Last man no longer standing


© Sam Falk / New York Times


For the last few years I’d thought of the American novelist Philip Roth, who died on May 22nd at the age of 85, as the ‘last man standing’.  This was because he seemed to me the very last of a certain breed: those high-profile, often brash and larger-than-life, and sometimes narcissistic, men of letters who made the American literary world an eventful and entertaining place in the mid-to-late 20th century.


I’m thinking of the likes of Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut.  While it’s wrong to generalise, and each one had his own unique context and character, they seemed overall much more dramatically writerly than their British counterparts at the time.  Elephantine egos abounded, many of them loved the spotlight, and there were few qualms about rolling up sleeves and wading into a good literary feud, fight or slagging match with a rival.  For instance, Gore Vidal got punched in the face – or struck by a glass, or headbutted, depending on which story you believe – by Norman Mailer after he’d written a piece comparing Mailer to Charles Manson.  I couldn’t imagine John Fowles doing that to Malcolm Bradbury.


Certain members of America’s premier league of post-war writers were also notable boozers.  I seem to remember Martin Amis likening them once to a bunch of drunks you’d find in the back of a police van late on a Saturday night on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street.  (Aye, right, Martin.  Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night.  You’d know all about that.)


They generated lots of good copy and anecdotes but thinking about them now they were problematic in many ways.  American literature back then was very much a boys’ club – the attention they got seemed far more than that accorded to America’s post-war women writers.  As a teenager, when I was really getting into books for the first time, I knew of the reclusive Harper Lee; and of Shirley Jackson, though she seemed neglected because she’d written too much ‘genre’ fiction and not enough proper ‘adult’ stuff; but that was about it.  I didn’t hear of people like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor until much later.


There was also a reek of smug, well-to-do WASP / Jewish male privilege hanging around them and, accordingly, their characters seemed frequently to be successful middle-aged blokes working in America’s boardrooms or on its campuses, fraternising with the rich, the powerful and the intellectual and, of course, having their pick of beautiful young ladies.  I know Updike’s fiction wasn’t all like this, but whenever I think of the characters in his short stories now I seem only to recall fifty-something college professors married to twenty-or-thirty-something women who, of course, had started out as their students.


Then again, some of them – like Heller, Mailer and Vonnegut – had fought in World War II and belonged to a generation of men who, after that, felt they’d earned their sense of entitlement.  (Mind you, no war-spawned sense of entitlement excuses Mailer from drunkenly sticking a knife into his then-wife in 1960.)


I must confess that the only thing I’ve read by Philip Roth is 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint.  I consumed this as a teenager and greatly enjoyed it – something possibly connected with the fact that the book was about wanking.  For several years I’ve had his 2004 novel The Plot against America, which is set in a parallel universe where Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and sets the USA on a course into fascism, sitting on a shelf somewhere but I’ve never got around to reading it.  I should, as it sounds intriguing.


In Roth’s final interview, with the New York Times back in January this year, he was asked if he saw any resemblance between the events depicted in the book and those that have rocked America’s political establishment in the last couple of years.   The octogenarian Roth gave a splendidly robust response.  “Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also – because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 – an authentic American hero…  Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”


© Vintage


When he was king


(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures


The world seems a smaller, sadder and quieter place after the passing of boxing superstar and all-round sporting legend Muhammad Ali yesterday.


Smaller, sadder, quieter and also less eloquent, less witty and less entertaining: for Ali was a rare thing, a sportsman who’d honed his words to be as devastating as the way he’d honed his body.  You could fill a book with his pronouncements, witticisms and (usually) good-natured insults.  Of Sonny Liston, he said: “The man needs talking lessons.  The man needs boxing lessons.  And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”  Of George Foreman: “I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won.”  Of Joe Frazier: “Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.”  On his refusal to serve in the US Army and fight in Vietnam, he said bluntly: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.  No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”  On aging: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”  (Well, that’s me told.)  And of course, on his less-than-modest self: “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double-greatest.  Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.  I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today.”


In his prime, his gob was massive and his patter was relentless; but still he was an idealistic man who wasn’t afraid to make bold and unpopular decisions.  However out-of-favour he temporarily became, though, through actions such as affiliating himself with the Nation of Islam or refusing the draft, he still ended up the best-known and best-liked American on the planet.  I got a sense of his universal appeal one winter’s day in 1996, while I was living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.  Out on a freezing ice-and-snow-covered street I encountered a prim, middle-aged lady whom I knew as the mother of one of my Japanese friends.  Where, I asked, was she off to on an inhospitable day like this?  Oh, she said with an eager gleam in her eyes, she was going to the cinema — which was showing When We were Kings, the acclaimed and just-released documentary about Ali’s legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, i.e. his bout with George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in Kinshasa in Zaire in 1974.  The fact that a Japanese housewife could be hurrying to see a documentary about a black American boxer who’d fought his last fight 15 years earlier was a sign of the weird and wonderful world that Ali had created.


And in fact I remember that Ali-Foreman fight of 1974 – when it rumbled, in the jungle.  I was a kid in Northern Ireland and no doubt all sorts of Troubles-related mayhem was happening that day, as it seemed to happen every day back then.  But the Rumble was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about the next morning.  We were discussing it, my eight and nine-year-old compadres and I, in the primary-school classroom.  Why, even our primary school teacher – another prim middle-aged lady – was talking excitedly about how Ali had beat Foreman.  And it was the same a year later when he took on Joe Frazier during the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’.  The next day we were rabbiting on about that too.


He was a divisive figure for a long time in the US, but 1970s Britain loved him.  He never seemed to be off British telly.  (Did Ali apply his publicity machine equally to every country in the world, I wonder, or did he just get a special kick out of indulging the limeys across the Atlantic?)  He was interviewed several times by Michael Parkinson.  He appeared on This is Your Life with Eamon Andrews.  He sent a cheeky filmed message to English football manager Brian Clough, a man who famously produced as much hot air as he did: “Clough, that’s enough.  Stop it!”   Christ, he even turned up on Jim’ll Fix It and I seem to remember him giving Jimmy Savile a friendly, joshing tap on the chin.  It’s just a pity he didn’t punch Savile’s horrible greasy face down his throat and out of his arse.


Ali’s boxing career didn’t end happily.  His 1980 fight against Larry Holmes, for instance, was a horror show.  It’s said that afterwards Holmes felt so bad about beating Ali so humiliatingly that he sat crying in his dressing room.  Thereafter, of course, Ali had to suffer the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease – an affliction whose worst crime, perhaps, was to rob him, the most articulate of men, of the ability to articulate himself.


So it’s best to remember him by watching When We Were Kings, a documentary that captures the glory (and, admittedly, some of the grotesqueness) of the Rumble in the Jungle.  It shows you Ali at the peak of his greatness and a surprisingly dark and threatening George Foreman.  (This might come as a shock to a younger generation who know George primarily as the patron of the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.)  It also allows you to see the 20th century’s most opulently corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who’d arranged the staging of the fight in Zaire.  And some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, like James Brown and B.B. King, whom Mobutu had flown in for a musical gala to accompany it.  And the 20 century’s biggest literary ego, Norman Mailer, who was there to report on it.


Norman Mailer, actually, got a book out the event, 1975’s The Fight, which is well worth a read.  It provides a fascinating insight into the mind of the man who believed he was the greatest.  (It also mentions Muhammad Ali.)


(c) Penguin Books


Muhammad was a giant but he achieved his worldwide celebrity on account of his talents: his athleticism, his grace, his wit, his humour and his bloody-mindedness.  Which puts the modern-day celebrity of, say, Kim Kardashian into pitiful perspective.  And as someone who eventually became one of America’s greatest ambassadors to the rest of humanity – regardless of the often uneasy relationship between him and his mother country – it’s worth remembering that he was a Muslim.  Donald Trump, take note.


Imaginary minced oaths


(c) NBC


A few weeks ago, somehow, I found myself talking to a group of Sri Lankan people about a feature of the English language that’s often heard but rarely discussed: the minced oath.


A minced oath is a non-offensive utterance that’s substituted for an offensive one.  It’s sometimes an innocuous word with an innocuous meaning that happens to sound like the thing it’s replacing.  For example, rather that shout ‘Shit!’ when you swing a hammer, miss the top of the nail you’re aiming for and squash your finger instead, you shout ‘Sugar!’  Or instead of shouting ‘Damn!’, you shout ‘Dash!’  Sometimes, though, the minced oath is a word that only exists as a minced oath – like the word ‘heck’, used as a replacement for ‘hell’, as in “What the heck is going on?”


Often, minced oaths have been used so frequently and for so long that they’ve acquired their own distinct personalities.  Is anyone who comes out with the mild exclamation ‘Gosh!’ aware that they’re using it as a substitute for ‘God!’?


For my money, the King of Minced Oaths was the great American character actor Slim Pickens, who became typecast playing brawny, not-very-bright cowboys in Western movies.  I seem to remember Pickens in many an old Western spluttering, in a broad Texan accent, “Aw, shoot and darn it, you doggone son-of-a-gun!”  (Which in its X-rated version would be, “Aw, shit and damn it, you goddamned son-of-a-bitch!”)


But I suspect that many minced oaths are now living on borrowed time because – in the UK at least – we seem to inhabit a social and linguistic environment where it’s increasingly okay to use the real thing.  People seem to swear more commonly and openly than they used to.  At the same time, most of the old minced oaths that were once acceptable substitutes for swear words sound a bit lame now.  Any lad using ‘Dash!’ or ‘Gosh!’ in a modern playground would probably be viewed by his peers as something of a pansy.  (If they could figure out what he was talking about in the first place.)


The phenomenon of swearing puts writers of TV and radio drama (and historically of literature too) in a quandary.  What do they do when they want to accurately depict the real world – in whose homes, workplaces and schools many folk now swear non-stop, rather than shilly-shally around with minced oaths?  Do they bite the bullet and use real swear words, at the risk of offending those many viewers and listeners (and historically, readers) who still find such language offensive?  Or should they avoid using words that may cause offence and pretend that all people speak like Sunday-school teachers?


One solution has been to invent your own swear words, which will express the heated emotions your characters are feeling without upsetting people who object to bad language – in other words, to use imaginary minced oaths.  To illustrate this, I will now give you half-a-dozen of my favourite made-up swear words that have already been tried and tested in TV, films and literature and, presumably, are acceptable for use in polite company.


(c) The Daily Telegraph



An invented substitute for the F-word, ‘fug’ appeared in the 1948 World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, written by the late, great American writer Norman Mailer.  Warned by his publishers that the dialogue of his soldier-characters couldn’t be too realistic – even though in the real world, hard-pressed soldiers in a combat zone would be spewing the F-word endlessly – Mailer ended up having them say things like ‘Fug you!’ and ‘Fugging hell!’


It must have stuck in Mailer’s craw – and Mailer had a big craw for things to get stuck in – when, later, he was introduced to the celebrated writer and wit Dorothy Parker and she exclaimed, “So you’re the man who can’t spell f*ck!”



In 1970s British TV sitcoms nobody swore.  In Her Majesty’s Prison Service, however, everybody swore.  Thus, writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had a dilemma when they devised their classic 1970s prison-set sitcom Porridge – which they solved by having their characters spout imaginary swear words.  “Naff off, you nerk!” Norman Stanley Fletcher, the convict hero of Porridge played by Ronnie Barker, would often snap at irritating prison warders and fellow cons.


‘Naff’ and ‘nerk’ soon became popular in 1970s school playgrounds, as little children believed they were real words of abuse.  (I know I did.)  They were also adopted by another group with an uncertain grasp of reality, the Royal Family.  On one famous occasion, prying photographers were bluntly told to “Naff off” by Princess Anne.



Actually, ‘feck’ is a genuine minced oath in the Irish-English dialect.  However, it became famous in Britain in the 1990s when it was used as a non-offensive substitute for ‘f*ck’ in Father Ted, the much-loved sitcom about three less-than-devout priests assigned to a backward Irish island.  Indeed, many people now probably believe that ‘feck’ was invented by Father Ted’s creators, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews.


(c) Hat Trick Productions / Channel 4 


Despite its innocuousness, the word caused controversy for B*witched, the briefly popular, river-dancing Irish girl-band managed by Louis Walsh.  Interviewed on TV, one B*witched-member exclaimed “Feck off!” and provoked complaints from hard-of-hearing viewers who thought she’d said something else.



Doctor Evil, the super-villain in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers spoof-spy movies, was clearly a linguistic prude.  Even in his foulest moods, he unfailingly eschewed the F-word and used the non-rude ‘frick’ instead.


Actually, ‘frick’ is like ‘feck’.  Although thanks to the Myers movies many people assume it’s an invented minced oath, it has its roots in real, dialectic English.  According to the online Urban Dictionary, it comes from Southern and Midwestern American English and dates back to the 1930s.  I’ve even read claims that ‘frick’ is derived from the surname of the industrialist and chairman of the Carnegie Steel Corporation Henry Clay Frick who, because of his brutal approach to labour relations in the late 19th century, was once dubbed ‘the most hated man in America’.


Incidentally, although Doctor Evil was a paragon of good verbal manners, Myers messed up elsewhere on the salty-language front.  Misjudging the naughtiness of a certain British colloquialism – thinking it was purely a funny word when some people found it genuinely distasteful – he called the second Austin Powers movie The Spy Who Shagged Me.



Language changes with the passage of time, so science fiction writers have often assumed that the future will see new rude words.  Some examples of these include ‘Frak!’ (from the TV sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica), ‘Frell!’ (from another TV show, Farscape) and ‘Drokk!’ (a favourite of the imposing Judge Dredd in the sci-fi comic 2000AD).


However, the supreme futuristic swear word is ‘smeg’, used by the characters of TV sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf.  Writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor have always insisted that ‘smeg’ was the product of their imaginations and wasn’t inspired by smegma, possibly the least appealing secretion produced by the male human body.  But somehow, I don’t believe them.




Peebles gets booked up



Here are some photographs taken at four o’clock last Sunday afternoon, one hour before the end of the book sale held in Peebles Burgh Hall by the local Peace Group.  The hall was quiet by this point, but earlier in the weekend it’d seen dense, bustling crowds.


In fact, this two-day sale has become a yearly institution in my home town of Peebles.  The one held in 2013, for instance, saw some 21,000 books brought into the Burgh Hall, attracted about 1000 visitors and raised £8,200.  I suspect that for many folk in Peebles, the sale is the one occasion during the year when they buy books.  They acquire a wheelbarrow-load of them, spend the next twelve months reading them and then re-donate them to the following year’s sale.


The lengthy table in this photograph supports a collection of books that the organisers had deemed ‘Scottish’.



And this particular picture taken at the Scottish table might cause concern about an unhealthy lack of diversity in the current Scottish book-publishing scene.  Aye, 60% of those books are by Ian Rankin.  The remaining 40% are by Alexander McCall Smith.



However, another photograph suggests there’s more to Caledonian publishing than books about craggy middle-aged Fife men investigating mur-r-r-ders in Edinburgh and lady detectives being sweet and life-affirming in Botswana.  As you can see, there’s room too for books about Mary Queen of Scots and books called Ye Cannae Shove yer Grannie aff a Bus.  And you’ll notice in the picture’s bottom right hand corner that Ian McEwan now qualifies as a Scottish writer, no doubt because his surname begins with ‘Mc’.  So I guess Scotland literature can lay claim to Patrick McGrath, Patrick McCabe, Carson McCullers and Cormac McCarthy as well.



Elsewhere, I was pleased to see this novel by the late, great Norman Mailer.  Its title became one of my catchphrases when I was young.  Whenever I found my way into an occasional nightclub (which in those days was the only way I could buy a drink at one or two o’clock in the morning) and someone there was daft enough to ask me for a dance, I’d snap back, “Tough guys don’t dance!”  I liked the clever literary allusion in my response, although to be honest the other person usually thought I was a dick.



I also stumbled across some long-forgotten books written by the prolific and once-massively-popular Dennis Wheatley.  I didn’t think much of Wheatley as a writer – apart from, perhaps, those old black magic potboilers he penned like The Devil Rides Out – but somehow I find it reassuring that the likes of Unholy Crusade and Vendetta in Spain can still surface at a book sale in 2014.



Meanwhile, here’s someone else I haven’t seen for a while.  Yes, it’s Wilbur Smith!  While I was at college I had a flatmate who became totally addicted to Wilbur Smith.  So serious did his addiction get that he did nothing but lie in his bed all day long, reading his way through Wilbur’s hefty paperbacks.  As a result, he failed his exams at the end of the year and got thrown out of his course and I never heard of him again.  So remember kids, Wilbur screws you up.  Choose life, not Wilbur.



And here’s Alastair MacLean – whatever happened to him?  I hardly ever see anyone these days reading one of old Alastair’s pulpy war novels, although when I was 13 half the male population of my school-year seemed to have their noses stuck in Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone between classes.  That was the more normal and squarer half of the male school-year, I should add.  The weirder and less savoury half had moved on to Sven Hassel and James Herbert by then.



At this year’s book sale I tried to behave myself.  When I popped in on Saturday, I bought only 17 books, which is about a dozen less than I’ve bought at previous sales.  But then I popped in again on Sunday, ostensibly to take a few photographs, and ended up buying a dozen more.  At this rate, by the time I ever get around to owning property, I’ll be able to line the walls of my living room with all the books I’ve bought at the Peebles Peace Group Book Sale.


The only depressing thing about it was the fact that very few of the people poring over those laden tables seemed to be under the age of forty.  I suppose nowadays you could compress the contents of the thousands of books on display in the Burgh Hall into electronic form and store them in some tiny device that could be carried around in your back pocket.  This must make the bulk and weight of an old-fashioned book seem quite illogical to the younger generation.  But it’s their loss.  I’d like to see them line the walls of their living rooms with kindles and memory sticks.


Nixon – even more evil than we’d thought


(c) The Guardian


It’s fair to say that after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at Washington DC’s Watergate Complex in June 1972 and the subsequent, failed efforts by President Richard Nixon’s administration to conceal their involvement in the crime, Nixon was never going to be remembered in the history books as a nice guy.  Indeed, some people have accused him of being the very opposite of ‘nice’.


For example, the doyen of ‘gonzo’ journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, raged that “(b)y disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American dream.”  Thompson wrote this in 1994, just after Nixon had expired.  In the same article, Thompson opined that that the former Republican president’s body “should have been burned in a trash bin”; or that at the very least his casket should have been “launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.”  (


However, newly-declassified recordings of private conversations held by Nixon’s predecessor in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson, suggest that we have another reason to malign Nixon, apart from his role in the Watergate scandal.  From conversations recorded in 1968, Johnson was aware that Nixon had sabotaged peace negotiations held in Paris, aimed at ending the Vietnam War.


Fearful that a Vietnam peace agreement would scupper his chances of winning the presidential election against Democrat (and then Vice President) Hubert Humphrey the following year, Nixon secretly persuaded the South Vietnamese to withdraw from the negotiations.  They were led to believe that they’d get a better deal under a future Nixon presidency.  Johnson regarded Nixon’s manoeuvrings as being treasonable, but decided not to make them public, even though this would have wrecked Nixon’s presidential candidacy.


For one thing, Johnson’s own methods for obtaining this information had been dodgy – indeed, Nixon-like: the FBI had bugged the telephone in the South Vietnamese Embassy, where Nixon had furtively opened a channel of communication.  Also, at that time, it looked like Humphrey would win the election anyway and Johnson didn’t see the point of airing Nixon’s dirty laundry in public.  But as things turned out, Nixon won the election by 0.7% of the popular vote.  (


Arguably, by sabotaging the 1968 peace talks and quite likely prolonging the Vietnam conflict for another half-dozen years, Nixon had responsibility for the 21,000–22,000 American deaths suffered during the post-1968 fighting.  And God knows how many more hundreds of thousands of North and South Vietnamese perished during that period – to say nothing of the Laotian and Cambodian deaths.


It also makes me wonder how a cessation of Vietnamese hostilities in the late-1960s would have changed history’s perception of Lyndon B. Johnson.  As it was, he left office with his country stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam and with a cloud hanging over his reputation – a reputation that, considering what he did for Civil Rights and considering how he pushed the ‘Great Society’ programme, would otherwise have been pretty good.


I have to say that Johnson’s name has always held negative connotations for me because, at a young and impressionable age, I read Norman Mailer’s fictionalised work of non-fiction Armies of the Night.  In Armies, the Bold Norman recounts how he marched on the Pentagon in October 1967 and told the US government to stop the war in Vietnam.  (To be fair, Norman did have a bit of help – about 100,000 people marched with him, including Allen Ginsburg and Abbie Hoffman, who tried to use concentrated psychic hippie-power to levitate the Pentagon building and ‘exorcise the evil within’:


(c) Penguin


Since then, thanks to Mailer’s book, whenever I’ve seen or heard Johnson’s name, a mantra chanted by those protestors at the 1967 march has sounded in my head:  “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?!”


After watching the 1979 / Iran-set movie Argo – which I talked about in my previous blog-entry – I remembered how conspiracy theorists have often claimed that Republican forces, desperate to stop any wind from getting into President Jimmy Carter’s re-election-campaign sails and to get Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980, sabotaged Operation Eagle Claw.  This was the mission launched to rescue the US Embassy hostages in Tehran in April 1980, which ended in disaster (and in humiliation for America and for Carter) with a helicopter / aircraft collision and the deaths of eight US servicemen in the Iranian desert.  At the time, supposedly, parts of the CIA were rabidly anti-Carter (and loyal to the agency’s former director, one George Bush Senior); and amongst those involved in the mission were Richard Secord and Oliver North, who’d later be up to their eyeballs in the Iran-Contra scandal that shook Reagan’s presidency.  (;×629531.)


I’m generally not a believer in conspiracy theories, which to me have always seemed like a sort of existentialist comfort-blanket, allowing people to impose order, connections and motives on events that would otherwise seem terrifyingly random, spontaneous and meaningless.  (Belief in magic and belief in religion perform similar functions.)  And with regard to the Operation Eagle Claw allegations, I’ve always found it inconceivable that elements of America’s right wing, no matter how unscrupulous or how dumb they might be, would go to the lengths of sacrificing the lives of their own beloved military, and of making a laughing stock of their own beloved country, in order to achieve their ends.


But, if Richard Milhous Nixon provided the template for such people – well, let’s say I’m now beginning to wonder.