A COWARD may die a thousand times before his death, a morbid kid can be killed over and over in his own mind by phantom Soviet warheads. This was me in the mid-1980s, between the ages of 7 and 12. I spent, or lost, that much of my youth priming for nuclear holocaust, projecting scenarios onto the Republic of Ireland
ON September 13, Spain’s Congress of Deputies voted to expel the bones of General Francisco Franco from his Catholic-pharaonic tomb at the Valley of the Fallen. Not much longer would the great dictator be allowed to repose inside a vast basilica with black marble floors, flanked by chapels dedicated to the patron saints of his army, navy and air force, beneath a simple plate that bears his name but not his rank.
E.L. Doctorow died on July 21, 2015, about a month after Donald J. Trump announced and commenced his run for President of the United States. These events were not related, but they have since become fused in my mind. Doctorow was my favorite living writer, and when Trump began his campaign by riding down the escalator to the gold-plated lobby of his tower, I thought the scene could almost have been composed by that great American mythologist.
A BOGGLE-EYED pagan god feasts on the headless carcass of his own son. A humanoid billygoat in a monkish cassock bleats a satanic sermon to a gasping congregation of witches. A desperately expressive little dog appears to plead for rescue, submerged up to its neck in a mud-coloured mire beneath a gloomy, void-like firmament of negative space.
THE city of Madrid is no less essential to the films of Pedro Almodóvar than kinky sex, crimes of passion, eye-popping primary colours or gasp-inducing plot twists. Though born out in Castilla-La Mancha – Don Quixote country – Almodóvar made his punkish early movies here in the capital, where the death of General Franco gave rise to a buckwild creative scene.
PICTURE an iron castle in a ruined garden, where a lonely poet sits in a bare, round room, writing about another lonely poet in a bare, round room, who is writing about another lonely poet … and so on. David Peace draws on this image in Patient X: The Case-Book Of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, which he calls “a novel of tales” about the eponymous short story writer. Akutagawa was a major figure in the Japanese literature of the early 20th century, whose tormented personal pathology led to his suicide in 1927, at the age of 35.
FIRST, a tour of the bare-brick cells and torture chambers of S-21 prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Straight after that, a buffet brunch at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, with oysters, lobster, wagyu beef tartar and espresso martinis. This is luxury travel in 21st-century Cambodia, where every visiting pleasure-seeker pays a kind of psychic tourist tax by looking at the country’s livid war wounds.
AFTER the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, I worked with a post-disaster clean-up crew in a largely obliterated fishing port called Onagawa. We mostly shovelled mud and debris, and did myriad odd jobs for newly homeless locals packed into evacuation shelters. Everyone had lost someone, and the more talkative survivors told us brutally upsetting stories of wives drowned in waterfront factories, elderly parents dragged away by the wave, entire families killed in their cars while trying to outrun it.
ON the morning of June 7, a few spectators gathered by the side of the narrow country road that runs through Ballig, a tiny hamlet on the Isle of Man. They waited quietly, listening for engine noise against the pastoral sounds of birdsong, the wind in the trees, a murmuring stream under an old stone bridge. Then a high-performance motorcycle blasted past, at such concussive velocity that it might have been a missile.
AMONG the mini-essays, weather diaries and reminiscences that comprise this book, Karl Ove Knausgaard sketches out a few quick self-portraits in prose. Picture him just before dawn, in the kitchen of his plush-rustic home near the Norwegian coast: smoking, drinking coffee, listening to Bach, denim jacket slung over the chair, long hair tousled like an opium fiend’s, looking past his blank screen and into the retreating darkness beyond the
ROCK and roll is roughly 70 years old. That’s just a little younger than Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. Both of whom are still alive and well, recording and performing, even if most casual listeners only really want to hear the music they made half a century ago. The prancing spectres of his elders have been said to haunt Thom Yorke, the lead singer and songwriter of Radiohead.
LEGEND tells us there was once a poor boy called Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, who grew up in a housing project on Staten Island, just across the water from the skyscrapers of Manhattan’s financial district.
THE 21st annual Moby-Dick Marathon was the first to take place in a blizzard. Somehow, the event had never coincided with a major snowstorm before, despite being held every January in New Bedford – a squall-prone seaport on the Massachusetts coast, where North Atlantic weather systems spin like sawblades against the edge of the United States.
THE story goes that President Abraham Lincoln walked out of the White House in the middle of the night on February 20, 1862. He crossed Washington D.C. to Oak Hill cemetery, went into the crypt of his late son Willie, and sat there alone at his coffin. Willie had died of typhoid fever earlier that day, at the age of 11. His father, somewhat preoccupied through the boy’s short illness with fundraising for the escalating civil war, was now so possessed by grief and guilt that he may even have cradled the corpse.
WHAT’S your favourite cloud? Perhaps it’s one of the stranger formations. Altocumulus lenticularis, maybe, which settles in spooky hoops over high mountain peaks like an alien mothership. Or it could be the simple, humble cumulus, also widely known as the “fair weather cloud”. Surely everyone loves those puffy cotton balls that seem to morph into friendly and familiar shapes – elephants, teapots, diving bells – while you gaze at them against a backdrop of blue sky.
URUGUAY: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, rolled up inside Rizla papers. A nation that shares many of the same post-colonial woes and right/left governmental wobbles as its bigger Latin American neighbours, but has somehow lately emerged as a beacon of 21st-century liberalism, with justice and legalised cannabis for all. The best place to contemplate this might be right on the edge of the land, under the lighthouse at Cabo Polonio.
THERE are still a few bars in New York that started serving long before Trump Tower was built, before Prohibition came and went, before the United States even became an independent republic.
THE best movies have music to match. The Godfather, great as it is, would be less so without Nino Rota’s dark and fateful main theme, also known as The Immigrant, or The Godfather Waltz – now a perennial repertory piece squeezed out by street accordionists all over Europe. Blade Runner’s visionary opening shot of the future LA skyline gets much of its transportive power from the electronic soundscape provided by composer Vangelis.
ON the Upper East Side of New York, between Woody Allen’s apartment and Henry Clay Frick’s famous mansion turned art museum, is a meeting point for mountain climbers, deep sea divers, adventurers and spacemen. Today the two flags outside The Explorer’s Club are flying at half-mast. One is the Stars and Stripes, the other is the flag of club itself. That standard has been carried to all the remotest corners of our planet, to the bottom of the ocean, and to the moon in every landing module that ever touched down there.
A former student of Zadie Smith’s recently tweeted a telling anecdote. Some years back, while teaching creative writing at New York’s Columbia University (she’s now tenured at NYU) Smith handed out a laughable, pitiful, woefully sophomoric short story, and had the whole class critique it to pieces before admitting that it was one of her own.