Total Pageviews

Sunday 27 September 2020

LIFE in Lockdown: Hemingway and Extra Slow Snail Mail

For we Australians, the Dangerous Summer quite possibly still lies ahead. Things have been bad enough as it is. And Covid-19 isolation is all the more excruciating when one is cooped up without a decent magazine to read. We subscribe to The New Yorker and Britain’s Literary Review. Subscriptions work out a lot less expensive than waiting to buy copies at the newsagent’s, and by rights magazines such as these should arrive by mail two to three weeks ahead of them reaching the stands. But rights went out the window when Australia Post laid off staff and, with the pandemic, parcels started to pile up. One estimate has 2½ million items still waiting to be delivered.

Our mags are now starting to slowly trickle in. But earlier this month, in desperation, I went back to my extensive magazine stockpile, and dragged out a copy of LIFE from precisely 60 years ago. It was the issue of September 5, 1960, with a smiling Ernest Hemingway on the cover and the first instalment of Hemingway’s bullfighting epic The Dangerous Summer inside.

LIFE said “we’re all lucky – we’re welcoming an old friend and contributor back … It has been eight years since Hemingway produced a major work [The Old Man and the Sea, which won him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1954. This had appeared in LIFE on September 1, 1952, and two million copies of the magazine sold in two days].”  LIFE commissioned The Dangerous Summer in the middle of 1959 (on September 7, 1959, it published a 10-page picture spread from Larry Burrows and James Burke of mano a mano fights Hemingway covered.) Hemingway left Cuba for Spain via New York on July 25, 1959, and returned to New York at the end of October. LIFE originally asked for 5000 words and promised payment of $30,000 ($53.60 a word in today’s money). But Hemingway produced 108,746 words on 688 typed pages. His friends A.E. Hotchner and LIFE’s Paris bureau chief William J. Lang helped Hemingway trim down the piece and by March they had pruned it to 63,562 words. LIFE published 35,000 words in three instalments. Even then, one Virginian reader described The Dangerous Summer as “elephantine pirouetting”, “self-conscious cuteness” and a “blizzard of tortured verbiage”.

Hemingway's handwritten manuscript was later typed, usually by his wife Mary.

Hemingway’s words had first appeared in LIFE on July 12, 1937, in captions on a series of images from the Spanish Civil War.

Other than the 24 pages LIFE devoted to Hemingway, the September 5, 1960, issue covered many other interesting topics: letters about votes for women, a full-page tribute to the great songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II, who had died in August 23, a colour ad for a Smith-Corona Galaxie portable typewriter, Sirimavo Bandaranaike becoming the prime minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and thus the world’s first female prime minister (she eventually served three terms over 40 years), Princess Ira von Fürstenberg and her marriage at age 15 to Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg  (he was 31) and her relationship with Francisco “Baby” Pignatari, a Brazilian industrialist eight years older than Alfonso, and a couple of creepy young TV extras. I was also intrigued by the double page ad for a Bell System earth satellite network.

My favourite item, however, was this one about the guy who jumped the fence before the Opening Ceremony at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and ran 200 metres to the finish line. I’d done much the same thing before the opening of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, except in my case the stands were still empty and I didn’t manage a 200m sprint, just a gentle jog to the line.

Saturday 26 September 2020

What a Wonderful World With Typewriters

‘Man, I'm a two-fingered blip on my portable typewriter.’

- Louis Armstrong to a radio interviewer.

In January 1952 US newspapers headlined the story, “That Satchmo Saga – Literary Field Is Invaded by Famed Trumpet Player”. Louis Armstrong’s road manager Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie had announced in Spokane, Washington, that Armstrong was writing his life story, again. “Armstrong does most of his writing after his playing engagements,” the newspapers reported. “often working at his typewriter until 6 or 7am.”

       That Armstrong took a Remington 5 portable typewriter with him on the road was already well known. Regina, Saskatchewan Leader-Post columnist Kathleen Kritzwiser noted in her “KMK” review of Satchmo’s performance at the Regina Armoury in June 1951, “In a 15-minute interval [Armstrong] sat down at his typewriter and in between interruptions to autograph anything from a pie-plate to a torn tab of paper, he typed away at a letter.”

       This had been Armstrong’s standard practice for the best part of the previous 29 years, though not that long on his Remington 5. In Giovanni Russonello’s New York Times article about the Louis Armstrong House Museum in November 2018, Russonello said “When Armstrong joined King Oliver’s famed band, he brought along a typewriter.”  That would date Armstrong’s typewriter use back to 1922, when he moved to Chicago at Joe Oliver’s invitation to join Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. There is in his archives, indeed, a typed letter to Isidore Barbarin, written in Chicago in September 1922. If Armstrong did own a portable typewriter back then, it was more likely to be a Corona 3, a three-bank Underwood or a relatively new Remington (or, dare I say it, a Blickensderfer or Folding Standard). But, then, considering Armstrong’s remarkable life, anything seems possible. (We know for certain that in later life, Armstrong used a Smith-Corona portable, which was appropriate – from 1943 he lived in Corona, Queens.)

         Baltimore’s The Afro-American newspaper reported in May 1946, “Louis showed the Afro a big joke book he always carries around with him, in which he types jokes told him by theatrical people … For this purpose, he also hauls around a portable typewriter. ‘This is a lot of fun. I’ve been doing it for years as a hobby,’ he said.” In May 1950 Jack Gaver of United Press wrote from New York in The Pittsburgh Press, “When Louis Armstrong isn’t on the stage of the Roxy Theatre blowing his trumpet and singing [in] that wonderful style of his, you’ll find him in his dressing room pecking away at his typewriter … Louis writes in the same racy style he uses when he speaks and this is as distinctive as his manner of singing. He wants no part of ghost writers.”

By the time of his death in his sleep at Corona, on July 6, 1971, aged 69, Armstrong had accumulated a body of writing which included two books, dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, 10,000 letters (mostly to fans) and a sizable cache of unpublished autobiographical manuscripts, most of which made their way into the Armstrong Archives at Queens College. He published an autobiography, Swing That Music, in 1936, and another, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, in 1954. He typed enough lengthy jokes to fill an entire book. As well, in 1969-70, Armstrong wrote a 77-page essay about his relationship with the Karnofskys, a Jewish family in New Orleans. When he was seven, he worked as a servant in their house, and they recognized his musical talent early, advancing him a small amount of money to buy his first cornet. The essay is included in a posthumous book, Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, by Thomas Brothers (1999).

Friday 25 September 2020

‘The Bruce Who Walks’: When The Phantom Came to Australia (and Diana Palmer was an Aussie)

Jim Blair at his Underwood 5 at The Bulletin in Sydney.
Tarcoola is a goldrush ghost town named after a racehorse. It sits in hot desert air in the Far North of South Australia and is a junction for both the Ghan and Indian Pacific passenger trains, the first of which links Adelaide with Darwin through the Red Centre and the other the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean across the Nullabor Plain. Today Tarcoola’s population is the same as Bangalla’s – a big fat zero.
Lee Falk at his typewriter

Tarcoola is where the noted Australian journalist and author James Beaton Graham Blair spent his earliest years. Bangalla is where The Ghost Who Walks spent his earliest years, in the Skull Cave in the Deep Woods. It was Jim Blair who, as editor of The Australian Woman’s Mirror, introduced The Phantom to an appreciative Australian audience of 170,000-plus Mirror subscribers on September 1, 1936. That was a little more than six months after Lee Falk’s classic comic strip first appeared in the United States. The first instalment run by Blair was retouched for Australian readers, with Diana Palmer returning “home” to Sydney Harbour (what on earth was she doing in Clarksville USA when she first met Kit Walker at age eight?). Diana encounters “The Singh Brotherhood” before she even steps foot back on Sydney soil.

       Over the past 84 years, Australians have come to love The Phantom more than any other nationality of comic strip readers. The Phantom had immediate appeal here. He was the first comics character to fight crime while wearing a distinctive skintight costume and hiding his true identity behind a mask (which shows no pupils). He has no ridiculous superhuman powers – Aussies don’t care so much for that fanciful sort of stuff. And in many ways The Phantom is Ned Kelly-ish, pistol-wielding, justice-fighting, head covering and all. You could go through the motions of hanging him, but like Kelly he won’t go away. He’s immortal, The Man Who Cannot Die.

       Russell Marks, a criminal defence lawyer and academic at La Trobe University, touched on this in 2013 when he wrote, “Of course The Phantom is not an Australian character, but it’s surprising how many people think he is. The Phantom is Australia’s favourite comic hero, regularly out-selling the flashier, glossier Batman, Superman and Spiderman by as much as 10-to-one … The Phantom’s anger is never uncontrolled, always appropriate. More often he is impossibly calm, even ‘laid back’, even during fist-fights. Do Australians like to see themselves in The Phantom where Americans can’t? Australians may recognise the not-quite-human stoicism at the heart of The Phantom’s character. Life’s vicissitudes do not bother him. He simply acts to make the situation right again, or adjusts to the new reality. He is practical, no-nonsense, fiercely egalitarian, just, honest, wry, quick-witted, unflappable, solitary, courageous, loyal and even shy with women. Long-time Phans invoke the character’s famous dry humour with a kind of pride. If Australians like the Phantom, perhaps it is because we recognise in him our national character, our Australian Legend.”

       Jim Blair (1903-1991) would seem an unlikely candidate to be Australia’s first 'Phan'. Born in Port Augusta, he was the grandson of South Australia’s longest serving telegraphist, Jim Beatton, who had worked for the post office from cadet in 1855 to postmaster in 1905. Jim Blair went to Woodville District High School, worked for the Adelaide Steamship Company and studied part-time at the University of Adelaide. His first profession was as an accountant but he had begun writing at university. Blair had humorous short stories published by John Webb in The Bulletin in Sydney in 1933 and the next year moved to Sydney to join Webb’s staff. The Bulletin’s stablemate The Australian Woman’s Mirror had been launched in 1924. In 1933 a serious rival appeared in the form of The Australian Women’s Weekly, and in December 1934 the Packer publication started to serialise Falk’s first comic strip, "Mandrake the Magician".  When Jim Blair was appointed editor of the Mirror in July 1936, he quickly responded to the Weekly’s challenge by signing on The Phantom. Blair scored another world-first with a Phantom comic book in May 1938.

        Frank Packer bought The Bulletin in November 1960 and closed the Woman’s Mirror the next year, moving The Phantom to Everybody’s Magazine, where he remained for six years. Blair bailed from The Bulletin once the Packers took it over. Blair who had served in New Guinea during World War II, rejoined The Bulletin on his return to Sydney and worked mostly as deputy editor under David Adams during the period 1946-1961.

       It would be hard to imagine family man Blair as one of Australia’s earliest pulp fiction writers, yet some the titles and covers of his collections might suggest otherwise. In 1941 came Miss Pennycuick’s Nightie and in 1954 Pardon My Intrusion, the latter with a cover that would have made Carter Brown blush. The contents, however, were of a much milder nature.

         As for The Phantom in Australia, he eventually ended up in the hands of a former sports writer called Jim Shepherd (above, 1933-2013), a man whose inventive and bedazzlingly haphazard approach to recording real sports history made him ideally qualified to create Phantom fiction. After taking over Frew Publications in Sydney in late 1989, Shepherd himself later wrote some Phantom scripts, illustrated by Keith Chatto, including one (“The Kings Cross Connection” in 1992) in which The Ghost Who Walks walked into the office of Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke right here in Canberra. Shepherd was confident Hawke wouldn’t complain about being dragged into the storyline - Hawke was this country’s highest-ranked Phan (or Phantophile, as The Sydney Morning Herald described Kit Walker’s army of devotees).

          The SMH dubbed Walker’s first arrival here* in 1989 (in “Wuluti's Secret”, below) as “The Bruce Who Walks”, describing it as a culture shock as historic as Mick Dundee visiting New York City. The Phantom landed in Darwin on a Qantas flight. That story was actually commissioned by the Swedish Phantom publishers Team Fantomen, written by Englishman Norman Worder and drawn by Spaniard Carlos Cruz. Shepherd had to brush a few things up when he discovered there was a koala in a gum tree in the Red Centre, and that Kit Walker had walked from the New South Wales coast to Uluru (1765 miles). (*Apart from being reworked into the first story back in 1936.)

       On September 9, 1948, Frew Publications produced its first Phantom comic book, Enter The Phantom. Frew had gained an agreement through Yaffa Syndicate (established as Newspaper News by David Yaffa in 1925), the Australian representatives for Hearst's King Feature Syndicate, The Phantom’s original US publisher. The arrangements included Frew being prevented from publishing stories that were still running, or had just ended, in the Blair’s Australian Women’s Mirror.

Sunday 20 September 2020

FuNkOmaTiC Typewriter in Dum Dumville

Once the pandemic is completely under control – at least in this part of the world – I’m looking forward to receiving word that New Zealand screenwriter and film director Taika Watiti is planning a Covid-19 craziness movie, based in Dum Dum. Yes, there IS such a place, woven into the Tweed of New South Wales and appropriately situated between Mount Warning and Stokers Siding. More to the point, one passes through Dum Dum on the road from Nimbin, the dope capital of Australia. What’s more, it could be said (as I once found to my cost) to be on a steep downward slope to Mullumbimby, where some years ago the infamous FuNkOMaTiC portable typewriter ended up. Mullumbimby is nowadays the heartland of our counterculture and 5G conspiracy theorists. So all in all, Dum Dum is just the spot to set a Watiti movie, one with the working title of How the FuNkOMaTiC Spread 5G and Killed the World. It’ll be a must-see.

Taika Watiti is, of course, ideally suited to the task of making a Coronavirus-conspiracy theories spoof movie, if he can fit it in around The Mandalorian and plans for a live action film adaptation of the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk Akira. Watiti has already produced such great works as the Zombie flick What We Do in the Shadows (with Watiti, above, as Viago Von Dorna Schmarten Scheden Heimburg [né von Blitzenberg], aged 379, above), Jojo Rabbit and that masterpiece, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on a novel by Barry Crumb (below). Equally, Watiti’s co-Kiwi Rhys Darby, of Flight of the Conchords fame, would be a must for a starring role, having appeared in both What We Do in the Shadows (as a werewolf) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. In particular, we would have to have Darby reprise his role as Psycho Sam in the Wilderpeople movie, complete with his aluminium colander hat to keep what’s left of his brain free from infiltration, and his belief the Earth beyond the bush to be a globe full of “form-fillers”. Darby, don’t forget, also proved his credentials for extreme creepiness as Guy Mann the lizard-man in the X-Files season 10 third episode Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. And oh, Darby will play the FuNkOMaTiC typist, given his real-life background as an army Morse-code operator. I think you’ll agree this whole project will fit together perfectly.

Above, Barry Crumb typing one of his novels on an Olivetti Lettera 32, and below, Sam Neill and Julian Dennison in colander protection hats provided by Psycho Sam in Wilderpeople, and Rhys Darby as the lizard-man in the X-Files.

Watiti’s starting point for his script should be my April 2013 blog post “Kinky Friedman and the FuNkOMaTiC Typewriter”, which was in a way an explanation for the mysterious disappearance of the FuNkOMaTiC in Mullumbimby, based on Friedman’s book Kill Two Birds & Get Stoned (a title in part borrowed from that fabulously weird Irish writer Flann O’Brien). Kill Two Birds is about Walter Snow, the author of The Rise and Fall of Nothing At All and like O’Brien an alcoholic. Snow is snowed under with writer’s block while trying to finish the “Great Armenian Novel” on a typewriter. His creativity is numbed by “wacky tobaccy known as Malabimbi Madness”. For Malabimbi, read, obviously, Mullumbimby. If you think this is all getting a bit far-fetched, bear in mind the “rumors about US-funded bioresearch laboratories in Armenia being part of a Coronavirus disinformation campaign launched by Russian media”. And that Armenia is going to take its 5G from Huawei. Everything fits, right?

Mullumbimby plays a vital part in the movie, and not just because of the FuNkOMaTiC mystery. Already, much to its eternal shame, dubbed the “anti-vaccine capital” of Australia, Mullumbimby seriously bumps the figures in the staggering estimate that one in eight Australians are stupid enough to think 5G spreads Coronavirus. The idiots also think 5G causes cancer and affects the immune system, and that we’re in danger of a “soup of electrosmog”. Psycho Sam, how are you with your aluminium colander? But where does the FuNkOMaTiC fit in? Well, it turns out that conspiracy theorists believe the irrational fears of the people of Mullumbimby began just after August 2012, at about the time the FuNkOMaTiC arrived there. Which might explain why, seven months later, I could find neither hide nor hair of it in the town.  And why, just a few months ago, when Covid-19 was exacerbating unfounded fears about 5G in Mullumbimby, I received a very strange (unpublished) comment on my blog about the whereabouts of the FuNkOMaTiC.

No doubt there are some readers out there who don’t know about the FuNkOMaTiC, or of its peculiar powers. So let me just repeat some of its claims when sold on eBay. “FuNkY, Atomic, Retro. The funkiest, most atomic typewriter ever made! … Earthy, Original and Modish; Unconventional and Bizarre. It’s Outlandishly Vulgar and Eccentric … And Atomic in this context?: EXTREMELY cool, one step up from tubular … And retro? Folks, this is retro with an “r”, an “e”, a “t”, another “r” and an “o”: Yes, that’s right: R – e – t – r – o! This is a one-of-a-kind FuNkY atomic typewriter … Just look at those colours – Geiger counter Green! Violent Violet! Mushroom Cloud Orange! Wow!!! These are such FuNkiLY strong colours they could blow a hole in the Ozone Layer. These FuNkY atomic colours are so strong they could withstand an A-Bomb blast! Now that's Atomic! Wow upon wow! It’s a unique, one-of-a-kind FuNkOMaTiC!”

       Not convinced about any of this? Just remember Nakajima ALL sold the rights of the FuNkOMaTiC to China. Yes, now it all makes sense. No?