Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

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Way of the gun

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I wrote this in 2005, following the suicide of Hunter S Thompson, for Black+White magazine – a culture and ents guide in Liverpool I ran with Che Burnley and Ben Hau.

While B+W is still online, it’s crumbling into little bits so I thought I’d dig this article out and give it a wider audience. It’s six years to the day since Thompson concluded his odyssey.

Way of the Gun

Hunter S Thompson: Remembering the brutal odyssey of an outlaw journalist

The news that gonzo head honcho Hunter S. Thompson passed away last month, having shot himself in the head was not as surprising as it would if have been if the suicide in question had been, say, Barry Cryer. Thompson had reportedly gone into a decline following recent injuries and the reelection of George W Bush.

The manner of Thomspon’s death was wholly in keeping with the life he had led in recent years; as a virtual recluse in his fortified Aspen ‘compound’, where he amused himself firing guns, tending peacocks and spiking journalists’ drinks with psychedelic drugs. Indeed, in his sole meeting with Thompson – to discuss the proposed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… adaptation, which he was originally slated to direct – filmmaker Alex Cox remembers a “rude and fearful man.”

“He squandered his talent early (on two good books, Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and thereafter wrote little, and even less of consequence,” Cox told me.

“He was evidence that drugs, particularly alcohol, really do work their magic on people,” adds Cox.

There can’t be much doubt that the combined effects of narcotics and alcohol abuse took its toll on Thompson’s mind and creativity over the years, but to overlook the body of work, and his impact on American literature would be a mistake. It sometimes seems as if the myth of HST the personality overshadows the talent evident in much of his work, and the popular image of Thompson as a dangerous space-cadet belies a varied and multi-layered canon.

Like Norman Mailer, with whom he shared a love of guns, booze and boxing, Thompson aspired to be a modern-day Hemingway – who also went to the great beyond courtesy of a self-inflicted gunshot wound – forever in pursuit of a new Great American Novel which was to remain elusive, although alongside the books Cox highlights The Rum Diary is a neglected gem.

Thompson is more associated with ‘gonzo’ journalism, rather than the novel, as his chosen form; a heady brew of anecdote, reportage and invective, and perfect for railing against the corruption and self-satisfaction of America, then and now. Thompson’s style was pretty much unheard of in the 60s as he made his name, and writers like Tom Wolfe and Mailer helped to develop what was termed ‘The New Journalism’, before the more recognisable moniker ‘gonzo’.

His works are, perhaps, not as much political, though they may superficially appear so, but more concerned with rather more abstract notions; good and evil, doom and destiny, loathing and self-loathing. Some of his best work is inspired by pure rage, whether it’s directed at editors who’ve stiffed him out of money; associates or enemies for some perceived slight; or his arch-nemesis Richard Nixon. His work driven primarily by spleen venting is often his funniest too – an overlooked facet of Thompson’s personality is that he was a very funny man, whether in attack or biting self-deprecation.

Thompson was also a ferocious letter-writer and his collected letters, published in several volumes, detail the development of raw young talent and raging ego to drug-addled hack to reclusive nut. There’s a fascinating portrait of Americana in these collections, from the great explosion of civil disobedience and civil rights legislation to Vietnam and the political fallout, through to Nixon’s demise and the new American Dream of the 80s.

Thompson’s legacy is especially important in today’s journalistic mire, where the American media is locked into a love affair with itself, The White House, and all things American. And in an United States where Dubya Bush can stroll to a second term, the need for Hunter Thompson is clearer than ever; an attack dog for the left, for the alternative community at a time when the conservative attack dogs in Washington or the Fox news offices or a hundred neo-Con blogs are in the ascendancy.

Thompson had apparently requested that his ashes be fired across his Colorado ranch “shot out of an upside-down, sculpted mushroom perched on a 150-foot-high, double-thumbed fist”. There’s a pleasing resonance to that.

Hunter S Thompson reading list:

The Rum Diary
Hell’s Angels
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume 1
Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist

Written by Robin Brown

February 20th, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Books,People

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Bret Hart, Hitman and Wrestling with Shadows

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I’ve just finished reading Bret Hart’s autobiography, Hitman, a book that examines Hart’s life in wrestling from the early days in Calgary, through his WWF heydays, Montreal screwjob and beyond.

Although it’s a book that’s framed by wrestling, and its many tragedies and delights, it’s primarily about Hart’s quite incredible life and the characters that populate it. I’d recommend it to anyone.

A multi-time WWF champ and widely considered one of the best of all time, Hart lives a successful and generally happy life until the late 90s. From that point on it seems to be one bona fide tragedy after another.

Bret’s suffering is almost Promethean, with a litany of deaths or cripplings of close families and friends, the failure of his marriage, his stroke and the destruction of his sporting legacy hitting him in rapid succession.

It’s hard not to put most of them down to the life of a wrestler, forever pained, lonely and exploited.

On top of the vagaries of the wrestling business are his unhappy home life, his treacherous and jealous siblings – 11 in total – and complicated relationship with his father.

Bret does his best to look after everyone, allowing numerous members of his family to ride his coat-tails, but is repaid with knives in the back and a grimly mounting body count.

Hart strikes a genuinely tragic figure, but a likeable and admirable one, and the insight into the minds of the vicious and ill-fated Tom ‘Dynamite Kid’ Billington (whose own book is painfully and unpleasantly honest), slippery Vince McMahon, and just about every big- and little-name wrestler over the last 30 years is fascinating.

If there’s one conceivable criticism, it’s that Hart can have a tendency to see things in black and white – something that becomes evident in Wrestling With Shadows, and something that makes him incompatible with the Attitude era WWF – but it’s hard to be tough on the man.

Hart is too sensitive a soul for the knockabout world of professional wrestling that developed in the WWF in the late 90′s, and his bafflement at what he sees places him squarely as a good man out of time, adrift in vulgarity, ultraviolence, moral relativism and dishonour.

• The National Film Board of Canada has made Wrestling With Shadows available for free online and embeddable too, so you can watch it below.

A modern-day moral parable, the film is shot by a crew that follows Bret around for several months prior to his departure from the WWF to WCW.

Luckily for them, they happen to catch the blow-by-blow backstage account of the Montreal Screwjob including, happily, the aftermath of Hart knocking Vince out cold.

• Watch Wrestling With Shadows below

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows by Paul Jay, National Film Board of Canada

Written by Robin Brown

May 11th, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Thoughts on the death of JG Ballard

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“…the mystery of multi-storey car parks…the poetry of abandoned hotels”

“In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom”

Ballard exhibition

Ballard exhibition

I was sad to hear of the death of JG Ballard, certainly one of my favourite authors, if not the favourite. In fact, oddly, I’d only just dusted down a previously-lost copy of High Rise when I heard of the rumours of his death on Twitter.

Since Ballard himself described his early life – framed by hardship and tragedy – in Empire of the Sun and his dalliances with booze and drugs, odd fascinations and exotic lifestyle are well documented, there doesn’t seem to be any point in repeating them here.

Suffice to say the one thing I found most fascinating about Ballard was that he lived most of his adult life in Shepperton.

Despite the fact that the London suburb seems like the apotheosis of suburban boredom, Ballard was well-travelled, well-versed and seemingly experienced in all aspects of life.

His devotion to, and fascination with, Shepperton seems to me to be indicative of Ballard’s peculiar talent to see the everyday in a way completely at odds to others.

The dull descriptions of Ballard’s work as science-fiction or ‘cult’, which the BBC has bafflingly decided to label Ballard’s canon, don’t really get to the nub of what made Ballard tick.

Environmental and apocalyptic disaster, surrealistic dreamscapes and societal collapse certainly form the basis of much of Ballard’s early work, but he increasingly turned towards thrillers that were really concerned with psychopathology and society through a prism of uniquely Ballardian murder mysteries.

His latter realist works, including Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come concentrate on people struggling to come to terms with technology, architecture and a civilised society that counterpoint unconscious base desires and instincts.

All of Ballard’s work is intriguing, challenging and unsettling. His worldview has given rise to the adjective Ballardian, generally used to describe dystopia and recently used by myself to refer to Liverpool One, the city’s new inner-city retail and leisure complex.

With Ballard gone, I wonder who else there is to describe our everyday lives and society with the same weird, unsettling insight as that of JGB.

• There’s an entire website devoted to Ballard, his work and that inspired by the man at Ballardian.com and another at JG Ballard.

• Image by conde_erlette via Creative Commons from the exhibition JG Ballard: Autopsy of the New Millennium.

Written by Robin Brown

April 19th, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Posted in Books,People

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