Saturday, November 22, 2014

A barrage of blows

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, Nov. 22-23, 2014

What can you say about Molly Meldrum that hasn’t already been said, less eloquently, by the man himself? Not much, was always the answer. Now, with the appearance of his genially candid and self-deprecating autobiography, Molly has put even more of himself out there than was out already. Like its author, the book is impossible to dislike. Showbiz is rife with people who claim not to take themselves seriously but really do. Molly really doesn’t. In a celebrity memoirist – in a memoirist of any stripe – this is a rare quality. 

The book, we are told, has been in the works since 1979, and has passed through the hands of several ghost writers along the way. No doubt that’s why it feels a bit all over the place structurally. It jumps around in time a lot. Molly’s narrative is constantly being interrupted by quotations, of varying relevance, from other industry figures. (“I will never forget the encouraging smile of Molly,” Plastic Bertrand breaks in to inform us at one point.) Important things are mentioned only once or twice. We hear very little about the head injury that nearly killed the author in late 2011. His childhood is skimped. His mother appears in the index only once, which is one less time than Wa Wa Nee. 

Then again, who would want to read a straight-faced autobiography of Molly Meldrum? Skimming over the stuff about short pants and personal demons, Molly gives us the full scoop on the Countdown years. Few readers will be disappointed by this emphasis. The book is rich with behind-the-scenes lore and gore. Elton John chucks a tanty, not unreasonably, when Molly implies that Hall & Oates are a superior live act. The guy from The Human League, suffering from toothache, throws a Cherry Ripe at a fan in the ABC canteen. Iggy Pop terrifies a studio full of schoolgirls by ramming a mike down his already thoroughly occupied trousers. 

Come to think of it, that last incident did not occur behind the scenes. It happened in the full gaze of the Countdown cameras. So did a lot of other surreal and spontaneous things. That was the charm of Molly’s show: the songs may have been mimed, but the action had a potential for chaos that was well worth tuning in for. 

Considering his verbal abilities, it comes as small surprise to learn that Molly was never meant to be Countdown’s host. He was hired to be its talent co-ordinator. He landed in front of the camera by accident, and accident became the keynote of his career. The audience seemed to like his naturalness, not to say his incompetence. His signature method of endorsing product – “do yourself a favour” – evolved as a sly way of getting around the ABC’s strict ban on advertising.

Mind you, he uttered that catchphrase when holding up many a dud piece of wax. His enthusiasm, at times, seemed so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. But Molly has heard this complaint before. He’s heard a lot of complaints before. To prove it, he generously repeats, in the pages of this book, some of the harshest things his detractors have ever said about him. A magazine writer alleges that Molly has “no obvious talent.” The late guitarist Lobby Loyde calls Countdown “the death of music … definite Satan land … a shit show … the beginning of the fucking end.” 

It’s a measure of Molly’s sheer good humour that he will quote such stuff in his own memoir. He offers some persuasive comebacks, too. Did he like pretty much everything he played? Yes, but he only had an hour to fill each week. Why fill it with stuff he didn’t care for? Did Countdown put the emphasis on pop, if not pap? Yes, but the show was aimed at kids. If you could get youngsters into the lightweight stuff, Molly felt, there was a fair chance they’d get into the better stuff later on. That is surely a valid point. Taste matures. The thing to acquire early on is passion.

As a poster-boy for that, Molly was the always right choice. He’s been a man of immoderate enthusiasms since his youth. During the Beatles’ tour of 1964 he contracted an alarming case of Beatlemania. At one of their Festival Hall shows, just before Paul launched into “Long Tall Sally,” Molly went so ape that security had to throw him out. A couple of years later, his beloved St Kilda won their first and only premiership flag. Molly was there, but he wasn’t conscious. He had fainted a minute before the final siren. 

If Molly wasn’t Molly, one would take that anecdote with a grain of salt. But we know, from years of video evidence, that the guy doesn’t do things by halves. Consider his notorious train-wreck of an interview with Prince Charles, which took place in 1977. Molly was an ardent Royalist. Moreover, the occasion required him to memorise a Palace-approved script, and memorisation had never been his bag. As a consequence, he got nervous. Not just nervous, but cartoon nervous. He looked like the world’s hammiest actor portraying the quality of nervousness in a game of charades. 

Molly’s written account of this incident makes you wish he were as good at evoking disasters as he was at causing them. We’re told that he breached protocol by referring to the Prince’s “mum.” “Prince Charles corrected me: ‘You mean Her Majesty The Queen.’” This, Molly seems to think, was a big deal. But we have to take his word for it, because he forgets, a bit crucially, to tell us what tone of voice Charles corrected him in. Was the Prince outraged, or more amused than annoyed? Or was he not annoyed at all? Is Molly playing up the exchange to make it seem worse than it really was? It’s hard to tell. Sometimes detail is everything. Without it, a world-class anecdote can fall flat. 

Molly isn’t always so deaf to the eloquent detail. Writing about his childhood, he recalls, touchingly, that he liked going to a friend’s house because the friend had AktaVite, which Molly’s family couldn’t afford. That is the sort of particular that brings you closer to a writer. Unfortunately Molly tends to shelve his relish for specifics when talking about his encounters with the famous. “A highlight for me was getting to talk with one of my heroes, The Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin.” Yes, but what did you talk about? The White Album? The weather? If Molly can remember, he doesn’t let on. Sir George’s cameo ends there, as if the presence of the big name is interesting in itself. No doubt it was, if you were there. 

Jeff Jenkins, Molly’s officially credited ghost, must have faced a dilemma when hammering Molly’s reminiscences into shape. Clearly, he couldn’t knock off too many rough edges, or add pertinence at every turn. Prose Molly still had to sound like the real Molly, within reason. And on the whole he does. He tells his stories the way he tells them on TV: with gusto, but with a tendency, like Shakespeare’s Kent, to mar a curious tale in telling it. 

This is a recurrent feature of celeb literature, and indeed of life in general. The people to whom the most interesting things happen are rarely the same people who know how to tell a good story. Most of us, if we got into a fistfight with Johnny Rotten, would memorise the encounter in incredible detail. We would hone it into our premier anecdote; we would burnish it with each telling. Molly, who really does claim to have gone toe-to-toe with Rotten, describes the moment in disappointingly vague terms. “I unleashed a barrage of blows on Rotten.” Okay, but what was Rotten doing? Screaming? Bleeding? Fighting back? There is an art to making unlikely things sound as if they really happened. 

But odd stuff happens to Molly so often that he doesn’t seem to realise how odd it is. It has been a big and improbable life. His enthusiasm and his large-heartedness seem improbable too, so over-the-top that they can’t possibly be real. But they are, and they make you forgive him for shortcomings you’d deplore if he was anybody else. Okay, so he’s a bit of a name-dropper. He has a weakness for pranks, double entendres, and other less advanced forms of humour. He enjoys the company of people who quip that they have never turned right when boarding an aeroplane. 

Why are we inclined to give Molly a free pass on these things? Is it love? Yes, why not admit it? It would be unpatriotic not to love the guy. He takes some of the better elements of the national character – lack of pretension, a love of simple pleasures – and cranks them up to eleven. He’s not a genius, but he’s never claimed to be. He’s never claimed to be anything he’s not. He started being affably unsecretive about his sexuality – “I’m bisexual,” he confirms at one point – in an era when that could be career suicide. If it isn’t any more, that’s largely because of the bravery of people like him. He’s part of the family. We grew up with him. If he’s never entirely grown up himself, who would want it any other way?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Writing is Hell

The Paris Review Interviews: Volume 4, Canongate

Describe your reading practice. Did you read this book sitting up or lying down?

I prefer to read at the end of the day, semi-recumbently.

You read on a bed?

Or a couch, yes.

Do you use a tri pillow?

Generally not. I prefer the organic feel of multiple stacked pillows. It feels less artificial to me. There’s a kind of primitiveness in it that aids the reading process.

Do you hold the book in both hands?

No. I use my left hand to grip the spine, generally at the book’s base. I use my left thumb for stabilisation, letting the tip of it splay rightward to within a millimetre or two of the text itself. This keeps my right hand free to turn the pages, which I prefer to do from the bottom corner. 

Do you have any reading rituals? Paul Valéry used to adjust his gonads while reading. Joyce Carol Oates likes to get some “sounds” going on the stereo.

I do like to have a bit of a “feed bag” going. Kool Fruits, chips – anything small.  

Can you describe the contents of this book?

It contains sixteen interviews conducted by the Paris Review. The subjects are all writers. Some of the interviews have been dug out from deep in the magazine’s archives, while some were done as recently as 2008. So we get long-dead figures like Ezra Pound alongside writers so contemporary that I bet you’ve never heard of them. 

Let’s talk about some of the interviews. How did you approach the interview with Maya Angelou?

Gingerly, having noted that it was prefaced by a draft of Angelou’s ode to Oprah Winfrey.

And what about the interview itself?

On its first page I encountered the following two sentences, spoken by Ms Angelou: “I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy – it’s serious business.” At this point I used the fingertips of my right hand to locate the terminal page of the interview. Then, bringing my wrist into play, I swept the intervening “chunk” of pages briskly from right to left.   

You’re a skipper?

When provoked.

Let’s talk about some of the other interviewees. Marianne Moore, E. B. White, John Ashbery, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, David Grossman, Marilynne Robinson … Why did you cough nervously just then?

Er …

Dear God. You’ve never read any of these people’s work, have you?

But you should see all the other books I’ve read.

You’re a monster.

I’d prefer to say that the people interviewed in this book constitute a veritable laundry list of writers I’ve never read or wanted to read. I have, however, read a few of the people in here. 

Such as?

P. G. Wodehouse. William Styron. Philip Roth. Paul Auster.

What did you make of the Auster interview?

You may recall that I’m not all that keen on Auster’s work. As a result, I’ve never particularly wanted to be told how many drafts the man does, or at what point he switches from the quadrille notebook to the Olympia typewriter. It’s like reading the dietary secrets of someone you secretly consider to be a bit flabby. It’s like reading how many press-ups Kevin Rudd does each morning.

What about the Philip Roth interview?

The Roth interview dates from 1984, and I first read it a long time ago. As a young writer I was deeply encouraged to learn that even people like Roth have to struggle hard to get things written. “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive,” Roth says. One of the general messages of the Paris Review interviews is that even the best writers find writing a wickedly hard business. This may be why a lot of reviewers like and recommend these compilation volumes. Reviewers are writers too, and these books can make a writer feel less alone. Whether they’re of similar interest to the general reader I’m not sure. 

I’m sensing you have some reservations about this book.

Yes. There’s an American-ness about it that I was frequently irritated by. Remember that the Paris Review is largely an American operation, in spite of its name. Its interview compilations are disproportionately stacked with American writers, of massively discrepant worth. Volume Two of this series gave a guernsey to Stephen King, for example.

Would you care to fashion this into a whopping generalisation?

I’ll try. Americans venerate their writers, as they venerate their stars in any field. In a way this is healthier than the Anglo-Australian tendency to reward excellence with open scorn. But lack of scepticism has its hazards. Americans can be too ready to accord shamanic or oracular status to any person who writes for a living, irrespective of the merits of the work. During certain interviews in this book, you find yourself wishing that at least one of the parties involved had been born with a sense of irony. The fifty-page interview with Jack Kerouac is a hefty example. By the end of it Kerouac is either drunk or else in an unusually rambling mood even by his standards. Yet everything he says or does is faithfully transcribed, regardless of its fatuity. He picks up a harmonica, he plays the piano, he knocks the microphone off the stool.

You don’t believe that getting drunk all the time can play a vital role in the creative process?

No, but some of these interviews come from an era when that idea was in the air. William Styron, interviewed in Paris in 1954, reveals that he gets drunk every night, sleeps in late every morning, and writes in the afternoons with a hangover – which all sounds very manly and Hemingwayesque. But read Styron’s much later memoir Darkness Visible to find out what happened to his mind when he tried to stop drinking. It’s one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read.

So what interviews did you like?

The one with Stephen Sondheim is a standout. When someone as illuminating as Sondheim is talking, the Paris Review’s readiness to listen at length is invaluable. Sondheim is fascinatingly specific about the nuts and bolts of songwriting: how hard it is to find rhymes for the word “life”; why the 1943 Roget’s thesaurus is preferable to all other editions. He is a superb demystifier. “Art is craft,” he says, “not inspiration.” P. G. Wodehouse has some similarly tradesmanlike things to say about the mechanics of plot construction. As a rule, these interviews are at their most instructive when their subjects are talking about points of technique. When, on the other hand, the interviewees are encouraged to riff on metaphysical questions, the results seem to me far less compelling.


Yes. At its worst this book has a whiff of piety about it. I don’t just mean that the interviewers can be unduly reverent about the people they’re interviewing. I mean that some of the writers in these pages are encouraged to air, without a hint of reticence or modesty, the details of their not very remarkable religious convictions. This too seems a very American transaction. 

You’re talking about Maya Angelou?

Not just her. Marilynne Robinson also has some very boring things to say about the nature of her faith. Not content to leave it at that, she takes a rather banal swipe at the New Atheists. She accuses Richard Dawkins of being “naïve” about contemporary science; she ludicrously implies that he, Dawkins, might not be entirely aware of the latest developments in quantum physics; and she leaves it to be inferred that these developments might somehow lend weight to her own belief in the Gospels. These are the kind of feeble arguments you’d expect to hear from an incensed person of faith giving Dawkins a one-star roasting on Amazon. A serious writer who wants to put a dent in Dawkins’s arguments should really address them properly – i.e. write about them at length. Robinson, looking to trounce him with a couple of specious one-liners, inadvertently demonstrates the limits of the interview form. Speech is a crude instrument, and beyond a certain point it will no longer do: you begin to need writing to do justice to the complexity of things. Maybe that’s why writers are moved to start writing in the first place – because off-the-cuff speech has become inadequate to their needs.  

Does that mean that you’ll be running out to buy some of Marilynne Robinson’s books?

I didn’t say that.

A final question. Faulkner has said of writers, “All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection.” Would you put yourself in this category?


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Still the King

Singer Elvis Presley performing in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1977, three months before
Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 16-17, 2014 

Today is the 37th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. He was only 42 when he died, so pretty soon he will have been dead for longer than he was alive. Already he has receded so far from living memory that it’s become hard to talk sense about him. That doesn’t mean, of course, that people have stopped talking about him altogether. Quite the reverse. The fog of chatter that envelops him keeps getting thicker. The man can hardly be discerned through the haze of impersonations, pop allusions, Warhol prints, “sightings”, mash-ups, remixes. 

Do we need to talk about him more? Yes, provided we can find a way of slicing through all that image-related static and reminding ourselves that there was a real human being behind it. We have become strangely callous on the subject of Elvis. For a man who brought a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and whose worst sins were committed against his own body, he certainly cops a lot of posthumous stick. We joke cynically about fat Elvis, Vegas Elvis, dead-on-the-can-with-a-cheeseburger Elvis. What other man in history has taken so much flak for letting himself go? 

Perhaps we cling to the clichés to shield ourselves from the magnitude of his tragedy. Here was a perfectly healthy man who reduced himself to a bed-wetting zombie, and finally a corpse, by taking pills he never needed to take. He started with uppers, thinking them a harmless way to stay energised and trim. When they played havoc with his sleep he started taking downers too. Finally he was on a complex cocktail that rendered him variously narcoleptic, insomniac, constipated and incontinent. Between doses he had to be roused from bed like a child and led to the toilet by a member of his entourage. He couldn’t be left alone while eating, lest he should doze off and choke to death in the middle of a mouthful. 

All this is sad enough before we factor in the man’s talent, which was seismic. If Elvis wasn’t the most charismatic performer in the history of popular music, who was? Of course he had his limitations, especially when we judge him from the wrong angle – retrospectively, according to standards of rock credibility that didn’t prevail when he was alive. He didn’t write his own stuff, for example. He wasted a lot of time making disposable movies: the critic Pauline Kael said his films “ranged from mediocre to putrid.” He conspicuously wasn’t his own boss. He let his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, make all his career decisions for him, and they invariably prioritised cash over quality. But put Elvis behind a mike, especially on stage, and he had powers that could blow all these quibbles off the table. 

Dylan Jones, editor of the British version of GQ magazine, has written a book about Elvis whose title Elvis Has Left the Building – provides fair warning about the nature of the author’s interests. Elvis is as absent from this book as he is present in it. What Jones mainly wants to talk about is Elvis’s posthumous resonance – which, you might think, has been talked about quite enough already. But as the reader of this book will rapidly discover, Jones has no aversion to saying things you can’t possibly not have heard before. “For many, Vegas Elvis was already Dead Elvis.” “In truth he was actually the first fake Elvis.” “The cult of Elvis is rather closer to a religion than anyone previously imagined.” Surely we don’t need to hear these platitudes one more time, unless Jones proposes to pursue or question them. For the most part he doesn’t. His book has a restless, endlessly digressive texture that repels second thoughts. He keeps using Elvis as a springboard to talk about other things. 

Admittedly Jones knows a lot of tenuously Elvis-related stuff. He knows that the lead singer of the Troggs renamed himself Reg Presley in Elvis’s honour. That is mildly interesting, but does it mean we need a two-paragraph transcript of the Troggs swearing at each other in a music studio? Probably not, but Jones provides one anyway. We are informed, moreover, that Paul McCartney was in the habit of referring to Reg Presley as Reg Trogg. By now the link back to Elvis verges on non-existent, although Jones would no doubt prefer us to think of it as playfully tangential. 

With Elvis, there is a genuine mystery to be probed. What exactly was the nature of his magnetism? What was the thing he had that nobody before or since has come close to having? Unfortunately Jones is more interested in Elvis’s image than in the talents that caused him to acquire an image in the first place. Only in his last and best chapter, where he provides an astute run-down of his fifty favourite Elvis recordings, does Jones make a sustained effort to transfer his attention from the sizzle to the steak. Until then he is mainly content to circle Elvis in an archly post-modern way – or an irritatingly surface-obsessed way, depending on your taste. A couple of times he departs from reality altogether, and indulges in bizarre prose-poem fantasies about things that never happened but can nonetheless be imagined. What if Elvis had lived long enough to embrace disco? What if he’d let his image turn all dark and edgy? That one goes on for nine pages. 

Jones’s central theme, which he frequently strays from, is the relationship between Elvis and punk. The month in which Elvis died, says Jones, was also “the month of punk’s apotheosis.” This nexus was not accidental. Punk rockers were in revolt against excess and pomp, and the later Elvis was nothing if not over the top. Jones, who grew up with punk, approves of both it and Elvis, and would like to believe the two things were not wholly antithetical. He reports that Joe Strummer of the Clash was once photographed wearing an Elvis T-shirt. More pertinently, he reminds us that the font on the cover of London Calling was a “deliberate homage” to the design of Elvis’s first LP. 

But Elvis can’t be reconciled with punk for long, especially once you start talking about that genre's more zealously horrible practitioners. “He came to represent everything we’re trying to react against,” said Johnny Rotten in 1977. “Elvis was dead before he died, and his gut was so big it cast a shadow over rock’n’roll in the last few years. Our music is what’s important now.” 

At moments like this we must choose sides, and Rotten makes the choice fairly easy. If we hesitate even slightly before making it, it can’t be because the Sex Pistols’ oeuvre makes us think twice about Elvis’s. It must be because punk’s rather yobbish value system, which puts “authenticity” ahead of things like showmanship and being able to sing well, remains to some extent in fashion. Jones, to his credit, doesn’t over-rate punk as strenuously as a lot of aging rock critics do. He pokes fun at its childish obsession with street cred. He points out that Strummer, the “son of a diplomat,” strategically roughened his posh accent until he sounded as if “he’d been brought up in the docks.” 

But when push comes to shove, Jones is more comfortable being sceptical about Elvis than about punk. Thus we are told that Elvis’s concerts, by 1977, had “become tragic-comic spectacles” at which the decrepit King did little more than “milk his crowd like a prize fighter.” The implication is that the fans who turned up to see the later Elvis were deluding themselves, while the youths who jammed into fetid English clubs in order to be spat on by louts who could barely play their instruments were on to something vital. This view is open to question, to say the least. But Jones doesn’t question it very far, because he can’t bring himself to be fully heretical about punk. 

“Fuckin’ good riddance to bad rubbish,” said Johnny Rotten, when invited to comment on Presley’s death. There is more in that than a rejection of Vegas-style excess. There is outright nihilism: the resentment of the pygmy for the giant. This spirit culminates in Sid Vicious’s sociopathic cover version of “My Way”, in which one hears the tones not merely of the cretin but of the vandal. Jones quotes the Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, as saying that punk succeeded because it “made ugliness beautiful.” But nothing can do that, because beauty is not merely a matter of style. All punk did was make repulsiveness fashionable, for a while. 

Elvis, on the other hand, had qualities that transcended fad and trend. For one thing he had charisma. It’s a hard quality to define, but roughly speaking it’s the opposite of the force that emanated from Sid Vicious. Nor is it irrelevant to observe that Elvis was a ludicrously good-looking man. The fact is plain, even to a straight male. Nothing could negate or conceal it, not even the ridiculous capes and flares and jumpsuits he chose to swathe himself in towards the end. Beauty isn’t fair or just, and you can see why the punks revolted against the very concept of it. But no amount of revisionist theorizing will ever make Johnny Rotten, let alone Sid Vicious, as acceptable to look at as the young Elvis. If ever there was an empty signifier in rock, it was Vicious: devoid of any quality except nastiness, he got famous only because vileness was temporarily in style. 

If Jones had pursued his promising theme to the hilt, he might have concluded that Elvis, whatever the punks managed to throw at him, had a nuke-sized weapon in his arsenal that rendered him untouchable, indeed immortal. He had talent, which really is a thing. You can’t watch Elvis in action and doubt that. And while Elvis had quite a lot of it, the Pistols had some but not much. If Jones had tried to compile a top-fifty list of their songs, how far would he have got? After two quite similar-sounding numbers he’d have been noisily scraping the bottom of the barrel – or the charred surface of the empty pan in which they made their flash. 

Elvis was an inordinately gifted man. You can either resent him for that or surrender to the tractor beam. Watch him perform: it’s almost impossible not to like him, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan. He got his whole personality into the way he sang a song. This knack faded as he got older and sicker and less committed, but it never entirely went away. In June 1977, in the middle of his generally lamentable final tour, the King sat down at his piano and delivered an uncanny do-or-die rendition of “Unchained Melody.” The performance was filmed, and can be watched on YouTube. It’s a hauntingly human piece of footage. Peter Guralnick, in Careless Love, the second and final volume of his compelling Elvis biography, calls it a moment of “grotesque transcendence.” Elvis is only two months shy of death; it might not be going too far to say he’s dying already. But he’s putting everything he's got left into the song. You can see it in his melting face. He’s going for the big notes, and he’s hitting them. He’s nailing it, one last time. And as he does, something surreal happens. His younger face triumphantly reappears, surging forward through his fat-mask like a special effect. 

A lot of things about Elvis have deservedly gone out of style now – the jewel-encrusted jumpsuits, the use of Thus Spake Zarathustra as walk-on music, the way he turned off the TV by shooting it with a pistol. No doubt we should thank punk for accelerating the evolutionary process by which the King's late excesses have come to strike us as ridiculous. But after we sweep those inessentials aside, something about Elvis endures. Not just something: the main thing. The lingering spirit of punk would like us to feel awkward about calling this thing by its proper name, but there are times when we mustn’t be afraid to use the word greatness.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Vodka, coke, Keith, candour

The cover of Keith Richards’s new book.
Originally published in The Weekend Australian, July 5-6, 2014 

The front cover of Keith Richards on Keith Richards features a photograph of the great man taken circa 1990. In one of his gnarled hands a burnt-down cigarette smoulders perilously close to the knuckles, its silver fumes mingling seamlessly with the mushroom cloud of his hairdo. On the middle finger of the same hand reposes the skull ring he started wearing in the 1970s as a memento mori – his lone concession so far to the concept of death. The middle finger of his other hand is raised directly at the camera. But the veteran eyes twinkle, as if to assure you that he flips you off out of love. 

Keith is not averse to playing up to his fried image, or down to it, so that his persona has become a parody of a parody. He shambles, he croaks, he looks like Wile E. Coyote after an accident with some gunpowder. But Keith is an unusual star in many respects, and one of them is that he gets more interesting when you listen to him, not less. He is at his most engaging on the page, where his words are not obliged to pass through his ravaged face. His startlingly lucid Life, published in 2010, has a fair claim to being the best rock autobiography ever written. Now we have an anthology of his press encounters from the past fifty years, shrewdly selected by Sean Egan. If the Life proved that celebrity memoirs don’t have to be trivial and self-serving after all, provided their author isn’t, this new book pulls off the same trick with an even dodgier genre, the star interview. One had thought the form was dead by definition. Like a voodoo priest Keith brings it jiving back up from the grave. 

He achieves this by employing a method so simple that you wonder why nobody has thought of it before. When asked a question, he replies by saying exactly what he thinks. In the age of spin, such honesty is beyond unusual. It verges on the insane. These days everybody is in the good-PR business – even pop stars, or perhaps especially them. Granted, Justin Bieber will deface the odd public monument: but the act will be carefully designed to edgify the brand, and there will be plenty of minders on hand to stop the locals from giving him a richly merited beating. In Keith we have the authentic article: a man who has a mind of his own, invariably speaks it, and genuinely doesn’t give a shit what you think about him. Here is Keith on the importance of family: “I love my kids most of the time, and I love my wife most of the time. Music I love all the time.” Keith on why he refused to play at Bob Geldof’s Live8 concert for debt relief: “Decreasing debts? It all seemed a bit nebulous to me … I mean, Bob’s a nice bloke and all that, but ultimately he’s the one who comes off best, isn’t he?” Keith on a solo album of Mick Jagger’s called Goddess in the Doorway: “When [the newspapers] asked me about it, I said, ‘Oh, you mean Dogshit in the Hallway?’ … I heard it, and I thought, ‘Yeah, it is dogshit.’” 

Keith is at his least corrigible on the subject of Mick. During the 1980s, there were long periods when it appeared, both to the world and to Keith, that Mick would sooner develop his solo career than play with the Rolling Stones. Those days are now safely in the past: the Stones have recorded several albums since, and their roadshow will be back in Australia this October. But Keith’s wounds will plainly never heal. “I’m still his mate,” he wrote in one of the most touching passages of his Life. “But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.” 

No doubt Mick would say roughly the same thing about Keith, if he was into speaking his mind in public. But he isn’t. As if to prove that, the current book includes a solitary, brief, and excruciatingly pointless interview with Mick hailing from 2002, when he and Keith sat down (separately, of course) to plug the band’s forthcoming world tour. “I don’t do sniping,” Mick replies, twice, when invited to comment on his feud with Keith. 

Which is a fair enough response, although quite boring to read. As Mick speaks, he and Keith have officially put the nasty stuff behind them. Miraculously, the band is back together. Only a madman would revive the old quarrels now. Enter Keith. When the same journalist asks him why he publicly put down Mick’s latest solo record, Keith immortally replies: “Where else could you put it?” Well, you could always not put it anywhere, if you really didn’t want to. You could keep your more controversial opinions to yourself, à la Mick. But Keith does not do softcore. He can’t not speak his mind. 

Thus when he is asked, during the same interview, if he would care to re-air his grievances about Mick’s recent acceptance of a knighthood, Keith finds that he would. “Typical of Mick to break rank,” he says. Besides, “it’s a bit of a paltry honour, innit? If Phil Collins is a knight, then you should hang out for the fuckin’ peerage, man. Get a Lordship. They give knighthoods for covering a few Supremes songs.” 

Mick’s approach to getting interviewed is the orthodox one, by our woeful current standards. He turns up on time, he switches on the verbal autopilot, he sells what he’s there to sell. Every star does it – every star except Keith, who lurches into the room with his vodka and orangeade, if not his cocaine, and treats every interview as a festive occasion, an orgy of candour. If he declines to behave himself, it isn’t just because he’s drunk or high, although he usually is. It’s because he refuses, on an existential level, to accept that he is in the PR business. All he wanted to be was a musician, not a politician or a celebrity or a role model or a spokesman for a generation. That other stuff came later – and was undesirable. “You don’t shoulder any responsibilities when you pick up a guitar or sing a song, because it’s not a position of responsibility,” he insists, radically. 

This had better be true, considering what Keith is known to have swallowed, snorted, and injected into his buttocks over the years. Not many people, mind you, would look at him and conclude that heroin is good for you. Nevertheless, one reflexively waits for Keith to clear his throat and utter the obligatory cautions against repeating his mistakes. This is what stars are for, right? But Keith is Keith, so one waits in vain. “It’s a totally peripheral thing to me, and my own problem,” he declares. Or, more pointedly: “If they hadn’t come smashing through my front door no-one would’ve known what example I was setting! They made it public, not me.” 

Among their many merits, the interviews in this book serve as a sort of running cultural history. They cover fifty years, during which a lot of things have changed. Some of them were changed by the Stones. Their career began in the era when bands wore suits and ties and had their concerts drowned out by screaming teenyboppers. Very soon the times got a lot funkier, partly because the Stones did. In 1967 Keith and Mick were sentenced to prison terms for minor drug offences. Even The Times, newspaper of the British establishment, thought this punishment over the top. So did the appeals court. If it hadn’t, Keith would have spent a year behind bars for letting people smoke cannabis in his home. Society was loosening up. For a while it loosened up to the point of anarchy. In 1969, the Stones played their notorious free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, with the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels providing security in exchange for a tremendous amount of beer. Four babies were born at the show and four adults died at it, including a man who waved a pistol at an Angel and then got stabbed to death on camera. 

Things are far less heady now. Rock is no longer central to the culture. The last Stones song that everybody knows is “Start Me Up”, which came out in 1981. Arguably the band has recorded better songs since, but you could be forgiven for never having heard them on the radio, if indeed you still have one. Of the music magazines that still exist, none would now invite Keith to do a thirty-thousand word interview about the Zeitgeist, the way Rolling Stone did in the early 1970s. The nearer Keith’s interviews get to the present day, the more they tend to be pinned to the launch of some new product, or more likely a repackaged old one: an augmented Exile on Main Street, one more shameless compilation of greatest hits. 

Keith’s fight to keep rock uninfected by celebrity values was doomed from the start. But in his own corner he still fights it. He keeps things real, ironic, sceptical, English. He talks the kind of prose you can’t stop reading, because it has the irresistible tone of a thoughtful and funny man being as honest as he can be, memory permitting. On the guitar, he can sound like himself just by striking a few ragged chords. He has the same knack with language, which seems unfair. To find him entertaining, you don’t have to agree with everything he says. Indeed it would be a worry if you did. It would make you Keith, and there is only one of him. Long may he live. But he’s done that already, somehow. Even longer may he live, then.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Flying low

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, June 21-22, 2014 

Common sense suggests that a book about Flight MH370 produced so soon after the plane’s disappearance is unlikely to be any good. One fears, too, that anything less than a good book will be an exercise in bad taste. There are people for whom the mystery is also a tragedy, of a terribly ongoing kind. Their distress does not oblige writers to fall silent, of course, but it commands respect. If you’re going to write a book about this case, you’d better do a decent job. 

Into this daunting terrain saunters the Anglo-American writer Nigel Cawthorne. I admit I’d never heard of Cawthorne before I took delivery of this book, but how bad could he be? The back cover says nothing about him except that he is “prolific” – a slightly ominous way of describing a writer. On the web, the signs get more ominous still. It turns out that Cawthorne’s oeuvre, which is indeed uncommonly large, contains such titles as Amorous Antics of Old England and Sex Lives of the Famous Gays. 

Still, one was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. One stopped bothering around the middle of page three, where Cawthorne offers his shambolic first account of the moment when MH370 lost contact with the ground – the key moment, that is to say, of the whole affair. We know that the flight made its final radio transmission to Malaysian air traffic control at 1.19am. Cawthorne gets that part right. From there, things get a bit garbled: 

Around a minute later, the transponder that identifies the aircraft to air traffic control via ground radar was switched off. It was last seen on radar at 1.30am (17.30 GMT) 140 miles (225km) northeast of Kota Bharu, at the northern tip of Malaysia, around the point where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thailand. Then MH370 lost contact with Subang air traffic control one minute before it entered airspace controlled by Vietnam. 

We’d all be prolific, if we let ourselves write paragraphs like that. The alert reader will wonder, for starters, how the plane showed up on air-traffic radar at 1.30 if the transponder ceased functioning at 1.20. Is 1.30 a misprint for 1.20? Or is Cawthorne suddenly talking about a different kind of radar? If he is, it would have been nice of him to say so, if not mandatory. “Then MH370 lost contact with Subang air traffic control …” Does “then” mean after 1.30? Yes, if the word is understood in its time-honoured sense. But Cawthorne has already indicated that the plane “lost contact” at either 1.19 or 1.20, depending on how one interprets that typically imprecise phrase. Or are we supposed to conclude that Subang air traffic control, which Cawthorne hasn’t previously mentioned, is somehow a different entity from Malaysian air traffic control? 

The facts of this case are baffling enough by themselves. We don’t need sloppy prose adding to the confusion. Cawthorne writes so poorly that it is simply beyond his powers to construct a coherent account of the ten minutes that make the case so intriguing. The truth, which has been carefully established by more scrupulous minds than his, is that the plane was last tracked by air-traffic radar at 1.21am, at which point the transponder was, by definition, still working. Then, almost at the very moment the plane entered Vietnamese airspace, the transponder stopped functioning. To say that it was “switched off”, as Cawthorne repeatedly does, is to assume too much. Conceivably it was knocked out by a fire or malfunction. But certainly the timing raises the suspicion that somebody on board disabled it for sinister reasons. About ten minutes later the plane made a sharp left turn, close to a U-turn, and flew back over Malaysia. We know this because various military radars tracked its course over the next several hours. 

Cawthorne declines to give you all this information in one place. Remarkably, he is still straightening out the basics almost a hundred pages later. “It seems that, after [its] last transmission, the plane had veered off to the west,” he reveals on page 93, on the off chance anyone is still reading. At such moments you could be forgiven for thinking his book has no structure at all. In fact it has one, but it’s the most harebrained structure imaginable for this kind of book. Roughly speaking, Cawthorne winds the clock back to day one and retells the story from the beginning, providing you with only the information available at the time, even when that information has since proved to be wrong. Because it took a while for the world to learn the plane turned around, Cawthorne takes a while to confirm it. He seems to have drafted his book in real time, as events unfolded, without bothering to go back and correct the early stuff in light of later developments. No doubt this made the book easy to write, but it makes it horrible to read. 

Thus Cawthorne reports, on page three, that the flight’s final radio transmission to Malaysia consisted of the words “All right, good night.” We then hear about all the “speculation” that this “somewhat casual” sign-off sparked. Not until page 206 does Cawthorne get around to mentioning what the world has known for a good while now: nobody ever uttered that phrase in the first place. “Curiously, it was now revealed that whoever on Flight MH370 signed off that night, they did not use the casual ‘All right, good night’ that had at first aroused suspicion, but the more formal ‘Good Night Malaysian Three Seven Zero.’” 

Cawthorne is the Agatha Christie of non-fiction. He likes a good red herring. Before he’s cleared up that one, he throws out this one: “Adding to the mystery came news that the pilot’s sign-off, ‘All right, good night,’ came after the automatic transmission equipment had been disabled.” This troubling news was indeed delivered by the Malaysian prime minister on March 15. But like a lot of announcements made in those early days, it turned out to be incorrect. You’d think Cawthorne, if he’s going to regurgitate such sensational misinformation, would have the courtesy to tell you straight away that it’s untrue. But he doesn’t seem to think that’s his job. 

Over the past three months, the world’s better journalists have painstakingly sharpened our understanding of the MH370 story. In May, Four Corners did an exemplary job of crafting the established facts into a clear narrative. On Wikipedia, the collective mind maintains a thorough and ongoing summary of things as they stand, complete with footnotes. Cawthorne undoes everybody’s good work by retrieving every obsolete and discredited non-fact from the trash, slapping the whole lot between covers, and letting you puzzle out the truth for yourself. You might as well go out to your garage, dig out the last three months’ worth of newspapers, and re-read all the MH370 stories in chronological order. 

At least the newspaper stories were largely to the point. Cawthorne endlessly digresses about any historical plane disaster that bears a passing resemblance, if that, to the case of MH370. No doubt much of this information would seem pertinent, if delivered by a better writer. But Cawthorne has a passion for useless detail. He has an excruciating habit of providing distance data in both miles and kilometres, and sometimes in nautical miles as well, at moments when even one measurement would seem superfluous. “At that point,” he writes about a plane whose fate may or may not have prefigured that of MH370, “the aircraft’s ground speed was 107 knots (124 mph or 198 km/h), and it was descending at 10,912ft (3,326m) per minute …” The lay reader does not require this many numerals – and who is this book for, if not for the lay reader? What we need is a writer who will digest the technical stuff on our behalf, then give us a lucid picture of what’s going on at any given moment. 

Instead Cawthorne clogs his pages with a blizzard of irrelevant integers. He quotes all monetary values in both Pounds and US dollars. He gives you Greenwich Mean Time as well as local time. When a quoted source makes mention of a mobile phone, Cawthorne handily informs you, in brackets, that this is the same thing as a cellphone. He writes like a desperate student who will throw in any detail or anecdote to flesh out the word-length of an essay. Any man who can call the MH370 mystery an “enduring” one doesn’t care about what he says – he is just using words to fill up space. 

In the information age, only a small portion of the information we’re strafed with turns out to be accurate. On the 24-hour news channels we get the unedifying spectacle of the news in its half-formed state, as if we’re backstage at a sausage factory. It becomes hard to get a proper grip on what’s happened, because we’re too busy being told what’s happening now, right this minute. In America, CNN’s incessant and fevered coverage of the MH370 mystery became notorious for its fatuity. It reached its nadir when one anchor wondered aloud, on air, why nobody had seriously considered the possibility that the “supernatural power of God” was responsible for the whole thing. 

Cawthorne doesn’t throw that scrap of tripe into his information gumbo, but he throws in just about everything else. What is the point of writing a book if you’re just going to reproduce the hectic, slapdash, on-the-fly atmosphere of the worst kind of 24-hour news show? Ah, but the point of a book like this is to be out, to be there – to have an eye-catching cover and be present in the stores. Next time you’re in one, buy any book other than this. I guarantee you it won’t be worse.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Beyond the Pale

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, May 10-11, 2014

A few weeks ago I went to the beach, and needed something to read on the sand. It would have made professional sense to take along this new book about Ivan Milat, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to let the man's spectre desecrate the dunes. There are certain thoughts you don’t want to have while surrounded by sunlight, clean air, and happy young people. Milat is the man who, after murdering his victims, liked to reposition their bodies so as to put extra bullets into their skulls from different angles. Why would you want to read about that on a beach? 

Why indeed would you want to read about it anywhere? No doubt there is an element of voyeurism in our taste for true-crime books. But the genre can be reassuringly moral, too. The foul transgressions of a man like Milat remind you, in a roundabout way, that there really is such a thing as common decency after all. We know, of course, that these days it is no longer cool to trust our gut feelings about the existence of evil. We know that certain murderers had abusive childhoods, while others have political or religious grievances that we need to attend to. But crimes like Milat’s go so far beyond the pale that nobody sane can fail to call them monstrous. These days we can’t agree about much, but we can agree about that. Even Milat himself seems to understand this, in his primitive way. To this day he feebly protests that he was framed. Even he knows, at some level, that the things he did were unspeakable, and that nobody human would admit to doing them. 

So the Milat story is not entirely sordid. In the end, justice was done. Milat was identified and captured because members of the public, including a number of civic-minded petty criminals, inundated the police force with tips. He had his day in court, where his lawyers had their chance to insult the victims’ families with a laughable defence. And now he's in prison, where he spends his time either hunger-striking or swallowing razor blades, as part of an ongoing campaign to draw attention to his imagined innocence. 

Clive Small, the now-retired NSW police detective who headed the task force that brought Milat to justice, is these days a true-crime author. He has excellent qualifications to write about the Milat case, but whether the case needs to be written about again is another question. The Sins of the Brother, by Mark Whittaker and the late Les Kennedy, will surely never be surpassed as the definitive work about Milat. First published in 1998, the book was an impeccably researched and all-too-chilling evocation of the Milat milieu, and still ranks as one of the finest true-crime works ever written. 

In Whittaker and Kennedy’s book, Clive Small came across as a diligent and decent but rather bureaucratic figure. Small’s own book doesn’t do a lot to alter this image, and indeed doesn’t seek to. Small usefully reminds us that catching a killer like Milat, and assembling a brief of evidence that will firmly put him away, is nothing if not a bureaucratic operation. Fiction makes us want detectives who are intriguing as well as effective – we expect dark and brooding obsessives, possibly from Scandinavia, who possess near-psychic insight into the minds of their wicked nemeses. Small, less romantically, portrays himself as the leader of a hard-working team, an efficient delegator, a crack information manager. If Milat's crimes were a deranged exercise in passion run amok, the offender was found and taken down by the cool, patient, impassive work of collective reason. 

Small was appointed to head the investigation in 1993, after the bodies of missing young backpackers started turning up in the Belanglo State Forest, which lies just off the Hume Highway between Sydney and Canberra. When an organised search of the forest recovered further remains, bringing the total of victims to seven, Small publicly confirmed that he was looking for a serial killer. 

At that point the investigation entered a phase of laborious data-sifting. A public hotline generated thousands of leads, all of which had to be evaluated. Buried in that pile of information was the tip that would eventually give Small his breakthrough. A young Englishman named Paul Onions had phoned the hotline to report a terrifying encounter he’d had while hitching along the Hume Highway in 1990. Onions had been picked up by a man who called himself Bill. Near the Belanglo turnoff Bill had pulled over, reached under his seat, and produced a handgun and some rope. Wisely, Onions made an instant decision to flee. Dodging pistol-shots from his rear, he flagged down a passing car. Onions recalled that “Bill” had sported a Merv Hughes-style moustache – and poor Merv has been associated with the case ever since. 

The Onions evidence would prove vital, in time; and he would ultimately identify his assailant as Ivan Milat. But the significance of the "Bill" encounter only became clear after other leads implicating Milat had surfaced from the pile. One of Ivan’s brothers had raised the suspicions of his co-workers by making weirdly well-informed comments about the backpacker murders at work. Another brother had supplied police with a decidedly iffy-sounding witness statement. Finally, and decisively, investigators learned that Ivan had stood trial for abduction and rape back in 1971. He had been acquitted, somehow; but the crime had been all too real, and in retrospect it looked eerily like a dry run for the backpacker murderers. 

Small seemed to have his man, then. But really his job was only half done. Before arresting Milat, he had to ensure he would be convicted at trial – a trickier challenge than we now might think. At the Belanglo crime scenes, most of the biological evidence had long since degraded. Shell casings and bullets were recovered, but they would be useless as evidence unless police found the weapons that fired them. Small’s fear was that Milat, if tipped off to his imminent arrest, might ditch his guns and any other items that linked him to the crimes. In the end he didn’t, and the police recovered from Milat's home an immense trove of damning evidence, including clothes and cameras and sleeping bags that the killer had souvenired from his victims. As dangerous as it was to keep them, Milat couldn’t bear the thought of relinquishing his trophies. 

The point is important, because it gives us the biggest hint we have about Milat's motives. His crimes were about control. He had a high opinion of his personal worth, and proved his potency by subduing his innocent victims with the aid of rope, knives, and firearms. When they were dead, he defiled them posthumously by keeping and using their personal belongings, and giving some of them away as gifts. All of Milat’s known murders, Small points out, occurred just after he'd been abandoned by a sexual partner, or had otherwise lost the upper hand in his private life. 

Stressing Milat’s lust for power, Small rejects the hypothesis, first advanced by criminal profilers, that the murders were committed with the aid of a younger accomplice, possibly a family member. Ivan Milat, Small says, trusted nobody, certainly not to that extent. Small’s training compels him to avoid speculation and look to the evidence: and the fact remains that in every case where Milat left behind a living witness (the Paul Onions incident, the alleged 1971 rape, and a similar attempted abduction in 1977) he acted alone. 

Small’s old job, which he was unimpeachably good at, obliged him to keep his personal feelings under wraps. In his new job, which is to write about his old job, it wouldn't hurt him to show a bit more emotion. How did it feel, exactly, to be on the trail of a monster? Did Small lose sleep? Did he feel sick? Small is good on the hard facts, but his book is far skimpier when it comes to the personal stuff  the stuff that only he could have told us. 

He does, though, give us one scene that stands out for its vividness. Late in the book he describes a 2005 visit to the Goulburn Supermax prison, where he encounters the reduced figure of Milat. Grey-haired, stooped, scarred by the ravages of self-harm, Milat hails his old nemesis and utters a pro forma protestation of innocence. Small, with typical restraint, replies by giving Ivan a brief rundown of the evidence that makes a mockery of that claim. 

Here we have a reminder of what good and evil look like in the real world. The people who embody them aren’t as spectacular or as charismatic as we might imagine. They’re just people. Even in his dark heyday, Milat didn’t look like a monster, and didn’t even always behave like one. But he certainly did sometimes, and that was more than enough.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The man who couldn't stop

Most of us know the feeling, or think we do. We know what it’s like to go back for one last look at the gas burner we know isn’t on. Some of us, after filling the car, have a thing about double-checking the petrol cap. And who among us hasn’t wondered, just for a second, how it would feel to shout something offensive on a crowded street?

David Adam, author of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, does not reject the popular notion that we are all a bit OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he explains, begins with the kind of unwanted irrational thought that nearly all of us seem to have. But for most of us, such thoughts are fleeting rather than crippling. For most of us, one superfluous check of the stove will be enough. We can then forget about it and enjoy the rest of the evening. Imagine, though, not being able to forget about it. Imagine not being able to enjoy anything through the suffocating burden of the uninvited thought. “Imagine,” as Adam puts it, “that you can never turn it off.” That is OCD ... [read more]

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The True Hooha

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 8-9, 2014

On March 12, 2013, James Clapper, Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, appeared before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Asked whether America’s National Security Agency collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper responded: “No sir. Not wittingly.” This answer was unsurprising. If Clapper had said “yes”, he would have been admitting that his agency had conducted operations that violated the U.S. Constitution. 

 A 29-year-old NSA contractor named Edward Snowden was watching Clapper’s testimony with an especially keen eye. Snowden knew Clapper was lying; he knew the NSA had, in the decade since 9/11, vastly expanded its domestic data-gathering programs. Since December 2012, Snowden had been in touch with a Guardian columnist named Glenn Greenwald. Even as Clapper misled the Congress, Snowden was already stockpiling documents for the biggest intelligence spill since Bradley Manning’s WikiLeaks revelations. 

The Snowden Files, written by the Guardian journalist Luke Harding, reminds us that Snowden’s story is still a work in progress. His leaks are still being published, and the man himself remains in Russia, stuck in legal limbo. The drama remains tantalisingly incomplete. For the moment, Harding has written an absorbing on-the-fly history of its opening acts. 

On June 5, 2013, Snowden’s leaks began to appear in print. First came the revelation that the NSA was collecting the phone-call “metadata” of millions of customers of the American telecom Verizon. The Agency wasn’t recording the content of the conversations, but it was storing information about number-pairings, phone locations, and call durations. 

A day later it emerged that the NSA was gathering Internet data on an even larger scale. Under a program called Prism, the Agency accessed data stored by its Silicon Valley “partners” – among them Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft – in order to keep a record of their customers’ online activities, including their search histories and the contents of their emails. A subsequent leak revealed the Agency had also hacked directly into Google’s and Yahoo’s data cables in Britain. 

Unlike old-school wiretaps, the NSA’s bulk data-gathering programs didn’t discriminate. They collected everyone’s data by default, in apparent violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans against searches conducted without “probable cause” and a particularised warrant. The NSA, Snowden believed, had hijacked the internet and turned it into a giant spying machine. “With this capacity,” he alleged, “the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting.” 

Leaks about the NSA’s overseas operations followed, including some awkward revelations about America’s – and Australia’s – eavesdropping on friendly nations. In the meantime Snowden, who never intended to stay anonymous, had outed himself as the whistleblower in a video interview posted on the Guardian's website. The interview took place in Hong Kong, where Snowden had fled in order to avoid extradition to the US. He subsequently flew to Russia, where the Putin regime granted him a one-year visa, which is due to expire on August 1, 2014. 

Who then is Edward Snowden? The youngster we meet in the book’s early pages is an unpromising figure: a high-school drop-out and tech geek who posts forum messages under the username TheTrueHOOHA. His youthful politics are tiresome, but not in the way you might expect. Far from being an Assange-style anarchist, Snowden has always leant to the Right. In his windy youth he railed against socialism, and restrictions on assault weapons, and respectable wages for McDonald’s workers, and the existence of a welfare safety-net. Later on, working at the NSA, he was known for keeping a copy of the US Constitution on his desk. In 2012 he contributed to the presidential campaign of the libertarian Ron Paul. 

When the Snowden movie gets made, there may be no Hollywood actor nerdy enough to tackle the central role, except perhaps for the kid who played McLovin. Snowden is every inch a child of the Internet age. Even after a three-month posting in Hawaii he still looked Vampire-pale, having exposed himself to no source of light except his computer screen. He is, or was, a devotee of the online game Tekken: “playing an everyman-warrior battling evil against the odds shaped his moral outlook, he later said.” When his Hong Kong lawyers raised the prospect of jail time, Snowden seemed unfazed – until they told him he would have no access to a computer or the web. Then he panicked. 

But when the pallid mariner began to tell his story, he had some disturbingly eloquent things to say about his special subject: privacy in the age of the web. “The internet is on principle a system that you reveal yourself to in order to fully enjoy,” he wrote to one journalist. “It is a TV that watches you. The majority of people in developed countries spend at least some time interacting with the internet, and governments are abusing that necessity in secret to extend their powers beyond what is necessary and appropriate.” It worried Snowden that the Government’s appetite for private data, and its capacity to archive it, were growing all the time. It worried him that he, as a mere contractor with a private firm, could easily go rogue and tap the wires of anyone, up to and including the President. It worried him that he knew all these things and the public didn’t. 

And what thinking person wouldn’t have been worried, in Snowden’s position? A troubling maxim emerges from this book. The more you know about computers, the more their power will tend to alarm you. Snowden knows an awful lot about them, and they terrify him. When a journalist turns up to interview him wielding a smartphone, Snowden flips out. The NSA, he explains, is more than capable of hacking such a device and using it as a microphone or geolocator.  When his lawyers come to visit him, Snowden insists that they surrender their phones and shut them in a fridge. It sounds like paranoia, until you reflect that Snowden, on this subject, knows exactly what he’s talking about. 

Most of us are addicted to the Internet without understanding much about the way it works. Snowden’s whistle-blast should snap us out of our sleepwalk. Now, you feel, might be a very good time to start talking seriously about our online privacy – now, while we still have some left. 

Beyond that, he raises other questions that require out attention. The gravest charge that’s been made against him is the accusation, levelled by John Kerry and others, that he has put American lives at risk, by tipping off terrorists to the NSA’s methods. 

But the NSA’s own methods represent a different kind of threat to American life, as Snowden has compelling argued. His leaks should make us re-examine an assumption that has gone largely unchallenged since 9/11. Why should national security be allowed to trump individual privacy? Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe an open society, if it is to remain an open society, can never fully secure itself against violent internal or external attack. Maybe the preservation of privacy is worth some risk. In the immediate wake of 9/11 it was hard to discuss such questions soberly. Snowden has dramatically returned them to the table. 

As a result, he might never see America again. If he were to return there now, he would risk receiving a prison sentence even steeper than the one handed to Bradley Manning, who got 35 years. Snowden sacrificed his whole future in an attempt to trigger an informed public debate about online privacy. The least we can do in return is have that debate. At the same time, we need to resist the idea that he is a traitor to his country. The best answer to that charge has already been provided by Snowden himself. “If I’m a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all my information to the American public … If they [the Government] see that as treason, I think people really need to consider who do they think they’re working for. The public is supposed to be their boss, not their enemy.”