March in Podcasts: Slow Burn

This month, I have been mostly listening to two new podcasts for me.  The first of these is Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate.com exploring aspects of the Watergate scandal.  There’s an open political agenda here – comparing the slow drip of sleazy stories from the Nixon White House to the abundance of stories coming from the Trump administration.  There’s nothing killer, no knockout against Trump (yet); but maybe this is what a scandal unfolding looks like.

600x600bbIn the days immediately after the Watergate break in, there were bizarre and disturbing stories in the news, with Martha Mitchell the wife of the Attorney General being tranquillised and imprisoned by hired goons; cheques from the break in being linked with republican donations.  Then came investigations, some stymied by Nixon.  Then the oval office tapes became known.  The information is interesting, and not necessarily in the main narrative of Watergate as it is told.  Sometimes it would be nicer to have the main narrative before spinning off on a tangent, but it should be a fresh take for even those familiar with the story.

Direct comparisons to the events surrounding Trump are made, and the many figures in the current Republican party are involved enough to not come across well.  It does steer clear of commenting too deeply however – largely limiting its analysis to presenting both governments as having a similar tendency towards chaos and sleaze.  We can’t say that Trump is going to end like Nixon, but if he was this is probably what it would look like from the sidelines.

Season two will be on the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  Not as interesting a topic for me, but Leon Neyfakh did delve into some of the unfounded conspiracy theories (mostly by Mae Brussell) on Nixon – so I have no doubt that he can do similar for Clinton.  The podcast is smooth and professionally produced, and I’m definitely happy to get more of it.

 

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Trumbo by Bruce Cook

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The book that inspired the 2015 film starring Bryan Cranston, this biography of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was written in 1977 shortly after his death, and republished recently to include photos from the recent film.  The topic of blacklisting, McCarthy and the culture of the US at the time is potentially fascinating, but unfortunately I find this book to only sporadically show that off.

The majority of the book is about his pre-blacklist career.  It’s not uninteresting – growing up in a religious family, working in an industrial bakery to pay the bills while pursuing his writing career, finally breaking into Hollywood through reviews, short stories and novels.  Unfortunately I haven’t read them myself, but his novels seem to have been well received satire, hinting at an alternative career in the mould of Sinclair Lewis.  Scriptwriting paid the bills, however, and that was to be the main focus of Dalton Trumbo’s work.

Throughout this early career, we see Trumbo’s political views develop through his experience at the bakery, union activity, and his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun.  Trumbo would eventually join the Communist Party – with solidarity to colleagues being a major factor.  This was radical at the time, but not as unusual as it would become – the Soviet Union were war time allies and it had over 100,000 members at its peak.

After the war the clampdown on communism began, and after being named as a party member pressure was put on Trumbo to reveal other members and testify on communist propaganda in Hollywood.  Trumbo (and others) stayed silent and fought this pressure on the grounds of the first amendment, but were convicted of Contempt of Congress.  After a year in jail, Trumbo moved to Mexico and resumed writing under pseudonyms and through proxies.  During this time, he won an Oscar for writing The Brave One under the name Robert Rich, and also wrote the award winning film Roman Holiday.

Finally in 1960, he was openly credited on the films Spartacus and Exodus – breaking the blacklist and showing the threats of reprisals to be hollow.  He went on to write many more films, including Executive Action and Papillon, as well as directing an adaption of his novel Johnny Got His Gun.  His health decline and he died in 1976.

The book covers this later period with plenty of interviews, both with Trumbo and with his contemporaries, and discussion on Trumbo’s role and reaction to the blacklist.  As with the book as a whole, there is definitely enough there to interest the reader and spark further reading; but at times it feels a bit shallow.  A wider discussion of Hollywood practice or US politics is hinted at, but absent.

At times too, the character of Dalton Trumbo feels flat – for instance, he was apparently a witty (but occasionally caustic) man but, a few anecdotes aside, this doesn’t come across.  He was a family man, but this is told to us rather than shown.  A longer book may have had room for something more in depth, but this is a good introduction on a character that could have been forgotten.

The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V by Hugh Thomas

This is a very authoritative and extensive book on the Spanish empire in the Americas during the reign of Charles V.  It is rich in detail and full of tales of the conquistadors.  There is a lot of material to cover, but Thomas moves quickly enough without skimping on depth and even finds occasional moments of humour.

The book starts rather abruptly in 1520; it is officially the second part of a trilogy but does work as a stand alone if one can accept a few seemingly arbitrary starting or finishing points.  This means that it begins after the rise of Hernan Cortes, instead centring itself on Pizarro’s conquest of Peru and the bloody infighting that followed.

The introduction of the book sets out a contrast between Charles’ possessions in America and in Europe; but the European side and Charles himself are covered less in this volume.  We do see the transatlantic interactions within the empire, but generally with the focus on America.  Charles is such an interesting figure that I might have liked to read more about him, but his stance on the colonies was always a somewhat standoffish one so the book doesn’t develop in that direction.  European events like the Reformation barely raise their head in Thomas’ narrative.

I may also have liked a slightly less character-led approach in places – it would have been nice to get a better picture of the Spanish and native cultures in themselves, as opposed to a picture limited to where they interacted.  The adventures, exploration and amoral scheming of Pizarro, Amalgro and others are interesting, shameful and occasionally impressive; and chapters on the church figures in the Spanish administration show the transition away from private fiefdoms.

The Golden Age is an enjoyable enough book, but at the same time it left me disappointed.  I wanted more from this, and struggled to really build up much of a sense of the empire.

McSorley’s – New York

My last post was on City Tavern in Philadelphia, a tourist trap historical pub with (as it turned out) a surprisingly good set of beer and food. McSorley’s is quite a different beast. It is certainly a tourist spot, but it comes across much more naturally. Certainly it is much simpler. At McSorley’s you have three choices – a dark beer, a light beer or a mixture of the two (half of each, rather than some sort of terrible cocktail). On the floor you have sawdust. For furniture we have plain wooden tables and chairs. It’s all very spartan, but in a good way – the staff are friendly, the beer is good and the atmosphere is pleasant.

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City Tavern – Philadelphia

I recently went on holiday to New York and Philadelphia, spending a lot of time looking at art, visiting historical/tourist sites and drinking in bars. At one point I combined two of these by visiting the City Tavern in the old part of Philadelphia. This is an recreation of an old 18th century tavern frequented by many of the US’s founding fathers. Living in England where actual pubs from that time and earlier are commonplace, I was dubious.

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