‘The Hippies are all dead, boy….’ London in the 1970’s

 

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(Photo: Steven Muster)

Watching (again) the magnificent movie version of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I realised how right the director (and scriptwriter) got the setting: 1970’s London. Grim, green, grey. Peeling paint, rotten wood, grey telephones (at least theirs worked on the far side of the Irish Sea). The arse seemed to be falling out of everything, in mid-seventies London. The backwash of the 1973 Oil Crisis, on the heels of the Yom Kippur War, had hit hard; there was a lot of industrial chaos; the Provos were still planting bombs here and there. Flower power (if it ever really existed beyond the King’s Road and in magazines), was well dead.

Walking into a pub in North London, one evening in the late seventies, I encountered, unhappily, a chap I owed a money to, from a few years previously. Like a Cockney Cagney, he walked over to me with a pool stick in his hand, pointed it at my eye and said, in a broad west of Ireland brogue

‘The hippies are all dead, boy. And you owe me twenty pounds, so you do.’

I glanced around the (rough, rough, rough) bar, in panic, and nodded over at a figure breastfeeding a pint of Guinness behind a newspaper.

‘That’s my cousin sitting over there. Do you know him, by any chance?’

The cue stick was lowered. I promised to repay the money, forthwith and sidled over to my protector. It had all been a misunderstanding, it seemed. I suddenly had what the Arabs call wasta: connections and a little bit of protection with it. It was only a week or two later that I became aware of the Alsatian doggy chained up on the roof above our heads, as a caution to the friskier customers. Cockney barman; Irish clientele; German dog.

The days of the squats and the handy money were drawing to a close. Of living on a sixpence in London. Of dining in style in Wimpys, drinking in Biddy Mulligans or The Cock in Kilburn and waking up who-knows-where.  Twenty years on, there would be mobiles phones, computers and the electronic neural map that is the internet. Angst-ridden progressive rock bands (to the sound of Tubular Bells) and angst-ridden singer-songwriters (male and female) would give way to Punk on the way to the more electronic uplands. Something approaching colour would steal into the streets of London again. Maybe it was just that there was more money about; or maybe it was (horror) La Thatcher who led the emergence from the green-grey (for the south of England, that is). Or maybe it was inevitable: hippies die, punks die, even Goths die.

This, of course, is someone else’s seventies. Already preserved in formaldehyde, like some strange specimen out of time. We are, you might say, when we are as much as what we are. Facets of the contemporary vanities and delusions that keep us sane and upright.

Ground Zero Thrillers: More Walkiepedia than Wikipedia

 

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Thrillers thrill, or they should anyway. They are less concerned with the whodunnit than the problem of stopping chaos or reestablishing order. They are often whatif stories stretched to breaking point. But some are more ‘real’, so to speak, than others. Ground Zero Thrillers, grounded in the writer’s intimate (mostly native) knowledge of the physical and psychological terrain, tend to be guided more by walkiepedia than wikiepedia. It’s not so much a question of credible bluffing than of local experience ratchetted up to rattle us.

The Northern Irish writer, Eoin McNamee, is a case in point. We see this in two novels of his: The Resurrection Man (based on the Shankill Butchers case) and The Ultras, relating to the murder of British soldier Robert Nairac, in the mid-seventies. The edge of entertainment is honed with a visceral knowledge of the landscape that rests less on grid references and ‘getting things right’ than on being emotionally true in the telling. And language is terminally tied to the telling: location, locution, location. Words are places.

A world away are the ‘parachute in’ novels, where a writer choses a particular backdrop and pulls together a narrative from an alien environment. One such is Cathedral (Nelson DeMille), which toggles between a U.S. backdrop and the local one. The emphasis here, of course, is more on thriller than truth. Not that that matters, of course. The emptor needs no caveat here: one buys a thriller to be thriller, titillated a bit, and, maybe, enlightened a little too, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the chase.

Genre thrillers come in all sorts of flavours: conspiracy, medical, military, historical. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels are one (tough) man against the world novels; Robert Harris’ books, from Fatherland through Ghost to the Roman series, are altogether more cerebral but, nevertheless, driven by the same thriller imperative. Older thrillers, from the sixties and seventies, and their movie avatars, such as Marathon Man (William Goldman), The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin), The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty) and The Odessa File (Frederick Forsyth, all have literary leanings. The language is precise, fit-for-purpose and isn’t simply there to serve the action. This type of thriller is less likely these days. Location and locution don’t go together quite as much as they did in the past (see Rosenbaum’s opening, very non-pc interior monologue in Marathon Man, shortly before he is killed in a car crash: ‘Everything set his teeth on edge…the Kennedys set his teeth on edge, the commies, dirty movies, dirty magazines.’ It would probably merit a caveat lector in many universities these days) Goldman here, of course, is a seasoned screenwriter writing a novel, whose ear for cinematic dialogue makes the eye skip a beat on the page too.

But the local (not parochial) is still singular. If you want, in thirty years’ time, to ‘hear’ what the conflict sounded like up North, try McNamee’s novels. They resonate with place and the pouting mouthings of the put upon. When John McGahern noted that verbatim dialogue was just too boring for the eye, he noted too that the artifice of ‘near-real’ dialogue was what convinces us of where we are.  Who we are. And what we do to one another, in the process.

El Toro Smarto

 

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It was the festival of San Isidro and a Spanish journalist, and old friend,  invited me to a bullfight in Las Ventas, one of Madrid’s rings. We took the metro and had the customary few drinks before crossing to the Plaza de Toros to take our seats on the cold concrete seats (with the help of some cushions).

The first couple of bulls were dispatched fairly quickly. I felt for the bull, of course. While I could admire the spectacle, the whole thing seemed a bit unseemingly. It wasn’t much of a way to end your life. Galloping round a ring trying to impale men in fancy costumes and chaps on horseback who kept sticking things in you to torment you. Then the coup de grace, collapsing in the sand and being hauled out along the sand. That is until El Toro Muy Smarto arrived.

The next bull wasn’t having any of it. He pawed the ground, grunted, eyed everyone menacingly. But didn’t fight. Though he was goaded by picadors and had a couple of coloured toothpicks stuck in his back, he just wouldn’t play ball – or bull. I was wondering what would happen next when, in the more salubrious seats, a couple of people started waving handkerchiefs.

‘What’s going on, Carlos?’

‘They want them to take the bull away. It isn’t a fair fight.’

‘It isn’t really anyway.’

‘Es que…he has to go.’

‘How?’

‘Watch!’

I supposed I expected either something novel, like a tranquiliser dart or gas. Or, maybe, something more traditional, like a couple of cows paraded in to lure the naughty bull off, on the basis that, if he cheated death, he still got the woman, so to speak. But I was all wrong.

A couple of moments later, a brace (better than saying a bunch or a herd) of bulls, all tied together, was led into the ring. El Toro Smarto regarded them a moment, as though weighing up the possibilities which were, plainly, fight and die or join the lads, walk off the stage and, probably, end up siring other bulls until he was blue in the face. Then the man leading the team (nicer collective, more corporate) began to lead the bulls off and El Toro Smarto (seriously smarto now, in my opinion) followed them out of the ring.

After the fights had ended, myself and my friend gained access to a little gathering offstage. A clutch (new collective) of well-got, finely-dressed Spanish men and women were standing inside a little enclosure skulling wine and chatting. I glanced down at the ground and notice bull’s blood flowing around a pair of high heels. It was a National Geographic photo op. The message from the universe was clear: be brave and you end up in sections; be a coward and live to love again. Or something like that.

Or something not at all like that, maybe.

Carlos Santos’ new book, 333 Historias de la Transición is available on: Amazon.co.uk

Mixing Modals in ‘Merica

 

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(Union Soldiers at Appomattox Courthouse, April 1865)

The Twin Towers were still standing, when I arrived in ‘Merica for the first time.   I spent a few days in upstate New York and then took the train down to Lynchburg, Virginia, to an artists’ colony. I arrived on a hot, humid July night and was picked up by a man driving a dodgy-looking dodge from the darkened station. I woke the following morning to southern U.S. accents, turkey buzzards high in the sky and killer humidity. I overheard someone ask someone about going out to a bar that night.

‘I might could…’ I loved the southern mixed modals, straightaway. I spent that month mixing with the other writers and painters and poets and composers. Along with turkey buzzards, there were snakes (copperheads and black ones) and very large insects. The colony had a little swimming pool. Across the highway, in Sweet Briar women’s college. there was a much bigger pool and a lake. I swam a little in the lake until the snapping turtles did for me. One day, I was sitting by the lake when a chance companion, a Vietnam vet, asked me casually

‘What do you think of that bum in the White House?’ (The incumbent bum was William J. Clinton). I muttered something harmless and went back to thinking about the snapping turtles.

On another occasion, I was sitting in the computer lab of Sweet Briar typing, in the company of another writer and a postgrad student, when the roar of a jet approaching suddenly got louder and louder. When the roar crossed the ‘danger’ threshold, we glanced at one another for reassurance (I think they call it ‘referencing’) and dove to the floor as an airforce jet, miscalculating, passed over the building, almost crashing into it. At the far side of the highway, an artist painting flowers glanced up to see the pilot’s face whoosh by him.

One dark, humid Virginian midnight, one of the women artists was working along in her studio when the face of a young man appeared at her window explaining to her, frantically, that he too wanted to be an artist.  The young woman fled back to the safety of the colony house. The next morning, the sheriff’s car was drawn up outside the building. It might have been the start of a tv thriller.

But the best day of all, that first time in ‘Merica, was  the service at a Baptist church, in the dusty backroads. It was ‘homecoming Sunday’ and many of the congregation had come down from D.C. for the service. The style was stunning. It was far from the rough world of the Washington suburbs. When the preacher preached, if it wasn’t quite hellfire, it was still fairly hot. His message ended with

‘Keep on keeping on…’

When piano started up everyone turned around to the doors to watch the women choristers sashaying up the aisle. There was song after song, with the piano beating away in the background. This, I thought, is where it begins: blues, R+B, soul, gospel, rock. And after the praying and the singing, there was fried chicken in the basement of the chapel, not far from the giant total immersion tub.

A few days before I left Virginia, I went for a drive with a friend to Appomattox (which I learned to pronounce correctly rather than like an exotic skin disease), the official site of the ending the civil war, in April 1865. It wasn’t hard to imagine the southern soldiery turning about to march back home to their towns and villages and farms. Or the officers (with their side-arms), trooping off on their horses. It was history. Now, lots of people say, unfairly, that Americans don’t do history: they do, it’s just Now history. Very now, it you compare it with Europe or the Middle East or the British Isles. But it’s still history.

After our dusty encounter with the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ (one of the more entertaining handles for the conflict), my friend said

‘Like to knock back a cool one?’

‘Might could…’

I thought of something my grandmother said to a visitor once

‘Next time you come, leave your accent at the station.’ Mixed modal verbs just wouldn’t sound right in a Dublin bar. I would leave them in Virginia. They need their natural environment to thrive: south of the Mason-Dixon Line.