Archive for the 'Book' Category

OSAMU TEZUKA

26 May 2012

AstroIt is not really well known that Japan has been a major player in the development of cartoons and comic art. I think they deserve more credit; credit where credit is due — take Iwao Takamoto, for example, Iwao worked for Disney on films such as “101 Dalmatians” and “Lady & The Tramp”, but he also created Penelope Pitstop and Scooby-Doo for Hanna Barbera.

Scooby-DooTakamoto was Americanised, and his subjects were western in all respects, but the Japanese nevertheless managed to develop their own spin on things, and this has grown to be a massive market of  Animé (animations) and Manga.

For Animé, we have Studio Ghibli of Tokyo who make full-length animated movies, and are often referred to as the Japanese Disney. My children adore Spirited Away, My Neighbour Tortoro, Pom Poko, Ponyo and Howl’s Moving Castle. In fact, Spirited Away is the only film made outside the English-speaking world to win an Oscar, and it grossed over $274 worldwide.

Studio Ghibli

Manga is often known as BD – a Belgian/ French term “bandes dessinées” which simply means “drawn Strips”. This is considered better than the American term, “Comic”, which carries the implication of being funny or at least not-serious.

There is a long traditional Japanese history in Manga, and is very influential in producing graphic art novels, particularly of a serious or adult nature. Manga stories are often made into Animé, if popular enough.

TezukaThe Golden Age of Manga dates back to just after World War II, and to one man — Osamu Tezuka.

At just 17, Tezuka created his first pieces of work, The Diary of Ma-chan and Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island). He single-handedly invented the stylistic attributes that makes Manga distinct. He gave Manga its style, particularly the invention of Manga eyes, which have been massively influential on Japanese Manga and Animé.

1989-02-09, Tezuka died of stomach cancer in Tokyo.

As an idea of how highly Tezuka was regarded, the city of Takarazuka, Hyogo, where he grew up, has opened a museum in his memory. Japanese Postage Stamps were issued in his honour in 1997. And, the Japanese toy company Kaiyodo began manufacturing a series of figurines of Tezuka‘s creations in 2003.

Osamu Tezuka is held in high regard all over the world; and rightly so. He is a massive influence on street art, graffiti, and comics.

When I first saw his work, I was amazed that it was from the 40s and 50s. He was so ahead of his time. This is merely my small tribute to a great man. Check him out on the internet — and then spread the word.

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BEGGARING BELIEF

21 April 2012

[Picture of Shaman]Belief is such an interesting word. Everyone believes that two plus two equals four because that’s rational — yet the word is probably more often associated with the irrational.

I have always enjoyed reading philosophy, religion, and magic, and their historical contexts, so much so that my bookshelves groan under the strain. I was moving some books today and spotted my old copy of  “The Golden Bough” by  Sir James Frazer, and a flip through the pages brought back a lot of memories.

In my post on Cthulhu, I stated:

“But I am also a human, and brought up in a fabulous fantasy world of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I am interested in the arts, and cannot deny there is something weird going on — it cannot merely be a collective, collaborative delusion entirely. …

“All I’m saying is that — rightly or wrongly — I have intuitive feelings, gut feelings, traits that reveal the irrational, illogical, and impulsive emotional over-rides.

“I respond to music, to paintings, to love, to food — in partaking, participating and creating. Hard to define, but nonetheless real to me.  Amongst these is the Cthulhu.”

I also mentioned that had been affected by the philosophy of mechanism, and this, together with my natural atheism, may well seem at odds with my talk of intuition, love, gut feelings and even the evil I call Cthulhu.

It’s not such a great paradox actually — at least not for me; I can live with it all. However I do get asked about this, so I’ll try to clear it up here.

[Picture of Red Ballet Shoes]I recall the revelation when reading The Golden Bough, back in my late teens, that things influence us and we influence things.  This is clearly true; we have relationships with everyday objects.  We put on shoes, the shoes change our feet  and our feet change the shoes. The shoes also wear the steps and floor as much as they wear out the shoes.

Wear and tear humanises and personalises things, and we can grow fond of items — have “favourites”.  People like to be surrounded by things that are familiar — but also because they embody some personal meaning. They are heirlooms.

[Picture of Guitar Signed by Elvis]Worth and value are tricky words when ascribed to things that have memories and meanings attached. In antiques and auction rooms, items gain considerably from provenance. Meaning doesn’t even have to be personal, for anything worn or owned by Elvis Presley, for example, is worth more just because of that fact.

Now, obviously, this is all airy-fairy rubbish. A guitar played by a dead rock star is still just a guitar, a watch passed down from father to son, is still just a watch. Yet it isn’t, somehow.

If you remove gods from religion, if you dismiss the afterlife and other such irrational beliefs, you are left with rituals.

I find this interesting; there is something in humans that needs ritual for the evidence of it is all over the world and throughout history.

I recall playing with my school friends, and a massive part of my childhood was about inventing and adapting games. We would play by the rules until it got easy or boring, then we would up the ante, until the rules were pretty elaborate. It was probably more about setting rules, defining boundaries, negotiation and dealing with consequences than merely playing games.

Society has rules, too, driving about is commonplace, but the rules and rituals are pretty complex when you think about it. We all know when to start work, what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what we can and cannot do.

The Big Idea is about being able to repeat the process to get the same end. Reliability depends on doing it the same way every time to get the same result every time.

But this creates a new thing – the system, the process itself becomes a subject of study; the scientific method, and in the workplace even today, we try to refine workflow. We need to know what things  in the chain of events are the ones that matter, so then the procedures are analysed and imposed.

[Diagram of a machine]We are mechanised and do our part in the process. Method Statements and QA are about the stages and steps involved in carrying out a task to get a predictable result.

It’s not just at work either; we practice playing our musical instruments to get better and better in order to play the tune without mistakes. Playing a tune is a process of playing chords or notes one after the other to get the desired result. Sports science is all about refining training to get better results.

All this is so much a part of our lives that we have irrational and personal versions — from trinkets for good luck, to routines to get us to sleep at night.  Everyone has heard of being OCD and how comforting rituals and routines can be for certain groups. Religion has ceremonies and rituals, and I call all of these irrational because they are not analysed and improved, and they are not very good at reliably predicting or producing the desired result.

Voodoo dolls, rain-dancing, wedding vows, Christenings, Ramadan fasts, praying, healing, levitation, horoscopes, exorcisms, witch burning — and many, many more — have a role in culture and in history, yet are ostensibly bizarre and don’t actually work reliably, if at all.  It would seem that they are either used willingly as a comforting ritualistic belief, or else used by the unscrupulous to dominate the gullible for their own ends.

Throughout my life I have met people who have told me that they were healed at Lourdes, by prayer, by reiki, or that they can only play winning golf with that “special” club. I’ve heard miracle stories, and tales of people who can predict the future. And I cannot call any of them liars or delusional because the fact is that they are telling the truth. It’s just that the truth doesn’t prove anything; it could be a lucky break, coincidence, or random chance.

It is somehow very attractive to human beings to believe in a karma connection, to see the mystical and the wonderful. The German word, Geist, means more than ghost. There is the Poltergeist, the Geistlos, the Zeitgeist, the Weltgeist (see Hegel), Geisteskrank, and so on — including the Holy Spirit and Guardian Angels. My favourite is the ghost in the machine, I know well that you can build two machines, two cars, guitars, or whatever — in exactly the same way from the same parts, and they will not be the same at all. Once assembled, they get a life, a personality, and it is that geist with whom you have a relationship.

[Photograph of John Ruskin]I quite liked Ruskin’s idea of allowing artisans creative freedom, that their skill and love in making something could somehow be contained within the resulting artefact, and that a mass-produced (or machine produced) item was “soul-less”.

A lot of people throughout history have been called witches because they have done things that were actually good, kind and helpful for everyone. They didn’t merely pray, they used herbs or some routine that worked reliably, and as such it was neither religion nor science — so it had to be witchcraft.

Witchcraft and magic have religious aspects (irrational rituals, spells/prayers) but also scientific aspects (they can get repeatable results). All that science did was analyse the process and call it medicine.

I have always liked the fact that something is magic until it is understood, then it becomes science.

[Artist's impression of God]This is how I came to understand the term, “God”. In primitive cultures, if crops failed, they claimed it was because of God (or a god), if you do the trick of replacing the word “God” with “The Unknown”, then it is clear that the crops failed because of the unknown. In other words they have no idea why their crops failed, or why the rain didn’t come.

From this, it is clear that as knowledge increases, the less unknowns we have — and that means the less God. This is self-evidently true; we know God didn’t make the crops fail as soon as we know why they failed.

Just like something is magic until we understand it, something is unknown until it is known, and the more we know, the less we have a need to have an intervening God.

I do believe in love-at-first-sight, I do have relationships with buildings, furniture, clothes, and animals. I have gut feelings and intuition. I don’t know everything. I like routine, and have my ways of doing things. I cannot explain them all rationally… and I don’t want to either; part of being human (perhaps the most human part of being human) is irrationality.

This is my attempt to celebrate that aspect of our natures.

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CTHULHU

18 March 2012

[Picture of Cthulhu "coming to get you"]Straight away, I will say that this is a strange one.

I have always pronounced Cthulhu as kloo loo (I don’t know why). However, I have recently heard that it has an “official pronunciation” of  kath who loo (which I think is weird, but anyway).

The Cthulhu is a nightmare creature. A monster, trapped and waiting to get us. It has a tentacled octopus head, a fish-scale body, wings, and is a sort of chimera — part human, dragon, and octopus. A grotesquely malevolent creature. Pure evil. A living gargoyle. An alien.

This THING is from the twisted imagination of HP Lovecraft, and it first appeared in a short story published in 1928, “The Call of Cthulhu”. The Cthulhu is imprisoned in an underwater city in the South Pacific called R’lyeh, and this is a source of constant anxiety for mankind at a subconscious level.

Lovecraft developed the character from this story thereafter, and it has been developed further after his death.

HP Lovecraft reckoned that human beings, with their limited faculties, would never be able to fully understand the universe — particularly as it was meaningless and purposeless, and that humans were unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Humans have a tendency to try to find meaning or purpose, and to put their existence as special , significant or central. This was my introduction to the philosophy of mechanism –  metaphysical doctrines known as universal mechanism and anthropic mechanism. I was 17 at the time, and the world was a pretty bleak place, with a disastrous outlook for the future.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page had been reported to have bought a house in Loch Ness that was once owned by Aleister Crowley, and Crowley was considered the most evil man who ever lived. So there was all sorts of daft articles going about. Even Eric Clapton’s (or rather Derek & The Dominoes’) Layla was connected to Crowley (Leila Waddell). My sister was an avid reader and paperbacks by the likes of Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley were all around the house. The 70s was a great period of cross-cultivation in cultures, and everything was merging and overlapping at the time.

The science fiction genre spilled into heavy metal music, album covers and book jacket art bled onto biker’s jackets, tattoos and graffiti.  Fantasy novels depended on things like alternative realities, drug trip type experiences, life on alien worlds or set in the future or distant past. Crowley had created his own religion, so why not science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard (Scientology)?

It was all a bit mind-blowing and overwhelming for me at times back then. I did not understand enough to have confidence in my beliefs to be thought-through cohesively, and although I was searching around for sense in this, I also searched for inspiration, entertainment and amusement.

Occasionally my searching would bring up something that didn’t “sit right”, something that I disliked instinctively. All of that, all of those things, for me, became embodied in the Cthulhu.

To see why, we have to go back to Crowley.

I read Lovecraft and Crowley in the same period of time. Crowley was interesting and amusing for a while — But I liked his concept of True Will for example. This resonated in me at the time. It basically means do what you want, what you really want. And while that sounds a bit like do anything you want, it doesn’t; it ties in your inner will with a destiny aspect — you have to do what you are gifted at or meant to do.  The trick is finding yourself so that you can live a superior moral life according to your True Will. It’s an attractive religious idea, well grounded in the catechism and conscience, but is the cornerstone of his own religion.

  • But then you find out that he was all a bit odd, mixed up in drugs and ritualistic homosexuality, secretive black magic societies, Freemasonry and more — all of which gathered inside me an anxiety and a dread — and that’s the Cthulhu.

Ever since, and throughout my life, when I have suffered really bizarre and dreadful nightmares, I think of the Cthulhu, and wonder if it is any closer to getting free from its shackles under the sea.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not and never have been a follower of The Beast 666, nor have I a real belief in any mythology, Greek, Roman, Norse, Tolkein or Lovecraft. I did get right into the philosophy of mechanism for a long time, and there remains much of that in me to this day.

But I am also a human, and brought up in a fabulous fantasy world of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. I am interested in the arts, and cannot deny there is something weird going on — it cannot merely be a collective, collaborative delusion entirely.  Perhaps it’s mood-changing chemicals in the brain?  These are weird and wonderful explorations for each of us to take. All I’m saying is that — rightly or wrongly — I have intuitive feelings, gut feelings, traits that reveal the irrational, illogical, and impulsive emotional over-rides.

I respond to music, to paintings, to love, to food — in partaking, participating and creating. Hard to define, but nonetheless real to me.  Amongst these is the Cthulhu.

The Cthulhu is real for me.  I once thought of it as a stomach ulcer in me, I even briefly thought it could be a cancer, but these notions were soon dismissed in favour of the Cthulhu being external to me.

It’s like a sixth sense. When I begin to feel anxious, I am reminded of the threat to my healthy, happy, state is out there — the Cthulhu is waiting, calling, screaming, plotting, scheming. It’s that feeling that someone’s out to get you — for no other reason than badness and pure evil, or immoral self-interest.

It doesn’t have to be directed to me, however. For example, if  I see a photograph of an electric chair or read about the holocaust, that dark churn in the pit of my stomach, that scare, the horror of evil and the sense of its power — that’s the Cthulhu. Dread Full.

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PHILIP K DICK

19 February 2012

[Photograph of Philip K Dick]Throughout my adult life, Philip K Dick’s work has popped up from time to time to delight me. He truly was different.

It’s too easy, I think, to simply put him down as just a SciFi author.

I have nothing against Science Fiction, and his work is closely related to that genre, but Dick does more than set a story in the future and he does more than fantasise about the future, about space and aliens; he gets into the mind and how it works.

It was in 1982 that I heard about Philip K Dick from a pal. Dick had just died, so there were obits and newspaper columns to ignite interest. On top of that was the movie, Blade Runner.

I loved this film, from Vangelis’s soundtrack to the mash-up of the old Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler “hard-boiled gum shoe”, pulp fiction detective novel with the science fiction future of android robots. It was very stylish, beautifully directed, edited and the acting was quality.  It is a film that lives with you afterwards.

Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My pal gave me a bunch of his short stories, and I remember that I read, enjoyed and returned them, and that was that. Only it wasn’t.

I couldn’t tell you the names of his stories, nor any one that stood out more than others.  I do, though,  recall being impressed and perhaps somewhat overawed; it is a lot of new ideas all in one go.  Maybe it was too much in one sitting. I must have read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — but all I can recall is Blade Runner. Although this might seem to be more about Hampton Fancher’s screenplay than Dick’s short story, Dick was closely involved in the making of this film with Ridley Scott and Fancher.

The story is genius. In the future android robots are so life-like, it takes detectives and tests to spot the difference, and even the androids don’t know they are not real humans. The story is about what happens when an android does find out he’s not “real” — and that he has an expiry date.  This is a man-made organic machine suddenly faced with mortality.  The robot’s quest is to come to earth, track down his maker and try to avoid death.  That is just a marvellous idea. The small group of androids are being hunted down by a Blade Runner — and that’s the detective part of the story.

I later got a loan of  the amazing The Man in The High Castle — this is  actually recognised as creating an entire literary genre of its own – the alternative history genre. I was quite tickled by the thought of Japan running California, and The Germans own new York. Dick has quite an original imagination, but also the skill to write convincingly. This was a what-if story — and I’d not come across that before either.

I loved Total Recall as soon as I heard it was based on Philip K Dick I got tickets — and again, for me, it was the movie, rather than the short story that stuck in my mind. This would be in the early 1990s and it was billed as an action film first and a science fiction film second. At that time the big deal was action and action heroes — and the rivalry among Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Silvester Stallone (and a few others too).

Total Recall was based on We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and is also highly original. I would reckon that Dick might have come up with the story simply by trying to remember a holiday.  It’s so true that, not very long after we have returned from a vacation, memories fade — and we end up remembering what was filmed or photographed, the souvenirs and a handful of anecdotes.

Perhaps if we did not have these mementoes, we could forget we went on holiday altogether. When you think about it, people do suffer amnesia and dementia, so what is reality? Could we be hypnotised to believe we had gone on holiday somewhere?

In Blade Runner, the androids were created fully adult, but with pre-programmed memories of a fake childhood, mementoes, cards, photos, diaries, toys and keep-sakes. All fake.  In Total Recall, the concept is a business that offers a cheaper alternative to going on holiday — an implanted memory of the trip and fake keep-sakes and souvenirs. Dick is dealing with the same theme — what is real?

In Total Recall, the story takes this to another level — a man wants a holiday to Mars (it is science fiction after all), but cannot afford it, so he opts for the memories to be implanted — however, it turns out that the chap was a spy who had been to Mars, and the government had erased the memory of his spying and Martian activities, and turned him out with a new identity and life. The attempt to implant the fake Mars trip opened up a can of worms as the erased memories started to come back  — making this man a danger for what he knows. Good stuff, eh.

Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and A Scanner Darkly are all fantastic films based on Philip K Dick’s short stories. They are clever, work on different levels and, despite being about the perception of reality, morality, memories and other internalisations, they seem to be extremely cinematic. In the end, the stories are futuristic and therefore good for exploiting special effects. I often wonder if they can operate on a straight action film only level — or if action film fans leave the cinema inspired or in a philosophical mindset.

I remember wondering if the fact that Dick was a twin affected his outlook, and I looked him up once and found that he was married five times — that would certainly affect the mind and sense of deja-vu and mixed up memories!

The themes that Dick brought to my attention are never far from my mind.  So much of what I do for a living depends on virtual reality — I see things built before they are built.

Anyone today can go on Google maps and wander through the streets of any city or town. My phone can track me and help me identify buildings and statues, music and more simply by holding the phone up and pressing a virtual button.  How could Philip K Dick not be far from my mind; we seem to be living in his.

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JANE MORRIS

18 July 2011

[Sketch of Jane Morris by Rossetti]Jane Morris is probably the most anonymous famous model ever.

She was born Jane Burden, but married William Morris and flirted and modelled her way into art history as Jane Morris.  Her “relationships” with the Pre-Raphaelites means that her face graces so many of the worlds art galleries, arty coffee table books, art course work plates, posters, carrier bags and more besides.

[Sketch of Jane Morris by Dante Rossetti]The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were into photographic quality detail and likeness and so Jane Morris is recognisable irrespective of which artist painted her.

For me, she is the face of the Tractarians and the Oxford movement, the face of Pre-Raphalites, the face of the catholic movement in Anglicanism, of High Church, of High Victorian Britishness.

I had posters of her before I knew it was her.  I can see the charm she held over Rossetti — and I can appreciate the resemblance with Elizabeth Siddal and Sarah Cox (Fanny Cornforth)

She certainly has very sculptured features, particularly the “Roman Nose”! She was apparently the epitome of beauty according to the brotherhood.

Personally, I don’t see it quite like that; I see her as a perfect depiction of allegory — the type of artists’ model who would be perfect for representing an ideal, such as “Generosity” or “Chastity” and just about anything else, even “War”.  There is something about Jane and Elizabeth Siddal that makes them seem beautiful in the aesthetic sense, rather than the erotic sense.

For me, and I suspect for most men, Morris is an idealisation, not something to be desired.  More of an archetype really, and that is fascinating!

A mate of mine years ago suggested that Jane Morris was a bit like those strange manly females painted by Michelangelo, the classical nose, the strong limbs, the polished marble complexion. I disagreed because Siddal and Fanny had the amazing red hair, and both, but Jane especially, had the listlessness, the boredom and aloofness of the idealised female, not a bastardised man!

The really fun thing when studying these people and this movement is that there are letters and even photographs available.

[Photograph of Jane Morris] [Photograph of Jane Morris]

This blew me away. Obviously you can compare the paintings with the photographs, but the photographs are of an actual — real — wife and mother, not the painted allegorical or historical figure.

  • If you want to compare paintings and sketches with real photographs of Jane Morris, check out the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website — it’s a great place to start looking into this fascinating movement and era.

Rossetti married Siddal and when she died, Fanny moved in as housekeeper/lover despite everyone’s view of her as a common lass.  They both grew tremendously fat together.  Through both relationships, Rossetti had a long-term “relationship” with Jane Morris, but it was a secretive affair because Morris was Rossetti’s social equal and colleague in the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

If that little paragraph doesn’t whet your appetite for further research and enquiry, then I don’t know what would do the trick!

The whole thing is fascinating, fascinating ideas in fascinating times.  The high church artistic values of spires and stained glass, against the frugality of the stricter protestant faiths.  The strictness of Victorian moral values with the affairs of the people involved in painting them.

All of this is fabulous, dramatic and well documented.  There are many characters, many perpetrators, many artists, but in the end the face that stands out, the face that represents it all is Jane Morris’s. 

Women may not have been equal in terms of votes and inheritance (etc), but it is absolutely clear from Queen Victoria’s time, that women played a massive part in the various artistic, religious, moral and political movements of the time.

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PATRICK WOODROFFE

19 June 2011

[Patrick Woodroffe's book cover for his book Mythopoeikin]The end of the 1970s was an amazingly creative time.  A lot of genres were mixing together, and mixing with new technology too.  County music went electric and gave birth to Country Rock, Jazz fused with world music and synthesisers — and so boundaries were challenged and blurred.  Music and art became one in the album cover, and there was a great new interest in graphic design, logos, typefaces and fonts.  Yes had Roger Dean, Hypgnosis had Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead had Mouse and Rick Griffin.

Punk used strong imagery too — ransom note styles and punk fashion thanks to Malcolm McLaren. Comic book covers were getting sophisticated with fantasy art images by the likes of Boris Vallejo.

In those few short years at the end of the 1970s, the creative arts exploded.

And in 1978 I bought Mythopoeikon by Patrick Woodroffe, and my mates and I tried to copy the fantasy styles of Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, Roger Dean and Patrick Woodroffe as we experimented with air brushing art onto vans and hairy bikers’ leather jackets.

Fantasy was a brand new genre at the time, and offered an escape from the bleak economic climate, nuclear cold war and doomsayer inevitabilities. Woodroffe was a Big Star at the time.

The Big Image for me at the time was a book cover for The Billion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss as it was photo-realistic art — but it was nevertheless eyes on lighted candles. The wax drip runs resembled tears, and somehow it was an image that endured in the mind. Of course it made no actual sense, nor was it making any philosophic point. But still.

I found that, on his website, Patrick has this image as an album cover by the Strawbs:

[Art of eyes as candles by Patrick Woodroffe]

We LOVED Woodroffe’s  Budgie and Judas Priest covers — and of course, his famous Greenslade ones.  You know, we actually bought records because of the artwork! This is something lost when the music business switched to CD — and now that this is broken, people can just download MP3 files.  maybe they should bring back the art?

But the link to fantasy is the strongest with Woodroffe for me.  I read a lot of fantasy at the time, including The Lord of The Rings, but also the newer stuff — one that stands out in my memory is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (by Stephen R Donaldson). The first of the trilogy came out in the late 70s, and we had to wait until the next one was written and published, and again.

This period was like that; we were always waiting for the next release or publication — magazines, comics, books, albums, books, movies — you name it , things were in a series and fans were “locked in”.

You were always on the look-out for sub-cultural references, and cross-pollination, so there was a great delight to discover that  Jaco Pastorius played for Weather Report — but also played on Joni Mitchell albums, or that a browse around a second-hand book shop would unearth a book with a cover by Woodroffe — such as I did with The Seedbearers by Peter Valentine Timlett:

[Woodroffe book cover The Seedbearers]

I loved Mythopoeikon — and still have it.  It was my very first “coffee table book”, my first “art book”, and I have travelled with it as a very important part of my youth when I have sold or given away an enormous amount over the years.

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FIGHTING FAT

13 May 2010

OK.  I just checked my BMI and I seem to have become obese.  Yes obese. How did that happen?

Well, here’s a list of high risk events for gaining weight:

  • Being over 40 years of age
  • Stopping cigarette smoking
  • Being married
  • Having an injury

I got all of these all clumped together. That’s how I put on weight.

But it’s not the whole story. Read the rest of this entry »

SVEN HASSEL

28 March 2010

[Picture of Sven Hassel]I have not thought about Sven Hassel for years — probably since the early to mid 1970s if I’m honest. Yet he popped up in a conversation I was having recently with a client at lunch.

He’d also read Sven Hassel books way back then.

We were talking about language, and I said the only reason I knew how to swear in Russian was because of a book I’d read when I was a boy — and he asked if it was Sven Hassel.  I was amazed; who’s ever heard of Sven Hassel?

It made me think though, that Sven’s books were pretty significant in my development.  Let me try to explain.

Sven wrote his books in the first person. A narrative style. They were about the Second World War, but they were from the German / Losing side. Now that’s a twist.

Just how much of a twist can only be understood once you realise that for anyone growing up in the 1960s, there was a lot of TV shows and films about WWII — often John Wayne stuff.  Hollywood or at least very American-centric.  It used to drive my father nuts:

“You’d think they’d won the war all by themselves!” he would roar at the screen.

There were TV shows like “The World at War” running every week, and boys read “Commando” comics and had “Action man” soldier figures. We watched “Hogan’s Heroes“,  “The Great Escape“, “Where Eagles Dare“, “Colditz“, “Dad’s Army” and later “‘Allo, ‘Allo“. Every November, we bought poppies from men outside The British Legion.

When I think about it now, the war was only 15 or so years before I was born, so it was all still fresh, and of course, the Americans were still at it with Vietnam — which meant we were still getting war films and TV shows, such as “M*A*S*H“. Vietnam was what linked WW2 with the cold war to my mind.

On top of all that is the fact that I grew up in an extremely Jewish neighbourhood. Can you imagine? Goodness me, I knew so many people who refused to buy BASF cassette tapes because BASF made the Zyklon-B gas that killed millions of Jews in the NAZI extermination camps.

The ONLY thing in memory that was not from the Allied perspective was Sven Hassel.  And you know, when I think about it, I have no idea how his stuff was allowed to be translated into English, published and printed in paperbacks for schoolboys to buy with pocket-money from local newsagent shops (such as John Menzies).

Not only were the characters fighting against the Allies (Britain, Russian, USA, France etc), but they were criminals!  They were in a penal regiment — and it was pretty violent too.

I was a lad, so I understood the gang, the team mentality.  I loved “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Dirty Dozen“, so I understood and liked Sven’s crew — Tiny or Little John (a giant of a man), The Little Legionnaire — who always said things like  “Allah be Praised”.  He was ex-Foreign legion, a small but lethal wee man.  Porta was one of those amazing people who could always make money, always had a connection, knew people, could get things even though they were rationed or scarce. There was also a wise old fellow, “The Old Man“.

All through my life I have seen these characters; they are actually archetypes.  That is the truth in Sven Hassel, he describes real groups of men very well indeed.  The books hit the spot in that respect — these chaps were true and real, and the characters they encountered — as well as the situations and how they reacted to them — were believable, and tragically plausible.

[Picture of the book cover for Sven hassel's legion of the  damned]I think I read about ten of these books during the summer holidays, one after the other,  starting with Legion of the Damned.  It balanced out the war for me; from them I understood that war was bad, that these were guys just like the Brits on the telly or the Yanks in the movies. They were forced into killing other people who were just like them.

The things I can recall about them too was that it was the first time I had come across war stories about tanks, the first time I had encountered big long German words, such as Obergruppenfuehrer, and the first time I had read anything so graphically violent.

Sven Hassel was the Quentin Tarantino of his day.

I think that as a result of Sven Hassel books, I have forgiven the German people.  I also think I gained an insight into my father’s war; Sven’s stuff seemed much more authentic than the Hollywood stuff.  I learned that humour is necessary, and very close to tragedy, that people are levelled out in wartime — when wealth and cleverness mean nothing. And that when you might be dead tomorrow, you live more in the moment. I learned of the bonds between men that make the difference, and I learned that society’s laws, cultural differences, nationality, religion, morality and even army regulations are luxuries, and that sometimes pack society rules apply.

Oh, and I learned to swear in Russian.

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FLORIDA ROADKILL

9 March 2010

[Picture of Tim Dorsey's Florida Roadkill book cover, 1999]A client of mine loaned me a Tim Dorsey novel – “Florida Roadkill“, and I read it in just a few days; it was a ripping yarn indeed.

It all began when I spotted him carrying a copy of a Dashiel Hammet novel, and talk ranged from there, through Raymond Chandler to Robert Altman. Then he handed me “Florida Roadkill”.

One thing I will say about this book is that you get educated.  By the end of it you know a considerable amount more about The Sunshine State than you did when you started.  It references Miami Vice, Humphrey Bogart movies, Baseball, American Football, NASA space launches, Hemingway, the Everglades and loads more.

Doresey’s 1999 debut starts with the 1997 World series baseball, and works backwards in chunks, so the various stories unfold and intertwine in reverse.

You learn weird things too — for example, the novel mentions a 17 year old girl sucking on a dummy tit because ecstasy made her grind her teeth.  Now I have seen teenagers using dummy tits, and just thought they were being teenagery, now I know better!

The first murder was by a Rube Goldberg contraption, a knock-up that we Brits would probably call Heath Robinson. It depended upon the vibration of a rocket launch.

There was also a murder by  Shrink-fit denims in a bathtub, an ottoman-surfing accident, inhaling tyre inflation and filler, drinking crop spray, and being filled with alcohol using a funnel inserted in the victim’s rectum.

The humour is black. Obviously.  It has a couple of central characters that resemble Lenny and George from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”: the simple Seymour Coleman with his chubby, too-big head and small sunken eyes, and the tall thin, grey haired Serge A. Storms.

Another strand has Black Irish Sean Breen, (wife Karen and two kids — Christopher, 4, and Erin at 3 months) and school chum and fellow wrestling fan David Klein.  These two plan annual, unsuccessful fishing trips in Breen’s skiff, and got caught up in the story line when ill-gotten gains are stashed in their car.

There is a strong world-weary cynical streak throughout the novel, from the corruption and manipulation of the life assurance company, the crop spraying, the lies of Blaine Crease, television reporter and “Holy Moly” Mo Grenadine Radio shock radio jock, and the double-crossing of the developer and of Sharon, to the property developer aiming at the old and infirm.  There is also a sadness that Florida’s landmarks are uncared-for, not well enough known, not understood, and that sexual harassment is alive and kicking in the police force.

There is black humour and irony in abundance, from the Running of the Hemmingways to The ” Three Latin men” turning out to be Russian Mafia!

Dorsey packs a lot into the page, and the book whips by at a fair pace.  There are few moments of calm, and if there was one criticism I would make, it would be that there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and right from the outset.  This is therefore not a book to read in bits and bobs over a long period of time!

Anyway, I enjoyed it enough to move onto his next book, “Triggerfish Twist” (also loaned to me by my client — thanks Dave).

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CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN

9 June 2001

Poor Mr de Berniers! Everyone’s got it wrong and missed the point completely! Can people be so superficial?

[Cover of Captain Corelli's Mandolin]This book seeks to investigate human nature, and mainly platonic forms of love: love for a place, a homeland, an ideal, a political ideal, for a daughter, for commonplace animals, for the enemy, homosexual love, love of fellow man, love for an object (a mandolin), love between fathers and daughters, adopted children, mothers and sons, love between enemies and between old men of differing beliefs in a Greek cafe.

Nothing lasts really – earthquakes and wars may come, what survives is like a tune passed on in the memory. All platonic, all unfulfilling, all unrequited – ungrabbable, fleeting and personal … like music … ephemeral, emotional, and then gone.

For me THAT’s what the novel’s about — and why the author chose Corelli and the mandolin to be included in the title. This is what strings together all the facets, and if this is not realised, then this book will appear a disjointed and clumsy collection of styles and tales.

  • The movie misses this completely, fails to communicate what the whole thing is actually about!

[VHS cover for Captain Corelli's Mandolin]It is so loosely based on the book, that it really ought to have been called something else! It’s not that the book was edited down for film, or even that the basic idea was changed, the facts and actual plot changed beyond recognition!

Mandras turns out to be a hero in the film! The Doctor survives the earthquake! Lemoni moves in with the Doctor and his daughter. The Captain sends an LP and then turns up for the Hollywood ending! The Homosexuality is omitted completely. The Germans are treated nicely in the film compared with the book.

-The plot has been changed such that the Italians join forces with the rebels (!) against the Germans – so justifying the execution which the Captain manages to survive!

There’s no priest, no restaurant, nothing is unrequited, the mandolin plays a minimal role, the music is not central.

Believe me, this movie is so unlike the book that they are can no more be compared than can a pear with a chair.

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