The Tannhäuser Gate at Casa Sinatra

tumblr_m0nuhqcrMW1r48hglo1_1280Casa Sinatra sits on top of a mountain that overlooks a silvery bay; Nancy used to say that on fine days it looked like the ships were hanging in the sky.

There are three great walls in concentric rings going around the mountain, built originally as defenders of Nancy’s most precious pearl. As I pulled up to the gate at the foot of the mountain, two security guards appeared from the plastic bushes and bade me stop.

Scifi-2-650x974They both wore reflective specs, sailor pants and shirts so small they could have been henchmen in 60s Batman. ‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ I said pleasantly. But they were not having a particularly good evening.

Henchman # 1 (let us call him Steve) leaned over the door and breathed sourly into my face, while Henchman # 2 (let us call him Ernest) went round behind me and said, ‘Yep,’ while sneaking peeks of his bulby forearms in the shining hubcaps of my pappy’s sugar-sweet pink Cadillac.

When he had temporarily done with using his mouth for breathing, Steve said, ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I’ve come to see Nancy Sinatra.’

‘She expecting you?’

‘No. I just thought I’d pop over.’

‘Yep,’ said Ernest earnestly, and spat gum onto the gravel.

‘This your car?’ said Steve, leaning against the bonnet.

‘Sure…’ said I.

‘It’s just that we got very particular instructions not to let a pink Cadillac pass,’ said Steve.

‘Oh, really,’ said I.

‘Yep,’ said Ernest.

‘Well,’ said I. ‘Is it the make or the colour you object to more?’

That got him. ‘Don’t really know,’ said Steve. ‘Hang on a minute there.’

So Steve gestured to Ernie and Ernie came round to the front of the car and then he phoned up to the house. Now both men were leaning on the hood like a couple of hep cats. There was a crackle on the phone. Ernie said, ‘Yep, yep.’ Then the henchmen conferred saying rhubarbrhubarbrhubarb. Then Steve turned back to me and said, ‘Both. No pink. No Cadillacs. No pink Cadillacs. The order was to shoot on sight.’

As a matter of fact I could imagine Nancy coming home after she broke up with Archie,  saying, ‘If you see a pink Cadillac coming up the drive, shoot to kill,’ over her thin shoulder, with a Menthol stuck to her bottom lip. I don’t suppose she meant it really, but then again she was quite upset, and my father certianly has a knack for provoking people to murder.

More to the point, the things that Sinatras say have a way of happening. In his Mafia days Frank Snr set up a very intricate protection racket around his daughter, comprised of many cells which went on dividing and adapting like the most protean virus. He has been dead for fifteen years but there’s no doubt that the number of defenders of Nancy’s elderly virtue still go on multiplying like the worms and bacteria eating out his ol’ blue eyes.

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Now as the great gate rose before me, I saw it as Archie must have seen it all those years ago when he first starting paying court to Nancy. There were spotlights roaming over the wall, and illuminating clumps of sagebrush on the hill, which left a residual glitter on the back of your eyes when the spots moved on; a shadowy shape hanging in the darkness below flashed a strange green light in from the sea. Then a volley of shots sounded from one of the security towers, and all of the birds rose up, screeching.

Fuck me. Archie was always going on about attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, and c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate…  So this was it: the Tannhäuser Gate, first defence of Casa Sinatra.

It is always a little unsettling to discover that people you believe to be mad aren’t quite as mad as you thought they were.

Continued next post: The road to Casa Sinatra

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The Ides of March (in May, in Shitsville)

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It is a truth universally acknowledged in Shitsville that every time things start to go right, cruel Fate intervenes to fuck it all up in a way that is familiar and not entirely unexpected. What most people think of as pessimism is in my case a kind of inspired prescience for being able to see shit coming from the far off distance, like masked riders in Texas, which I happen to know you can recognise in a desert dust storm by the glint off their saddles. In another life I was the proud mayor of Shitsville in Texas and a lot of such practical knowledge I took home with me; as you will have noted my decorating in Shitsville Ranch shows traces of the time I spent in Texas: antlers, cacti, armchairs covered in cow-hide, and a stock-whip ornamenting the cornice in the basement rec room;  the pistol you see in Act 1 that will go off at the end was sealed in a desk drawer in my den, the aunts had rifled through the drawer looking for postage stamps before they left, but the pistol was still there, only the pearl handle was covered in sticky auntish ginger-snappy fingerprints (I checked to see if it was in working condition and it was).

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Those days in the aftermath of Brooks that I spent with cousin Francis Matlock Shitsville were some of the glory days; no two cousins have ever been more closely aligned. Frankie had a sartorial flair unusual in straight men which accorded very exactly with a preference I developed for dandies when I was younger than now, yet to be crushed by life, and my bloom not been entirely rubbed off by a demented fondness for pro-animal-testing cosmetic cleansers and six-tonne eye make-up more suited to a career on the stage; back then I had aspired to a frivolous life ensconced in fashion history/ theory academia, and while drunk off my tits on cooking sherry composed fanciful masterworks of bibliography in order to graduate with Honours while not exactly having the attention span to remember what the point of all of the books was in the first place. At that time (I remember it now only because it is topical) I composed a nonsense essay on the psychological implications of the clothes in The Great Gatsby; I did this for a lark really because as any fool knows you can’t take Freud seriously (Penis envy? I don’t think so).

Anyway,  earnest articles discussing the hem hem sartorial flair that would actually be required for a man to get away with actually wearing an actually pink suit the way that Gatsby does in the final scenes of the novel totally miss the point that the suit, rosy and flushed and penetrable as a cough cough cough vagina (thank Freud for that image) represents a pathetic bleeding heart romanticism on Gatsby’s part as he stands rumpled in the sunlight and says farewell Old sport or whatever it is. Frankie and I talked about it over whisky (sidebar here all of these Pepsi-Co or Coca-Cola ads do not represent any endorsement of the stuff on my part, I never drink the poison unless as a mixer: the Sociables I’m sure didn’t drink cola straight either or why the hell would they look so happy all of the time?)  It was the only contentious issue that ever came between us. I maintained that no such suit had ever really existed, certainly not in the Twenties, except perhaps as one of those life imitating art mirror routines. In any case if someone like Cary Grant had worn a pink suit he would have pulled it off admirably and nobody would be debating its ‘masculinity’ now. Then my cousin Frankie confessed that he owned such a suit.

vintage pepsi ad

In Conclusion, TX

I am in Monroeville about a year too late. Last year was the 5oth anniversary of the publication of To Mock a Killingbird, and also, coincidentally, marked 50 years since anything of notice actually happened in Monroeville. The signs are still up around town but if you turn up to see any kind of lecture or parade all you’ll get is a myopic old gent sweeping fag-ends from the street. I watched him work while I was sitting on the metal fire escape of my hotel, it was a sight to see.  He finished up around 6 & scampered home no doubt to beat his poor wife. Legs crossed, the heel of one Beatle boot hooked ’round a balustrade, I am blowing the smoke from sixteen packets of Marlboro Lights into a god-like mist over the rooftops & chimneypots of Monroeville & singing the melancholy songs that I learned in Texas.

I still can’t remember whether Truman Capote lived here, or merely traipsed here one Spring day to have tea with Harper Lee and eat her wafer biscuits; I could look it up I guess but there are now as many dead flies as deadly sins along the window sill, all of which have died from boredom. Their sticky little legs and crumbled wings already tempt me to join them in their sweet repose, so I shouldn’t push it. This puts me in mind of another famous American literary femme, the ever youthful Emily Dickinson, who was from Massachusetts, nowhere near here, and nowhere I am ever likely to go, as I am terribly frightened of hippies, but that is another story altogether.

I heard a fly buzz when I died-  

[skipping a bit]

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

So you see where I am going with this.

Home soon, soon, soon & will be good to see everyone again.

Miss Shitsville

Read Next: There’s No Place Like Home. In which I get home and carry on post-Texas.


Read More Texas:

Fine Dining Thru-Out the States. A collection of the best of the free diner postcards.

High larks in Amarillo, TX. In which I fondly recall the many and various horrors of Amarillo.

A Joint Outside of Town (Amarillo, TX). In which I recount my meeting with Billy Bob.

Texas Diary. I found my Texas diary in a box of junk in the attic and started the whole thing again. Evidently a lot that was at first repressed came back to bite me years later.

Runnin on into Shitsville. In which I recount my first impressions of Shitsville and its world-famous whorehouse and shitty saloon.

I was walking among the fires of Hell. An idle Tuesday afternoon amongst the damned in Shitsville’s finest saloon.

In Monroeville, AL

I have taken some time to think this over so it won’t sound too hysterical. I am in Monroeville, Alabama writing this now. Monroeville, AL is the town in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and also has some connection to Truman Capote, who has always struck me as a gross little turd. I may be one of the only people in the world who dislikes “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” but all that Fred- Fred- Fred- bullshit makes me want to slap Audrey Hepburn in the face. Interestingly Marilyn was Capote’s first choice to play Holly Golightly, but Lee Strasberg told her that playing a prostitute would be bad for her image so she turned it down. Too bad. Marilyn could have said Fred- Fred- Fred- without sounding like a retarded dick, and still be a knock-out call girl. Audrey Hepburn’s very sexless. Consequently that is a very shit movie.

Oh I forgot I was telling you about Monroeville. Well, Monroeville has red roads and everything is made of wood. We just kind of idle along. I am sitting in a diner that is Deco. The outside is covered in greenish lacquered tiles, it is sort of long and shaped like a tram. Inside it is dark wood & very cool. I have found five dead flies along the window sill, the menus are printed very prettily and everything is quite cheap. I am waiting for some meal that will take my mind off things, currently I drink Coca Cola in a tall glass & you can smoke inside here, what luck. There are some lovely trees and a park or town square with civic pride statues and a museum. I will go there later and view Civil War memorabilia and maybe buy a postcard or a badge. The one thing I will say is, the Civil War is probably the first war that was recorded in photographs. You get the daguerreotypes of the soldiers standing in their uniforms and the soldier’s little mothers (they’re always so little) sitting in crinolines & looking thunderous. It is funny that when you see pictures of people that you know to be dead, they look like they are dead already.

Read Next: The Road to Shitsville, TX

Representatives for the defence of Harry Potter

Thoughtful Reader, I would like to confess (you may agree) that I probably rank as one of the world’s most cynical people. But cynicism has its limits; one of things I become most cynical about is a kind of cultivated cynicism in others, which crops up often in journalism that references success stories, Hollywood executives, marketing, merchandise, franchises, blah blahblahblah and is proud to confess scorn for a thing just because the bling of $$$$$ is going off like flashbulbs and the sound of cash registers opening and closing (*!*!*!*) is perceptible in the background. As though capitalism is the end result of a huge, secret, unknowable conspiracy between big business and governments, rather than a perfectly visible, illuminated, debated, criticised, analysed and generally understood (and accepted) social-economic system that grew out of the industrial revolution.

I have read only the first 4 Potter books and have seen only the first 3 movies and I don’t mind waiting ten or fifteen years before I get around to finishing them off. I do intend to finish them one day, but the books before the films, and it could be a while before I am in the reading “Harry Potter” mindset again. (On a side note, I started reading “The Wind in the Willows”, page 1, in 1994, gave it up, came back to it last year, stopped at Chapter 10, and still plan to finish it one day, but it too can wait).  What can I say?  I like “Harry Potter” (or, what I have read so far). I like the boy himself and his stupid lightning bolt scar and dorky Lennon glasses, and will stand up for him in the face of all of the articles that are now cropping up, with the release of the final movie installment, which either question Harry’s “real” value to literature and cinema, or like to suggest the Potter hysteria is a product of the film industry & the publisher’s clever PR… and that in years to come, once the hysteria has died down, people may come to see that Potter was perhaps not quite worthy. The other style of articles appearing are nervous but defiant declarations of love (by adults) who seem to be writing in the face of (unarticulated) criticism, the cultural sneer (on unseen faces) of those people who would laugh at or question the presence of a Harry Potter book on an adult’s bookshelf.

… “it’s far too soon to tell what Harry Potter’s literary legacy will be. Ever since J. K. Rowling sold the film rights to the series in 1999, Warner Brothers has used its own mass media wizardry to crank up the volume on every Harry Potter book, film and other branding opportunity of the past 12 years. How could it fail to be the best-selling book series ever, with sales thus far of 450 million? I know children who thought loving Harry Potter was compulsory.”

But, “the big love for the boy wizard isn’t all manufactured. The first reviews of the first book, in 1997, were positive before the hype. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was ”magic”, ”imaginative”, ”inventive”. More than one reviewer compared J. K. Rowling to Roald Dahl.”

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/harry-confronts-the-test-of-time-20110712-1hc11.html#ixzz1Rz5bWkYE

I am not attached to Harry Potter for nostalgic reasons. I didn’t read the first book until I was 16 or so, because I wanted to know what my little bruv was on about. I was raised on Roald Dahl, Narnia, Oz, Enid Blyton, The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, Mary Poppins, etc., but, unlike many superior others, gentle reader, I don’t feel personally offended or defensive because, in the eyes of young children, Potter may outshine my favourites. Actually it’s because all cynics were once idealists, and the smothered idealist in me genuinely responds to certain elements of Harry Potter.  (Thoughtful Reader, you should probably put on your Gandalf costume left over from that one party you went to in 1982 and sit down somewhere comfy to read Harry, even though you think it’s derivative, that there really isn’t a pin to choose between Gandalf and Dumbledore, that crappy boarding school stories make you sick, that Rowling’s prose is clunky and does not reach the sublime heights of Roald Dahl, etc).

Point the first. Every witch and wizard story is derivative, you know the drill: archetypes, Jung, Star Wars etc., etc., etc. They all have Celtic/pagan roots. But the Potter books aren’t a cynical rehash of this stuff to make $$$$. The cliched elements have been rendered with such a depth of vision that you literally fall into the Potter world like into a puddle, never mind the clunky language…  The premise of the Potter books is certainly not original; I remember reading “The Worst Witch at Boarding School” when I was in primary school. The Worst Witch books pre-date Harry Potter, but were made into a kid’s TV series only after Potter became popular. In fact strip away the magic and the Potter world is very English and fairly traditional. They have that Whimsical English sense of humour. The school, the shops, they’re all sort of old-fashioned, Dickensian pubs and alleyways. They deal with the childhood conceits of lollies that explode in your mouth, trading cards, steam trains, board games of chess and snakes and ladders (albeit with real snakes), that kind of hokey thing. But being twee is not a crime.

Collage and pastiche are not crimes, even in Art. “The Lord of the Rings”, as everyone already knows, is a kind of reworking of British dreaming: wizards, elves, goblins, monsters etc. are all stock characters in Celitic, British and Norse mythology. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories nod to everyone from JRR Tolkien to Shakespeare to Elvis Presley to Monty Python.  An amateur painter (or a bad artist) may make direct copies, or use pastiche and collage to create a kind of art-by-numbers; a good artist will use the pastiche and collage of old, traditional, familiar and “cliched” elements to create something entirely new. Here the new arrangement renews the life inside the object that has been deadened by over-familiarity; a new eye, a new perspective gives that object a new polish; a new meaning can be created out of an old one.

It’s the same clunky charm of the mechanical puppets in the Myer Christmas windows, loved by kids and adults on their lunch breaks alike. Why? Some of the charm derives from the fact that these things tap into something 90’s kids missed out on, and they remind adults of something that went missing.

What went missing? As the Empires of Sony and Apple Macs took hold in the 1980’s, the popularity of “magic” in books and films gave way to “technology”; instead of killer zombies there were killer robots (“Frankenstein” vs. “Terminator”); instead of turning to a wise elder for advice the kids just turned on their computer and asked the computer questions. Technology was getting better and better, and the possibilities inherent in this new technology were naturally very exciting. But this obsession with technology meant that the next generation of kids became disassociated from the roots of magic and society (that’s a very earthy, mysterious thing) because “having a computer” was the new “having a pet dog”. Nothing can teach you love and friendship, loyalty, responsibility and the joy of running about in the mud like maniac the way a dog can. Now everyone has a computer instead (Farmville… Tamogotchi…) and that real connectedness with others and with nature, running, jumping, climbing trees, has gone out the window. Harry Potter brought this kind of knock-about adventurousness and “magic” back into the lives of children. Unlike Spykids, Harry & Co. aren’t precocious computer hacking geniuses. If there’s a problem that needs to be solved it takes them a while, they bungle through in the meantime playing games and learning magic spells, and finally Hermione resorts to going to the library and looking up the answer in a book.

They’re definitely old fashioned, but boarding school stories have a perennial charm. Since “Stalky & Co.” (Kipling) boarding school stories gradually deteriorated and became pulp, because hack writers would just regurgitate the same, popular elements over and over again. But they were popular for decades, from the 20s and 30s when “Dimsie” was queen,  even into the sixties, but they dropped out of favour: not because people realised they were shitty, but because boarding schools became more and more associated with the aristocracy and snobs and privilege, which is not very cool. They’re not all as crap as each other (some are very very good. Enid Blyton had St Clare’s and the other one… remember also Willian’s and Searle’s “Molesworth” and “St Trinian’s”). Boarding school stories aren’t even unique to children’s literature: “Catcher in the Rye” starts as a boarding school story, doesn’t it? More recently there’s been “Old School” by Tobias Wolff, “Prep” by that girl, you know the one… The Oxford section of “Brideshead Revisited” is to a certain extent an outcrop of the boarding school story… and Evelyn Waugh’s brother Alec first of all came to attention for his earnest boarding school story, “The Loom of Youth”… never mind why). The reason for the ongoing popularity of these stories with children is because the boarding school is a cloistered world, a world of children. Despite the teachers flittering in and out it is the kids who are citizens, the kids who have to work out their own politics and society and honour system, and that one is quite different to the (sex & money) society and politics of adults that exists outside of the school in “the real world”. It’s a very accurate depiction of the child’s mentality that they can stake everything on the outcome of a cricket game. Other than that boarding school stories are all about the excitement of independence (being away from home for the first time), making new friends, learning new things, etc. Universal themes, universal appeal.

Last but not least Harry and his friends aren’t these slick cool characters. They aren’t A+ students, they’re dorks, they’re poor, they get daggy homemade sweaters for Christmas… People identify with that… They’re not sexy witches either, they’re daggy. Dressing up to go and see the movie with those daggy round 3D glasses is a bit camp… that’s the real appeal. Everyone knows it’s daggy, you don’t need to point it out.

It’s silly of people to scorn certain books (especially kids books) because of a perceived lack of literary merit: there are only about 4 kids books I can think of that are pristine, perfect world, perfect language: Alice in Wonderland, Winnie The Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Roald Dahl’s books. Do you really want to restrict your kids to these books, and these alone?

But then there’s another, much larger group of “Classic” (and worthy) children’s books, which aren’t perfect. Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Dorothy (and Toto), Aslan, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna, Little Lord Fauntelroy, the Horatio Algers heroes… Fewer and fewer people have read these books in the decades (or centuries) since their original publication, but they are still in print and they still sell. In a way they kind of don’t even need to be read anymore because the names and personalities of the characters are so well known, they have passed into the cultural cache. Obviously there’s something there, a force of imagination, that transcends the (sometimes shabby) writing. Harry Potter belongs to this group, and I do think he’ll stand the test of time in the same way they have.

It would pay to think like a child when reviewing books (and films) for children. I loved the second group of books when I was a kid (especially the Narnia books and the Oz series…  L Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books, not just “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”… Anne of Green Gables and Mary Poppins are also series. Children really love series, but not because the publishers have tricked them into it in order to steal the pennies they earned sweeping chimneys… Essentially it’s because the kids don’t want the dream to end… Ergo, the appeal of the concept of “The Neverending Story”).  In contrast I didn’t really “get” Alice in Wonderland; infact I skipped over nearly every poem in Alice (therefore skipping half the book) and was kind of infuriated by the lack of narrative and a sort of suspicion that somewhere, somehow I was being preached at.  Just the concept of “Wind in the Willows” bored the shit out of me… that is why it took me fifteen years to get past page one.

Then I grew up. Unlike Peter Pan. Now I love Alice – love, love, love. I end up reading Alice in Wonderland about four times a year, by accident. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was little – it’s a nihilist’s bible.

‘That’s very important,’ the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: ‘Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,’ he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.

‘Unimportant, of course, I meant,’ the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, ‘important–unimportant– unimportant–important–‘ as if he were trying which word sounded best.

Some of the jury wrote it down ‘important,’ and some ‘unimportant.’ Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; ‘but it doesn’t matter a bit,’ she thought to herself.

I should add, the reason I am making my way through “The Wind in the Willows” so slowly is because I love the language of it.

In a way, reading the crappier books gave me a greater appreciation for the good ones… even if this appreciation only came as an adult.  You have to learn to appreciate quality, you can’t just shove quality down a kid’s throat and say, “There! Shakespeare! You’d better like it or everyone will think you’re dumb!”

It’s very, very difficult capturing Characters on paper; it’s even more difficult when you’re worried that some B. Arts (Hons) journalist is gonna start picking at your language (note: “gonna”). I have a tremendous amount of respect for JK Rowling because she did what so many others have failed to do.