After Dashiell Hammett my favourite author is John D. MacDonald. That he is largely neglected now in the UK is nothing short of an outrage. He may still be in print in the US. I certainly hope so because the guy could write. His prose, by his own admission, was never of the “hey, Ma, look at me” school of fancy-pantness. It was however always good, and frequently marvellous.
Also he wrote. He paid heed to P.G. Wodehouse’s estimable advice to writers: First apply the material of the trousers to the seat of the chair. Physically he sat down and produced millions of words and never once to my knowledge complained about writer’s block. This is something to be admired I think. I am always sceptical of people who make their living from putting words on to pieces of paper who then claim suddenly that they can’t do it today.
I never had bookseller’s block and I’ve never heard of air traffic controller’s block, lollipop lady’s block or plumber’s block (at least not in that sense).
MacDonald’s output includes The Executioners which has been adapted twice for cinema as Cape Fear, but his enduring legacy is the Travis McGee series of novels. There are twenty-one of them in total written from the early sixties to the mid-eighties and they stand as a wonderful document of how the world, particularly the USA, and particularly particularly Florida changed over that period. It starts with beach bunnies in bikinis. It ends with Cuban drug gangs.
Every one of the stories is a perfect lapidary example of how to construct a thriller, but that’s just an incidental pleasure. The real depth and detail is in the continuum of characters who evolve throughout the series and the artful, epigrammatic first person narration of Travis McGee himself whom MacDonald clearly regarded as an alter-ego.
Each of the novels has a colour in the title from The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) to The Lonely Silver Rain (1985) and I once wrote a long article for a short-lived magazine called Million about McGee which I entitled Pigments Of The Imagination. Colours, see?
You know that thing people say about how if they lived their lives over again they wouldn’t change a thing? Well I would change lots of things starting with that title. Pigments Of The Imagination, indeed. What can I tell you? It was 1993. I was young and drunk and full of ego. These days I’m a lot older. I don’t drink. And as far as humility goes I’m pretty much the humblest guy in the world. Humblest guy in all possible worlds probably.
Stephen King is an admirer of MacDonald. He called one of his own characters Travis McGee in Firestarter. MacDonald reciprocated by having Travis McGee read a copy of Cujo during the slower moments of one of his later novels. Aaaah. They share similarities, but, as much as I like King, I think MacDonald is a far superior writer. Some of King’s individual sentences should be taken out and shot. I’ve never felt that about John D. MacDonald. What they share though is an amazing grasp of character and a love of plot-driven narrative.
McGee, throughout the series, lives on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale. It’s called the Busted Flush (he won it in a poker game) and his neighbour is a thickset, hirsute economist called Meyer who lives aboard the John Maynard Keynes. Theirs is a kind of inverse Holmes/Watson relationship and the shtick of the series is that McGee works as a “salvage consultant” recovering things which can’t be retrieved by conventional methods for a percentage of their value.
At one point late in the series when McGee is becoming older and more wistful he looks at his boat with all his stuff on it and speculates that if it all sank without a trace he could carry on with his life with little in the way of regrets. This is something I admired in him, and I admire it in real people too.
It’s a thing I don’t share sadly.
One of my friends is often given to say, “The best things in life aren’t things.” I think I know what he’s driving at. The best things are experiences, feelings, other people, mental well-being, all that. Not your goods and chattels. I aspire to live like this, genuinely I do, but being honest about it I have to confess that I really, really like things.
If all my stuff went up in smoke, I would want to be philosophical about it and take comfort from the mere fact of being alive, but truth to tell I’d be missing my signed copy of James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, my copy of Event Horizon in the silly ship’s log packaging and several hundred thousand million billion other things.
That’s just the kind of shallow guy I am.
I think the next couple of generations down from me don’t quite have this gathering and archiving obsession that I have, and this is noticeable to me with the advent of iTunes and, to a much greater extent, Spotify.
With iTunes I like the fact that you can download stuff and straightaway it’s on your hard drive ready to use. But I dislike the fact that you don’t have an actual thing to put on a shelf. I know I sound like a hopelessly outdated relic here. In fact I remind myself of people who bemoaned the fact that CDs didn’t have the same extensive packaging that LPs did.
Things change. You move on. Until you don’t.
So I can live with iTunes and downloads, and I can live with the mockery of young people who can’t believe the amount of “stuff” I have encumbered myself with. Spotify however maybe a step too far for me. I may finally have come across the first innovation I don’t quite get. This could be the end of my ability to change.
The scoop with Spotify, if you don’t already know, is that for a fee (£9.99 per month in the UK) you can stream live any of the millions of pieces of music they have whenever you like.
It is, by any sensible yardstick, an amazing thing. There’s even a free version of it, albeit with adverts, but that seemed to be by invitation only and I didn’t know anyone who could invite me. Having subscribed now I have two invites of my own to dispense. Form an orderly queue.
The downside for me though is that you never own anything, and the physical possession of an artefact seems to be central to my enjoyment of it. What the hell is that about?
Anyway I’m quite enjoying Spotify, but I don’t know if I’m going to get my £9.99 per month worth out of it. After I’d downloaded the software I spent a few minutes in front of it completely unable to think of anything I wanted to listen to which I didn’t already own. When I finally did think of things there was a surprising amount of stuff that wasn’t available.
Three Wheels On My Wagon, one of the foundation stones of Junior Choice with Ed “Stewpot” Stewart when I was growing up. Not there.
Lucky Number by Lene Lovich. Not there.
Shiny Shiny by Haysi Fantayzee. Not there, but John Wayne Is Big Leggy was there, and I enjoyed that. Then I found a bunch of spoken word stuff by Firesign Theatre which I hadn’t heard for 25 years, which was brilliant.
Then I started getting into it a lot.
Turns out that my decision not to have bought anything by The Guillemots yet may have been the right one (though I’m open to persuasion). Turns out also that my spurning of The Duckworth Lewis Method on the grounds that it is a cricket concept album was the wrong one. It is a sustained piece of post-Bonzo Dog Doodah Band jollity and proves that Neil Hannon has lost none of his Divine Comedy gift for catchy tunes and playful lyrics.
I’ll probably buy it on CD now.
And don’t even start me on how much Harry Belafonte I’m listening to.
I would like to add my voice, late but with enthusiasm, to the chorus of approval for Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009), an enjoyable CG romp from Sony. I heard it described as being like a David Lynch movie for kids, which I think is taking it too far, but it has a refreshing surreal tang to it right enough, and the joke density is way higher than I expected.
It may have suffered a lack of attention because it came out the same year as Pixar’s peerless Up and whilst it lacks that movie’s moral clarity and precision-engineered narrative Cloudy is nevertheless a treat. This is the sort of thing that pixels should be used for. Something interesting with a bit of character, humour and purpose.
I have been reflecting again on my anger at Avatar’s squandering of resources and the feebly supine response it got in the press. The characters and situations in Up have stayed with me much longer than those in Avatar. Mr. Fredricksen, Russell, Dug the Dog and Kevin the bird versus Shouty Smurf, Angry Smurf, Shooty Smurf and Victim Smurf from Pandora. Well who do you remember more clearly?
Spending money on stuff to make it shiny does not make the stuff any better. Sometimes the surface of something is much less interesting than what the thing actually is and Avatar has almost nothing going on under its nanometre thin skin.
There’s a warm place in my heart for the films of Ray Harryhausen. For all their ramshackle, jerky, plasticiney artifice they were films whose intentions were pure and whose maker was driven.
And what’s that coming over the hill? It’s the big budget remake of Clash Of The Titans…