Friday, 24 April 2020

"Everything I write seems to come true" - TC Boyle on tranquillity, savagery, and COVID-19



T Coraghessan Boyle is one of America’s most prolific and acclaimed writers. Now in his early 70s, he has written 17 novels and more than 100 short stories. Many of them, like his 2000 story After the Plague, are of an apocalyptic nature. "Everything I write seems to come true," he told me. In Jubilation, for example, residents of a gated community have to don protective gear when it’s afflicted with various infestations. "It was Vicki, dressed like a beekeeper…'Christ,' I said… 'Is this what we’re going to have to start wearing now?'"

He lives in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife Karen, a college sweetheart (Boyle has said he "must be the only American writer of my generation who has had only one wife"). The couple have three grown-up children, one of whom was just about to qualify as a doctor when we spoke. "So I have the best in-house medical care." He says he's most at risk from Coronavirus not only because of his age but because he's a pessimist. One aspect of this singular man is that you never quite know when he's joking.

TC Boyle has just finished his latest (as-yet-untitled) novel, and a short story about COVID-19.

What’s the new novel about? I don’t even know its title…
The title is not decided. It was originally called The Familiar but my agent thinks people won’t know what a familiar is so the title may change. It’s set in the 1970s and early 80s and it’s about trying teach apes how to speak.

Humans and animals – that’s always been your territory, hasn’t it?
Oh yes it has. I go all the way back to my very first book, Descent of Man when I was still a student. That was when I first discovered we were trying to teach apes language. I have been fascinated throughout my life about our place in nature as another animal species, and I keep revolving these questions over and over: what is the difference between us and the other animals? Is there a soul? The basic question is, What are we doing here, and what does it all mean? When I finally get an answer I can stop writing and you’ll be the first to hear. But in reality there is no answer, nothing but the lack of God, and hopelessness, and I try to address that. A lot of writers want to make the reader feel better – I want to make them feel a whole lot worse – that’s my goal.

I know it’s been said before but the COVID-19 pandemic could be one of your stories
In 2000 I wrote After the Plague [its opening lines are: “After the plague – it was some sort of Ebola mutation passed from hand to hand and nose to nose like the common cold – life was different. More relaxed and expansive, more natural. The rat race was over, the freeways were clear all the way to Sacramento.”] It was far more lethal of course; it [the story] is blackly and joyously hilarious, as is the new story.

Tell us about the new story
It’s called The Thirteenth Day and it’s about COVID-19. I wrote it in its moment: I finished a week ago. It took me two or three weeks to write, in the early stages of the pandemic. It’s a kind of absurdist comedy but with this blackness underlying it, about a ship that visits with a bunch of tourists on it. I don’t know when or where it will be published. It could be months and months from now.

You’re in Santa Barbara, the heart of wine country; I hear you only drink the local wines, is that right?
For the most part. Many of my friends are foodies and oenophiles and I really appreciate going out with them, and investigating their wine cellars. We’re just over the hill from the Santa Ynez Valley; I’ve explored the local wines and I am very content with them. I’m drinking Pinot Noir at the moment: we have Cambria and Byron and Foley and Meiomi, all of which I like very much.

Did you see Sideways [the 2004 film set in Santa Ynez Valley]?
It’s hilarious and brilliant and I love it – I’ve rarely had Merlot since! The evolution of drinking wine in my household took a while. When we were young we didn’t know anything about it. Every year we had a Superbowl party and people brought beer -then one year everyone brought wine, and no more beer…Then ten or 12 years ago I broke my leg in a freak accident and I had to be confined for a bit. At that point I decided, Now you’re mature maybe you should drink mature wine, so I switched to red and I’ve never had white wine since.

Do you ever think about winemaking as an art?
Not really. I do know some winemakers – that’s inevitable out here in California – but the artistry of wine is not my chief concern in life. I enjoy a glass of wine and I give all praise to the winemaker in his beneficence but beyond that I’m not overly concerned. I’m not really a gourmet; I love fine dining, but unlike some of my friends I’m not obsessed with it. I feel the same way about wine: I’m glad it’s there, if I like it I will buy a case, and I’ll buy another case when that’s done.

I get the feeling that part of you is enjoying the tranquillity of lockdown?
Last night I was out in the yard and there was absolutely no human sound – only the tree frogs. I couldn’t hear the railroad or the freeway. It was kind of magical. Of course the infection is more difficult and more worrying in cities –  but here, I’m leading the kind of life I want to. I read books, I make a fire, I watch a movie on Netflix. I prepare a meal, hike in the woods. I’m very gregarious so I miss communication, but other than that it seems like a respite. For most Americans and I’m sure the British too, we don’t have a lot of time for contemplation in our lives. We are pedal to the metal all the time – and now we can now kick back and think about life.

Do you have a sense of vindication – “I told you so” – that life is imitating your art?
Not vindication, just a kind of grinding superstitious fear. Everything I write seems to come true.

You’re often described as being very detached, relishing the awful situations you put your characters in. Is a part of you now observing your fellow humans with equal detachment?
I am a large-hearted and compassionate man, a lover of nature and my fellow human beings. Art is my outlet. The beauty of writing fiction is that the writer becomes the God of his own universe.

Someone (I forget who) said that there is a savagery at the heart of American life. Do you agree?
There is a savagery at the heart of all human life—we are animals, after all. As for the nature of Americans, I chose an epigraph from an English writer, D.H. Lawrence, reflecting on our penchant for violence, to suggest the themes of The Harder They Come (2015): “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

When we first spoke [in the second half of March] you seemed remarkably sanguine. How do you feel now?
My level of worry is off the charts. I am in the highest risk group, not simply because of my age, but because I am a pessimist.

Isn’t it the pessimists and the realists who are best equipped to survive?
To say that, my dear fellow, you must be an optimist.

I read somewhere that Coraghessan is an invented name – is that right? Where did it come from?
Don't believe everything you read.





 












Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Mexico is very big guitar country...the Rolling Stones in Latin America: film premiere




Olé Olé Olé tells the story of the Rolling Stones’ América Latina Olé Tour this year, which culminated in the historic free stadium gig in Havana, the first visit by a western rock band after decades of isolation. As a rock movie it’s a conventional, access-all-areas look at a few weeks in the life of the supra-national juggernaut that is the Rolling Stones on tour – the planes, the motorcycle outriders, the “madness”, the  bonhomie (Mick: “what’s that word for bonding? That’s what we do in rehearsal”). The concert footage is amazing, and there are some wonderful aerial shots, of Lima (Keith: “Lima. It’s got enormous since I was last here in 68”) and Rio. The production values are top notch. It’s mercifully short on rock n roll clichés, if you ignore the fact that the concept of the “Rolling Stones” is one gigantic cliché in itself – the band as brand. Even the antimacassars on the plane are splashed with the tongue logo.

I’d gone along to the premiere at London’s Curzon Mayfair for a few glasses of Argentinian and Uruguayan wine – the excellent Argento, and Bodega Garzón, who sponsor the London showings of the movie – expecting to be entertained. The Stones have been around a while after all (“Please allow me to introduce myself …”), and they know how to put on a show. To my surprise, I was gripped.

Considering this quartet of multi-millionaires has been peddling the same old rock and roll for more than half a century, they come across as remarkably uncynical.

It’s often moving. There’s a sweet moment when a Cuban man collapses on the kerb in tears. “He just saw Mick,” his wife says with a gentle, understanding smile as he rubs his face. It’s hardly an exaggeration when someone - Keith, or Charlie, or Mick, or Ronnie – says of Cuba, “the Stones are a religion here”.

Jagger and Richards are the wizened prophets at the centre of it all. The latter, piratical old Keith, has been outspoken about the fact they haven’t exactly got on like a house on fire over the last decade or so, and you might wonder how they manage to seem so relaxed together in the few set-piece chinwags they have for the camera. I guess they rub along like brothers nowadays, or like the French and the British: respect, antipathy and mutual interests blended and buffed over the years into something like affection.

Then, in the corner of a dressing room, they break into a spine-tingling rendering of Honky Tonk Women, Mick crooning like a gypsy, his skinny little legs shaking out the rhythm, Keef bent double over his guitar. It brought cheers from the audience. If that was staged, then those two are better actors than I thought. There are other delicate touches that could even be accidental. In one classic backstage shot in Havana, the band’s just about to go on and the noise from the crowd is deafening. You see Jagger in his red shiny jacket (“I’m a man of wealth and taste”) actually hesitate, and for a moment he looks vulnerable.

I’m a Beatles man myself (I always suspected the Stones were more businessmen than musicians) but those songs – Satisfaction, Sympathy, You Gotta Move, Start Me Up, Wild Horses – are inscribed on the synapses of all of us. And when Jagger struts around the vast stage belting them out, the very screen bulges and pulses with the atmosphere.

As to getting a look into the psyches of the actors in this lengthy drama, that’s beyond this director’s remit. All I know is, the Stones are certainly enjoying themselves (“It all looks very festivally out there,” Mick drawls as he looks at another 50,000 fans revving themselves up), and it’s also clear they’re moved by the adulation. From the Argentinians, for example, who if they’re old enough remember what it was like under the generals, when they weren’t even allowed radios. “This would have landed us in prison,” says one grizzled Rolinga (that’s what Stones fans call themselves there). “This is profoundly touching”, Jagger’s says, simply. Music and dance is everywhere: wherever they go, the boys are serenaded. There are scissor dancers in Peru, mariachi bands in Mexico (Keith: “Mexico is a big guitar country), tango, samba, rumba and cha-cha, tribute bands in front rooms and kids singing in the street. “It’s humbling,” Jagger says, and I can see what he means – there’s the very strong impression that the Stones are welcomed as equals, not as rock stars (although there’s a devil of a lot of screaming when the lights go down, much of it by middle-aged men). And the music is fabulous. I’ve never heard Wild Horses sung with such passion as Jagger coaxes out of his voicebox.

What more do you want? Is there any more? If you’d asked me before, I would have said I’d like some insight – something like Julien Temple did with Joe Strummer in the masterful Clash documentary The Future Is Unwritten. But I don’t think the Stones go in for that sort of thing. If it was McCartney, there’d be soul-searching. Bono would be irritating, Sting even more so. But the Glimmer Twins? They’re just a pair of raddled old buccaneers, doing what they do. “How can you stop rock and roll?” Jagger asks, and it’s purely rhetorical.



Wednesday, 28 September 2016

"We're trying to fuck it up a bit ..." Modern Aussie winemaking on display in Shoreditch

(from Wine Searcher)

"A scrum of jostling hacks..." Cargo, in Shoreditch
There's nothing like a Shoreditch nightclub as a venue for a wine tasting. To call Shoreditch trendy is like suggesting the UK Independence Party is nasty – it just doesn't do it justice.

The East London borough is eye-wateringly, not-knowing-where-to-look trendy. Cargo nightclub – where the Artisans of Australian Wine event was held this week – is in the center of a barrio of booming street chic. Every bar or shop is shimmering white, or black, or self-consciously scruffy. There are restaurants in converted shipping containers where beautiful Japanese couples lunch off a bowl of three fries and a lozenge of wasabi for $45; next door you can buy a tee-shirt with a gnomic message for twice that. That's the thing about postcodes east of the City – they might look like a scene from Blade Runner, but they come with a hefty price tag.

Cargo is darkish, sweaty, the toilets reassuringly squalid (with signs warning that drugs are not tolerated). You don't want to touch the walls. At the door, dressed in black, stood Wine Australia's London chief Laura Jewell and her events manager Emma Symington, looking like they were about to ask me to step aside for a frisking. No such luck.

Of course, wine tastings have been held in nightclubs and bars before. There's any number of hip young gunslingers importing artisan wines who wouldn't dream of setting up their tables anywhere else. But it's a measure of the current state of Australian wine that Jewell and her team should choose this particular moment to hold this particular tasting in this particular venue, instead of in the hallowed marble halls of Australia House.

The avant-garde has become mainstream. It is now perfectly normal to find a Barossa Shiraz with less than 13 percent alcohol (Eden Road's wonderfully crunchy 2011 Canberra Shiraz is 12.9 per cent); whole-bunch pressing, carbonic maceration, natural yeasts and weeks on skins are standard practice. Experimentation is everywhere. The "natural", in all its myriad definitions, is celebrated. As Gary Mills of Jamsheed described the vinification of his entry-level Yarra Valley Pepe le Pinot: "We're trying to fuck it up a bit – roughen up the edges."

This is modern Australian winemaking. Read whole article

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

English sparkling wine comes of age

Nyetimber: the cruck barn, dated 1600-1605

The announcement late last year that Champagne Taittinger had bought a substantial parcel of land in Kent in a multi-million dollar investment was the best Christmas present the English wine industry has ever been given. For a house of this renown to endorse English wine in such unequivocal terms is a massive boost to the industry. Taittinger aims to produce 25,000 cases of “Premium English sparkling wine” from vines that are yet to be planted...

Read the entire article here

Monday, 27 June 2016

Latest features

See all latest features in Decanter, World of Fine Wine and others here

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Olivier Bernard is in the wrong job... Bordeaux 2015 shenanigans remembered

this article first appeared in Meininger's Wine Business International

Olivier Bernard is in the wrong job. The owner of Domaine deChevalier in Pessac-Léognan, a chateaux of international renown, he’s also in his second term as president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGCB). It’s observing him in this latter capacity that one wonders if his diplomatic skills would not be put to better use at the Quai d’Orsay – perhaps sorting out Syria, or intervening in the Ukraine.

No laughing matter: Olivier Bernard
Bordeaux wine politics can be febrile, and never more so than during en primeur, the annual barrel tastings of the previous year’s vintage. Depending on who you talk to, en primeur is either a robust, time-honoured system that works excellently – or it’s a creaking machine long past its usefulness and the sooner it goes the better.

Fuel is added to the fire every year or so. In 2012 ChateauLatour’s Frédéric Engerer caused sparks to fly when he announced the 2011 vintage was to be the last one Latour would sell en primeur. A wave of defections was predicted, though nothing has happened so far. In every mediocre vintage – such as 2011, 2012 and 2013 – merchants warn it will be the last en primeur. If the wines are not going to increase in value (indeed, if they’re going to go down in price), what possible reason is there for buying futures? The wine’s not going to sell out; far better to wait and see how it performs both in terms of price and quality. “The system will be dead if there’s no sound financial reason for buying en primeur,” Mark Wessels of the Washington DC merchant MacArthur Beverages told me.

As consumers see less reason to buy futures in Cru Classé Bordeaux, so châteaux find it more important to stand out from the crowd. And this is the problem that Bernard is faced with: every year more and more châteaux decide they will not show their wines at the collective tastings run by the UGCB. “The problem is that all over the world – and not just in wine – individuals have become stronger,” he told me. “They refuse to be a part of the collective. The First Growths have never shown their wines at the collective tastings, and there are some super seconds which have followed them. Now there are second growths which dream of being super seconds, and they won’t play the game.”

Things became even more complicated this year when Bernard announced that tastings which had previously been spread over a full week, hosted by different châteaux across Bordeaux, would now be held over two days at the vast Matmut Atlantique stadium near to the Vinexpo site. The press was horrified. “I really don't think a football stadium on the distant outskirts of the city is likely to have a particularly conducive atmosphere for wine tasting, however new it is and however much it cost,” Jancis Robinson thundered. The veteran French critic Michel Bettane was so outraged he could no longer taste blind that he threatened a boycott.

Bernard treads this minefield carefully. In response to Robinson’s and others’ complaints he said it is simply unfair that some chateaux (those which don’t show their wines at the collective tastings) are tasted non-blind, and others are tasted blind. “We just think that all grands crus should be tasted on a level playing field,” he said, rather plaintively.

Contrary to grumbling from certain sections of the press (“It was like being back at school,” one critic said) the seated tastings at Matmut were run efficiently and flexibly. Qualified sommeliers served the wines in any order the taster requested, the lighting was excellent and the glasses large and clean. We could taste standing up at the bar tops if we wanted a less formal setting.

Château owners and directors joined the press pack for lunch – Lilian Barton of ChateauLéoville Barton, Christophe Labenne of the Cru Bourgeois Poujeaux, Fabien Teitgen of Smith-Haut-Lafitte were just three I spotted wielding knife and fork – a great opportunity to discuss wines and communes we had just tasted.

Bernard thinks the format worked and he’ll keep it as it is. He gave a faint chuckle when I asked him how much he’d learnt about diplomacy during his UGCB presidency. “Diplomacy is important. But to make the right choice, and to be clear, is more important.”