Book review – ‘City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 1970s’ by Edmund White

Edmund White says he doesn’t believe in writer’s block, but at one point he was moved to see a shrink about the issue. It is New York after all, where everyone seems to be writing a novel and seeing a shrink. He is told that the first thing he is doing wrong is getting out of bed. Instead, he is advised to linger in that haze “where your inhibitions will still be low and you’ll be closer to your dreams”.

In the late 1960s, White was a starry-eyed newcomer to New York, drawn to the city that never sleeps by dreams and mythology, yearning to find a niche in its famed literary circles and its thriving but covert gay scene. His descriptions of the area surrounding the “fairy palace” he called home zing with life; it was a place where “everyone slept till noon…a grungy, dangerous, bankrupt city”. A metropolis positively coursing with lust is recaptured vividly: “When you French-kissed someone, it was like rubbing one ashtray against another”.

In an era where writers and artists still clung to the notion of noble poverty, White should have fitted right in. But instead he initially struggled for recognition, this self-styled “idolator of beauty” forced to idolise from afar, the high brow cliques remaining closed to him, his work largely unpublished save for a few reviews championing the overlooked and underrated and sometimes attacking peers out of pure jealousy. He continued to read voraciously, becoming a fixture at the Gotham Book Mart and devouring favourites like Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Green over and over.

Most of all, he yearned to find a way to make his mark as a writer, endlessly musing on literary technique and how he could harness it to forge a way into the literati. Some of the most fascinating passages here concern the torturous self-doubt he endured, the immense difficulty behind his seemingly effortless phrase-turning. At one point, he comes across a Russian psychologist who believes the most successful literature thrives on some kind of disconnect between style and subject. City Boy lends some credence to this theory with White’s prose style – uncluttered, polished and classical, finding an ideal counterpoint in a city that is manic, challenging and violent.

Yet for all his stylistic excellence, the narrative dips when he attains fame. A career breakthrough came when his hero Nabokov began to champion his work, yet the moment is not quite the revelation you expect and at some point his story becomes more about fame than friendship, more concerned with the spoils of fame than the pursuit of great art. Celebrity cameos begin to dominate; in quick succession he encounters Michel Foucault, with whom he argues about gay identity, William S. Burroughs (who seems “too cool and totemic to be alive”) and hears stories of Somerset Maugham, who was gripped by Alzheimer’s in his later years and took to cheerfully greeting visitors with a handful of his own faeces.

The real star, however, is of course the city of New York, a fascinating, contradictory mess of energy and life. But it is the likes of White’s friend David Kalstone, a poignant figure with his fading eyesight and quiet loyalty, rather than his A-list coterie that maintain interest. The young, yearning author proves more interesting than the latter, famous one, a reminder that straying from your dreams can have unexpected consequences. The city can be corrupting. Fame can breed complacency. This, more than anything, is what you hope an aspiring young writer would take out of this exquisitely written but frustrating and uneven memoir: Never give up on your dreams. Never get out of bed.

Capsule review of ‘Sphere of Influence’ by Gideon Haigh (2010)

Haigh started as a business writer, began to write mainly about cricket and now finds he has come full circle as the line between the two becomes ever thinner. This is perhaps his most subdued collection, the one with the least focus on on-field action. The rise and rise of India dominates, though there’s typically thoughtful material on Shane Warne’s IPL resurgence, the ICC’s rejection of John Howard as vice-president, the game’s inept governance and its cynical efforts to produce cricket for non-cricket fans through T20. Nobody writes as elegantly or perceptively about cricket as Haigh; precious few authors write about anything this well.

Book review – ‘Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix’ by Charles Cross (2005)

 

What an amazing performer Jimi Hendrix must have been. Wildly charismatic, shockingly sexual and a flamboyant showman, Hendrix’s career was as short and spectacular as a shooting star. This new biography reveals both the legendary stage presence and the vulnerable man behind the iconic image. Written by acclaimed Seattle journalist Charles R. Cross, it is an extensively researched, sensitive and insightful look at a complicated character.

Named after one of Hendrix’s most autobiographical songs, “Room Full of Mirrors” covers the great musician’s life in vivid detail, from his early days as a “latchkey kid” to his whirlwind first tour of England, the tumultuous end of the hippy dream and, of course, his wretched death in a hotel bed, aged just 27. Particularly impressive is the way Cross traces how Hendrix’s distinctive and unmatched guitar style (memorably described here as “a visionary, brilliant accident”) developed during his time as an impoverished session musician and freewheeling gun-for-hire.

Cross never shies away from the darker side of Hendrix’s character, his mistreatment of women and drug-addled flakiness, but sees him as an essentially sympathetic figure, a man who never truly escaped the loneliness of his early years. Destined to be considered the definitive Hendrix biography, “A Room Full of Mirrors” may well be one of the best portraits of a rock musician ever written.

Originally appeared in: Good Reading

Review of ‘Bumper: The Life and Times of Bumper Farrell’ by Larry Writer, 12th June 2011

IN 1945, Bumper Farrell was accused of biting off part of opponent Bill McRitchie’s ear in a scrum. He vigorously denied the claim, arguing that he didn’t have enough teeth left to do such a dastardly thing. Most of his chompers, he argued, had been smashed out by McRitchie earlier in the season.

These were the rough-and-tumble times Bumper played in and they suited him well. The star player and erstwhile captain-coach of the Newtown Bluebags, Bumper’s toughness and intimidating reputation saw him earn representative honours, appearing for NSW and Australia in the front row, where he would punch, kick and pummel opposing props in the scrum then go for a few drinks with them after the game.

Training in those days consisted of a couple of nights a week of running around an oval, then going to the pub. Injuries were not treated with the care they are now and Bumper once reacted angrily to an ambulance officer who tried to revive him with smelling salts, fearing he would look soft for receiving treatment.

The Life and Times of Frank 'Bumper' Farrell, by Larry Writer (Hachette Australia, $35)The Life and Times of Frank ‘Bumper’ Farrell, by Larry Writer (Hachette Australia, $35)

Off the field, Bumper’s job as a police officer saw him display the same disdain for rules that made him such a formidable opponent.

He loved nothing more than dispensing a little rough justice, often delivering a boot to the backside of a youngster playing up in the Cross, or more fearsome beatings to the violent pimps and organised-crime figures that peopled his beat, an area that included Kings Cross and Darlinghurst, then in the grip of notorious sly-grog merchants.

For Bumper, Larry Writer explains, the end always justified the means. When people get nostalgic for the days when cops used to give hooligans a belt around the head to keep them in line, Bumper is the kind of policeman they are thinking of. His methods would not be tolerated today but his take-no-prisoners approach earned him plenty of supporters and loyal friends at the time.

Tales abound of him protecting prostitutes from violent johns and exploitative pimps and showing compassion to the working poor and the needy. His was a black-and-white world of heroes and villains and some of his escapades, such as disarming a man who was rampaging through a hotel with a knife, seem ripped from the pages of a comic book.

In an era of large-scale police corruption, Writer can’t bring himself to believe Farrell was crooked, reckoning he only accepted the odd free drink or tray of fruit instead of the regular bribes many of his colleagues took. He certainly never became wealthy, as some police of his era did and, after leaving the force, he continued to work, including a typically eventful spell doing security work for News Ltd, where he enlisted Roger Rogerson to deal with Ita Buttrose’s stalker.

This endlessly colourful character must be a biographer’s dream. Everyone, it seems, has a Bumper Farrell story. He ate raw meat, got someone to eat a live goldfish for a prank, beat up a gangster until he cried, relieved himself on mates‘ trousers for a laugh and once commandeered a police boat to give him a lift home, jumped overboard and swam ashore.

When he was initially denied entry to the force because he was slightly too short, he made up the extra inches by stretching himself on a frightening-sounding contraption. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

It is hard not to detect a glow of admiration shining through these tales and, at times, Bumper comes across as a kind of Robin Hood with cauliflower ears. I can’t bring myself to warm to the punch-happy Farrell as much as his biographer but Writer has done an invaluable service in assembling these anecdotes and painting a picture of a man inescapably of his time and place and of a part of Sydney that seems all but unrecognisable now.

Originally appeared in: Sydney Morning Herald

Review of ‘Golden Boy’ by Christian Ryan

Like many cricket tragics, the first thing I associate with Kim Hughes is not any cover drive he played, nor any win he was involved with, but the distraught press conference he gave announcing his resignation from the Australian captaincy. Far from the cliché of the role being every boy’s dream, it had became a waking nightmare to the permanent man-child Hughes and ended, quite literally, in tears.

How did he ever reach this point? Things had begun so promisingly. For a long time his dominance of the world cricket stage seemed nothing less than destiny. He broke into the national team not by the sheer volume of runs he made, but by the manner he made them; elegant and imperious. At his best, nobody could bowl to him, though he had a tendency to lose concentration, to get himself out. No matter, his supporters argued, these moments were just the last vestiges of youthful impetuosity which would fade with experience.

Yet his cavalier approach to batting never really changed. Australian cricket had fallen on evil times and the golden-haired youngster was too inconsistent to be the messianic figure promised, constantly in and out of the eleven in his early years. Things really soured when he was prematurely elevated to the captaincy. The powerful clique of Rod Marsh, Dennis Lillee and the Chappell brothers were opposed to the appointment, believing the job to rightly be Marsh’s. If it is not quite accurate to say these players undermined Hughes’ captaincy, Ryan explains, then it is clear that they were never unhappy to see him fail. None of that group speak here about the issue, apparently happy for it to be airbrushed out of history.

Others have been willing to talk about the social schisms, bullying and sad macho posturing, however, and their accounts of the team at this time are damning. Newcomers to the setup found the prevailing mood a “mixture of panic and unease” and watched aghast as Lillee mercilessly pounded his captain with bouncers in the nets and ignored his instructions on the field.

If this was humiliating, worse was still to come. When Packer raided Australian cricket to form his breakaway competition, Hughes was overlooked (he later unconvincingly claimed he was approached, a claim denied by those in the Packer camp) despite being Australian captain. He ended up leading a rebel tour to South Africa, a sad and unworthy end.

One of the themes of Golden Boy is that sporting success is never inevitable and is always subject to the whims of fate. If Hughes had played in an era with less menacing opposition bowlers, or more supportive colleagues, he may be remembered as a great. His best knocks deserve that epithet. Ryan brackets three of them with Stan McCabe’s famed triumvirate of innings, and there is no higher praise from a coinoisseur. But the glory days were all too infrequent.

Hughes’ failure to touch this greatness more often cannot be solely placed at the feet of others. His was an unusual personality, combining an almost pitiful need to be liked with a kind of nonchalant arrogance that meant he would never take advice from others nor learn from his on-field mistakes. He was altogether too emotional for leadership, his assessment of the game at any time betrayed by his boyish face. When Ian Botham played a fabled innings to engineer the most improbable of English victories, many condemned Hughes’ “kicked-puppy demeanour”

On one level, this is an incredibly accomplished biography of irreconcilable personality clashes, the sad tale of opportunities missed and promise unfulfilled. It is also the best cricket book in recent years not written by someone called Gideon Haigh. Among its chief attributes is its implicit recognition that cricket is essentially a sport of individual confrontations masquerading as a team game. When Hughes’ humiliation played out in the most public of arenas, he was horribly, utterly alone.

Golden Boy : Kim Hughes and the bad old days of Australian cricket

Christian Ryan

(Allen & Unwin, $35.00)