Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Jim Thompson’s Last Walk

(Right to left: Jim and I at Hilpeä Hauki with our signed copies of "On the Brinks."
Photo by Annukka Öljymäki)

One summer evening, in Lahti, Finland, Jim Thompson went out for a walk on his own. He never made it back home.

Jim was one of life’s singular characters – a brilliant wit and a likeable cage rattler with a great turbine of a mind. He was a loving husband to Annukka, a father to Christopher and a great friend to many people. As an informative interviewee for this journalist he was also a brilliant story teller. As a conversationalist he will be an impossible act to follow. 

It is no exaggeration to say that Jim had few equals in the sphere of what he called “hard writing.” His Inspector Kari Vaara novels spared readers nothing when it came to racism, prostitution, police corruption and cold blooded murder in Finland. These novels stand as a testament to Jim’s fearlessness to write about the dark underbelly of Finland, something which many Finns would rather ignore. 

Jim was a man of insatiable appetites – for great writing, beers with vodka chasers, cigarettes and, above all, for expansive conversation. When we talked on the phone we would congratulate ourselves for keeping our phone calls to under two hours. It was during these conversations that I would leave my flat and just start walking without wondering or caring where I might end up.  

There was no subject too big or too small for Jim. I was very impressed by his knowledge of English Philology – for which he was awarded a Master’s degree by the University of Helsinki - the Northern Ireland “Troubles” and his ability to effortlessly quote from Irish literature, especially the work of Yeats. 

Sam Millar, the acclaimed Belfast based crime writer had Jim write the introduction to “On the Brinks.” This is Sam’s roller coaster memoir about how he eventually came to play a role in the 1993 Brinks heist, the fifth biggest robbery in U.S. history, and the aftermath. Sam kindly sent two signed copies of Brinks to Helsinki, one for me and the other for Jim. I was very excited. I had the job of hand delivering Jim’s copy to him. We met in his “office”, a bar called Hilpeä Hauki in the Kallio area of the city. Jim was very humbled when he opened his copy of Brinks and actually saw his words in print.  

I will miss, as Jim’s readers will, his writer’s voice, his voice on the page.  But most of all I will miss the unpublished Jim: his quality company, the laughs that we had and the advice which he gave me. One of the last conversations we had was when I was on holiday in Oulu in July 2014. Jim was impressed by my articles criticizing the hiring practices in Finnish higher education. He encouraged me to continue to be brave with my words and thoughts and to stick to my guns. I will. 

The lake in Lahti, which took Jim’s life failed to drown his spirit. At any time I can reread his books, play back our taped interviews and rediscover and recover him.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Thinking Ulsterly

It did not cause me any trouble to become a Protestant Ulsterman, but my becoming an internationalist is my own work. 

I am often in the company of people who hail from all over the world. Conversations are lubricated with fizzy drinks or alcohol, usually the latter. Then: "Are you from Ireland?" 
I would say something along the lines of, "Northern Ireland, which is technically part of the UK." 
I knew what was coming next. "Isn’t all of Ireland part of the UK?"
"Weeelll" - I would start with a dip in it to signal my mild irritation, but before I’d get the chance to answer would come the intention, 
“I would like to visit Ireland. I have heard it’s a real party island full of nice friendly people.”

Expats: They just come right out with things. I wasn’t sure what news they had heard or who had "educated" them, but I was determined to fill the gaps in their knowledge. My painting the picture of the island as "two nations", as described by the brilliant Dungannon born historian W.F. Moneypenny, turned out to be less alluring than the romantic expat point of view. 

To present my more balanced view of Ireland I consulted other favourite historians and authors and thought about the role of America. Oscar Wilde had loved America and even believed it capable of settling the age-old Irish problem. Having read the Haass proposals I have to confess that I find myself in disagreement with Wilde.

The civil war, more commonly known as "the Troubles", was at the beginning and end of all our conversations. I explained the reasons for the conflict, the cease fires and the peace process and took the edge of the worst atrocities as best I could. But you should have seen the reaction when I described rubber bullets as resembling the sculpted Coke bottles from which my expat friends were drinking. 

Then came the sort of question which made me wonder if they had understood anything at all, “So are you a Protestant or a Catholic Ulsterman?”   

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Thank you Big Ian!

There is no need for unionists to be overly concerned about Ian Paisley's recent BBC interview; they would do better to use it as an opportunity for strengthening their role in Northern Ireland’s future.

Holes have been punched in unionism, but no new visions have been allowed to flow in. Without the right sort of change the unionist project is in danger of plunging into the sea on melted wings. This relates to wider concerns about an orgiastic flag-waving unanimity, in which the media have congealed into an orange mass, as if "we" all lived under "Big Ian's" shadow.

Many see Paisley's BBC interview with Eamonn Mallie as the sun which melted those wings. Baron Bannside said many things which may dupe the DUP into thinking that they need to advertise for a “Fall Out Manager”, but that appointee would spend most of their time sitting in party HQ twiddling their thumbs. The DUP already have wounds to lick so rather than add to the back log, better to seize the Paisley interview as a long awaited opportunity to kiss the future with a renewed sense of confidence.

How much of the political machinery which tooled up and honed Paisley throughout the 50s and 60s still remains? With his passionate public speeches, the firebrand preacher, who founded the DUP in 1971, once effortlessly whipped crowds up into a frenzied state. However, to take his answers to Mallie's questions as representative , would be to incorrectly accept Paisley as the megaphone of today's unionist voice.

On the obvious: Paisley was always going to bring up the past and glaze it with his own "child of God" viewpoint and express with that phrase a whole skullful of "Bible Protestantism." He didn't build his reputation on a broad mind nor did he want to be associated with liberty or promoting equal opportunities for non-Protestant Ulster. Big Ian was always going to stick to his guns because that is precisely what conviction politicians of his stripe do.

A misreading of the interview would be to say that Paisley had been biding his time, waiting for Mallie to draw him back into the media spotlight to punch more holes in unionism, watch them fill with water and sink to the bottom of the Irish Sea. 

Today's brand of unionism is already on the shared government life boat, whose rudder is steering Northern Ireland in a different direction than in the past.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Rave Tapes

The 28th October 2013 was a good day. Mogwai premiered Remurdered, a track from their eighth studio album, on Soundcloud. If it were on a eastern European grindhouse movie soundtrack it would sound menacing. By the end of the track you feel like you have been plunged into in a dungeon equipped for your own “seppuku.” But you want to be there. You want to stay. You want to wait, to hold out for what comes next.

Rave Tapes sounds like a band honing rather than overhauling what they do. With surges and soars, ebbs and flows, it has fewer of the schizophrenic jumps which characterized their previous work on the Young Team or CODY albums. Rave Tapes comes on gradually. Heard About You Last Night the somnambulant opener feels like it should have been on Les Revenants, the haunting music which Mogwai wrote for the critically acclaimed French zombie series. You’re soon firmly in the land of the living. If the electronic interjections in Simon Ferocious sound overbearing, this might be because it is also happens to be the name which Freddie Mercury imperiously gave to Sid Vicious when he bumped into him in the studio in 1977.

What Mogwai continue to do well is to make opposing musical forces work. Repelish offers up a sweet melody set against someone complaining about hidden satanic messages in Led Zeppelin records. No Medicine For Regret takes a beautiful little keyboard figure and tosses it into the middle of a storm of scourging guitar noise. The Lord is Out of Control the hymn like closing track is very moving and bordering on ethereal.  

By the end of the album you will find that the Scottish post-rock quintet has created an immersive microclimate to fill your head space, and it lingers too. Ultimately, Rave Tapes is another great Mogwai album.

Rave Tapes will be released on CD, LP and DL on January 20, 2014, on Rock Action (UK and Europe) and Sub Pop (North America).