ernst Blofeld) nor a calculating automaton (the Soviet assassins) nor a powerhungry fantasist (Hugo Drax). Scaramanga lived one hell of a life…. he just also enjoyed killing people and found a way to make it support an extravagant lifestyle.

Consider for a moment a typical day in his life. He wakes up in a wide expansive bedroom with silk sheets and the soft sounds of the Thai sea outside. Dressing in an exquisite lounge suit he walks over to his windows and gazes out across his private island. A midget butler brings his breakfast and asks what sir would like to do. Perhaps a powerboat ride to the city to meet his contact? Take on a job, follow his prey to a horseracing meeting and quietly assassinate him. Then a look around the night market, dinner with a beautiful woman in a quiet restaurant atop a hundred-storey skyscraper, then home in time for Eastenders.

Except for the occasional deadly tussle with a superspy, I can see the appeal.

Scaramanga carried himself with class. His Golden Gun is precision engineering and thoughtful design of a class above even a fine Lange & Sohne watch. Rationalised into several parts, each of which can be carried as an accessory congruent with his lifestyle (pen, cigarette case, lighter).

Consider his interior decorating. A man’s home is both his castle and his playground. I have a boxing gym, a cinema room, a study, and a snooker lounge in my house. These are the things that interest me on days I wish to stay home. Scaramanga’s interests differ to mine so he has a shooting range. Nice.

While in Thailand, Scaramanga’s country of residence, I tried to find a cigar lighter of a similar style to his. The other pieces would be difficult to obtain and incongruent for a non-assassin such as myself, but a lighter is a necessary accoutrement for a man of class. My search came up empty. Finally, in a small cigar specialist shop in Belgrade I found what I was looking for. Gold restrained look, solid weight, clean sharp snap when it opens and closes. Bliss.

I’ve realised too why I like the Hitman series of videogames. They are essentially puzzle games played by human characters rather than tetris blocks. The highest score in Hitman comes from killing your target and only your target, without any security becoming suspicious of you. In the fourth game you can actually construe your murders to look like accidents so the world doesn’t even know an assassin exists. The contracts take place in mountaintop party lodges, Mardi Gras carnivals, English stately homes….. yes, this game is a Scaramanga simulator.

The Japanese super-assassin

The new game comes out this year. I expect I shan’t go out for a while.


Sinistar

I remember the Bosnian war from TV when I was a teenager, first fumbling with political ideas as I try to understand the world a step beyond my immediate environment. As a child you learn the small area of a couple of square miles around your house, every little bush, every little wall (handy for hide and seek). The process of getting older includes the process of foraging further afield like a dog running further on it’s adjustable leash.

By age 15 I was diving into fringe politics – local anarchist and anti-fascist groups. I was just a child really. I was too young to have developed good judgement so I went through phases of believing some choice bullshit. While studying for my university entrance the Serbs encircled and lay siege to Sarajevo. April 5th 1992, twenty years to this day. Fortunately I was in a different city. Tonight I write from Sarajevo.

It's looking better these days

It’s just one of life’s coincidences. There was no intentional symbolism in coming here on this historic day. I’ve been travelling through Croatia with Dante as we look for new cities to live in. We’ve scouted Zadar, Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik. So after an interminable queue at the Bosnian border we headed up towards Sarajevo.

Our first stopping point this morning was Mostar.

This city got the shit kicked out of it during the war. As we ambled around the back alleys and outskirts the buildings were pockmarked with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of bulletholes. Something about personally witnessing the remnants of war brings a stronger emotional reaction than just seeing it on TV. This is a site of many horrendous images I’d seen mediated through TV and magazines as a teenager. Now we were standing beside bombed out shells of buildings twenty years on. It was eerie. Sinister, even.

The town itself has rebuilt. The Old Town by the famous bridge is just another pretty valley town. We had a coffee overlooking the river and it could’ve been anywhere.

A few days earlier I’d brought a local girl home while up in Zadar. She’s a twenty year old Bosnian so I just assumed the war wasn’t part of her life, but then she starts talking about her family….. “my great grandmother was Croatian and kidnapped by Bosnian soldiers and trafficked. My great grandmother on the other side was Bosnian and kidnapped by Croats…. Two of my uncles died in the war”…. This girl said she is shunned by some Zadarians because of her surname and Bosnian look. Perhaps a flair for the dramatic but the war still ripples through lives twenty years on.

So now Dante and I are dressing up in our sartorial elegance for a night on the town in Sarajevo. We can hear fireworks outside. The streets are awash with stunning women. Let’s see what the night brings….


Mario Bava and the golden era of Italian low-budget cinema

As a teenager I went through a phase of collecting horror / exploitation movies. This was the pre-DVD pre-internet era so I was literally tape trading VHS tapes with fellow collectors around Europe. I had a strong preference for Italian and Spanish movies, with the odd bit of Jean Rollin thrown in (best softcore lesbian vampire movies of the 1970s – an acquired taste).

Black Sunday

Like every other teenage boy with a taste for the forbidden I started out by collecting the “video nasties” made famous by the 1984 Director of Public Prosecutions list. Back then the newspapers had led a moral panic claiming horror movies on the new unregulated video format were driving kids to violence and murder. It’s a clear case of the media amplification spiral and several books document this particular shameful exercise of government meddling in the liberties of free-born Englishmen. So I was collecting low-budget grot such as Anthropophagus the Beast, Gestapos Last Orgy, Driller Killer and so on. Very quickly I realised that the Italian entrants on the list were frequently good movies from genuinely talented directors such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.

It was from Bay of Blood that I stumbled onto the greatest of all low-budget genre directors – Mario Bava.

“Movies,” Bava once explained, “are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands… at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing”

His impact on the movie industry includes:

      • Directing the first Italian horror movie The Devil’s Commandment when contracted director Riccardo Freda walked out.
      • Shooting the first Peplum movie Hercules.
      • Invented the Giallo genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much
      • Invented the Slasher genre with Bay of Blood. There’s one twenty minute section near the beginning when a group of teenagers show up at a lakeside camp which was in microcosm the entire genre when later ripped-off by Friday the 13th.

Bava was legendary among producers for his ability to wrap up competent movies on time and under budget but more impressive to me is his versatility across genres. He made gothic horrors, sword and sandal, westerns, sex comedies, noir slashers and psychological thrillers. All beautifully shot with oodles of lavish atmosphere. My personal favourites are his brooding whodunnit set with a house of high fashion Blood and Black Lace, and then the movie that inspired Ridley Scott’s Alien – the 1964 sci-fi Planet of the Vampires. Sam Ishii-Gonzales writes:

“A near abstraction on colour and movement, Blood and Black Lace is Bava’s cinema distilled to its cruel essence. This film develops with complete abandon what Bava more tentatively explored in The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, 1962) and “The Telephone” episode of Black Sabbath. From the opening image (an unhinged sign for Christiana’s Haute Couture banging in the wind) to the last (a telephone receiver off the hook swinging like a pendulum, back and forth) we have a remorseless, inexorable movement, a dissipative force, that levels everything in its path. This movement becomes, in the case of Nicole’s murder in the antique shop, a pulsation of light, by which one means not only the neon sign which flickers off-on, off-on as the woman meets her demise with a medieval iron hook (a variation on the death mask of Black Sunday; later, Mary’s demise by way of a red-hot furnace will duplicate the searing of Asa’s flesh), but Bava’s use of primary colours which throb with an intensity all their own. That Bava’s source of inspiration was a lurid type of pulp magazine itself identified by a specific colour, giallo (yellow, the colour of terror, of fearfulness), couldn’t be more appropriate.”

Watching B&BL is like stepping into a timewarp of a Europe that never really existed where the women are beautiful, forests dark and rainswept, and offices are in gothic country homes dripping in oversaturated colour. I imagine Count Cervantes dating one of these young models.

The Italian movie industry of the 1960s-70s is a treasure trove of unusual boundary-pushing cinematic oddities. A bustling profilific era, every time a major western movie proved to be a hit then suddenly dozens of production companies would churn out hundreds of clone movies within a few years. So for example when Kurosawa made Yojimbo, Sergio Leone remade it in the American West. That movie struck gold and kicked off the whole spaghetti western cycle (which in ironic symmetry was then emulated by the Japanese chanbara movies of which Yojimbo was an example). Other examples:

      • A Man Called Horse inspired the cannibal cycle
      • The Night Porter inspired the Nazi love camp cycle
      • Emmanuelle inspired the softcore love cycle
      • Dawn of the Dead inspired the zombie cycle
      • Caligula inspired the roman decadence cycle

Truly bizarre. In this era of DVD and torrents you can easily lay your hands on obscure oddities that back in my tape-trading days often took years just to track down a grainy 5th-generation copy. Transport yourself back through time. Get some friends together, put a crate of beers on the table, and have a real grindhouse night. Here’s some sample triple bills:

US theatrical posters for Bay of Blood, Deep Red, Flavia the Heretic

1. Italian bloodiness: Bay of Blood (Mario Bava) / Deep Red (Dario Argento) / Flavia the Heretic (Gianfranco Mingozzi

2. Italian freaky atmospherics: Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci) / The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci) / Caligula the Untold Story (Joe D’amato)

3. Spanish timewarp: Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando De Ossorio) / Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (Jorge Grau) / Justine: Marquis de Sade (Jess Franco)