Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Unforgettable Documentary: "The Last African Flying Boat"

I know I don't post as much as I used to anymore, but it's not from disinterest.  Sure I could write more about cars or punk rock or watches, but what's the point.  I'd rather wait and throw on something of substance here, when I happen upon it.

Through a confluence of circumstances, I was reminded of a documentary I saw on the BBC while I was living in London in 1991.  On a whim, and of course following very little effort, I found it on YouTube.  If you have a spare seventy minutes, watch it, especially if anything I've written here ever grabbed your attention.  It's got it all.

"The Last African Flying Boat" was a documentary shot for the BBC in 1989 about an aging twin-engine Catalina flying boat retracing the Southern route of Imperial Airways, an English concern which operated similar aircraft in the pre-war era from Cairo to Mozambique.  Following the Nile River, this journey evidently took weeks to complete.  The purpose of the modern day adventure was to reopen the route for well-heeled tourists.

So much about this story captures my imagination.  Of course, there is the beautiful Consolidated PBY Catalina amphibious plane, with its high wing, twin rotary engines, retractable pontoons, waist gunner blisters converted to observation windows, and an interior which is part luxury yacht and part Orient Express.  Imagine flying at a stately 80 knots below the cloud cover as the African landscape slides past beneath you.  You count crocodiles and hippopotamus while you sip on a perfectly crafted gin and tonic swirling in crystal.

The Cat is flown by a taciturn American with a bird's nest of curly blond hair, forever sporting a pair of American Optical aviator sunglasses with traditional bayonet temples.  We meet "Jim", as he is called, as he is landing the bird on the Nile river with one hand, while flicking the ash of his cigarette out the sliding window of the cockpit.  Aside from being checked out on this aircraft type, Jim is also a certified Cat mechanic, and as the trip progresses, many of his skills are put to the test, airborne, floating, or chocked up.

Our travel companion on the journey is a British travel figure of some renown, Alexander Frater, who, considering this is 1989, isn't above behaving like an imperialist of an earlier generation.  We see him chagrined to learn that there is no bacon to be had at breakfast in the Muslim-run hotel in Cairo; something his predecessors apparently wouldn't have put up with in the old days.  On more than one occasion, we see him seeking out the company of other "colonists," most memorably spending a pleasant evening in the veldt with the descendants of the notorious Happy Valley Set of Kenya, an enclave of Anglo-Irish aristocrats who had gone borneo long ago, but not without keeping up their polo stables, high tea, and African servants.

There are other memorable characters as well, including Bill Cragg, an intrepid expatriate bush pilot who warns Jim of the perils of flying through war torn regions of central Africa.  Another brief search on the internet informs me that, shortly after this film was in the can, Cragg himself was shot down by a Soviet-sold SA-7 surface-to-air-missile over contested territory, launched by Sudanese rebels.

I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but aside from the will-it-or won't-it of a rather difficult take off at elevation, there is very little tension.  Light on drama, but heavy on atmosphere, it remains unclear to me whether this brand of tourism ever returned to the Dark Continent.  If it did, or if it remains, or if it ever does, count me among those wishing I could partake.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Unified Theory of Post-Modern Friendship

So I collect friends like I collect shoes. I have a few special pairs I’ll wear forever.  I pledge fealty to them and keep them going until they can’t stand it anymore.  The same is true for friends. I make them for life.  Distance and time may separate us, but I’m proud to say I have two types of friends: those I’ve known for a lifetime, and those I will know for a lifetime.  If one doesn’t fit into either of those two categories, then I’m sorry, but he’ll be nothing more than part of the backdrop of my life.

Luckily, things like email and Facebook are helpful in this regard.  These digital tools have helped me to stay connected with my beloved friends, and I must confess, it has also helped me expand their numbers.

Copley Hall, Georgetown University

Take for example Thomas, whom I quickly fell in with our first year at Georgetown.  Friendships formed deep in the dark bowels of an antebellum dormitory are hard to quantify or describe, but he and I, and a couple others, drew closely together like a tight, wet knot.  In the end, we marched drunkenly side by side up muddy hills in that final Senior Week, feeling like we’d all been in the same platoon in Vietnam.

The last time I saw Thomas was probably 20 years ago in Buffalo.  I had come from Honolulu and he from New York City, to stand next to our other bestie while he took his marriage vows.  We were there moments after Larry had his “talk” with his Eisenhower-era dad, who offered a few terse words before the whole shebang fired off:  

“Tonight’s the big night , Son.  Be gentle.”

Thomas and I looked at each other with bemusement so familiar …

Anyway, right, the digital age.  So we email on a semi-annual basis, and these messages serve as a more substantive exchange than those we enjoy every few weeks on Facebook.  Here’s a lengthy one that is, I think, emblematic of men just like us, who have followed this path to forty-something OnceWereBachelorhood.   It is mostly unexpurgated.

Three of Us at a Wedding, Plus Backdrop

Totally random question that a) I should know about because it’s my field or b) I should have asked you about a long time ago, but do you remember this dude from Gtown, pretty sure his name was Ben Wallace — he was more my friend (for a brief time and never that close) around Village B time; he also lived in Village B with this totally wild crew who basically destroyed their apartment and lived like animals, with broken whiskey bottles on the floor, etc. — one of the dudes he lived with was like a convicted drug dealer and general problem child but was [vaguely well connected]; the other was some French dude who used to lie around naked in bed with this weird chick when I was over visiting. 

Anyway what I remember of Ben was that he had kind of dark ratty hair, a decent amount of it, and he was quiet and kind of writerly/literary, or maybe just an English major; he was from DC; and maybe that’s about it. We hung out for a small bit and then drifted apart I guess.

Anyway, do you think/would you recognize him from this shot/bio? All the details fit, I think, but it’s hard to gauge because he looks so “normal,” for lack of a better word, and without the big hair it’s hard to judge:

Hope all is well with you. I’m at the tail end of closing/shipping/putting out Sine Qua Non’s million-page September issue. Insane. I’m handling 37 stories over 125 pages. Psycho. Kid #2 on the way, supposedly due August 4, don’t know whether boy or girl. . . Kid #1, Funicular, now 2.5 and he/she sings early Stone Roses singles by himself/herself, unprompted. Good times. . . 

All best//T
THOMAS BUTTS (a pseudonym)
Senior Editor
SINE QUA NON FASHION MAG (a pseudo-title, for perhaps the flagship of its kind)
13th floor
New York, NY 10036



One day I was driving and half-listening to NPR.  I tuned into the middle of an interview; they were talking about this ancient bottle of collectible wine that supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  Sounded interesting so I perked up and paid attention.  Turns out they were interviewing the author of a book focusing on that particular bottle.  THE BILLIONAIRE’S VINEGAR.  I made a mental note to get it used on Amazon because the curious subject sounded engrossing in an esoteric but entertaining way, and because the author sounded engaging and intelligent.  At the end of the interview, they ID’d the author as Ben Wallace.

A chill went up and down my neck, because I remembered the following:

Many years ago, you had a brief man-crush on a fellow named Ben Wallace, or at least that’s what Larry and I thought.  Maybe Don, too, but as with everything Don, that’s hazy.  You would come home and tell us about this guy who was intelligent and engaging and living what I subsequently learned was what could be described as a BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY lifestyle.  Much alcohol, debauchery, and hateful characters whom one would years later regret being associated with.  One of them, I knew through my friend, Laura, as a John Belushi-type.  Anyway, this Ben, like you, was nurturing some nascent literary tendencies. I think I remember meeting him somewhere, probably that bookstore/bar/coffeeshop that was enjoying some of-the-moment cachet.  Dylan’s I think it was called.  You both smoked Camel Uns, I think.  Possibly weeks later, Larry came home saying that Ben had begun researching a book he wanted to write about vampires and was turning up at Lauinger Library with all kinds of requests.

Your man-crush, as with many of your misadventures of the time, inexplicably faded, never to be acted upon.

So I found the book and paid $ 0.99 plus $3.99 shipping on Amazon Used*, eventually turned my full attention to it, and concluded that I was right, the author was engaging and intelligent and had written an engrossing but esoteric piece.  And that he in fact was the fellow you had a man-crush on, many years ago.

I never highlighted this discovery with you because I figured that you, being a New York man of letters of sorts, would already know.  Guess I was wrong.

[Take care].

*Incidentally, I just picked up GOJIRO used for a similar bargain basement price, after being swept up in the giant lizard craze of summer 2014, remembering that in your first year at some publishing house, you had shared an excerpt with me.  I can’t be bothered to read it, but it’s nice to have on my shelf, a remembrance of 1990.

I also just finished EMINENT HIPSTERS by Mr. Donald Fagen, a loose collection of his writing.  Again, the low low price being the common feature of this footnote.  He sounds like an asshole.  Be careful not to meet your heroes.


The whole thing is kind of nuts — I’ve seen his byline (off and on ... he’s been getting some good play lately at New York mag) for years now but never had the a-HA! moment until yesterday. (In fairness, it’s a somewhat generic name for a NYC writer, and there’s another more famous one named Ben Wallace-Wells throwing me off the scent.)

Your recollections are quite exact — more detailed than mine. I’ll cop to the man-crush and the literary vibe, and a big yes on the roommates, and the strange abandonment of friendship. (For no particular reason; I think we enjoyed each other’s company fair enough but we never really found like THAT THING that we were both obsessed with, or bonded over, or some such. And/or we weren’t secure enough in our literary man-crushes to be all “Hey — do you love William Blake and want to pattern your life on his work? Me too!") Don’t remember the meeting at Dylan’s (though I do remember the hot-spot-of-the-moment vibe of that place). I think I’ll look him up — though my initial note to him is bound to be quite awkward (“Remember some weird dude from Village A that you hung around with for like 5 minutes in 1987 and then never really saw again? Well it’s me!"

Anyways. . . GOJIRO! Yes. I remember everything about that book being kind of cool, though even I never read the damn thing. Have since become friendly with the writer, who’s a very cool cat. 

And Fagen’s book: It’s been on my maybe-I-buy-this-next list for a while now; frankly the only thing holding me back is what I have heard or read from reviews about the whole bummer/bitter vibe of the whole thing. Or maybe it’s just part of the whole thing. Though I think I do understand his frustration (I think I read some excerpt about his opinions of the crowds at his recent shows, and having seen he and Becker a couple years back at the Beacon Theater here, I second that emotion — I didn’t think the crowd would be filled with eminent hipsters per se, but I also didn’t think it would be filled with beefy men from Long Island in suits from 1982 with their wives dolled up like they’re seeing Frank Sinatra at the Sands in 1963.

That said, F@CK IT!!! If I judged bands solely based on the attire, demeanor and hipness (with minus points for the dark side of the hip coin, douchebaggery), I would have precious few bands to listen to. I’ve already doubled down over the weekend and downloaded lossless audio files of the entire Steely Dan discography, the better to nerd out on their particular genius of artistry, virtuosity, and production. Long live the Dan — though I may skip that book.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We Have No Secrets: Carly Simon & Harry Connick, Jr.

Sometime in 1989 or 1990 I was a first year law student.  I would occasionally drive 2 hours to my cousin's suburban home in Morton Grove, IL, for some home cooking and face-time with my godson.  My departure from Notre Dame those weekends sealed my persona as an outsider in law school.  Nevertheless, I appreciated the escape (try living in a graduate dorm in the winter; it is the nadir of miseries).  My little cherub nephew, a warm living room, a clean and readily available washer and dryer to do my laundry in peace.  And HBO.  My cousin had premium cable and I was able to be a couch potato for a couple days.

One night I was flipping channels in his living room and I came across an intimate performance pairing Carly Simon and then-hot newcomer Harry Connick, Jr. (who had just put out the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack).  I watched what I could, perhaps the last 40 minutes or so, and found myself transfixed by Carly's beauty and talent.  This song never left my memory; the clapping hands providing the timekeeping, and Harry on double-bass.  The performance disappeared, evanescent, and I never saw it again.  Until I searched for it and found it on YouTube today.*  It is exactly as I remember it.

*In fact, I searched for it on the very same YouTube a few years ago, to no avail, so it's appearance, finally, is a nice turn of events.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Walter Cronkite's View of the 21st Century

I don't know if you realize it, I barely did, but we are fourteen years deep into the 21st Century.  At no time in my life have I felt like I lived in the future, but really at every point I in fact have.  Born in 1967 I am indubitably post-modern.

Especially from the Eighties on, I could've stopped, taken a breath, and looked around and said "this is science fiction I'm living in!"  First supersonic flight.  Remote controls.  Microwaves.  Power windows, power mirrors, and power antennas.  VCRs.  Then 24 hour news, 24 hour sports, 24 hour new wave music videos.  Desktop computers with the capacity to store half the information of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  And it progressed from there.  Cellphones.  Laptops.  GPS.  Clones.  A black president (finally)!

But look at the view from the year I was born.  It all seems so quaint.