Book of the Month: California Fire & Life

Cover of Don Winslow's California Fire and Life

I vaguely recall a poster for Natural Born Killers that looked almost identical to this

Bloody Predictable Or What?

That Don Winslow, what a bastard. Just when you thought you were free of him, along comes another brutally compelling book to sink you for a day. I don’t think you really appreciate compulsion in an author until you’ve got a Winslow in your hands. They’re like a race. Once you start you’re committed. You just have to continue reading, even if it’s 4am, even if your eyes start feeling like they’re being grated, no make that have already been grated and you’re using just the stubby end bits of your optic nerve to tear meaning from the pages. It’s that satisfyingly painful.

Knowledge Is Power

Steve McQueen once said, ‘I don’t want to be the guy who learns, I want to be the guy who knows’, and Winslow obviously knows. Everything he writes is suffused with knowledge, places, people, cultures. Once you start reading you start believing. Not just that he’s been there, but that you are there. I once had a friend who was fixated on Lovejoy books (crap antique dealer as mystery solver drivel) because they came away from each book having learned something. Coming away from one of Winslow’s you don’t feel like you’ve learned something as much as been there and experienced it for real, that it’s as much a part of your life as it is part of his characters’. Whether it’s the surf culture of the West Coast, the Mexamerican drug cartels or the mysteries of the insurance investigation process, you come out of a Winslow feeling like you’ve been there, done that, got the expertise.

Unlike so many crime writers Winslow doesn’t pack his pages full of action, they’re not frantic races around seemingly arbitrary destination points. Neither are they filled with ever more bloodthirsty victim porn, with crimes ramped up to ridiculously sadistic levels to satisfy readers’ lusts. Instead there’s background, depth and character. Winslow’s heroes are true American heroes. They are the men who know, whose knowledge and commitment places them to the side of society, half outcasts through their own expertise.

California Fire & Life burns with arson, murder, revenge and a justifiable contempt for property developers. It’s a tale of playing and being played, of international crime and local intrigue and down at the end a smoldering passion. It will light you up in a second.

Over on the East Coast, David Simon pulled together some of the best modern American crime writers, men like George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and Ed Burns, and came up with The Wire, simply the most real TV show I’ve seen. If he was doing a West Coast version his first stop would be Don Winslow.

What We Learned From Argentina vs South Korea (4-1)

Who’s Your Main Man?

No, it’s not little wizard Messi, it’s not even hat-trick hero Higuan, it’s the wee tiger tank Tevez. I love Tevez not simply because he kept West Ham in the Premiership, while at the same time almost bankrupting them; not simply because he massively fucked off Man U by helping them win the Premiership then flounced off to Man City; no, I love Tevez because he has the jawbone of a bull chimp and the attitude of Mike Tyson. In the same way that Tyson in his prime would just flip his switch and walk from one corner of the ring to the other while simultaneously giving his opponent the face pummelling they so obviously richly deserved, so Tevez simply rampages through opponents cleverly using his body strength to maximum effect. You sense that he is one of the few players in the Tournament who will always threaten to be a game changer.

The Argies Are Like Deputy Commissioner Rawls (Not Bunk Moreland)

For when it came time to fuck the lovely Bunk Moreland-like South Korea they were not gentle, they put the boot in, especially after the plucky Bunk Moreland’s delivered a stone banker murder clearance to make the score 2 – 1. No, nasty Rawls threatened to put the Bunk on the boat patrol with naughty boy Jimmy “What The Fuck Did I Do” McNulty.

You’ve Got To Make The Breakaways Count (pt 1)

2 – 1 down, the South Koreans have the best break of the game, a fantastic flowing move down the right side of the pitch, giving Yeom Ki-Hun the perfect opportunity to level the game. He missed and the Rawls juggernaut just kept a-rollin’. Goals change games and at this level you’ve got to score them. Still, hopefully the plucky South Koreans have done enough to get through this Group as you’ve got to bank them to stuff the Nigerians, while the Argies should roundly fuck the Greeks.

18 Down 46 To Go

What We Learned From South Korea vs Greece (2-0)

Beware of Greeks Being Shit

By far the worst team on view so far (and with everyone in Group A in the mix that’s saying something), the Greeks have elevated themselves to a unique position in World Football. Coming into this match they had never won a World Cup game, nor had they ever scored a World Cup goal and on this level of performance, nothing was set to change (and you know what nothing did). They are indisputably a bad day Bolton in disguise, playing a game that involves extensive use of the in-the-back barge at every opportunity, along with petulant whining and ref-baiting. Once they were a goal down they never looked like getting back into the game. But when you consider that their main striker, Samaras, finds it hard to get a game, let alone make an impact in the Scottish league, it’s unsurprising that their main talent is bare knuckled defending. They are the MuckDonalds Shit Sandwich of this World Cup buffet. I can’t wait for Argentina to give them the rapacious spanking they so utterly deserve.

The South Koreans Are Kind Like Bunk Moreland

Yes, like Bunk Moreland from The Wire, the South Koreans were gentle when it came time to fuck the Greeks for the first time. They never ran wild, never really tried to force the game and Park Ji-Sung’s solo goal aside, never went out to blatantly humiliate a side that was never really in this game. Admittedly they never really got out of second gear and once they had gone 2 up they really didn’t look too enthusiastic to bust a gut to make it 3. Their match against Nigeria will determine who goes through alongside Argentina.

That Pitch Was Wemberley Class

Cut ups, divots, browning patches. The pitch looked like a badly laid Subbuteo baize that’s been stepped on by those new fangled nail shoes. I don’t fancy being one of the teams playing the fifth game there. It will be a dump by then. Oh hold on, that will be Solvenia vs Engerland. Still at least the boys will feel at home.

Can We Have A Good Game Please

Because so far nothing has really lived up to Premiership quality, let alone Champions League quality.

3 Down 61 To Go

Once More Into The Bleed

Once Stringer Bell retired from drug dealing, he found welcome employment in the London police force

As the mad old waiter said in Twin Peaks, “It is happening again.”

Characters are bleeding from one series into another. Only this time it’s not the local bleed of Baltimorians from The Wire suddenly finding themselves a few miles down the road in balmy (or possibly barmy) Washington DC and The West Wing. This time it’s altogether closer to home as characters from Spooks, many of whom have been severely mutilated or, worse, simply written out, descend on the killing grounds of Luther.

I’m less worried by the reappearance of Stinger Bell pretending to be a gor-blimey proper London rozzer. After all String needed some sort of realistic exit plan after being roundly killed at the end of The Wire Season 3. You don’t come back to Baltimore after a shotgunning from Omar, especially not when it’s fatal. A quick change of ID and a switch to the other side of the legal tracks seems like the way for String to try to reinvent himself. No, I’m really worried about the reappearance of the arsey City trader from Spooks as blood-drinking, victim freezing mental mass murderer. Or the realisation that Ruth has obviously been cheating on Harry Pearce and far from ‘being abroad’ between Series has been living with a mass-murdering pretend cabbie and displaying none of the wry insight she really possesses.

Luther is one of those programmes that acts as a nexus, sucking in characters from other series and spitting them out as rearranged pseudo-people. It’s as if they’re not really who they are and are simply replaying words funnelled into their heads from strange schizophrenic broadcasting centres. They have double (sometimes treble) lives and it’s getting more and more confusing. Who knows when this madness will stop.

Aunt Julia and the Surreal Nature of The West Wing

There’s a moment in Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter where your whole notion of the boundaries between the world, the book and its various fictional realities starts to go to pieces. Where the Scriptwriter’s various soap operas, which interspersed the main story of the novel, start to intertwine and characters start appearing, albeit peripherally, in the wrong stories. It’s as if the cement certainties you had when you started reading have been dissolved and are rotting away, leaving bits and pieces of the various spaces the characters (and you) occupy to bleed into one another.

Terrifyingly, these are the people who you want to run the government rather than the people who do

I mention this only because I’ve been getting into The West Wing – all seven series of it – and it’s been an interesting ride. It seems to start off almost as if the original pitch meeting was “it’s like Friends, but in the White House and with fewer laughs” only for it to develop into a Runyonesque political commentary. So there’s the spunky, irritating John Hughes chick who’s a little bit kooky, but somehow endearing and lovable (not lovable or interesting enough to make it to Season 2 though); the President who initially comes off like a cartoon Dubya Bush, but ends up redefining American politics, getting things done and achieving stellar approval points; the various policy makers who amazingly also manage to get things done and who seem to shed their initial personality quirks (like inadvertently sleeping with hookers for instance) as the seasons progress and somehow manage to make the country better; the ‘comedy couple’ who initially start as a parody of husband and wife and end up representing the humanity of the series; and the Press Secretary, who starts off all spin and flippancy, but ends up Chief of Staff, thereby defining the show’s move from spin parody to political seriousness.  By the end of Series 7 you’re left with a profound sense of the importance and gravitas of American politics. So much so that the entire final season, way the best of the bunch, is devoted to the campaign to replace the President. And it’s so enthralling, that you’re happy that one entire episode is a televised debate between the two candidates and that two are devoted to the election day itself.

But the moment that cracked it for me, the moment I saw through the glass and into the disturbing, reality blurring space beyond, was when characters from The Wire began to bleed through into individual or multiple episodes. Cedric Daniels, in a moment of pre-Wire policing, is a detective who is supervising a death scene. His wife (or possibly ex-wife by then) Marla is apparently moonlighting as the principal of an elementary school (could this explain her frigid relationship with Cedric during the early series of The Wire?). Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman obviously cut her teeth working for the Republicans up on the Hill, doing deals to secure appropriate legislation and judicial appointments prior to banging McNulty and then Cedric Daniels. Maurice Levy puts in a pre-corrupt lawyer appearance as a harassed White House adviser (obviously showing that eventually the profits of crime do entice individuals away from the honest legal system). Not even the Barksdales are immune from a little moonlighting from the running of their drugs empire. In case anyone was concerned about Brianna’s exact role in the Barksdale’s ever-expanding criminal empire and what she spent her time doing, it’s clear that she spends most of her non-crime minutes organising secret polling for political parties – the political equivalent of  highly deniable black ops missions.  I was relieved that the likes of McNulty, Bunk, Snoop and Omar didn’t make appearances otherwise I really would have been confused (or the plot of The West Wing would have taken a seriously violent turn).

It’s not that the appearance of characters from one series in another is that disturbing, after all Marcie from Alias and Commander Adama from Battlestar Galactica also make appearances (and we don’t really think it is Commander Adama), it’s just that you could believe that the rarefied world of Washingtonian politics and the crack-fuelled underbelly of Balitmorian law enforcement could collide in just such a surreal way. After all, if Major ‘Bunny’ Colvin can almost get a job running the security at Johns Hopkins (before incinerating his career prospects by attempting to legalise drugs) and President Bartlett’s daughter Ellie can study there, it’s not a great leap of faith to imagine that the two narratives could somehow link and intertwine.


Very, very blue. Roger Hiorns' Seizure.

Very, very blue. Roger Hiorns' Seizure.

Having managed to be nominated for a Turner Prize, or at least being responsible for having its creator Roger Hiorns nominated, it’s no surprise that the council who wanted to demolish this old council house block somehow haven’t quite got around to breaking it up. In fact you get the feeling that if they could only find a way to levy a charge on this it would cover the building of a few new decent homes.

Still, Hiorns’ Seizure, a copper sulphate encrusted house that’s well worth seeing, has been reopened (until October 18 2009). It does make you wonder what they’ve been doing with it since they closed it at the tail end of last year. Anyway, it’s great and you all should go and stand in line to get your feet into the now probably very scabby festival gumboots you have to wear to get inside. You won’t be disappointed (foot infections aside). More info on Shapeandcolour and here, oh and here too.

Frankly if Hiorns doesn’t win the Turner Prize, then the art people need their heads examined.

Squire Jules in his new headgear

Squire Jules in his new headgear

Went out to see the medieval jousting at Arundel Castle, where the Boon were able to equip themselves in a style they could only previously have dreamed about – real swords, super-vicious gauntlets and some quality headgear such as this forward thinking child encasing unit – simply place the unit on child and watch them bimble about merrily for the next ten minutes heroically bumping into stuff left right and center. For double amusement equip child with a finely made longsword and back off quickly. We thought the Boon would be enthralled by the fine exhibition of olde worlde sword fighting and jousting, but it turns out they really raved over the castle, which was “A proper castle just like I wanted”. Best bit obviously being the Tower Guards’ outdoor toilet.

Meanwhile, the Lairds of Scunthorpe album has been developing at a pace over the summer. Currently there are 10 – 12 tracks being worked on, from material developed solely on the fantastic Beatmaker on the iPhone, to fully Logiced up songs with some neat beats. I want to get it to about double that before I start working out which ones to focus on.

As if this wasn’t enough I’ve been rewatching The Wire (like anything else is worth rewatching alright). Only this time I’ve added a new twist. I’m watching it in French with English subtitles. That way when I go over to France I’ll be able to talk in authentic Baltimore French, which I guess is a bit like McNulty’s genuine English. Spot On eh.