Frank Tuohy (1957 [1970]) The Animal Game and Live Bait.

frank tuohy

Frank Tuohy (1957 [1970]) The Animal Game

The Animal Game is Frank Tuohy’s first novel, published in 1957 and out of print now. Think of Graham Greene. Then think of Frank Tuohy. I’d guess you’ve heard of the former and not the latter.  I hadn’t heard of him either, until I read his story Live Bait in a collection of short stories selected by David Miller, That Glimpse of Truth. 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written. We’ve all got our preferences. Miller’s is a kind of conceit, I’d guess, aimed more at the commercial market. There were some great stories and some disappointments in Miller’s choice, but the story which stuck was Live Bait. It seemed pretty much perfect. So perfect in fact I bought Frank Tuohy’s collection of short stories also called Live Bait. I even wrote a short story with many of the similar themes, but with many more failings. It’s impossible to get it right, but I keep on trying.  With books I’m easily reeled in.

The Animal Game won a number of awards, but for me doesn’t quite gel, and is set in an unnamed South American country run by European and British ex-pats, the right kind of chaps that know how to get things done. Tuohy is pitch perfect about social nuances and how they’re played out. In Live Bait, for example, Andrew goes with his school friend Jeremy to fish in the grounds of The Peverills. They had a distant connection to Jeremy’s mother, which made it alright. But Andrew is told by Major Peverill, who later tries to sexually abuse him, he’s the wrong sort. ‘You mustn’t expect to come her frequently. There will be no question of that. Jeremy understands. It is different for him.’ When Andrew tells his elders that he attends the same public school as Jeremy on special terms Major Peverill cackles, ‘Good god, he admits it. The little brat admits it.’  The Perverill’s view of the social world and the good society is shaken. Similarly, The Animal Game, also stood for the last digit on the lottery ticket, and  more so in life’s lottery. it involves a young Englishman, Robin Morris, an outsider. He travels to live and work in that South American county makes it difficult not to read into his journey Tuohy’s own, from scholarship boy to a first in English literature at King’s College, Cambridge, and from there to a Chair of English Literature at Sao Paul in Brazil and the insights he gained.   Mrs Kochen his landlady sends her son to English school and her visceral hatred of coloured is played out when Morris hires a native housekeeper. With his class and background Morris has access to the upper echelons of the polite society that quietly goes about the business of milking wealth and running the country for their benefit. Animal Games begins with the scion of one of those families, the beautiful blonde femme fatale, Cecilia being trapped in her Packard in a road block caused by a worker’s going on strike. Ahead of her is intrigue with a naïve Morris, a truck full of pigs left in the harsh sunlight and tailback, starved, so that the animals begin to eat one another. I’m sure there’s a kind of metaphor there.

The Breakfast Club written and directed by John Hughes. Film 4.

the breakfast club

It’s been thirty years since I watched The Breakfast Club. I truanted from real life and took a step back into Shermar High school where it’s always Saturday detention in 1984. The Simple Minds hold play with a number one both sides of the Atlantic, Don’t You Forget About Me?  The only thing I could remember about the original was Molly Ringwald and one of the other detainees admitted they didn’t need to be in detention but they’d nowhere else to go. That was Ally Sheedy.

There’s no point in telling you the characters’ names or who they portray. It’s more like archetypes. Molly Ringwald is the beauty, with luscious lips like pumped up pears and more teeth than a shark. And she’s a ginger, but she is young, perhaps the youngest of the Bratpack. (For example, Demi Moore another member of the Bratpack, but she is not in this film, is more of a conventional beauty and a lot prettier.) But back then I’d hair. Everybody had hair. They probably had to have an extra hairdresser for every young budding star. Ally Sheedy is the bag lady, to Molly Ringwald’s queen bee, of those serving time in school detention. Ally’s hair is mushy and brushed down over her face. Molly’s hair is shiny as copper coins. They’re as far apart as Alaska to Easter Island. But after they do a bit of bonding the brains of the bunch, Anthony Michael Hall, asks if we’ll still be buddies on Monday, when school goes back. Molly strikes him down, puts him right. Of course they won’t. How could they be? But then we get the classic cliché of transformations and school maggot turning into a butterfly. Usually, the girl is transformed by taking off her specs and putting her hair up. Ally doesn’t wear specs, because the conventional film formula is only geeks like Anthony wear them. But Molly shows her how to be a woman. She does Ally’s hair, puts a little blusher on and does her eyes. Voila, the unveiling.

She doesn’t look that much different to me, but eyestrain and specs have taken the slack in life. The guys on set are keyed to say, whoa, we never knew she was so hot. Sporty, Emilio Estevez, gets her in a strangle hold and kisses her so passionately her hair straightens. Who can blame him? She’d got nice hair and that hairband does wonders for a bag lady.

The big and bad true romance is between beauty and the beast. Judd Nelson has the longest hair. He’s a rebel with a criminal past. In his locker he’s got dope. Just don’t look at the finger glove he wears.  After one squiff, one sniff of dope, and the music is on full blast, Sporty does a few star-jumps to show how athletic he is, Brains dons a pair of sunglasses and shakes his head like Stevie Wonder and Ally beetles about making strange squeaking noise. I didn’t think the music then was that great either. I can’t remember what the criminal mastermind does. I guess the camera spent much of the time on the beauty bopping about like a person with only one hip that kept knocking her sideways. You know the criminal and the beauty are going to hit off each other and fall into a conventional relationship. He’s shown her his flick-knife and he’s seen her knickers (white and clean, or so it seemed, I looked discretely away, of course). For god’s sake she even said ‘I hate you!’ It couldn’t be more obvious if she’d a big love heart tattooed to her forehead.

Start with I hate you and work your way to I love you, but Mr and Mrs I didn’t really understand the real you. The connecting thread is Phil Larkin, This be Verse. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you’. All of the detainees in their own way admit this truth to one another. They are more the same than different. Judd the criminal brains does a cameo of the academic brain’s sparkling home life, with his dad and mum asking him if he wants to go fishing and compares it with his own. Brains big secret is he’d a gun in his locker. Nothing much in America really changes. Every kid seems to have a gun in his locker. It’s an American right. I enjoyed this. But I won’t be looking back again – not for another thirty years. By that time I’ll be so old I’ll forget what I’m not looking at. Oh yeh, Molly Ringwald.

Imagine…Richard Flanagan: Life After Death. Interview by Alan Yentob

richard flanagan

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b063lywk/imagine-summer-2015-5-richard-flanagan-life-after-death

I didn’t know it but I like Richard Flanagan, even though I’ve not read any of his books. Grandson of illiterates and descended from criminals transported to Tasmania, his father revered books but to be an author was not something he expected. A drowning accident in which he seemed to understand for a moment the interconnectedness of all things changed that. He continued working, but knew at a deeper level his real job in this life was to write.

I’ll rectify not reading any of his books. Order The Narrow Road to the Deep North which won the Man booker prize in 2014. I know I’ll love it. Flanagan talks about his dad taken prisoner during the Second World War by the Japanese and forced to build the Burmese railway that inspired, among others tales about Hellfire Pass and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Flanagan talks about visiting Thailand were the railway passed through and also visiting one of the guards in Japan that had tortured his dad. ‘The Lizard’ beat one of his father’s friends to death, with two other guards, in front of 300 prisoners, who were forced to stand impotently and watch. Man’s inhumanity to man. The Lizard, now an old man, Flanagan describes him as affable. But he wanted to experience what it was like for him, the torturer, to be in the Japanese army of Emperor Hirohito, where senior soldiers beating junior soldiers was a common form of control. Other races such as the Chinese were seen as inferior. In the Rape of Nanking of 1937-38, for example, an estimated civilian population of between 100 000 and 300 000 were killed and mutilated with up to 100 000 woman raped. Soldiers such as the British and Australian, including Flanagan’s father, who despite superior numbers surrendered Hong Kong without much of a fight were also seen as inferior. At the bottom of this chain of command was the prison guard, a level above other guards not racially pure such as the Koreans, but miles above the men they were guarding who were regarded as expendable.   He got the Lizard to slap him across the face. A ritual form of humiliation. Yentob asks Flanagan if he found it difficult to enter into, indeed empathise with, people like the Lizard. Flanagan’s answer that he didn’t find it hard to find the monster within, which is wisdom and a watchword when the evil twins of indifference and inhumanity are let loose are they so often are in contemporary society.

Flanagan himself experienced corporate and state-sponsored hatred and persecution. In 2007 he published an article, Gunns: ‘Out of Control’ in The Tasmanian Times showing clearly the links between state and corporate interests and pollution of Tasmanian forests in which the company Gunns, which did 85% of tree felling, benefited a few select shareholders but at a devastating cost to the community and his country. His fictional account The Unknown Terrorist has its roots in that dark period in which he told Alan Yentob not only was it a terrorist offence to challenge corporate interests, but reporters reporting on those arrested for such terrorists offences could also be arrested as terrorists. Sometime fact can be stranger than fiction – and you really couldn’t make it up. Ted Genoways The Chain made similar claims about the way factory food is farmed and produced and protected by state interests in America –all in the name of jobs- but with devastating environmental and social impacts. The gagging of those involved in uncovering the hidden costs is also treated as a terrorist offence. I’ve went off track, but Richard Flanagan down under is on top of what it means to be human.

Don’t Take My Baby BBC 3 9pm. Directed by Ben Anthony

don't take my baby

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b063f57q/dont-take-my-baby

This drama comes with lots of baggage. Around 3000 children are removed from disabled people every year. Writer Jack Thorne has distilled their voice and created composite characters that let them speak. Tom (played by Adam Long) is partially sighted. He is full- time carer and lover of Anna (Ruth Madley). She has a muscle wasting disease and every two years is told by specialist that she is going to die. She’s stopped listening. Wheel-chair bound, nothing works below the waist. Tom is lying in bed with her and jokes about anal sex. Anna gets pregnant. It’s the best or worse thing that has ever happened. The baby could kill Anna.

Cue dilemma. Are the loving couple with multiple disabilities able to care for their daughter Danielle, who may have inherited one or more of their genetic conditions? Belinda (Wunmi Mosaku) is the social worker, the link between home and hospital and her client is Danielle, not Tom or Adam. As part of a team, she has to decide whether Danielle should be taken from Tom and Anna. It’s a dilemma faced by very few mothers and fathers. There’s an old joke a speaker at the Gallowgate used to wave a piece of paper about and say ‘this bit of paper says that I’m sane, and allowed back into civilised society.’ He’d ask his audience if they could say the same.

Tom and Belinda also need that metaphorical bit of paper saying they are fit mothers and fathers. Toms slips during a hospital stay whilst they are being assessed. He’s caught holding the baby and almost drops Danielle. It’s touch and go.

Danielle never sleeps. Tom exhausted doesn’t answer the door when Belinda tries to gain entry during a daytime home visit. Not once, twice.

The babies crying. Belinda tells Tom she needs a bath. She snipes he’s her carer and he’s getting paid for his work. It’s breaking point. Belinda falls from the couch onto the floor. Tom leaves her lying on the carpet goes to the hospital and meets Belinda coming out of one of the hospital exits.   (Ignore the fact he’s blind. Ignore the fact there are thousands of other doors and entryways Belinda could be leaving through. Ignore the fact just as she’s leaving she bumps into a blind man). Tom admits he’s not coping.

Denouement. Can they keep the baby? One social worker votes no. She tells how hard it was to admit that a disabled couple she knew weren’t coping and they had to take the baby from them. Better to do it now.

Well, as the old Beatles’ classic goes. All you need is love, love, love. Love is all you need – Danielle.

Worth the watching. Wonder why such a quality drama is squirreled away on BBC 3?

Quote

channelling the inner Nazi

queen and nazi

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Finite Creatures.”

It’s front page news in the Observer, Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II giving a Nazi salute. Pages of piffle devoted to it. What is Her Royal Highness hiding in the royal wardrobe, an SS guard’s uniform? I’d say give her a little slack. She was a kid. Kids do stupid things.

I’ve done it myself. Well not that exactly. But on Friday night I watched a programme on Channel 5, channelled my inner Nazi. That’s right the propaganda channel with shows with modern Goebbels-like titles such as: 78-stone-fat guy and how he’s ripping the country off big-time by being too fat, not working, destroying NHS beds and expecting us workers to pick up the pieces. The NHS estimate 70 000 premature deaths a year are due to obesity, but in Channel 5’s Humpty-Dumpty reportage they’re not dying quickly enough.

It’s all about class. People that sniff nail polish watch Channel 5. I’m a BBC class of guy. When they showed a documentary about Napoleon on BBC 2, for example, I was gutted when he lost at Waterloo. Knew it was going to happen. History is history, but still gutted. I like the small guy to win.  Napoleon supported a meritocracy. He didn’t mind giving the wee guy with big balls a chance. Whisper it, you could even be Jewish. The British aristocracy supported the status-quo. I support anybody but the British aristocracy. Look at pictures of David Cameron and Company and you’ll understand why. Nothing’s changed since then. We’re back to bowing and scraping and the best job children can now expect is to serve the super-rich their well-fired peasant.

But I couldn’t resist having a look at Conspiracy: The Alien Files. I used to love all that kind of stuff when I was a kid. They had Raj Persuad, a psychiatrist, persuading us that we might not be alone in the universe. Raj should look between the lines, he is I believe a convicted plagiarist, guilty of being a little god and creating other’s work in his own image. Sigmund Freud thought we were along in the universe. Raj perhaps didn’t want to appear controversial and have a mind of his own. Looking back to my own childhood experiences Uri Geller was, of course, uber controversial. And when he told us in his autobiography he was abducted by aliens I believed him. That’s where and when he picked up his strange powers to bend spoons. I could never do that. It always pissed me off.  I used to sit alone in a deckchair on the surface of Neptune trying to bend a spoon whilst the wind whistled past me at 1500 miles-per-hour. If there was life on other planets I’d have known about it. The ten years it took a probe to get there and my thoughts were what a crap camera phone. It looks like a Noika. If that’s the best Earth can do I’m shopping elsewhere. On the balance of probability the Channel 5 programme concluded that 99% of reported sighting of aliens was highly unlikely. And less than 1% of the richest people in the world couldn’t control the economies and political apparatus of the rest of man—or alien—kind, or could they? Put some of the X-files music theme music on and think about it.

My guess is we’ll get more programmes about Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II on Channel 5. She’s in a monopoly position of power and not been properly market tested. Under the rules of perfect competition other quasi royals would rush in and offer to do the queen’s jobs cheaper. Her Royal Highness would be on the same wages as Santa, zero-hour contract, not paid for standing around looking bored. Make her way to her own gigs. Unpaid overtime part of the go-to-work corporate culture.

Her Royal Highness could play that to her advantage. She could copyright her image, employ Black Rod on the black market to open Parliament for her, get payment for her image being used on stamps, her name being on public building and like Hitler’s Mein Kampf she could write a best-seller based on her own prejudices. Prince Philip could supply a few hearty quips such as asking workers in crisis centres they are patronising who they’re sponging off. Har, Har. Aliens. They’re definitely out there and part of the 1%.

Jon McGregor (2013) This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You.

jon mcgregor

Jon McGregor (2013) This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You.

Jon McGregor winds his way across a mythical country, it might even be England, from Horncastle in the first story ‘That Colour’ to Marshchapel in ‘I’ll Buy You A Shovel’ in this collection of thirty short stories. ‘Sharp, dark and hugely entertaining’ says the blurb on the cover, a quote from Observer. ‘Haunting and brilliant’ Independent. I’m underwhelmed.

Take as an example the penultimate story in the collection, Grimbsy, ‘Song’.

Chinese restaurants, laundrettes, baked-potato vans. These are a few of my favourite extractor fans.

I don’t find that haunting or brilliant. I’m not hugely entertained. I don’t consider that a story. I do consider it a throwaway line, one that should not have made the cut into a selection of short stories.

Newark, ‘Thoughtful’ is a paragraph, with another sentence, another paragraph, ‘She was thoughtful like that.’

Nottingham, ‘Dig a Hole,’ follows a similar pattern. Read the story title and you know the story.

Other stories are more experimental. Holbeach, ‘The Cleaning’ is written in the style of a government report on a small group of extremist, about thirteen people including woman and children preparing for Armageddon. Parts of the report are redacted. Perhaps the whole report should have been redacted.

Some of the stories are worthy of the hype. I could see the merit in the award winning Sussworth ‘If It Keeps On Raining’ whilst not actually liking the story much. A man prepares for a different kind of Armageddon, this time by rain by building a treehouse and like Noah, building a boat. He doesn’t tell anybody at the yacht club – that doesn’t have any yachts – where he goes for a pint and is gently mocked, what he’s doing. He just tells them he’s using up some scrap wood. It’s a kind of nothing project, a hobby, using the language they can understand. The reader knows different.

Grantham, ‘Which Reminded Her Later,’ also has a religious aspect, but more directly. An American woman comes to stay in the vicarage, and the narrator, the vicar’s wife, Catherine, doesn’t quite know what to make or her or what to do with her. The American is not like the other waifs and strays. She takes so much for granted it’s infuriating. I liked the way this story unfurled.

Grantham, ‘Years Of This, Now’ is a sister story later in the collection. The narrator, whom we take to be Catherine, sits beside a hospital bed and tries to pray. Michael, the vicar, is hooked up to some machine that helps him breathe.

Messingham, ‘Wires’ is unsettling and brilliantly executed in the way it allows the reader to work out meaning between the gaps in the story. Sugar-beet flies from the back of a lorry, ‘at something like sixty-miles per hour’ and crashes through the windscreen. The narrator, Emily Wilkinson, on her first term at provincial Hull University, thinks all kinds of clichéd thoughts about what she should think with her life ending like that and ends with ‘basically wtf?’ But she’s in luck, the lorry was miles down the road, but she pulls into a layby and there’s a guy standing beside the car, he looks a bit weird like a breakdown man, he’s got a phone and said he phoned the police. Another, older man, stops and they move behind the crash barrier. You can never be too careful. You can never be too lucky. Wtf?

You can never to too unlucky. Wainfleet, ‘We Wave and Call’ begins ‘And sometimes it happens like this: a young man lying face down in the ocean, his limbs hanging loosely beneath him, a motorboat droning slowly across the bay…’. Loosely, this is a play on I’m not waving, I’m drowning set in an unspecified holiday resort in which the signs of war and the ceasefire that follows are still apparent. It’s told in the second person. ‘You open your eyes blinking against the light which pulses through the water.’ You don’t know if you’re going to make it. There’s that girl, Jo, friends, good friends you say. You’d like a bit more. You’ll laugh and tell her about the time you almost drowned.

The last story in the collection Marshchapel ‘I’ll Buy You A Shovel’ has two ex-cons back in their home town, sharing a stinky caravan, in the same way that they’d once shared a cell and not digging a ditch for some farmer that doesn’t want them to be there. A brilliant working of backstory and the expected and unexpected. It’s mired in the shit of life, but really shines.

But there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter in this collection. I’d say 50/50. I’m being charitable. And I’m not known for my charity. I prefer clarity.

Alan Johnson (2014) Please Mister Postman. A memoir.

postie

I’d a vague notion of who Alan Johnson was. I read this book because I wanted to chart his journey from ordinary working-class bloke—when the book begins, ‘a seventeen-year old shelf stacker at Anthony Jackson’s supermarket on the Upper Richmond Road in East Sheen’— to becoming an MP in the Conservative government under Thatcher, or John Major. I couldn’t remember which Prime minister it was. Alan Johnson became a Labour MP and severed in the Cabinet under Tony Blair. Same difference some of you might say. The journey is still the same one. But back then as he shows time and time again we had vague notions about equality. Government wasn’t entirely a more-it-tocracy increasingly serving the rich and their own interest. Economics wasn’t entirely about funnelling money from the poor to the rich under the pretence that it made the country stronger and more self-sufficient. The difference between Labour and Tories couldn’t be reduced to a simple equation of sacking as many workers as possible, make the remainder work harder to increase productivity and sell, pass the parcel of the company on, as quickly as possible to get an increased profit for the rich without the holes in the balance sheet and in people’s lives showing. Labour were for more and better government. Think about it for a second. Labour grew out of trade unions demanding rights for workers. It’s easy to forget that with this lot going to the same public schools, the same Oxbridge education and hob-nobbing with the Tories. Same old Tories, then as now, but we at least had a partial alternative.  The Tories were for less of everything, light-touch regulation and less being spent on things that didn’t and no longer matter to rich folk. Common things like having a home, being able to heat it and having food on the table. These were to be left to the market.

So I got it wrong he was in the different carriage of a train and got off at different station. Alan Johnson Labour MP. But here he is. ‘It’s Christmas Eve 1967. A Saturday. Four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m waiting for Mike.’ Mike’s married to Alan’s sister. An all-round good guy who likes a good drink. Back then drink driving was a laughable offence of finding your car key and being able to open the car door, rather than a criminal offence. Everybody did it. It never did you any harm school of tough love. Mike’s loveable, but his sister Linda is a little mum, their own mum, Lilian May Johnson, born 1921 had died 1964. Mike was his hero, but Linda provides the quiet corner of his life in which he can stretch and grow. Alan isn’t just a shelf-stacker. He writes songs, has started a band and hopes to hitch on the sixties zeitgeist and become a pop star.

The future Alan has planned out hits a speed-bump. He meets Judith Elizabeth Cox. He’s seventeen. She’s an older woman, twenty-one, with a child to another man. Melodrama. Not really. They are young and in love. They get married. Linda’s pregnant three months after the wedding. Thoughts of being the next Rolling Stone get shoved aside. He needs a steady job and a council house for his growing family.

Alan Johnson become a postman. He cycles from his digs in Notting Hill to Barnes Green, one of the smaller postal delivery routes in London. He’s a natural, it’s a steady job, a lot of ex-forces personnel. No corner cutting. No excuses.  The mail gets delivered come what may. He’s found a vocation. Something he’s good at.  But the money’s not too good. Overtime is the answer. Postman can work night and day, their job never ends (or so it seemed then).

Fast forward a few years. Alan’s got a council house in Slough. A little green were ten council houses nestled.  He can’t quite believe his luck. He can still cycle to work in Slough. Their neighbours are posh, the get-up-and-go type. And they do. When council houses are given away by the government they take theirs and move on. So does Alan.

Alan becomes a union rep. It’s not something he’s thought about a great deal, but he like to read and think. Only a fool can see that the workers were being screwed. It wasn’t all politics. Working class men had their clubs and after they put the politician in themselves to bed they had a shindig. Characters like ‘Big Joe Menzies’ a former railway worker from Perth, were both an inspiration and a role model. He tapped into reservoir of people that had worked with their hands and workers with fine minds that wanted to serve others like them.

Alan finds he’s spending more time on his union duties than on his postman’s job. He keeps working. He need to keep in touch with his colleagues. Their gripes are his gripes. Their causes his causes. He finds a sponsor and is promoted to full-time union officer. He travels the country. He’s a natural union rep as he was a postman. It’s a good combination, but his marriage suffers. He divorces. But life’s on the up and up.  But there’s a reminder that life isn’t something you can plan. Mike, his sister’s husband and one of his best friends, loses his job, admits he’s an alcoholic and hangs himself. Sobering.

But the years ahead with Cameron and his cronies gaining the levers of power are even more so. This book is a reminder that we once did things for ourselves, paid a decent(ish) wage, took pride in our work and did it well.  Perhaps that is the lesson that needs to be re-learned. No more to the robber-barons of government share issues, like the selling off of the post office, and an increasingly large share of any enterprise to the bloated and rich that produce nothing but stir the pot of the poor and take the honey. Alan Johnson’s memoir, it seems like Dickensian times now, rather than then.