Leave It To Bieber

People can tell a lot about you by the people with whom you associate.

Those who hung out with Hitler, Al Capone, Pol Pot, Bin Laden, Clive Palmer et al, wouldn’t be invited to too many Castle Hill barbeques…so what does that say about Hillsong and their new best mate Justin Bieber?

Besides being responsible for some of the most banal and pointless music in the history of poseur-ism, in the last two years he has been charged with:

• vandalism (usually egg throwing)
• drug use
• driving under the influence
• driving without due care and attention
• dangerous driving
• assault
• resisting arrest

He has had a suspended sentence, been required to pay tens of thousands of dollars in restitution and been required to attend anger management courses on multiple occasions. He has just turned 21 and there are Hells Angels twice his age with nothing like his rap sheet. Even putting the best possible spin on all this, he still comes across as a self-absorbed psychopath with no more godliness in his heart than Hannibal Lecter.

So why on earth would a so-called Christian organisation want to confuse their congregation by feting him at their conference?

The answer can only be money. Or the weird blend of notoriety and mass hypnosis that inevitably leads to money in this idiotic world we have to live in.

Whatever else it might be, Hillsong is a network marketing organisation. In order to keep marketing they need to keep their product visible and that’s what they’ve done by bringing Bieber downunder. Celebrity power equals bums on seats – no matter how vapid, spoilt or antisocial. I swear they’d take Alice Cooper crooning love songs to Satan if they could get him!

But how do the Hillsong rank and file feel about Biebs?

Do they somehow perceive the countenance of God in the lyrics to Baby? Is there some profound messianic message in his dangerous driving, drug use and casual vandalism?

God moves in mysterious ways after all, but even if I had paid the Hillsong tithe and bought all their merch, I’d be raising an eyebrow at the sort of role model they were wanting me to buy into this time. They’re just following the Scientology template, I suppose, but seriously… Using an arrogant brat of a popstar to market a church is like using naked women to market chastity belts!

But what if it’s successful?

What if the use of an antisocial mediocrity like Justin Bieber did somehow result in higher Hillsong attendances and further sales of music and tee-shirts? What sort of church would that truly reflect?

A church that values celebrity over any sort of virtue.

A church that holds up as an exemplar a self-obsessed vandal with assault and anger management issues.

A church that wants you to believe that a recidivist egg tosser and dangerous driver is really a kind and gentle human being who is just here to be part of the crowd…not to exploit the crowd and encourage others into the fold.

If you belieb that you’ll belieb anything…which is exactly what Hillsong are counting on.

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Keeping it Clean-ish: A review of Mr Cleansheets by Adrian Deans

I don’t often reblog reviews of my work. Seems a tad self-serving, but I really enjoyed this review from a university academic. Mr Cleansheets has now entered the canon of post-doctoral research, which is clearly where all my work belongs.

Yes, I am a total wanker.

shugmcgowan

Everything about my reading and research of football novels (and I can say, hand on heart, my research has led me to read hundreds of them – not exaggerating) made me not want to read Mr Cleansheets. It looked every bit the mediocre romanticised tosh so often turned out when a failed footballer wrestles their fantasy onto paper. If only for the solid recommendation of a very smart and well respected Norwich City fan (a phrase you might never see again) I would not have paid as much attention. I would have had a look at it one day, but not in a hurry.

Then I started reading it.

As I imagined, it’s filled with silliness and melodrama and reaching coincidence, but it differentiates itself with pace and humour, action aplenty, rounded characters, and a solid story. As far as football fiction goes Mr Cleansheets makes it beyond the fourth round…

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The Sleeping Giant Awakes

 

For generations, we poor benighted followers of Australian football have lived in fear and hidden our faces from the world.

Shunned and ridiculed by the mainstream, our tribe has assembled in secrecy – cowering in our caves – whispering the prophecy that one day The Giant would awaken and sweep the infidels from their lofty positions.

And lo! We true believers would emerge from the caves like a city relieved at the lifting of a siege, walking onto the sunlit uplands like heroes preparing to receive ambrosia.

I was there.

I was there when The Giant awoke…stretched…and rolled over.

* * *

It hasn’t always been easy following Australian football.

In the years BL (Before Lowy), the newspapers were obsessed with games involving oddly shaped balls, and little was ever said about the one true spherical faith – especially on Sydney’s white bread North Shore, where I grew up.

It was rumoured that a bizarre counter culture existed somewhere on the fringes of society, playing a game were the ball bounced truly and goals were hard to get, requiring tremendous skill. But where were they?

To play soccer as a child was regarded as eccentric. To watch it as an adult was regarded as a weird perversion and even prison rock spiders enjoyed higher social status.

But somehow we found each other. Somehow, via a combination of winks, nods and secret handshakes, we true believers assembled to enjoy football and share each other’s pain.

The Socceroos in those days were being knocked out of the World Cup by the footballing powerhouses of New Zealand, Scotland and Israel and the game would lurch from crisis to embarrassment to ridicule despite the bewildering fact that participation rates dwarfed the other codes, combined. But that was the mystery: how did massive amateur participation rates not translate into a strong professional league, national team and media obsession the way it did in the rest of the world?

This mystery was not lost on the other codes. It was said that League, Union and Aussie Rules in particular all trembled at the prospect of the Sleeping Giant – warning each other that if ever “sokkah” got its act together in this country then their days would be numbered. It was rumoured that every time the Socceroos failed to make a World Cup, the Champagne would be broken out at AFL and NRL headquarters. The Giant had been slipped a Rohypnol and the rival codes could flourish for at least another four years.

* * *

I have played football ever since I can remember, and I’ve agonised over the Socceroos that entire time.

I remember being woken by my mother for all three of the games in 1974 (plus the final – Der Bomber prevails). We didn’t do very well but at least we were there, and to a fellow like me (for whom a glass with a drop of water is 1% full) it seemed like we always would be.

But the quadrennia rolled by and we all learned not to hope. Occasionally there’d be a flicker of possibility – like when we drew with Argentina in Sydney and then were beaten by a fluke goal in Buenos Aires. We actually would have won that Sydney game if not for the masterful performance of a mysteriously supercharged Maradona (who was kicked out of the finals as soon as his secret was revealed).

Then there was the tragedy of Melbourne in 97…

I still can’t bear to think of that night.

I was in a room with about 30 of my mates and it was deafening – almost like being there. But we kept missing simple chances in the first half and the tension was only partly relieved by young Harry’s far post effort that put us ahead at half time. Then straight away in the second half we’re two up – completely rampant – and that maniac brings down the net. The Iranians are on record as admitting that they knew they were beaten when that second goal went in, and feared not so much World Cup elimination (that was a given) as total humiliation. But when that pointless prick jumped on the net, and it took so long to repair, they had time to regroup, recover and respond (and their first goal was offside FFS!).

When the final whistle blew, there was silence in my room full of mates. One by one they straggled from the room, unable to watch the aftermath as Johnny Warren famously wept.

Forty-five minutes later there was just me and one other (Albert), still just staring into the desperate void, knowing that Australia, the only team in the history of the tournament to be eliminated without being beaten (at that time) would never make the World Cup finals.

Montevideo, four years later, just proved it.

 

A tale of two Johnnies

Against this backdrop of irrevocable, pre-ordained defeat for the Socceroos, another quadrennium rolled around. I noted with vague interest the establishment of the FFA and the Second Coming of Frank. I was vaguely overjoyed to learn of the appointment of Guus Hiddinck, and vaguely I knew that, on paper, we had a strong team. But we still had to get past the battle hardened Uruguayans – bristling with class, confidence and galvanised by their country’s expectation. And, possibly for the first time, I had no real hope that we might prevail.

More correctly, the hope was there in my heart of hearts, but when it was buried by 32 years of dire disappointment, for the sake of my sanity I had to be grown up and mature about our prospects. We had no chance.

This bleak reality manifested itself in my taking no steps to obtain tickets for the return match in Sydney when it was reasonably possible to get them. A bit later, my mate Pete asked me if I wanted a ticket, if he could get some. “Yeah…why not?” I responded, with as much enthusiasm as I might have shown if he’d asked me to donate a kidney. But despite spending 48 hours on the phone he didn’t come within cooee.

Some days later, still well before the one nil loss in Montevideo, my brother-in-law rang me to tell me he had two spare tickets – for me and my wife. “Thanks Woodsie!” I said, then immediately rang Karen.

“I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is Woodsie’s given me two tickets to the game.”

“That’s fantastic,” she said, “but what’s the bad news?”

“I’m taking Pete.”

* * *

I had to take Pete.

And one of the reasons I love Karen so much is that she understood. Pete had shared my 32 year wait for another trip to the World Cup, and he’d tried to get me a ticket for god’s sake! The least I could do in return was snub my wife for him.

As we took our seats at the Olympic Stadium my choice was further vindicated.

“We booked our tickets for Germany today.”

“You what?”

Pete had already paid for return tickets to Germany for his entire family – with Uruguay leading one nil after their home match.

I just shook my head in amazement at his confidence. Had he learned nothing after 32 years?

* * *

No-one who was there will ever forget. And no-one will ever be able to explain what it was like to those who were not.

Half an hour before kick off, the atmosphere was electric – unbelievable. It was like the party to end all parties had started prematurely – going off and gambling everything on there being something to celebrate before the end. And there was something else: a tangible, supernatural presence. The spirit of Johnny Warren loomed large over the stadium like a countervailing force to neutralise the natural chutzpah of the South American light heavyweights.

By the time the teams had marched out onto the pitch the 83,000 in the stands had reached a level of deafening angst that was not to subside the entire evening. When the Uruguayan national anthem played, we didn’t hear a note. The entire crowd were booing so loudly and passionately, it was genuinely terrifying. I could see the nervousness of the enemy on the big screen as 83,011 Australians howled, and I turned to Pete in some embarrassment.

“I don’t know how I feel about this,” I said, “…we don’t usually do this.”

The boos and hatred seemed to swell even stronger, and I said: “Mind you…what we usually do is lose.”

I daresay we all would have felt somewhat better about the booing had we known that the Uruguayans had been insulting, kicking and spitting at the Australians in the tunnel before coming out.

The game began in a series of furious anticlimaxes as the Uruguayans immediately commenced time-wasting tactics. Even the coach, Jorge (Prostitute Food) Forsatti was wasting time – hanging onto the ball to prevent a throw-in in the very first minutes! But once the game settled down, it was the Australians dominating most of the possession with the enemy happy to counter-attack mainly through the lightning Recoba. In fact, he really should have scored after about 20 minutes, despite the fact that he should have been pulled up for a high foot on Lucas Neill when he nicked the ball off Lucas’s cheek with his studs. Mark that one down to Johnny W, slamming his fist down on the chessboard of the gods.

Then came the key moment of normal time. Harry hadn’t started, but replaced Tony Popovic after 30 minutes as Guus changed his shape and went on the attack. Almost immediately, Harry worked a brilliant move down the left with Timmy Cahill and Mark Viduka, ran onto the return ball and fooled everyone by pretending a pathetic air swing which was, in fact, a sublime pass to Bresciano who drilled it over Carini’s head into the roof of the net.

The joy.

The sheer, primal howl of triumphant ecstasy.

We were now even on aggregate and if anything, the noise and angst levels rose. Before we’d had nothing to lose but now we did, and the white-knuckled horde clenched its teeth and buttocks and just clung to each other, emitting this weird, deafening drone like a billion terrified bees.

As the players went off for half time we sat numbly, unable to think or speak with any coherence. We made inarticulate noises – communicating in some kind of visceral language that was mainly about despair and injustice and four more years of what-might-have-been. We feared another Melbourne 97.

All week I’d been predicting one nil and penalties (despite my lack of belief and hope), and if I was right, it would mean another impossibly narrow squeak. To lose again, in those circumstances – I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to find the energy or interest to take another breath. It simply wouldn’t be worth it.

The players returned and the second half commenced. The crowd immediately returned to its previous 5000 decibels and 45 minutes passed in a blur of adrenaline, noise and terror. Neither team had any clear cut chances, as far as I recall, but I do remember thinking we’d finished the stronger, which is why I was furious when the ground announcer advised that in extra time away goals still counted double in the event of a draw.

“Oh that’s just wrong!” I moaned to Pete. “They’ve had their chance for double value and done nothing with it. Now they’re used to the conditions it should be off scratch.”

“Knowing FIFA,” replied Pete, “away goals will count double in the penalty shootout.”

The countdown to penalties commenced as we dominated extra time, while still allowing Uruguay occasional chances. A free header to Morales from a corner had us clutching our heads in horror! He was six yards out! Why was he left (and how did he miss)?

The players changed ends for the final fifteen minutes and it was just agony. The longer it went, the more likely it seemed that Uruguay would score, leaving us with the impossible task of getting two in whatever seconds were left.

But finally it was over. The crowd roared its appreciation and love and almost magically, the fear was gone. It’s like Johnny W was standing behind every one of us, massaging our shoulders and whispering: “I told you so.”

Suddenly we were confident and breathing easy – standing on our seats – desperate to make a difference somehow. The players seemed confident, and the Uruguayans were strangers in a strange and hostile land.

The players retired to the centre circle and Harry strode forward to take the first – slotted beautifully – one nil.

Then Rodriguez approached timidly for Uruguay. Schwarzer was steady as a stone, staring him down, guessed right and dived left and the roar that filled the stadium made the previous 120 minutes sound like a basket of kittens. Advantage Oz.

Neill and Vidmar, Varela and Estoyanoff, all functus officio – three, two.

Mark Viduka, captain courageous, stepped up to keep our noses in front. All we had to do was score two more penalties and we were going to Germany. And Viduka was the best striker we’d ever had, wasn’t he? No problem.

You just knew he was gonna miss. He completely tangled his run up, dragged it gently wide, and the horrible doubts were back. Or should have been.

For some reason probably associated with my natural optimism in defiance of any odds (a glass with a drop is 1% full after all) I turned to Pete as the crowd groaned its dismay and said: “Schwarzer’ll save this.”

Pete said nothing. He knew I was full of shit, but to acknowledge it might somehow break the magic spell I’d just cast.

Zalayeta stepped up to equalise for Uruguay and Schwarzer guessed right again.

Wow.

The inexpressible relief hot on the heels of Viduka’s miss. All of us were turning excitedly to each other and shouting, as Johnny Aloisi approached the spot: “If he scores we’re going to Germany!”

Johnny stood there, in the most tense and crippling of silences in the history of human endeavour. Thirty-two years of heartache on his shoulders. His eyes flicked towards the referee to confirm that all was in readiness, then he glided towards the ball and drove it past Carini’s desperate fingers.

We’ve all seen it a thousand times as Johnny rips his shirt off and goes careering around the stadium, pursued by his ecstatic team mates and surrounded by wildly celebrating Australians pouring their love like petrol onto the flames of joy.

In the stands we were hugging strangers and kissing anyone. Even as I write this now, nearly ten years later, there’s a lump in my throat and my eyes are getting misty at the memory. There’ll never again be a feeling like that – the relief – the untold, inexpressible exultation after 32 years of torment. We stayed standing on our seats hugging, cheering and singing till we were hoarse and beyond, all of us contributing to The Giant’s waking roar. As the players did a long, slow victory lap they played Land Down Under about eight times back to back and we just loved it – our hearts filled with a profound emotion that went beyond patriotism, jingoism or any other ism.

It was an awesome, magical, life-changing experience beyond the passion of saints. And you really had to be there.

We were going to Germany!

The Giant had woken.

 

[This blog was originally published on the Vulgar Press website in 2009, then revised and republished on the FourFourTwo site in 2012.]

Desocialising the Reader: The Secret World of the Unchained Id

Crime has been one of the most popular genres in modern literature since the rise of the detective story in the C19. Having said that, it is clear that the focus of such stories (and readers’/viewers’ tastes driving that focus) has substantially shifted from the characters solving crime to the characters causing it. We used to identify with the powers of good (eg Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot et al), but now we seem to identify just as much with the criminals, (eg The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Silence of the Lambs). We even blend the two – giving criminals a moral crusade (Breaking Bad, Dexter) or the good guys a morally equivocal approach to fighting crime (Rake).

What does this say about us as readers? Or the society in which such literature is generated?

It is my thesis is that the success of crime as a genre (particularly where it features complicated individuals who straddle both sides of the law) reflects the secret desire of individuals to break the shackles of civilisation. Crime allows the reader to visit vicariously a world they fear and get on intimate terms with characters from whom they would run screaming in real life.

Crime fiction allows the reader to escape the bonds of socialisation and taste the freedom reserved only for those who refuse to join the social compact.

* * *

Human beings are complex animals with a vast and soaring capacity for enlightenment, beauty and art – yet animals we remain. Our higher order faculties are built upon the same neural hardware used by the dinosaurs and all our other scaly and hairy ancestors who needed aggression and a powerful reproductive instinct to perpetuate themselves in the primordial chaos. Accordingly, the selfish, aggressive and lustful impulses necessary to sustain those ancestors over a hundred million years are still inherent in us.

We may not like to admit it, but we are constantly bombarded with violent, lustful and other antisocial urges which can never completely be turned off because they are too deeply a part of us. The brain you are using right now to understand these principles may be wrapped in a mammalian limbic system and surmounted with a hominid neo-cortex capable of profound abstraction, but the neural chassis – which looks after all your most fundamental systems – is still essentially a dinosaur brain, responding in its own way to any social stimulus.

And yet, your dinosaur brain does not force you to act out those dinosaur urges. Human beings have learned to repress their fundamental drives in order to get along in civil society. If we did not repress the violence, aggression and lust we would still be in what Thomas Hobbes referred to as a state of nature where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. (Leviathan, 1697)

This repression process is called socialisation. Freud referred to the unsocialised newborn as being in an id state – an intellectual blank slate with only its innate drives to help it make sense of the world. Left to itself, the individual would never emerge from the id state, but we are not left to ourselves. We encounter ‘others’ from our earliest days and it is through dealing with others that we become ‘self aware’ (the ego) and learn to find our own acceptable place within the norms of a community (the superego).

The point is, while most of us ignore or deny the innate antisocial urges, they never go away. We might repress the ‘urges’ for 50 years and then suddenly snap for a vast range of reasons – not least because we want to snap. Denying our most fundamental urges does not come naturally so has to be enforced by a precarious framework of laws and conventions which keep our true nature in check – like the chains holding King Kong in a New York theatre.

Socialisation is like a carrot and a stick. The stick is the threat of punishment if we break the law (or being ostracised by a peer group for failing to abide by convention). The carrot, according to Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, is the opportunity to make the social compact – to enjoy remnant freedoms after surrendering the innate personal sovereignty of the id to a higher sovereign entity (the law, or peer group expectation).

Crime occurs because either the stick is too weak a threat or the carrot too insufficient a reward and the id, like King Kong breaking his chains, takes back its innate sovereignty to express its drives untrammelled by the law.

* * *

Literature abounds with stories about the breakdown of civil society where people are no longer constrained by law or convention. Apocalyptic and dystopian books (Lord of the Flies, The Road) revel in the descent into chaos where The Rules are lost or changed and individuals are forced to be desocialised in order to survive. Such milieux are excellent thought laboratories for writers wanting to play with the human condition, but these are not our concern. This essay is focussed on the literature dealing with those who commit antisocial acts despite The Rules being firmly in place.

A civil society is dependent on the majority abiding by the social compact and obeying the law in order to preserve personal security, property and political rights. Obey the law and you will be safe and as successful as you deserve.

Criminals are those who do not deny their most natural urges. They unleash their urges in order to rape, kill or steal from others and such people are feared, shunned and punished if caught – mainly to reinforce the lesson of the social compact, but partly also (I suspect) because society’s retribution is born of jealousy as much as fear. We may have sublimated our natural urges for the greater good, but we still feel those urges and occasionally fantasise about letting them loose.

That, in my opinion, is why the crime genre is so successful. In an increasingly overcrowded and dysfunctional world our socialisation is under threat from a vast range of factors and forces – not least the pressure to be successful (ie, rich and/or famous). Crime is a shortcut to wealth and notoriety so is attractive in the real world to inadequately socialised individuals, and attractive in the fantasy world to individuals curious about what it would be like to have the social shackles removed.

This phenomenon is well understood by novelists and screen writers – who create well-drawn, fascinating ‘bad guy’ characters and invite the reader into their heads (Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Hannibal Lecter, nearly all of Quentin Tarantino’s characters, and, of course, most true crime works) to get a feel for that ultimate freedom – that unleashing of the id that criminals get to enjoy (until they’re caught), but is denied to the socialised.

Irvine Welsh is not regarded as a mainstream crime writer but I would suggest that all of his books fall somewhere on the crime spectrum. His most famous novel (Trainspotting) is about a group of Edinburgh junkies who get by thieving, scamming and dealing hard drugs. Their world is a violent and chaotic nightmare, filled with highs and lows beyond the experience of the well-adjusted, bourgeois reader. But all great writers have their own peculiar prism through which they perceive the human condition – for Welsh’s Edinburgh junkies that prism is the impact of heroin addiction on socialisation. People driven to procure heroin at any cost are no longer concerned with any sort of social nicety and Welsh revels in the outrageous behaviour of his characters as they go about the business of surviving.

But not just surviving. The main characters all have their philosophies – in particular Mark Renton, the main narrator (nearly all chapters are 1st person POV but from a range of different characters). It is easy for readers to identify with Renton – his way of seeing the world is simple. His own humanity has been stripped back to focus on the most obvious and urgent needs, but his perception of the behaviour of the bourgeoisie is that they are fundamentally focussed on the same motivations as him (except heroin) but clutter their lives with a range of hypocritical actions, distractions and attitudes in order to obscure the ugly, selfish truth. In other words, socialisation (or ‘choosing life’) is self-deluding hypocrisy. (Much of the book’s humour stems from Renton’s Attenborough-like observations of the bourgeois.) In identifying with Renton, the reader becomes exempt from his scathing judgments and shares in his occasionally soaring philosophy – until he commits the ultimate betrayal. (Or does he?)

A character with whom it is less easy to identify is Gregory David Roberts, the narrator of Shantaram. Shantaram purports to be a true crime memoir about a vicious escaped criminal who finds redemption working as a quasi-doctor in the Mumbai slum. Like Renton, Roberts is partial to philosophical ramblings (especially at the end of chapters), but unlike Renton he isn’t funny, and his meanings and motivations are obscure. On top of all that, his crimes are real, as opposed to Renton’s fictional crimes (which are mostly victimless). I would suggest it is easier for most readers to identify with a fictional criminal than a true-life criminal because the knowledge that a real victim suffered murder, violence or theft hinders the desocialisation process for the reader. I would suggest that it is easier for many readers to identify with the intelligence of fictional criminals like Mark Renton, or even Hannibal Lecter, than it is to identify with any true-life criminal.

Unless, of course, the victims are other criminals. Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s true crime memoirs have been amazingly popular over the last 20 years and I would suggest that the reason for this is that the victims are (nearly always) other criminals or dodgy coppers who deserved some sort of retribution. Chopper becomes a force for good (in his own world) and is charismatic enough to bring his audience with him on his various crusades. This means that the desocialisation process is comparatively easy for Chopper’s readers – he’s a black knight up against those even blacker.

That’s the key. The moral alignment of the reader can be adjusted to that of the main character (within the world of the story) and the people that character is against become the vicarious enemies of the reader. In the hands of a skilled writer, those enemies are just as likely to be the forces of order as the forces of evil.

* * *

Probably the easiest criminal character for a bourgeois reader to desocialise/identify with is the innocent abroad – the ordinary man or woman who finds him/herself in an extraordinary situation and is forced to break the law to survive. A moral justification, consistently applied, (Dexter, Breaking Bad) eases the desocialisation process (while under the spell of the story). A criminal act which can be morally justified is a gateway to other (less justifiable) actions once the reader has made the identification link with the relevant character.

Revenge stories, in particular, are fertile ground for writers wanting readers to identify with characters whose urges have been unleashed. Robert G Barrett was one of Australia’s most popular writers of the last 30 years. His books were mostly pulp fiction and barely worthy of deconstruction, with the exception of Davo’s Little Something – a novel of surprising depth and complexity. That story featured a fellow (Davo) who was the stereotypical ‘good bloke’ until beaten almost to death by a gang of random assailants. The story of Davo’s recovery is painstaking and powered by revenge – but something fundamental has changed and Davo is inspired to go far beyond the revenge that would have satisfied the temporarily desocialised bourgeois reader. Ultimately the book is quite tragic and very disturbing for the reader who might have approved of Davo’s actions – until he went too far.

Another way of easing the reader into the shoes of the main character is to establish a powerful story ambience that engages the sensibilities of the reader. In my own work I tend to invite the reader into what I refer to as ‘the secret world’. We all have a secret world in which The Rules of normal socialised life are transmuted into something more elastic. It is a sensual world in which numbers, symbols and patterns are discerned with a kind of meta-intelligence to make sense of the universe in a deeply private and (for most people) rarely expressed manner.

Sex, in particular, is an important part of this world. I believe that sex (in all its polymorphous manifestations) is deeply imbued into the way we perceive the world and other people, and I naturally use that in my writing. The main characters of Straight Jacket, for example, are two very sensual people who communicate in a manner which is always redolent of sex and its taboos. Morgen adverts to the small things that most people ‘see without seeing’ in polite society – like lost panties in the gutter or graffiti in public toilets. The reader is drawn into his sexually charged secret world and enjoys being in his head (1st person POV) despite his appalling attitude and behaviour.

Sex, of course, is also one of those weird activities that is legal between consenting adults but illegal when forced upon a non-consenter. Further, it can be perceived as an illicit or taboo activity between consenting adults who ought not be doing it according to the prevailing conventions of a given culture; ie adultery (Fatal Attraction, Crimes and Misdemeanours). Thus ‘sin’ can lead to crime whether as the revenge of a wronged partner or the efforts of an adulterer to conceal the sin. Either way, this is a profoundly intimate world where the humanity of the main characters is completely open to the reader to identify or judge.

A superbly portrayed example of this was Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours in which a highly respected member of the Jewish community (Judah) is tempted into an extramarital dalliance and is then confronted with the possibility that the lover will tell the wife. After much soul-searching, his solution is to call upon his brother (far less respected, with gangster affiliations) to resolve the problem (ie, the murder of the lover). In the end, Woody Allen who has been obsessing over the nature of justice in human relations encounters Judah in the bar at a wedding. Judah is surprisingly relaxed after the resolution of his moral dilemma and when Woody Allen (referring to his own problems) asks: ‘You don’t think God sees?’ Judah responds: ‘God is a luxury I can’t afford.’

Of course, once inside the secret world with the characters, the reader (or viewer) is also empowered and liberated, and open to concepts and possibilities that normally they wouldn’t see. This is the key to appreciating the deeper textures of quality crime fiction.

* * *

Finally, if we readers of crime fiction are drawn to the dark side within the pages of the story, how do we feel when the powers of good prevail (as they usually do)? Finishing a good book is like waking from a dream – a return to the real and conscious world where the social compact prevails.

No matter how much empathy we might have had for a character in the secret world, we are unlikely to have much sympathy for their plight when we return to the real world. No-one can sympathise with Mark Renton, or Gregory David Roberts, or Chopper, or Patrick Bateman, or Hannibal Lecter, or Morgen Tanjenz when the final page is turned, and yet it was fun to travel with them through their journey.

For a little while the reader has been empowered and liberated to enjoy vicariously the ultimate freedom of the unchained id. This is a fascinating journey and any guilty pleasure is intellectualised and offset by the literary invention, but in the end there must always be a return to the waking world of jobs, mortgages and well-adjusted relationships.

The world is real but the secret world is unreal.

Warren Is A Joke

For many years now I’ve been increasingly worried by a growing list of anxieties, including (but not limited to): world hunger, global warming, terrorism, fundamentalism (of any stripe), political corruption, the North South divide, social dysfunction, ocean pollution, mass extinctions, overpopulation, viral pandemic, the banal cult of celebrity, existential malaise and the steadfast refusal of any person in authority to take any of these things seriously.

Realistically, besides the occasional donation or token polemic blog, there is bugger all I can do about any of this, which compounds the anxiety. However, I have found a crusade which might just be within my measure…to see the end of that fool Warren who draws (so-called) cartoons for the Telegraph.

There is a proud Australian tradition of editorial cartoons – usually political or otherwise holding a mirror up to the crazed countenance of the Australian or World condition. Many names have entered the pantheon such as Larry Pickering, Alan Moir, David Pope, Cathy Wilcox, Michael Leunig (of course), Matthew Martin, Mark David, Paul Rigby…and those are just a handful covering the last 30 years or so. All of them funny. All of them capable of genius. How could a mere mortal ever aspire to joining their ranks?

Well, as it turns out, expert draughtsmanship, a way with words and a keen eye for cracks under the socio-political wallpaper are not the only tools needed to become a successful cartoonist. You could, like Warren, simply scrawl pictures of people Australians have been told to hate (or love) by the right wing media and that will be enough to get you a gig with the Tele.

But images of towel-headed terrorists waving scimitars, or Tony Abbott in his speedos purporting to out-macho Putin add little to the canon of Australian cartoonery. Even worse are the occasional tributes to the Aussie hero du jour. Thursday’s ‘cartoon’ was simply a picture of the civil engineer John Bradfield straddling titan-like the harbour in place of the bridge he famously built (on the same day that Tony Abbott proposed that the new airport be named after Bradfield). How is this a cartoon? Friday’s effort depicting the (unconvicted) Phil Rudd being raped in prison and facing an electric chair was simply grotesque.

The alarmist, right wing propaganda masquerading as satire produced by Warren is never funny. It asks no questions. It reveals nothing surprising or worthy of caricature. It serves no purpose except to encourage obsequiousness to conservative leaders and fear of Otherness. It is ham-fisted, humourless drivel which is generated simply to support the radical right wing agenda of the editors.

Now, as an ardent advocate of free speech, I have no problem with Warren trotting out tasteless and disturbing propaganda as directed by his paymasters. But I do have a problem with cartoons that aren’t funny. Let’s all join together to get Warren thrown off the Tele and replaced by a cruel, heartless conservative demagogue who at least can make us laugh!

Inferno: Review

Before I get into Inferno
I found The Da Vinci Code irritating for a number of reasons – one was the way the book presents speculative analysis or conjecture as fact. I forgave Brown for that however because the story was so well told that I felt the Twain Defence (never let the facts get in the way of a good story) should reasonably be applied.
The chief irritation, however, was the main character – Professor Robert Langdon. We are asked to believe that Prof Langdon is the world’s foremost expert on religious iconography, and yet we are constantly privy to the thoughts of this so-called Harvard professor and they are NOT the thoughts of a 50+ intellectual. More often than not he comes across like a teenager with ‘attitude’! Even worse, with substantially less background in religious iconography and renaissance painting, I was constantly guessing the next step 5 pages ahead of Prof Langdon, so note to Dan Brown: if you’re going to portray a genius, don’t just tell me he’s a genius. Have him do some clever stuff before most of the readers do it.
Now…Inferno.
I am seriously struggling to find words that convey strongly enough how I feel about this unmitigated train wreck. One of the key principles in writing fiction is to keep the story plausible within the rules of the milieu created. To fail to do so is to distract the reader from the flow and make them conscious they are reading. I was so distracted by the unlikely sequence of events that I never got into the flow at all. The only reason I continued reading was because I was intrigued as to how such a giant of the genre was going to wrap it all up after such an abysmal start.
Poorly, as it turned out. If the premise was unlikely and the plot developments ridiculous, the resolution was nothing short of insulting. He may as well have involved aliens, or just had Langdon wake up and realise it was all a dream.
A major disappointment in Inferno was the absence of the inventive clues as employed in The Da Vinci Code. There was actually one clue where all Langdon had to work on was a reference to a chapter of Dante’s Inferno. Langdon only had access to the first six lines of that chapter, yet somehow he worked out that a reference to baptism in those lines could only mean that the object he sought must be hidden in a very specific baptismal font in an obscure church in Florence.
Do me a favour! Most of the other revelations were the most appalling type of sudden switcheroos which the reader has no hope of working out in advance and therefore cannot admire. For example, changing a main character’s name at a convenient moment and even inventing an organisation whose unlikely purpose was to simulate events (at enormous cost) to hoodwink characters (and readers). No-one could possibly read this without feeling massively cheated.
Of course, the fact that there were clues in the first place beggars belief when the bad guy was a maniac who 100% believed in the rightness of his mission. Why would such a person leave clues to potentially thwart the goal to which his entire life had been dedicated? Like everything else in the book, it made no sense.
But if the clues were obscure or confected beyond belief, even worse was the love interest. Yet again we are told we are in the presence of genius (a 208 IQ) but does Sienna Brooks do or say anything to make us believe her intellect? She does not. If we are supposed to feel any kind of sympathy or admiration for Sienna (or want her to get it on with the Professor) then Brown fell way short. It’s almost as though he created the character and then didn’t know what to do with her. Consequently, I couldn’t care about her (and her kaleidoscopic allegiances).
My final criticisms relate to the editing. There were numerous typos (to my surprise) but far worse were the inconsistencies. First we are told that Langdon visits Florence every other year, later it’s every year. Then there is an implication that he only speaks basic Italian (inconceivable though this be for such an expert on the Italian renaissance who is so frequently in the country and with so many Italian friends), but later in the book he is speaking Italian like a native…or at least like a frequently visiting professor. The whole thing read like a first draft needing a heap of work to make publishable, rather than just saleable.
The only positive thing to say about Brown’s Inferno is that it was so bad, there’s a really good chance that no-one who read it will ever buy one of his books again.

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins: Review

Let me begin by saying that Irvine Welsh is my favourite writer of the last 25 years. I was blown away by Trainspotting, The Acid House, Ecstasy, Glue and Filth. I didn’t particularly enjoy Marabou Stork Nightmares but I could appreciate its ambition and power…it haunts me still. I loved Porno, but after that he started to seem a tad jaded. If You Enjoyed School You’ll Love Work was trying too hard. The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs was a confused mess. And Crime left me cold (with too much riding on a late-revealed traumatic childhood to explain a dysfunctional adult – ground he’d already covered so brilliantly with Bruce Robertson in Filth.
There was a brief return to form with Skag Boys – Begbie in particular was breathtaking in that reprise – so I looked forward to Irvine’s next effort confident that he’d rediscovered his edge.
Alas, he has not. The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is an almost colour-by-numbers attempt to counterpoint the evolving relationship of two women (one fit, one fat) with the developing media fascination with a pair of conjoined twins who want different things in their lives.
It was pretty hard for me to get into the story – mainly because I didn’t like (or believe) the main character – Lucy. She seemed to have the same voice as the increasingly coke-psychotic Sick Boy from the second half of Porno, and the only reason I knew she was a woman was because she kept saying so (despite her unrelenting misogyny).
Neither did I believe the other main character (Lena) – especially her true sexual orientation which is conveniently revealed towards the end. I especially did not believe the major turning point that happens about halfway through. Stranger things have happened, of course, but there needed to be at least some vague foreshadowing that such was possible to make it believable when it came. Too much in one go did not make sense.
There was an interesting idea underpinning the plot but the whole thing read like a first draft. The story needed a lot more structural editing to pull it into shape. Most disappointing was the absence of the usual Welsh dark humour. The sex scenes also read like a middle aged man’s lesbotic fantasy rather than smacking of any authenticity. And TWO main characters with dysfunctional lives attributable to past trauma is just getting lazy. Worst of all, I guessed every detail about the ending long before it happened. A further couple of drafts might have enabled him to conceal the ‘twists’ a little better – or even come up with some better twists to trump the reader’s expectation.
The question must be asked: has Irvine Welsh become the sort of writer he might most have despised when still scribbling in obscurity? Is he now a complaisant ex-virtuoso basking in the ebbing shadows of former glory like Meatloaf at the MCG? (Google it.) I reckon the talent is still there, he just needs to work harder than ever to refine his draft plots into something worthy of the Irvine Welsh brand.
Mibbe eh just needs back oan the skag? Ah widnae mind a sequel tae Porno. Aye right, Irvine?

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