Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Pop Culture Institute's First Annual Hall of Fame

The first-ever inductees into the Pop Culture Institute's Hall of Fame have been chosen by all of you out there in Internet-land for the part they've played in bringing readers to this site since it first came into being*; I'll attempt to sort them into categories, although I fully expect this endeavour to evolve over time, as has almost everything else to do with this blog during the past two years. Meaning that, in future years there may be no new inductees, or the categories under which they are inducted may be idiosyncratic ones; it depends mainly on the omniscient will of the great deity, Google, as It continues to sift the collective unconscious, and my ability to predict and interpret that will...

MAN FOR THE AGES: Porfirio Rubirosa

PhotobucketFar and away the majority of traffic I've gotten to this site this year is due to the Dominican Republic's former Ambassador Pleni-potentiary and renowned playboy, Porfirio Rubirosa.

As with all those chosen, the traffic he's driven has been both constant and widespread, not unlike the women for whom he served as a kind of socialite stud service; there have been many posts in the past year which have briefly brought about a flurry of interest - Bo Bice is the most obvious of these - only to subside after weeks or even days, but ever since I first posted about Rubirosa in July 2008 - on the anniversary of his 1965 death - not a day has gone by where at least a third of my traffic wasn't due entirely to him.

Runners Up: Kristen Bjorn, Stefano Casiraghi, Benigno Aquino, Jr.

As with most of the winners and runners-up, the frequency of their appearance in my stat reports startled even me; in some cases, it even altered the planned course of this blog's editorial policy**. The popularity of Kristen Bjorn prompted the inclusion of posts regarding other porn stars such as Ken Ryker, Jeff Stryker, and Joey Stefano; not only that, but many more such posts are planned for the future, since therein lies the zeitgeist...

WOMAN FOR THE AGES: Mimi Panzirer

Just three posts made following the August 2007 death of Manhattan socialite Leona Helmsley are still regularly contributing to the inflow of readers to the Pop Culture Institute; whomever these friends I haven't met yet happen to be, what I do know about them is that they haven't come here looking for information on the dragon lady herself, but rather on the reclusive widow of her late son Jay Panzirer. Yet Mimi Panzirer has no Wikipedia page and there are no photos of her on Google Images; once I manage to get up my nerve, I'm considering putting in an interview request to her - if, that is, I can find her. Hopefully my nerve and my research will successfully converge in the not too distant future...

Runners Up: Dorothy Dandridge, Edie Sedgwick, Gia Carangi

DYNASTY FOR THE AGES: Monaco's House of Grimaldi

I'm still not certain how or why I get so many hits about the Grimaldis - the whys and wherefores of Search Engine Optimization being an even greater mystery to me than the motivating manias of total strangers - but I do know that the post I made regarding the April 1956 wedding of Monaco's Prince Rainier III to American actress Grace Kelly still routinely shows up as a reliable hit-getter. It may have been the quality of the writing, it may be the ongoing interest in their story, or it could be the royal couple's wedding photo, of which my example turns up near the top of photo searches at Google. Either way, I too have had a lifelong fascination with the Grimaldis, and hope one day to turn the blog posts I've made (and will be making) about their fascinating lineage into a book.

POEM FOR THE AGES: Christina Rossetti's In The Bleak Midwinter

The Pop Culture Institute strives to be inclusive... I, personally, have never been fond of those people, for instance, who claim to like all music only to have their likely story fall to pieces under the most basic scrutiny. This is why I post videos of punk, country, opera and hip hop; I do it because I genuinely like all these kinds of music. It's also why I publish poetry, despite the fact that it is seemingly out of cultural favour. Yet, of all the poems I've published to date (40 at last count) this seems to be the one most people are looking for...

NEWSMAKERS FOR THE AGES: The Scottsboro Nine

At the time it occurred in March 1931, the arrest of the Scottsboro Nine elicited howls of criticism from most of the progressives in the world... So why then, nearly eighty years later, have those howls not faded away? Throughout our human history - indeed even just in the 20th Century - there have been travesties of justice that would seem to be far worse. Yet, for some reason, this is the case that seems to hold my readers rapt.

NEWS STORY FOR THE AGES: The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

I have always considered it my responsibility as an artist to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, which is why the Pop Culture Institute has always and always will contain as much information as possible regarding the struggles of minorities not only to exercise their rights but to be written into the history they've helped to make... To this end I've written about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the murder of Emmett Till, as well as the Stonewall Riots, suffrage, and the end of the colonial era... None of these stories, however, has garnered me half as much traffic as the story of the four little girls killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan in September 1963.

SONG FOR THE AGES: It's Like That by Run-D.M.C.

One of the things I like best about the Internet is the way that it brings people together, even as it seems to push them apart; certainly, the 12-year-olds leaving their idiotic comments all over YouTube have nothing on the interactive social studies inherent in Facebook. The Internet, though, leaves its gold nuggets scattered around; finding and mining them for this blog has become my principal activity, and hopefully will one day provide my main source of income.

One thing my research seems to have uncovered is that people on every continent save Antarctica have, at one time or another, passed through the Pop Culture Institute while searching for this very song - proving what every Baby Boomer knows about the power of music to unite and heal as well as entertain.

EDITORIAL DECISION FOR THE AGES: Publishing Serial Fiction

At the risk of tooting my own horn, I really feel that both this blog and my life took a major upward trend when I decided to publish The Barington Encounter on November 2nd of this year; though it is, in relative terms, a latecomer to the proceedings, this ersatz tale of aliens encountering modern Britain - which began as a response to the May 2001 death of novelist Douglas Adams - seems to have won me readers around the world, in places as diverse as China, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Kansas.

Thank you all for your visits, your patience, and most importantly your comments over the past year; I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see what 2009 has in store!

~ MSM

*Originally I began posting as the Pandora Institute on January 26th, 2006; it became the Pop Culture Institute on Christmas Day of that year.
**Yes, believe it or not, all of this is being meticulously planned.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Willie O'Ree Named To Order Of Canada

One of Fredericton's favourite sons, Willie O'Ree, has been named to the Order of Canada today, affording him at long last just one of the plum accolades he so richly deserves; O'Ree is known as 'the Jackie Robinson of hockey' for being the first black player in the game*, which he became when he took to the ice for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in January 1958.

PhotobucketOnce there he encountered some hateful speech, although he later admitted the problem was much worse in the US than Canada**; many of those fans - the sort of enlightened intellectuals who were unable to grasp the concept of a black man born in Canada - would yell at him to go back to the South - of New Brunswick, obviously. O'Ree's reaction was philosophical: 'It didn't bother me,' he is reported as saying. 'I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn't accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.' Now that's what I call class...

O'Ree scored 4 goals and had 10 assists in his NHL career, which reached its pinnacle with the 43 games he played in 1961; at that point he returned to the minor leagues, where he played with the Los Angeles Blades and San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. He retired in 1971, and there wasn't another black player until fellow Canadian Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974; O'Ree blazed a trail, though, which has since been taken by such players as Canadians Jarome Iginla and Anson Carter and American Mike Grier.

The Gulls later retired his number, and hung his jersey from the rafters of the San Diego Sports Arena; given the tenor of the times, we should all be grateful he wasn't in it at the time. O'Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, and since 1998 has worked for the NHL's Diversity Task Force, which aims to bring more minorities into the sport.

*Although Art Dorrington was the first black player to sign a pro contract, in 1950, he never left the minors.
**Surely he's only being diplomatic here; Canadian bigots are just as good as American ones, there's just fewer of them per capita so it seems like there's less of them.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Barington Encounter: Part Nine

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[1] * [2] * [3]
* [4]
* [5] * [6] * [7] * [8]

However you might have imagined an alien invasion of Earth would go - with your brain poisoned by a lot of xenophobic blather courtesy of Hollywood and fed a similarly toxic diet which like American movies consisted almost entirely of additives and filler - well, you’d be wrong in this case...

There was no sky blackened by a flotilla of ships, no anarchy amongst the about-to-be-subjugated, and an almost disappointing (and certainly un-entertaining, at least in Earth terms) lack of people being evaporated to death by laser cannons. In fact, Felicia Fripp's invasion of her own front garden was considerably more terrifying than anything these five could have ever devised. One lady outside a nearby pub did scream, but it turns out she’d just bought the regular crisps instead of the bacon; just to be on the safe side, she was sectioned.

On that very ordinary day it was just five very ordinary Andromedans and an awful lot of flat pack from the local outlet of ├╝ber-costermonger DIYnot?, which had only recently turned ten hectares of uniquely lovely English countryside into a million square feet of entirely ordinary yet cheerfully fascistic retail space, complete with generous pourings of tarmac - all of it located not five miles away from the house that was the only place on Earth the Andromedans had any intention of occupying.

Possibly the reason for the less-than-stellar reaction to the arrival of these particular interstellar travelers is the fact that a great many aliens were already here. Better (or worse, depending upon your world-view) than that, even more had been here before, given the amazing exchange rate. Space - and not just according to Einstein either - is a very inflationary place indeed, making Earth a bargain even at many thousands of times the price; to put things into perspective, a litre of petrol on Beta Centauri cost the same as the annual gross domestic product of Cameroon on a good day, so you can imagine what they’d gouge you for a bottle of water.

Scientists, missionaries, and tourists of every kind and from every sector of the galaxy had been making their way to Earth for the better part of the past hundred million years, often on fancy dress excursions in which they would all play Japanese businessmen, for instance, or triceratopses. The Centauris alone had made so many movies about the toga party they held during that one fateful Spring Break which succeeded in levelling Troy that it was officially recognized as its own genre; the actual wooden horse they’d partied in then was today a major tourist attraction, the centrepiece of the Hard Rock Cafe in Gordlinginin, their capital.

So while some came for edification on a spiritual quest, and still others came strictly to see the sights and thus record them documentarily - although, since none of them were Andromedan neither deadlily nor dully - truth be told, most of them came for a super cheap piss-up and a bit of upsy-skirtsy with slappers whose reputation was legendary across the galaxy; on these delightful pleasures was built Earth’s reputation as the Blackpool of the Milky Way. One popular slogan on travel brochures was ‘Earth: Home of the Easy Anal Probe’, which made the place as well-beloved amongst them as was into that sort of thing as it was well-feared by them that wasn’t.

Many of these same aliens, of course, had taken to decrying how touristy the place had gotten lately, how completely overrun by such uppity locals, even though neither offense was ever adjudged terrible enough to make even one of them stop coming; others bemoaned the removal of the unicorns or the Ancient Romans, or else some other favoured exhibit from yesteryear that they could now only experience in their personal photograph albums or lavishly illustrated souvenir tomes. Yet still they came; in fact, you've undoubtedly seen them yourselves. You just didn’t recognize them because a) you weren’t expecting to see them, or b) you yourself were pissed, up to your ears in labia (or both), or otherwise couldn’t be bothered to notice.

* * *

An ordinary constable, PC Gary Carlisle, was first on the scene (as they were so fond of saying in the American cop shows which were his favourite viewing material) then taking place in Juniper Mews...

Out on patrol, where ordinarily he might find a couple of truant fourth formers arsed on Alco-Pops and/or a beggar wandered away from the favoured spot - outside the Balls chemist in the High Street - Gary Carlisle instead saw three men in turbans struggling to fit a nine foot mattress through an eight foot door while what appeared to be their employer, a willowy bloke with blue skin in fancy dress - stood in the next garden over being argued at by a middle-aged housewife who appeared to be committing several sorts of hate crimes and/or grievous bodily harm simultaneously upon him. Fortunately for Gary Carlisle he hadn’t come by a few minutes earlier, as there’s no telling what the sight of this blue person sneezing like a cat would have done to his delicate police constable’s psyche.

‘ ‘Ello, ‘ello,’ he might have said, or even ‘What’s all this then?’ - both of which were recommended by the aptly-titled self-help book Police Work for Dummies - but he did not. ‘Take me to your leader,’ they might have responded if they were feeling particularly old school, or even ‘Resistance is futile,’ if they were in the mood for a little whimsy (or indeed known anything about sci-fi). But they were not (and they did not) so they could not. Gary Carlisle might have even offered that he’d earned an O level in geometry, not that it would have mattered now since the vast blobby thing with which they struggled seemed irrevocably jammed in, well, the jamb; he might have even loaned them his protractor, which he carried upon his person at all times for just these sorts of conundra (not that one had ever come up, but it never hurts to be prepared, as he'd learned in the Boy Scouts). But he would not so they did not so he did not.

Instead, when ordinary constable Gary Carlisle first rounded the corner from Castlewood Avenue (where there was neither a castle nor a wood) onto Juniper Mews (where no juniper had ever grown, nor no horse ever been stabled, although it had been the site of much gin drinking and the home of many noisy cats) he let out a small shriek. The tallest, bluest alien - always eager to get along - shrieked back, a high-pitched girly sound being an informal Andromedan word for ‘greetings’.

Then the entirely ordinary alien (who nevertheless possessed extraordinary powers of leadership) gave the mattress the subtlest of shoves - really more of a glancing hand gesture than any concerted effort - whereupon it fell through the doorway and landed with a sighing thud in the centre of the kitchen. As the movers scrambled to remove it even further into the house he then invited the even more ordinary police constable into 14 Juniper Mews for a spot of tea and to meet his four friends who were, at least compared to either of them, even more incredible...


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Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Watchlist - December 26th

Irma Thomas - Time Is On My Side
Dishwalla - Nashville Skyline
My Chemical Romance - Early Sunsets Over Monroeville
Six Feet Under - Shadow of the Reaper
Robert Johnson - If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day
John Mayer - Clarity
AFI - Perfect Fit
Royal Crown Revue - Inner City Swing
Bruce Cockburn - The Coldest Night of the Year
The Smiths - Death of a Disco Dancer
Peter Schilling - Major Tom
Sass Jordan - Make You a Believer
Jason Mraz - Geek in the Pink
Billie Holiday - Fine and Mellow
Azis - Pisna mi
Haircut 100 - Love Plus One
Les Rita Mitsouko - Andy
.38 Special - So Caught Up In You
Frank Crumit - What Kind of a Noise Annoys an Oyster?
Hole - Miss World
Madonna - Everybody
The Rolling Stones - Paint It Black
The Magnetic Fields - My Only Friend
Jan & Dean - Ride The Wild Surf
Big Mama Thornton - Ball and Chain
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Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Queen's Christmas Message (2008)



There are few events I look forward to in any given calendar year more than the annual message of hope delivered by my sovereign lady; this year's speech - delivered as it is on the opening cusp of what promises to be difficult times - has given an extra boost to whatever impulse there is within me to keep on keeping on despite what sometimes seems like overwhelming odds.
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Barington Encounter: Part Eight

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[1] * [2] * [3] * [4] * [5] * [6] * [7]

The alien, of course, was unoffended.

He was relieved, of course, that he’d not only remembered to put on his assault vest but also to set its force field to maximum before leaving the ship, and resolved now to leave it on permanently until such time as he and his crew could become accustomed to the local customs, or otherwise be reasonably certain they could be free from sudden, unwarranted violence. Fortunately, it was a flattering garment... Some vague hunch told him he’d be wearing it for awhile.

Unoffended though he was he would, however, have admitted to being a tad confused; his new friend’s heartfelt attempt at attempting that ancient Andromedan custom - namely welcoming formerly absent friend or complete stranger alike with a pithy yet poignant performance piece - had left him as baffled as he’d been only that morning trying to find an inconspicuous place to park an alien space craft in Sussex.

So while very few Andromedan nursery rhymes actually featured interactive assaults with either implements of cookery and/or religious artifacts (Princess Crock-Pot and The Yarmulke of Death being the obvious exception), most of them do sound rather like women’s doubles tennis; and while he’d been having a bit of trouble following his neighbour’s welcoming narrative (something about a pony lost in a strange city who befriends a golden frog) the alien appreciated the exchange, as well as the clumsy attempt to speak Andromedan, and in response offered his people’s customary sign of thanks (a loud raspberry accompanied by a V-sign made, palm up, with the index and middle fingers) to her closed door.

In his desire to seem encouraging, in fact, he offered it several times in rapid succession, and using both hands as well; on Andromeda such a greeting was usually reserved for VIPs - well, basically just the Emperor, since he was pretty well their only VIP - but he felt that, despite the live video feed he carried in his pendant camera watching his every move, (and, in theory, a good many of his fellow planetarians back home watching what it was watching) his fellow Andromedans would want to see him treating his hosts with the utmost respect, which was a surefire ratings grabber on Andromedan television, unlike anywhere else.

Once more unsure what to do, and unwilling to give offense besides, he turned again to face the crew of movers, this time his body moving fluidly and his head moving jerkily. Since, he reasoned, they would be more familiar with human customs than he was (being ostensibly human themselves) the alien looked to them for some sign that what had transpired was supposed to have happened. If any of them - let alone all of them - had seen the odd exchange between the new neighbours and thought it odd, that was not reflected now in their array of studiously disinterested miens. In fact, their expressions remained as precisely arranged as the coloured cloths wound about their heads, and were focussed at that not on him at all but upon their own unfolding crisis.

As previously indicated, if the workmen were in any way flummoxed by their temporary employers or the situation into which they had become employed they betrayed no sign of it; they just kept on trying to push a too-large mattress through a too-small door, stopping occasionally to yell at each other in a strange language which was so complex it took the alien as long as twelve seconds to fully comprehend it.

‘Push harder Jasbir,’ said Narinder, who was easily the most frustrated of the lot.

‘What does it look like I’m doing Narinder,’ said Jasbir, whose frustration was rapidly gaining on that of Narinder.

‘It looks to me like you’re not pushing hard enough.’

‘May I suggest you look a little harder?’

‘May I suggest you push a little harder, rather than peppering me with quips?’

For his own sake, Satpreet appeared to be staying out of it, preferring instead to concoct a particularly vivid (not to mention potentially blasphemous) daydream starring himself, Shilpa Shetty, and Aishwarya Rai - a dream in which Jasbir and Narinder (let alone his wife Bhupinder) didn’t feature in the least. He did, however, offer his pithiest rejoinder: ‘May I suggest you both shut up?’ Say what you will about Satpreet’s manners, at least his methods were effective; following that brief exchange they resumed their labours in silence.

The three of them, the brothers Grewal, originally hailed from a slightly more nerve-wracking region than the front step of 14 Juniper Mews, namely that bit of ground between Pakistan and India they always seemed to be fighting over while those who lived there only seemed to fight over how quickly to get out. They’d seen some strange things and met some even stranger people in their first British decade - all of it not just strange but British strange, meaning it was weapons-grade - so that nothing and no one, not even Andromedans, was apt to faze them now; or, they could have been under the mistaken impression they were working for Blue Man Group, and had somehow unwittingly been tricked into participating in some form of performance art, which ought to be a hate crime yet somehow isn't.

The point is, we will never know. Unless, of course, we bother to learn Punjabi; which, to be honest, is highly unlikely.

Either way, when they got home tonight they were sure going to have them some laughs remembering the crazy white lady and her naked Jew on a stick and what she did with it to the skinny blue bloke who paid them five times more than they were worth without blinking... In fact, come to think of it, he never blinked at all - how weird is that! Still, when they told their wives the story, they might leave out the bit about being overpaid - strictly for their own good of course; women, as was widely known (especially around the Grewal house), were unable to deal with money, which is the only logical reason why they spent it faster than their husbands can earn it.


*That's Shilpa Shetty on the left and Aishwarya Rai on the right, which is the exact same way Satpreet Grewal prefers them.
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Barington Encounter: Part Seven

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[1] * [2] * [3] * [4] * [5] * [6]

Outside, in the vibrant sunshine of the garden, the alien managed to shake loose some befuddlement of his own - oddly enough, none of it related to the fact that he was in England and for some unknown reason standing in brilliant sunshine.

‘What an odd woman,’ he said, in Andromedan, to no one in particular; not that it would have mattered if he had been heard, let alone overheard, because ‘What an odd woman’ in Andromedan sounds to human ears exactly like a cat sneezing. As shocking as it might have been to any random passerby to see a bright blue stick insect with a silver pompadour wearing a boiler suit made of oven mitts sneezing like a cat while standing on an inadequate patch of suburban front garden and staring up at an ugly house simultaneously trying too hard and yet failing miserably to be quaint, it can be safely assumed that surely no one this side of Sirius would have understood even vaguely what he'd meant by it.

The alien was about to return to work (well, supervising anyway, the word ‘supervisor’ being Andromedan for ‘failing upward’) when he heard a peculiar kerfuffle coming from inside his new neighbour’s house. Stepping down from the van as though floating, he hopped the adjoining hedge Nijinskily and Jehovah’s Witnessly approached the handsome walnut door adorned with their 1 and 2 of piss-elegant brass. Retrieving the fallen knocker from the put-upon doormat and rehanging it, he came at last to rest upon said doormat which, while not having had such a good day itself so far, once again very Englishly - despite its having been made, like everything else, in China - wished him ‘Welcome' nevertheless.

That's when the alien first beheld in front of him the face of a man in brass surrounded by equally brassy leaves. He'd already made a mental note to enquire as to the meaning of the image at some later time, and was still admiring his brassified reflection up close in it, in fact certain he'd just seen it wink at him, when the front door upon which it was precariously nailed flang open. This time when Felicia Fripp appeared on her doormat she was holding a sizable cast iron skillet over her face with one hand and an even sizabler crucifix in the other.

‘Begone demon!’ she shrieked, eyes shut tight behind the skillet, crucifix suddenly flailing - which startled the alien, as it might anyone, although he dared not flinch for fear of giving offense.

‘Howdy neighbour,’ the alien said, uttering the most banal sentiment in the poshest of accents, otherwise unsure of the socially correct response and even less certain of the culturally accurate verbiage/accent combination. Still unaware as to what else to do, he smiled very suavely into a low bow.

In fact, he was still smiling and bowing when she gobsmacked him with the skillet and immediately thereafter began pummeling him with the crucifix; with each blow a noise more suited to Steffi Graf than her usual Sybil Fawlty emanated from Felicia Fripp, yet none of her worst fury seemed to budge him in the least, even though she was well known for her ability to clear meetings of the local Women’s Institute with nothing more than a slightly raised eyebrow. After ten or twelve good thumps with the skillet, and an equal number with the crucifix - any one of which wallops she knew from experience was force enough to kill most house pets - he refused to so much as flinch, the supercilious bastard...

Suddenly, her fury spent in a moment of profound self-revelation - in point of fact, she'd just seen her reflection in the picture window - embarrassment bloomed like English roses on her once sallow cheeks, which glowed with new youth in the same way they'd only just sagged with middle age; likewise, her formerly mouse-coloured hair seemed to hang lank and shiny down her back where before it had been spiderwebby and clenched into a bob. Whereupon she slank back into her house and breathlessly slamt the door shut behind her, feeling a right prat for engaging in hostilities in the first place - and on such a flimsy pretext! - not to mention a proper wally for having done so without a suitable exit strategy in place.

As anyone would. Well... Almost anyone.

And yet, even laying in an exhausted heap against the door to the lounge, breath heaving around her heart so marvellously alive beneath breasts pert where they’d only just seemed deflated, all of which and more her hands had begun to explore with a rising thrill, she had to wonder if it hadn’t all been worth it...


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Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Barington Encounter: Part Six

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[1] * [2] * [3] * [4] * [5]

What the aliens couldn’t have known before arriving on Earth - since it’s never mentioned in tourist brochures - is that while everyone on their planet would have looked alike to humans, to human eyes they were nevertheless abnormally beautiful... Even with blue skin and silver hair, which was far from a mainstream look even before they’d arrived, although greyish skin and blue hair was often quite popular in art schools. It turns out the Andromedans wouldn't have had to develop celebrity technology at all - in fact, could have saved themselves all the time and money and scandal and documentaries involved - since they already possessed the key (and some say only) necessary ingredient inherently...

First, they’re tall and thin; since most Earthlings, or Earthacacians as they are more commonly known, are either short or fat or both the lucky minority who are not are worshipped. Likewise, the Andromedan face is angular and without blemish, with perfectly symmetrical features and large, pale eyes. Not to mention the single-digit body mass index, sculpturally elegant buffness, and the sort of posture that could make a balletomane weep with joy. Oh, and super cute bottoms... Mustn’t forget those. (Providing you’re into that sort of thing, that is.)

It turns out these five had unwittingly arrived on Earth tailor-made to be worshipped, albeit entirely without the skills to handle such adoration, which is much the way it is with most celebrities, even the homegrown ones. Despite the fact that their programme was getting truly dismal ratings back on Andromeda (already, after less than two hours on the air) on Earth the Andromedans would become stars. Quality stars, too, for they had star quality.

All of which is intended to explain why Felicia Fripp acted as she did...

Mrs Fripp, you see, was originally the aptly named Miss Bland, from Newcastle; she'd come to London as a mere slip of a girl to work as a stenographer and ended up marrying a man who, by his accent alone, ought to have been quite posh, and who was also, it should be said, a handsome rogue in the Laurence Harvey mould.

Alas, Denis Fripp was anything but posh in reality and in addition to looking like Laurence Harvey, treated women like Laurence Harvey's movie characters did, which is to say, shittily. He was, in fact, also from Newcastle - truth be told, from a far worse neighbourhood than that from which Miss Bland herself had so recently scarpered - only he'd studied more than law at the London School of Economics; he'd got himself A levels in posh manners, posh accent, and all that posh bosh although only an O level in success and a U in ambition. He’d even pledged a fraternity - Alpha Rho Posh Epsilon - signified on jumpers by an A, an R, a $ and an E. Not that any of his fraternity brothers needed to wear their jumpers; then, as now, even in the most crowded place in London - Leicester Square on a Saturday night, say, or Russell Brand’s boudoir - one can inevitably spot an AR$E a kilometer off.

The sound of the alien’s plummy voice, then, had utterly melted Felicia Fripp, in a way that would tomorrow prove disconcerting to her laundress, in the same way that Denis Fripp's own voice in her ear had once cunningly done, in the back seat of what she later learned to her dismay was his best mate’s Alfa Romeo. Closing the door between herself and the alien in the unintentionally slapstick way she’d done, now she felt a clenching hatred forming in the remaining, nearly-vestigial cockles of her heart - the majority of which for once had nothing to do with her incipient embarrassment. Mostly, it was pent up hatred of her husband Denis. Then again most of the emotion on Earth (the majority of which is anger anyway) is misdirected - it’s something to do with sun spots. So, nothing unusual about that.

There, in the tatty foyer of her petit-bourgeois semi-detached house filled with second-hand reproduction furniture posing as antiques bought on hire-purchase, where dwelt a couple of sold out geordies awash in would-be middle-class smugness pretending to be soft southern bastards, the alien's voice and her husband's became the same. That’s when the implications of that voice began to highlight the disparity between her current situation and the one she'd hoped to find herself in by the age she'd attained, namely wallowing in privilege, reeking of gin, and possibly even Ladying it over a couple of servants. Once the cognitive dissonance had become more than she could bear, in the all-too-common parlance of the street where she grew up she ‘went fookin’ mental like’.

All she knew for sure at that moment was that if she didn’t do something drastic she’d have a bloody thrombo... In a fury, then, Felicia Fripp tore through her house to the kitchen, nearly pummeling the Hummels on the whatnot into dust in her all-too zealous zeal for revenge. After prising most of her prized collection of copper-bottomed pots off their custom built rack on the largest wall in her kitchen - and nearly prising the custom-built rack from the faux-brick wall along with them - she then tore up most of the cupboards in the imitation oak veneer kitchen island before finding the ancient cast-iron skillet her mum had always called ‘Big Ben’ - so named for the bonging sound it would make when colliding with her father's skull. It was with Big Ben that Mother Bland had once punished her family and neighbours for all their transgressions, however minor, and it was with Big Ben that she afterwards made them all a knees up in front of telly for tea by means of consolation - her favourite being plump pork sausages wrapped in bacon and fried in suet - or ‘cloggers’, as she called them.

Waving the heavy pan about like a veritable Boadicea on her way into battle, Mrs Fripp swiped pictures of her so-called friends and family off the walls in the front hall and up the stairs to the landing, yawping and gasping for air as she did. There she snatched her mother’s crucifix off the wall, the one that had been to Lourdes and dunked in the water there with Mother Bland’s very own hands. With these two mighty weapons, Felicia Fripp returned to the site of her previous abashment to engage her new enemy in battle, and a-bash him some herself.


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Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Barington Encounter: Part Five

Finally, some dialogue! ~ MSM

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Now one of them, the tallest and thinnest and bluest of the lot (with the silveriest, shiniest pompadour but, in Andromedan terms, also the most ordinary), emerged from the back of the lorry first, peering up and down the suburban paradise that was Juniper Mews as he did. He waved his compatriots past him into the house, and once they’d all scurried safely indoors began directing the removal men (who, technically, were arrival men in this instance) from the ideal vantage point he’d only just discovered on the back of the lorry, wherefrom he was also able to operate the hydraulic lift, which he did now with considerable glee carefully disguised by the most stoic expression he could muster.

That the others had disappeared into the house so quickly was much to the consternation of Mrs Felicia Fripp, the biddy in the dreary British Home Stores frock who lived next door at Number 12. She'd only just gotten to the curtain in time to see their oddly blue group as it blurred behind the garden wall and through the faux-Georgian door into number 14, and was not at all happy to have seen even the little bit that she did. To Mrs Fripp the notion of five men (for they all looked like men to her) sharing a house together either smacked of hippies or much worse. She was determined to see no shirts lifted in Juniper Mews, no matter what sort of a lift it might give to property values.

There are kings and presidents and generals who would rather die than confront a mere journalist, let alone a space alien with a potential craving for human casserole; unfortunately for all involved, Felicia Fripp was no statesman. ‘Can I have a word with you?’ she said, stepping over her threshold onto a doormat which was rather too tasteful upon which to be trod. At least the mat, unlike the expression on Mrs Fripp’s face, said ‘Welcome’.

The alien’s body turned jerkily, while his head turned fluidly; seeing her, he set his lambent grey eyes upon her, then seemed to bore them into her. She felt her face flush - and that was just for starters. ‘Good morning madam,’ he said, approaching her gently, his voice like a kind of liquid honey which filled her ears and from there seemed to ooze its way down her body at a very leisurely pace indeed.

Blood she didn’t know she had was flooding into places on her she’d forgotten she had; gathering her breath, she batted her eyelashes at him and said: ‘Moving in are you?’ Having said that she cast her eyes down coquettishly - feeling almost as though they were being pushed down independently of her, like someone else had over-ridden her central nervous system; all her previous fury having suddenly, inexplicably, turned into the sultry equanamity of an especially cougary MILF, she raised her left arm and leant into the door frame, back arched, chest out, lips moistened...

He chuckled warmly and his eyes twinkled as he looked around him. ‘We are madam. My colleagues and I are so looking forward to our stay here. I must say, I can see why they call it ‘Jolly Old England’; it’s jolly old all right!’

At this rather pedestrian sentiment (at which she wouldn't have laughed even had it been uttered by Russ Abbott) she giggled like she hadn't giggled in years - mainly because she hadn't - just managing to spit out ‘Isn’t it just!’ before turning and bouncing off the aluminium siding, spinning into the house, and slamming the front door behind her so hard it sent the tasteful brass knocker nailed to it flying off it when she did.

Inside, in the antiseptic stench and ill-lit gloom of her foyer, she managed to shake all the befuddlement out of her head; her befuddlement gone in a shower of stars, she found she was still shaking, only by now it was more than just her head... It was her whole being - clenched as a fist and a hundred times as hostile...


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Thursday, November 27, 2008

See It Today: Gus Van Sant's "Milk"



To be quite honest, the thrill I felt when I heard that Gus Van Sant was to direct a biopic of Harvey Milk* was quickly tempered by the news that Milk would be played by Sean Penn...

Back in the day, of course, Penn was married to Madonna; tabloid reports at the time seem to have been borne out subsequently by Material Brother Christopher Ciccone that Penn was himself a noted homophobe - or at least he was, back in the 80s when he was spousally assaulting Madonna as well. Then again, Madonna seems to have a habit of marrying haters, if recent reports about Guy Ritchie are to be believed - clearly the world's most gay male woman enjoys a challenge.

Nevertheless, based on all I've seen and read recently, Sean Penn may just have pulled off the greatest redemption in the history of the gay community - although, as penance goes, even the straightest guy on the planet would have to admit that kissing James Franco ain't exactly gruelling. I mean, he may be a dude but he's no Andy Rooney.

The movie Milk opens in North American wide release on December 5th; with this performance, the buzz has it that Penn is poised to embrace another man in February, this time a little golden one...

*Who, in case you've been living under a rock (or a Mormon) was the openly-gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors assassinated on this day in 1978 alongside the city's Mayor George Moscone by their former colleague Dan White.
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Barington Encounter: Part Four

In Part Four of The Barington Encounter we're almost to the part of the novel with, you know, the dialogue! Up until now the author - who for some reason has a reputation for writing spot-on dialogue - hasn't seen fit to let the characters speak for themselves, preferring instead to drone on with what seems like an awful lot of exposition, doesn't it? Anyway, after this bit of jabber he's seen fit to write an actual scene in which humans interact with aliens, which is more or less the whole point of sci-fi. Duh! ~ MSM

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Indeed, the contest caused more excitement than had ever been caused on Andromeda, which wouldn't have been hard to do, yet somehow never had been tried nor had ever even been contemplated, sad to say... It caused so much excitement, in fact, that even the deadliest dullest documentarian – an astonishingly earnest creature called Naynin - couldn’t help but make an interesting programme of it; plagued by the guilt that he’d actually been entertaining - even accidentally - Naynin later committed suicide by watching an entire episode of a Mexican sitcom live via satellite onstage at Emperor Stadium in Andromeda City. According to the hundreds of thousands who’d witnessed it in person it was not only the most brutal thing they’d ever seen, it would have made for a really brilliant documentary. Out of respect for his memory, though, all those in attendance agreed to leave said documentary unmade, lest it prove entertaining and thus perpetuate the vicious cycle until all 300 billion of them had died similarly, albeit in increasingly smaller venues and before increasingly smaller live studio audiences.

That every single living Andromedan - including all three of the judges of Andromedan Idol and even the Emperor himself - had entered such a contest might surprise you; it certainly surprised them, which in addition to the all the excitement at having finally discovered the formula for making celebrities after nearly two decades of trying, made for quite a day. Unaccustomed to being surprised (let alone excited, especially all on the same day), this turn of events naturally took them by an entirely different sort of surprise. Not merely doubling their initial surprise but multiplying it – by a factor later determined as 85,152 - opened a wormhole in the space-time continuum, connecting Andromeda to Earth by means of a short, tastefully decorated corridor, thus rendering obsolete their entire space program, collapsing their economy, and making them the butt of jokes in the chat show monologues of a thousand different species.

On the plus side, the black hole created to get their orbit going again soon collapsed the wormhole - which meant that the five chosen for the mission would be able to use their pretty new spaceship after all, or would have, if it hadn't already been scrapped by a petulant Andromedan rocket scientist overtaken by a fit of pique owing to the extraordinary events of Discovery Day. Only the fact that all this surprise and excitement had resulted in an entirely new field of mathematics – shockulus – was able to return Andromeda to its original boring normalcy.

That every single Andromedan had applied to be removed from their planet forever wouldn’t, however, surprise you if you’d ever been to Andromeda; charitably put, it’s the most ordinary place in the universe. There, all the birds are wrens, and all the wrens sing the same single note without so much as a hint of the avian jazz for which our feathered friends on Earth are rightfully renowned; the planet grew just the one species of tree, and it was grey even on the first day of spring, when it ought to have fairly glowed with that juicy green colour of new foliage which is (or ought to be, anyway) the reward for surviving a long winter. The weather - owing to a series of powerful satellites, as has previously been mentioned - was 21 Celcius and partly cloudy wherever one went on the planet, from the West Pole to the equator to the East Pole. Despite a tourism industry responsible for routinely generating revenues in the quadrillions - mainly from vast relaxation spas - there was no place an Andromedan liked less than home boring home.

The only reason the Andromedans were known as the most peaceful race in the universe is that they all had one thing in common: a desire to get off such a quotidian lump as Andromeda. Leaving was their only religion, their only sport, and their only political issue. It was also the only theme in their pop music, which made Andromedan pop music so boring that it almost couldn’t help but be hugely popular yet somehow just wasn’t; this probably accounted for the reason why the Andromedan word for ‘good luck’ sounds, to human ears, exactly like a snicker.

Yet it was for precisely this reason that Andromedans were forbidden from leaving Andromeda; whereas ‘brain drain’ was a major problem everywhere there were carbon-based humanoids (except in the Centauri system, where it was a cocktail) the Andromedans had come up with what was, to them, an elegant solution. The punishment Andromedans suffered for getting caught trying to leave or leaving Andromeda was the life penalty; for most, the thought of being made to survive on respirators long after they’d earned their death was enough to bully them into compliance; so they stayed put, and without much toil built a society that was the envy of non-egotistical races everywhere.

Even though a scant few Andromedans had ever thought they’d live to see actual salvation, they still all believed it might be coming anyway; in fact, a faint glimmer of hope was in effect the state religion. Whenever they worshipped (essentially just at holidays and when things weren't going well for them) they did so in a low-key way, in unadorned chapels, so as not to appear to get their hopes up - which anyway was a capital offense on Andromeda. The rest of the time they greeted each other with rolling eyes and heavy sad sighs, which is the Andromedan word for either ‘peace’ or ‘escape’.

When in a single day celebrity technology was perfected, every single member of an entire race applied to be exiled from the only planet any of them had ever known, and a resultant wormhole was opened, many millions of Andromedans actually died. The official cause of death was ‘dreams came true’, and the myriad events of Discovery Day itself were soon the subject of many tens of thousands of hours of mind-numbing documentary programming, not to mention an equivalent number of fervently worked-out shockulus calculations, although the less said regarding the deadly dull documentaries about the fervent shockulus calculations (not to mention those who made them in either case) the better.

And so, for an entire week, as the sun seemed to hang in the same part of the sky, greater numbers of Andromedans agglomerated outside the stadium where the auditions were being held, shuffling in their queue past the Selection Committee to have their auras photographed (their auras being as distinct as their faces were identical) before depositing their resumes (which were more distinctive than their appearances but not as distinctive as their auragraphs).

So dire was the potential crisis there was even the fear that the orbit would stop again; ennuiwobble or not, a normal week on Andromeda lasts 10 Earth months, so you can imagine how endless a thing the process had actually been to spend one sifting through 300 billion resumes (not to mention 300 billion auragraphs) to find the five most ordinary of them to send.

But find them they did...


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Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Barington Encounter: Part Three

Part Three of The Barington Encounter picks up where the author had been rambling at the end of Part Two: to whit, some explanation of the nature of Andromedan society, along with some of the story about how these aliens managed to come all the way to Earth, only to end up hopelessly enmired in suburbia. Which, for a race who makes a cult of mediocrity, sort of makes sense. Of course, along the way the author also seems to have become enmired in exposition... C'est la vie ecrivaine! ~ MSM

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You see, in an effort to improve Andromeda’s image overskies, the Andromedan government decided that its people were ready for their first celebrities - in addition to a space program, seeing as virtually every other planet in the universe worth its frontch already had oodles of both. Since the Andromedan zeal to be like everyone else amongst themselves had been readily manifested by them externally - making their race one of the most competitive in the entire quadrant - not only did they all want to be exactly like each other, they also wanted the very best of everything everyone else had; to give them proper credit, they may have been greedy, but at least they were discerning about it when they were.

Despite having such a mad pash for things, though, the Andromedans tempered their acquisitiveness with a work ethic so strong that it wouldn’t allow them to steal, not even a spot of light pillaging should a riot break out or something - not that it ever did or would or had - Andromedans being far too smugly comfortable in their culturally advanced state to hurl an imprecation, let alone a brickbat. Alas, the very quality which should have made them the natural leaders of the universe rather made them the laughingstock instead. The Centauris - all bluster and bravado - pretty much steamrolled over anyone who got in their way or between them and something they wanted, and therefore by bluff humour and occasional sudden outbursts of force they had come to rule the known universe; the Andromedans, with their work ethic and sense of fairplay, usually got the onerous task of cleaning up after the Centauri’s messes, and often shouldered the burden of ill-well left in the Centauri wake with a kind of supercilious resignation.

That it took the Andromedans as long as three or four months to develop technology which was so exceptional - both in form and in function - so as to allow them to send a team to explore the Earth for Andromedan television meant that for centuries the term ‘Andromedan rocket scientist’ was the most universally accepted shout out in the known universes - more so than ‘homey’ or even ‘jyllbak’. Along the way they even invented television (in the Earth year 1485) and reality television shortly thereafter, which ought to have dimmed their reputation, and would have, if anyone else but them actually watched Andromedan television. It turns out, though, that rocket science and advanced telecommunications were a piece of piss to concoct compared to celebrity, at least for Andromedans...

In just about every system in the universe with even a modicum of sentience - and in every one without any sentience at all - there were celebrities; for instance, all of the Pebblepeople of the planet Gravelpit were celebrities, precisely because there wasn’t a functioning neuron in the entire sector and therefore no faculty to help them to tell the difference between someone with actual talent and a pretty face with a good agent.

Everywhere one went from world to world, celebrities developed like viruses and spread like mould, and not merely on those planets ruled by super-intelligent viruses or drop-dead gorgeous moulds, either. On Andromeda, though, the notion that one person should get more recognition, be better known, or in any other way jut one's head above the parapet was an even worse anathema than their universal horror of being entertained.

Naturally, there were Andromedans who were well-known for their efforts - be they political, artistic, or philosophical - but aside from their output (and a government-regulated ‘reasonable amount’ of input on it generated by a handful of fair and even-tempered critics) little else would be known about them; an Andromedan, for instance, would certainly never be flatteringly photographed in his tastefully appointed flat holding a pet - be it dog, cat, kluuurth, or child - all the while crowing about contentment, which made the Andromedan version of Hello magazine drier than a mouthful of sand and far less interesting.

Should he be given a prize he was never the ‘winner’ of said prize, since that word had been long since been expunged from the Andromedan languages, at the same time as the word ‘loser’, in fact, coincidentally during the reign of Emperor Hllu the Loser; they were, for a time, said to be ‘appointed to the honour roll’ or ‘honoured with’ this or that, although the word ‘honour’ was beginning to fall from favour (as was the word ‘favour’ also on the wane, since their very existence naturally implied the reciprocal existence of dishonour and disfavour). Increasingly, Andromeda’s ever-burgeoning corps of linguistical correctness freaks preferred to say one of their number had been ‘given a trophy’, or else as having ‘received a brass reacharound’ if they were feeling cheeky.

Not only had developing the technology to create celebrities prove well-nigh impossible to these alleged geniuses, but the entire schamozzle had involved massive cost overruns, supporting a culture of corruption which by law had lined everyone's pockets equally - from the lowliest glorn to the mightiest fnorp - which, while it had made them by far the wealthiest race in the universe, also made them all aware that their zeal for fame had corrupted them even more than their zeal’s concomitant riches had enriched them. Rather than shame, though, they were gripped by a profound collective guilt over their success, which in turn brought about more than enough fodder for ten generations’ worth of deadly dull documentaries which nobody watched except for deadlier, duller documentarians, who were quick as ever to decry even the merest whisper of entertainment potential in their own output despite the fact that there was never going to be any.

For many years, at top secret facilities all over Andromeda, volunteer test subjects were routinely chased around by photographers, forced to live for weeks at a time on a diet consisting of nothing but cigarettes and alcohol, and encouraged to spout off ill-considered politics at will into any open recording device within range; all to no avail. Not a one of them ever became so much as infamous, let alone notorious, since the Andromedan ability to see all sides of an issue was as renowned on Andromeda as it was reviled everywhere beings were actively taking sides (which, frankly, was everywhere except Andromeda).

Not even putting several of these would-be celebrities together in a house with a hundred cameras and having their behaviour manipulated by the most craven of producers yielded anything like the sort of drivel it would have done on Earth. The only talk around the water cooler their programme provoked the next morning was the same identically shallow discussion of the day’s weather that had taken place on the show itself, which talk in any event was of the exact same weather the planet had been having every day for decades, thanks to Andromeda’s extensive system of weather satellites, which had been designed and launched specifically to deprive any given day of the right to be called better (or worse) than any other one.

When, after centuries of experimentation, no actual celebrities had been created - save for a few wonky prototypes who inevitably (if illegally) found their way off of Andromeda, onto other planets, only to never be heard from again - far from being outraged or infuriated by the barrage of scandal on top of scandal, the Andromedan chattering classes merely became apathetic, which apathy sooner or later crept into their documentaries, making for the deadliest, dullest ones yet. The less said about the impact this turn of events had on the planet’s pundits the better... (In three words: they all died; whereas, in four words: they all died horribly. You see what I mean.)

As Andromeda’s celebrity scientists - that is to say, their scientists in charge of creating celebrities - toiled over the problem so did their philosophers opine; meanwhile their legislatures debated, their pundits snarked, their pollsters manipulated, and their quantity surveyors surveyed various quantities of assorted surveyable things while they all in their turn grappled with the mess of pertinent ethical dilemnas created by the situation in pretty much equal measure, until such time as the Andromedan government decided to come to terms with it in the only appropriate manner - by ordering a Royal Commission... And so it came to pass that, as a people, they should spend the next decade slogging through their entire bureaucratic repertoire until such time as the issue being studied was rendered irrelevant and the entire process had ground to a halting pulp...

The week before the final report was due from the Royal Commission on Celebrity felt so interminable for so many Andromedans that it actually manifested itself, going so far as stopping the planet’s orbit. Within a single news cycle Global News Network had dubbed this phenomenon the Andromedan ennuiwobble, and because of it the hologram of an Andromedan astrogeographer entering Galactic Astrographic Society headquarters in Gordlinginin - the Centauri capital - would thereafter often be pointed out and giggled at mercilessly by his fellow scientists. Overnight, the term ‘Andromedan rocket scientist’ became the most ubiquitous dis in the universe, replacing all existing favourites, including ‘douchebag’, ‘cocksucker’, ‘motherfucker’ and even the worst of them all, blarf. (You should pardon my Centauri.)

Fortunately, a team of physicists were able to jump start the planet’s orbit, seeing as it had, in their words, “fallen asleep” - thus literally stopping time. It took the creation of a black hole and the destruction of three or four rather pretty nebulae in the vicinity - which were then rather ingeniously fashioned into solar sails - but soon enough they were able to get it going again. Ironically, it was Andromeda’s precipitous fall from acclaim to disgrace that broke their scientific impasse, in much the same way you might find your great-grandfather’s long-lost heirloom cufflinks while looking for your temporarily misplaced keys.

Meaning that the first working model for creating celebrities was discovered at such time as many Andromedans had simply lost interest in even trying to develop celebrity technology at all, or else had intellectually come to terms with considering it so statistically difficult as to safely enable them to refer to it as impossible. Alchemy had come as easily as tabletop fusion to them; even terraforming seemed like a walk in the park by comparison. And yet... Andromeda's celebrity-industrial complex had utterly failed in its one and only endeavour. Trillions of kloxars had been spent - wasted, essentially - when all the impetus Andromeda needed to create celebrities was the scornful approbation of their former admirers.

There then arose the prickly dilemna of who to choose for the mission; trapped at an impasse which threatened the very core of their glorious if anodyne civilization the Andromedan Emperor, in his best Andromedan way, did the most ordinary thing he could think of, and held a contest to allow the five most deserving of them to be the first of their race allowed to leave the home world.

The contest did cause excitement, though. Did it ever...


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Monday, November 10, 2008

Tracy Morgan Predicts... Black Is The New President



Ah, remember the good old days... Like, way way back in what, March 2008? That's when Tracy Morgan returned to his old stomping grounds at Saturday Night Live in order to throw his support behind Barack Obama, as well as sharing a little banter with Seth Meyers. You see, in those days the Democratic nomination was still up in the air between Obama and New York's Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton; the previous week Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had proclaimed their support for Clinton with the ingenious line 'Bitch is the new black.'

It took me awhile too warm up to Tracy Morgan, who today turns 40; his performance as Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock, however, has turned me into an unreserved fan.
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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Books Wormed: "A Garden Of Sand" by Earl Thompson

Owing to my recent deployment at a locale where there's more time to do it in than actual work to do while there, I'm back on a reading kick in a really big way. I figured I might as well put all that bookworming to good use - while it lasts - by adding to one of those features which has been much-neglected of late, namely Books Wormed... ~ MSM

When Earl Thompson's novel A Garden of Sand first appeared in 1970 the 1930s was still, for a lot of people, within living memory. Yet human nature seems fixated on the idea that the past was some G-rated paradise, so there seems to have been no shortage of shock at the contents of this novel, which is almost entirely shocking even today. Epic, yet intimate, lurid, yet honestly so, A Garden of Sand blows the lid off a seemingly lid-proof Depression-era America - a time when even good people, it seems, were forced to resort to their most craven impulses every minute of the day just to survive.

Ever since they occurred, the Thirties has served as a pretty convenient shorthand for artists everywhere; when times are bad, it seems, storytellers of all kinds - be they novelists or film-makers - like to turn to those hardscrabble days for perspective, especially when a contemporary setting would seem to be lacking in the necessary gravity to convey whatever threat or privation needs conveying.

There are enough hard-luck losers in A Garden of Sand to populate a dozen Tom Waits albums, with enough left over to keep him busy telling their myriad stories until he's a hundred; in following Odd 'Jack' Andersen almost from the moment of his birth Thompson has fashioned a story which contains not only all of those lives which intersect his, but a powerful morality tale as rich in philosophy as it is in imagery.

Amazingly, A Garden of Sand was Earl Thompson's first novel, yet it's no typically tepid freshman effort. Thompson's masterful handling of prose - laced with equal parts dynamite and poetry - suggests bullying, sweet-talking, and in general a situationally ethical approach to getting the story told; it's a surprisingly muscular way of handling the despair, apathy, and inevitable ruin to which many of his characters find themselves inexorably drawn. If this were journalism (which, in a way, it is) his every subject would leave their author's presence in either tears or handcuffs and often enough both.

Having extensively perused numerous works either from or about the Thirties (as research for my own novel, set in 1934-5) I can safely say that A Garden of Sand reads as brutally true as any I've read; if God is in the details then Earl Thompson is God... His evocation of time and place teems with finely-observed insight. So completely realized is his universe - centred on Wichita, Kansas - that upon closing the back cover I wanted to re-open the front cover and experience it all over again.

Now that's what I call a good book...
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