17 writers on poker: He Played for His Wife and Other Stories

11 Dec

he-played-for-his-wife-and-other-stories-9781471162299_hrThere can’t be many poker players, at least of a certain age, who haven’t read Anthony Holden’s 2002 classic Big Deal: One Year as a Professional Poker Player. It’s a rare pleasure to read about poker from one who is not merely a skilled player, but a skilled writer, too. At least I thought it was rare, until I went to the recent launch evening for He Played for his Wife and Other Stories at the Hippodrome Casino.

The book, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, features a preface by Al Alvarez and stories by 17 different writers – all of them good, some of them great. One is Barny Boatman, who was at the launch. I told him I hadn’t realised he was a writer as well as a player, and that I’d greatly enjoyed his story, a character study of a born loser with a supernatural twist, which had just been serialised in Bluff magazine.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ve written quite a few things, actually. This one took me bloody ages. I rewrote it and rewrote it. So I’m glad it hit the spot. Someone did change a couple of words, but…” Barny smiled. Anyone who’s seen him play will know he wouldn’t fold easily. “…I got it changed back again.”

Anthony Holden sadly could not be at the Hippodrome launch, for health reasons. But there was a bevy of poker-playing actors, including Neil Pearson (who contributed a story), Dougie Henshall and the wildly entertaining Naoko Mori, as well as the playwright Patrick Marber.

I have some history with Marber – he was Time Out’s columnist for a while when I was Editor, so we reminisced about that rather than poker. But it was poker that put him on the road to success that would take him to Hollywood and an Oscar nomination: his first play, which opened at the National Theatre in 1995 and won an Evening Standard award, was Dealer’s Choice, the second part of which takes place entirely around a poker table. Marber’s slice-of-life story in the book, The Old Card Room, is a paean to a vanished era of poker where men with nicknames like The Doc or The Chauffeur played in smoky back rooms and the chosen game was seven-card stud rather than Hold ‘Em.

There are so many strong stories in He Played for his Wife… that it feels invidious to pick out any individual ones. Nevertheless, I did particularly love David Flusfeder’s Heads Up, which imagines a game of heads-up poker in which the antes never go up, between two players so evenly matched that they end up playing forever; a sinister high-stakes story by Michael Curtis, author of one of my favourite poker books, The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King; and Jennifer Tilly’s Once More Into the Abyss!, which, as the title suggests, is clear-eyed and mildly self-loathing about the dark side of the game.

But the real high-wire writing comes from D.B.C. Pierre in Five Tables. Take this on how he got hooked on poker as a kid, in a family home game:

“Then the table sloughed its salt and pepper and cloth to become a vortex, a court of miracles where the laws of maths spun dust-devils through our hands. I didn’t know at the time how unlikely it is in the history of the world that a deck of cards has ever shuffled into the same order twice, nor how remote the chance is that it ever will; but you could feel the maths swirling. It was a voltage. And there was violence in it.”

After rather too many drinks at the launch to be thinking straight, we all played a tournament, organised by Shelley Rubenstein, who contributes another of the better stories in the book. Shelley’s not afraid to think big. Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe”, but in Shelley’s story, He does play poker.

Who won the tournament? I know only that my Aces got cracked by 10-J and I took my leave early. My fault for trying to be too clever: with the blinds high, I let the button in by flat-calling Natalie Galustian’s raise. I figured she and everyone behind me would fold to a 3-bet as I’d been playing tight; also I’d need two players’ chips to stand a chance of winning the tournament. The flop, naturally, had a 10 and a Jack in it to give the button a lucky two pair. Ah, that court of miracles, that violent vortex of maths.

He Played for his Wife and Other Stories, edited by Anthony Holden and Natalie Galustian, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99

Advertisements

Christmas cheers: a night of Music for Mental Wealth

9 Dec
Coffeepot Drive

Lady Oracle and the angelic guitarists of Coffeepot Drive

“That wasn’t at all what I expected,” said a posh-voiced suit as he exited St Paul’s in Covent Garden, after the Actors’ Church had been shaken to the rafters by a mighty gospel-voiced singer named Lady Oracle and her rock band that included two guitarists with angel wings. He hated it, I thought. He only came for the heavenly a capella carol singing which kicked off the evening by Stelle Cadente, composed of members of the London Philharmonic Choir. But he went on: “It was absolutely fantastic. An amazing evening.”

This was “A Celebration of Christmas and Music”, in aid of Music for Mental Wealth and Nordoff Robbins. As the founder of Soundcheque (see previous blog) as well as of Music for Mental Wealth, Laura Westcott knows a thing or two about talent-spotting, and she came up trumps this time.  There were dizzying arpeggios from classical-crossover pianist GéNIA; a very modern take on the traditional Irish harp from the flame-haired Lisa Canny, who played a blinding version of Ed Sheeran’s You Need Me, I Don’t Need You; and the aforementioned finale by Lady Oracle and her band Coffeepot Drive, where they topped their own songs with the best cover ever of Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody.

Joe Slater

Singer/songwriter Joe Slater, up from Liverpool for the Music for Mental Wealth benefit at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden

But fantastic as they were, the real discovery of the night was young singer/songwriter Joe Slater, down for the night from Liverpool, who received a spontaneous and unanimous standing ovation. Ye Gods, that’s a talent. Even the brand-new song he tried out, Wasting Away, was brilliant. The songs have tunes as anthemic as Oasis, his voice is powerful, with high notes in the range, a rock ‘n’ roll rasp on command, and real heart. He’s all there. The complete package. The real deal. To all record label scouts: go see. Go sign.

And of course the night was one in aid of good causes. Laura Westcott herself battled with anxiety and stage fright as a music graduate, which made her courage in singing and reciting a self-composed poem as moving as the verse itself. As was the guitarist in Coffeepot Drive, who spoke of depression and suicide in his musician family, with a broad smile to hide the tears.

Christmas is indeed a time for giving, and not just iffy socks to distant family members who have more than enough already. If you’d like to make a donation, go to www.musicformentalwealth.com.

 

 

 

Raiders of the Lost Art: the singular MuBild exhibition of Frith Powell

2 Nov
FP painting

“Playing Field of a Circular Argument”, by Frith Powell

I saw two art exhibitions at the weekend: the magnificent collection of 50 Cézanne portraits and self-portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, and an astonishing retrospective of the work of Oxford-based artist Frith Powell.

Cézanne was termed “the father of us all” by Matisse and Picasso, yet he was at first ridiculed by art critics and achieved recognition only later in life. Though he first submitted work to the Paris Salon in 1863, the first (and last) of his paintings was not accepted until 19 years later.

It made me wonder how many great artists are currently hiding in plain sight, unheralded by their contemporaries.

Later this weekend, I got my answer. One, at least, is living in Oxford.

Stepping into the Barn Gallery at St John’s College, one feels something akin to what those Victorian explorers hacking through the jungle must have felt when the undergrowth suddenly gave way to a lost civilisation. Frith Powell’s major exhibition, “The MuBild of Arte Normale and the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, is not just an extraordinary body of work, previously unseen. It feels like a whole new lost branch of art.

DSC_0638

“MuBild” translates as “nothing art”: “Mu” being Japanese for “nothing”, with “Bild” German for “art”. The term “Arte Normale” stems from a meeting in the ‘90s between the artist and Time Out’s then Art Editor, Sarah Kent, which in fact I helped engineer. Frith Powell says that Sarah looked at his paintings nonplussed, saying that this was not “normal abstraction”.

Indeed it’s not. This “nothing art” is like nothing else. It’s an attempt to make abstraction real: to give symbols and figures from Frith Powell’s id solidity and form, in an alternative language whose rules and syntax seem all clearly thought out but are tantalisingly not quite divinable to the outsider. The connection is made overt with a horned symbol that recurs in many paintings, but which Frith Powell has also given physical form in white marble. The sculpture is exquisite, a thing of beauty and mystery, alternately suggesting devil’s horns, a crown, or a plucked tooth.

Frith Powell himself says that “the essential challenge for me, as an abstract painter, is in creating what could be called a ‘fiction of reality’, something that looks as though it might be real, at first sight, or is at least highly suggestive of reality, but on closer examination is seen to be unrecognisable. Other.”

FP Beckley view

“View from the Common Road, Beckley” by Frith Powell

Though the paintings vary in style and medium, having been created over several decades, the whole is astonishingly coherent. Only one work stands out like a sore thumb: “View from the Common Road, Beckley” is a detailed landscape in pen and ink, the perspective perfectly proportioned, the trees just right. One wonders if it is included as a definitive rebuke to the uncharitable viewer who might be wondering whether Frith Powell chooses abstraction only because he lacks the technical skill for representation.

And this is just one half of the exhibition. The other is “The Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, which is a collection of sculptures and objects housed in glass display cabinets. The fact that this exhibition is just five minutes’ walk from Oxford’s ethnographic Pitt Rivers Museum gives it extra piquancy. These objects are like the artefacts of some lost tribe – some functional, some religious, some sexually charged.

FP woodland deities

“Woodland Deities”, by Frith Powell

The anime director Hayao Miyazaki would appreciate the series of “Woodland Deities” carved from funguses in the remote forests of Northern Scandinavia, or the twisted branches that have been turned into fantastical flutes, or the faces found in or struck from pebbles. Conversely, Frith Powell (or rather his craftsman alter-ego, Fabio Penitenti) has returned civilisation to nature with three acorns that, if you look closely, were carved from Champagne corks, or spiralling Christmas trees fashioned from tin lids.

Also striking (and very funny; much of the exhibition is playful and raises a smile) are a gigantic spoon carved from a massive block of wood, that has a strong whiff of Christian iconography; and the “Poet’s bird feeder hat”, with bird seed stored in its brim for anyone wanting to play St Francis of Assissi for the day.

DSC_0631

Part of the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti

In the interests of journalistic balance, I must declare an interest: I was at Oxford with Frith Powell’s wife Louise, also an artist, and have known the couple, on and off, for three decades. But I have seen only the odd piece until now. If I hadn’t been impressed, I would have written nothing. It is as a critic, not a friend, that I say this is an exceptional body of work, all the more astonishing for having been hidden from the light for so many years – Frith Powell is now 70.

Will art critics make the trek to Oxford? Are any editors still interested in unearthing fresh talent rather than chasing the clicks of the more established names? Perhaps not. But take my word for it. If you are in Oxford between now and November 16, do visit the Barn Gallery at St John’s College.

Remember that even Cézanne was once unknown.

RIP Adam “Batman” West: my 1988 interview in full

11 Jun
Batman image

RIP Adam “Batman” West: do not go gentle into that Dark Knight. Art by Frank Miller, DC Comics.

Pressure of work means I have put this blog on the back burner, but I had to mark the death of Adam West. Batman was my first obsession, at the age of 4. It was surreal to meet the man himself for one of the first features I ever wrote for Time Out.

He was affable, courteous, funny, self-aware, but also with a strong hint of steel and a particularly nice take on how he would do a Dark Knight movie. I’d forgotten, till I re-read this, that I’d also taken him proofs of the forthcoming Alan Moore/Brian Bolland Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke to comment on. This was the feature as printed in 1988:

HAVING DEVOTED half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I describe to him the contents of Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when “Batman” folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, fuck it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did “The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood”!’

MODEST THOUGH he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on ‘Night Network’ and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, ‘Return of the Dark Knight’. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

AH, THE Batman movie. Ever since ‘Dark Knight’ appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to ‘Batman’, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of ‘Return of the Dark Knight’, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of ‘The Killing Joke’, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo “Wild Bunch”. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!

BUT WEST isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: ‘Doing Time On Planet Earth’, an off-the-wall comedy; ‘Mad About You’, a romantic comedy; and ‘Return Fire’, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called ‘Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run’. West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of ‘Dark Knight’ nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Man From UNCLE’. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the ‘Dark Knight’ era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’

 

Smell my crystal balls: which nominees will take the Oscars

24 Jan
la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1

The magic of movies: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La-La Land

I saw La-La-Land a few months ago at a press screening, and I’ve never been more sure of an Oscars blitzkrieg than for this gossamer confection. It flatters the ageing voters of the Academy by recalling a bygone age of Hollywood musical glamour, but brings enough modern cynicism to make it seem brand-new. There were times, I kid you not, I wept just for the sheer beauty of the composition and colour scheme, let alone in sympathy when Emma Stone’s saucer-sized peepers filled with tears.

And so it’s proved: it received 14 nominations today, matched only by All About Eve and Titanic. Some friends of mine have remained unmoved by the film. No accounting for taste. I’m longing to see it again.

So what other films may get a look-in at the Oscars? Just get a whiff of my crystal balls:

Best Picture. La-La Land. Duh. Not even after Brexit and Trump can I believe that this safest of sure bets will be overturned, though both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea have passionate fan bases (and I also very much liked Arrival, though it’s hard to love it).

Directing. Damien Chazelle for La-La-Land. His previous film, Whiplash, was nominated for Best Picture, though he himself missed out on being the youngest nominee for Best Director. He will make up for it by being the youngest winner, at (gulp) 32.

Leading Actor. Not La-La-Land, for once. Ryan Gosling was perfectly Goslingy, but never reached that extra gear that Oscar demands. Casey Affleck is the contender to beat for Manchester on Sea.

Leading actress. When I saw Arrival, at an early preview, I thought Amy Adams good enough to win it. Then I saw La-La-Land and, sorry Amy, that statuette is Emma Stone’s. Which suits me, since when I reviewed Easy A for The Times back in 2010 I went out on a limb to predict she’d become a huge star. But then last weekend I saw Jackie. Natalie Portman is EXTRAORDINARY. She disappears into the part completely. And as the only thing Hollywood loves to reward more in an actor than excessive weight loss/gain or disability is the impersonation of a famous figure, she has a chance of upsetting the La-La-Land bandwagon. Still won’t, though.

Supporting Actor. I’d like Jeff Bridges to win for his subtle, elegiac performance as the ageing marshall in Hell or High Water. But then Moonlight hasn’t come out in the UK yet, and they tell me Mahershala Ali may well take it. Fair enough. He was good in House of Cards, and it would be a pleasure to see an antidote to #OscarsSoWhite.

Supporting Actress. Viola Davis is tipped to take this for Fences. Again, the damn thing’s not out yet, so I cannot possibly comment.

… And then La-La-Land will sweep many of the smaller awards, too, especially cinematography, production design and song. It can’t possibly win Best Documentary, however! I’d like that to go Ava DuVernay’s 13th, one of the best docs I’ve seen in ages, available to view now on Netflix.

George Michael’s Time Out outing

26 Dec
george-michael

George Michael. RIP

As a little George Michael footnote, I believe Time Out was the first mag to “out” George Michael, back in the early ‘90s. One of our journalists was in a taxi, and the driver said to them: “I had that George Michael in the back of my cab last week, and he was really cut up, going on about how he thought he was gay but didn’t know what to do about it.”

This was floated to me as a story for the “Sidelines” news/gossip pages. I went over several considerations before printing:

  1. Was it true? The journalist swore that the taxi conversation took place; that they believed the taxi driver; and that the driver had no vested interest in telling an untruth. It was also plausible: stories had been circulating.
  2. Was it libellous? Jason Donovan had just successfully sued The Face for saying he was gay, but the damages were not for the allegation, but for implying he was a liar – Donovan having previously denied it. There was no test case that it was libellous in itself to call someone gay. On the other hand, legal action was possible: George Michael’s management sued Time Out in the late ‘80s for reneging on a promise (by a previous editor) to put him on the cover – which is why we no longer ever guaranteed covers even to the likes of Bowie or Prince.
  3. Was it likely to cause needless harm to George Michael? Hard to know. I wasn’t a fan of the Peter Tatchell-style forced “outing” that was then in vogue – it seemed to me to be doing The Mail’s dirty work for them. At the same time, a small Sideline seemed to me a gentle push, a testing of the water for George, a controlled experiment: I didn’t think it likely to cause him damage, more to make it easier for him to come out if he was inclined to do so.

So we published. It was a small story, a “quite interesting”, not a big headline. I doubt it made a huge impact. But many years later, in 1998, when George Michael was caught propositioning an undercover police officer in an LA public lavatory, he was confident enough to “own” the resultant scandal. His riposte to the shock-horror tabloid headlines was to come out whole-heartedly, even filming a music video for Outside in a glitterball disco urinal.

As ex-Time Out music critic Peter Paphides writes in his superb appreciation of the recently deceased star, “it might have been the coolest thing any pop star did in the 1990s”.

Different times. Is Tom Daley less loved by the public for being gay? Is Sam Smith? To quote that great philosopher, Shrek: “Better out than in, I always say.” Or, in George Michael’s own greatest words: “Guilty feet have got no rhythm.”

It’s hard for young folk today to remember that, just 20 years ago, being openly gay was considered career suicide. And it’s pioneers such as George Michael they have to thank for the change.

 

Why Rogue One is more historical drama than sci-fi – and all the better for it

18 Dec
rogue-one-international2jpg-f9a2d0_1280w

Felicity Jones leads the way in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story

Director Gareth Edwards has said he wants Rogue One: a Star Wars Story to be considered a heist movie as much as science-fiction. Actually, it occurred to me it was more like a historical drama.

Of course all the events in Star Wars do play out in the past, relative to our Earth (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). But Rogue One, unlike The Force Awakens, is also set in 1977 – or rather, whatever vision of an alternative world George Lucas was able to come up with in 1977, which is always dictated by the times. Look at any sci-fi film, and despite the attempts of futurity, you can always tell exactly when it was made. Lucas’s genius was to make his world pre-distressed, so that it seemed relatively ageless  but you’re still aware of the hydraulic whirrs on the machinery, the primitive (by now) recording systems that lie at the heart of Rogue One’s plot, the minimalist colour schemes that (like in Logan’s Run and Lucas’s own THX 1138) passed for futuristic in the ‘70s.

Edwards has recreated this world meticulously, so that it slots in seamlessly with the original trilogy. But just as BBC historical dramas sometimes get straitened and stifled by their corsets, there was always a danger he would follow the template too slavishly, to give us the Star Wars formula with none of the fun.

Instead, it’s a minor triumph. Rogue One is funny, exciting, moving, brilliantly acted, with plenty of surprises, and very much Gareth Edwards’ own.