Tuesday, August 16, 2016


It is THE GENERALIST'S great privilege to be one of the early readers of Alan Moore's epic new work 'Jerusalem', all 1,184 pages of it, to be published by Knockabout Comics on September 13th, in both hardback and a three-volume paperback set in a slipcase,

It comes feted with heavyweight quotes: from Ian Sinclair ('The endgame of epic modernism'); John Higgs ('The highest achievement of the most ground-breaking English writer alive') & Michael Moorcock ('Alan Moore is one of the great visionaries of our age and Jerusalem is one of the great visionary books of our age').

Also a letter from Joshua Chamberlain from Naseby Church of England Primary School: "All in all, you are the best writer in human history. Please write back."

The press release reads as follows:
'In the half a square mile of decay and demolition that was England's Saxon capital, eternity is loitering between the firetrap tower blocks.Fiends last mentioned in the Book of Tobit wait in urine-scented stairwells, the delinquent spectres of unlucky children undermine a century with tunnels, and in upstairs parlours, labourers with golden blood reduce fate to a snooker tournament.
'An opulent mythology for those without a pot to piss in, through the labyrinthine streets and pages of Jersualem tread ghosts that sing of wealth and poverty; of Africa, and hymns, and our threadbare millennium. They discuss English as visionary language from John Bunyan to James Joyce, hold forth on the illuaion of mortality post-Einstein and insist upon the meanest slum as Blake's eternal holy city. Fierce in its imaginings and stupefying in its scope. this is the tale of everything, told from a vanished gutter.'

Now comes the most difficult part: my own views and comments:

I have been living with Jerusalem for what must be a couple of months now. It's a universe of a book with many, many dimensions of space and time but it's rooted in Northampton, the Saxon capital, the centre of England, the hub of Alan's imaginative and magical world. Magic is an important word to remember when experiencing this book. I suspect that the whole thing may be some kind of spell, designed to destroy our so-called rational cardboard box four-square view of things and replace it with golden beams of enlightenment thinking.

For the first few days I devoted myself to it, night and day, reading until my eyes were strained. I wandered the streets, the time trails, the ley lines of Northampton and surrounds, past and present,and followed the characters as they wandered into and past each other, looping trails and stories overlapping, drifting from scuzzy muck shit to jewels of wondrous unknowingness. There are no 'chavs' in this book; only fully-realised suffering souls, their gritty births, deaths, vomit, spit and degradation running longside and inhabiting a once grand city now Detroited into a falling apartness.

As I progressed, a kaleidoscope of feelings and ideas and connections flittered through my mind. The prose is condensed with detail. I felt was reading by the seat of my pants, flying over and through Alan's brain as he once more picked up his quill pen and began scratching, scratching...into the night, fuelled by his strange imaginings.

The book has many levels and is like the city itself, full of alleyways and doorways, trapdoors and unexpected developments. I kept grabbing onto understanding but in the end it was just easier to go with the flow and let the waves of words wash over me.

I reached a point more than 700 pages where I felt I just couldn't go on when the book spoke to me:

'I know I am a text. I know that you are reading me. This is the biggest difference that there is  between us:you do not know that you are a text. You don't know that your reading yourself. What you believe to be the self-determined life that you are passing through is actually a book already written that you have become absorbed in, and not for the first time. When this current reading is concluded, when the coffin lid rear cover is eventually shut tight, then you immediately forget you've already struggled through it and you pick it up again, perhaps attracted by the striking and heroic picture of yourself that's there on the dust jacket.'

 Jerusalem bears some comparisons and DNA linkages with 'Ulysses', with Roberto Bolano's '2666', John Cowper Powys' 'A Glastonbury Romance'. William Blake, Wat Tyler, Austin Osman Spare, Samuel Beckett and Coleridge rub shoulders in the urinal. Like some vast tapestry or medieval map, woven or drawn by some pagan god out of his head on fly agaric, one can only take deep draughts and sit back reeling as unkempt thoughts whirl through one's sensory apparatus.

Better minds that mine will no doubt be able to communicate a much more deciphered view of this marvellous monstrous mountain of imaginings, like the wonderful French woman in the Extras section on my DVD copy of 'Last Year In Marienbad.'

The cover, drawn by Alan and coloured in by his neighbour and colleague Joe Brown, encompasses it all. Its as if the Angel of the North had been melded with Buddhist temple paintings and a 3-D tourist map of the planet that is Northampton.

People get ready. Moore has laid his biggest egg yet. What happens when it hatches out in a million minds is anybody's guess.

Alan’s public appearance dates:

September 20th:  In conversation with Robin Ince @ Waterstones in Islington.

November 7th: Piccadilly Theatre for a Guardian podcast in conversation with Stewart Lee.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


This post is a respectful salute to the late great Alvin Toffler, who we were fortunate enough to meet on several occasions in early 1975, when he was visiting Britain partly to give a lecture at the ICA in London (mid-Feb). The 'we' in this case being myself, Mike Marten and Jon Trux who, along with John Chesterman and others, had produced 'An Index of Possibilities', published in the UK in late 1974 and in the US in 1975. 

I have strong but brief memories of meeting AT. He first came to our office at the end of the day. At the time we were still in full-on freak stage (appearance-wise). Alvin was in a classic belted raincoat, collar turned up. We repaired to a local bar and talked for hours.

Toffler at that time was the best-known 'futurist' in the world. He and his wife Heidi, had met as radical students. They got married in Cleveland [on the day of my birth!]and both got employment in factories as blue-collar workers for five years.

He is quoted as saying: "My wife and I, unlike many intellectuals, spent five years working on assembly lines. We came to fully understand the criticisms of the industrial age, in which you are an appendage of a machine that sets the pace. "

He then started writing for trade and union papers before becoming a Labour correspondent for the prestigious business magazine Fortune. In 1964, he interviewed the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov and the writer Ayn Rand for Playboy,

The trigger for his greatest success was an article for Holiday magazine in 1965. He and Heidi (essentially his un-credited co-writer and researcher) then spent the second half of the 1960s working on what became 'Future Shock'. Published in 1970, the book was a hugely successful worldwide best-seller, based on the 'future shock' concept: when change happens too quickly, it creates social confusion and a breakdown in existing decision-making processes. This resonated strongly in the late 60s.

I'm pretty sure that, when we met, he gave us the copy that I still have [now smoke-blackened] of his next book 'The Futurists' - a remarkable anthology of futurist thinking - edited by Alvin and Heidi and published by Ramdom House in 1972, Toffler wrote the book's intro 'Probing Tomorrow'. The line-up of contributors is stellar: Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Mead, Herman Kahn, Paul Ehrlich, Arthur C. Clarke et al. Futurism had become a movement by this time and this snapshot of key texts provides a valuable overview of the thinking at that period. There are still 'futurists' at work but the term has fallen out of common parlance. 

My other personal memory is when we went to the Toffler's London apartment in Culross Street, which runs between Park Lane and Grosvenor Square, site of the US Embassy. Here we met Heidi for the first time and there was another visitor - Mike Oldfield of 'Tubular Bells' fame - who was I believe hatching plans for a West End show based on 'Future Shock'. 

[The 'Future Shock' 1972 documentary was narrated by Orson Welles. Musicians Curtis Mayfield and Herbie Hancock both wrote songs called "Future Shock."]

'The Index of Possibilities' correspondence files contain four letters. Mike Marten sent an interview request on Jan 10th, 1075, received a response from an assistant in New York suggesting he call AT in London on after Feb 19th. The following day MM sent a copy of the Index with a covering letter together with a synopsis for Index Vol 2: Structures & Systems. In terms of the interview, he suggests using 'Future Shock' as a 'departure point and concentrate on your current work. A letter dated May 15th begins: 'Herewith the complete unedited transcript of our interview. So far I've only read it through very quickly...I'd forgotten what a very discursive interview it was.' Unhappily we do not have the original tape or the transcript referred to.

Toffler's next book was 'The Third Wave', published in 1980. If the first and second waves are the agricultural and industrial revolutions, 'the "third wave," a phrase he coined, represents the current information, computer-based revolution. He forecast the spread of the Internet and email, interactive media, cable television, cloning, and other digital advancements. He claimed that one of the side effects of the digital age has been "information overload," another term he coined.' [Wikipedia]

One thing I didn't know was that: 'Toffler was hired by IBM  [in the 1960s?] to conduct research and write a paper on the social and organizational impact of computers, leading to his contact with the earliest computer "gurus" and artificial intelligence researchers and proponents. Xerox invited him to write about its research laboratory and AT&T consulted him for strategic advice. This AT&T work led to a study of telecommunications, which advised its top management for the company to break up more than a decade before the government forced AT&T to break up.' [Wikipedia]

For obvious reason, I was pleased find a passage I'd underlined in pencil many years ago in 'The Third Wave' regarding Toffler's view on generalists. He writes:
'Second Wave civilisations placed an extremely heavy emphasis on our ability to dismantle problems into their components; it rewarded us less often for the ability to put the pieces back together again. Most people are culturally more skilled as analysts than synthesists. This is one reason why our images of the future (and of ourselves in that future) are so fragmentary, haphazard - and wrong. Our job here will be to think like generalists, not specialists. 
Today I believe we stand on the edge of a new age of synthesis. In all intellectual fields, from the hard sciences to sociology, psychology and economics - especially economics - we are likely to see a return to large-scale thinking, to general theory, to the putting of the pieces back together again.'

See: Alvin Toffler [Wikipedia]


THE GUARDIAN/Robert Covile

Today, it is almost a commonplace that technology is transforming the world, and that many of us are struggling to cope. But Alvin Toffler... was the first to take that idea into the mainstream in his book Future Shock (1970), which blamed society’s ills on the “dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future”.

It is easy to pick out Toffler’s misses...but far more impressive was how much he got right. He was among the first to predict the demise of the nuclear family; the acceptance of gay marriage; the death of the job for life; the rise of the rental economy; that we would come to suffer from too much choice rather than too little.

Above all, he got his biggest call right: that an industrial economy based on things was being replaced by a “post-industrial” one based on ideas, and that this process would result in wrenching economic and social change.

Toffler helped to foster the belief within Silicon Valley and elsewhere that the function of technology firms was not just to make money, but to change the world. He also pioneered the idea of the writer as public intellectual ,

While Toffler Associates, the consultancy firm which the couple co-founded in 1996, enjoyed a steady stream of business, .. because the future he forecast had already arrived. But he was feted in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and China, where The Third Wave was reportedly outsold only by Deng Xiaoping’s collected speeches. The Communist party even named him as one of the 50 foreigners who had done most to affect China’s development. Other fans include Hugo Ch├ívez, Indira Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev.


In the book, in which he synthesized disparate facts from every corner of the globe, he concluded that the convergence of science, capital and communications was producing such swift change that it was creating an entirely new kind of society.

His predictions about the consequences to culture, the family, government and the economy were remarkably accurate. He foresaw the development of cloning, the popularity and influence of personal computers and the invention of the internet, cable television and telecommuting.

“The roaring current of change,” he said, was producing visible and measurable effects in individuals that fractured marriages, overwhelmed families and caused “confusional breakdowns” manifested in rising crime, drug use and social alienation. He saw these phenomena as very human psychological responses to disorientation and proposed that they were challenging the very structures of communities, institutions and nations.

He was among the first authors to recognize that knowledge, not labor and raw materials, would become the most important economic resource of advanced societies.

Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang of China convened conferences to discuss “The Third Wave” in the early 1980s, and in 1985 the book was the No. 2 best seller in China. Only the speeches of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sold more copies.

BLOOMBERG/ David Henry
“Where an earlier generation of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese revolutionaries wanted to re-enact the Paris Commune as imagined by Karl Marx, their post-revolutionary successors now want to re-enact Silicon Valley as imagined by Alvin Toffler,” Alexander Woodside wrote in a 1998 essay in Daedalus, a journal published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Alvin Toffler: What he got right - and wrong

The Muddled Legacy of Alvin Toffler

He was right about “future shock” but wrong about the solution.

Techno music pioneer Juan Atkins, founder of the pioneering Detroit techno label Metroplex which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010, told The Guardian reporter Ben Ferguson how in 1985 he met up with:
Rik Davis, a Vietnam veteran who developed an interest in electronic music while in the army. They shared sounds with each other and soon became bandmates in the group Cybotron.

"There was definitely something that made us click," recalls Atkins. "We talked lots about Alvin Toffler's idea of the 'third wave' and developed what you might call a techno-speak dictionary. In this dictionary were a lot of words like metroplex and cybotron. That's where these names came from. Metroplex is short for 'metrocomplex', which was a future word that Toffler mentioned. It referred to his scenarios in Future Shock and Third Wave where cities over the world would grow so big that they would all become one. This was a metrocomplex."

Saturday, August 13, 2016


It's always a pleasure to discover an author one has never read before but, in Walter Mosley's case, that pleasure is tinged with embarrassment. As someone who prides himself as having a decent knowledge of American fiction (and a substantial bookshelf of cherished titles) to not know Mosley is almost a crime. Finding nine of his books at my favourite second-hand bookshop at the same time seems almost indecent. Each is inscribed and dated in pen by the previous owner (now deceased) named David (second name hard to read). There may have been others in the same haul I missed. I read them all, one after another, without a break ( or book) in-between. An incredibly enjoyable and stimulating experience.

Walter Mosley is one of America's great writers, black and Jewish by birth. His first book was only published in 1990, to be followed by 52 others. He is best known for his masterly crime novels featuring Easy Rawlins and violent sidekick Mouse, mainly set in LA (Mosley's birthplace) between the '40s to '60s. These are on a par with Chandler, Hammett and Elmore Leonard. The stories ebb and flow with effortless ease, the characters and dialogue are full-blooded and authentic. Easy has no official status as a detective but, usually as a favour to a friend, gets down and dirty with a variety of original crime situations. Easy was a black GI in World War II and he often gets flashbacks as he scours the black side of Los Angeles for lost girls, missing money or bad men who need to be taken out. Its hard-boiled, violent and sexy but with a lot of genuine love, friendship and grace.

Mosley wrote 11 Easy adventures, the last being 'Blonde Faith' which ends with Easy driving off a Malibu cliff. Mosley says: "I had no future for Easy, and so I decided I was going to stop writing him. I didn’t think he was really dead, but I did think I was going to stop writing him." Six years later, Mosley was re-inspired to produce two new adventures 'Little Green' and 'Charcoal Joe' with more to come. So far only 'Devil In a Blue Dress' has been filmed, starring Denzel Washington.

Mosley has also experimented in other areas of fiction. 'Blue Light' wanders into Neil Gaiman territory. Its a weird journey. The cover quote reads: 'A mad jaunt into the fantastic...urban transcendentalism with a sound track by George Clinton.' Narrated by a half-white half-black character called Chance, it's set in San Francisco of the mid-1960s. The blurb reads: 'A cosmic blue light strikes people in its path, quickening their DNA and greatly enhancing their strengths and understanding. They become the Bliues, powerful yet vulnerable.'

Mosley's latest book 'Killing Johnny Fry' is billed as  a Sexistential novel and is definitely not for the prim and proper. It's a powerful and dramatic hardcore sexual journey taking by a man who arrives unexpectedly at his girlfriend's flat to see here being screwed by another man. This tips him off-balance and leads him to engage is a variety of sexual adventures. This is adult literature at its best, The movie comes out next year.

There's much more to be found out about the many accomplishments of Walter Mosley on his
Official website: www.waltermosley.com/
Interesting Wikipedia entry here: 

Monday, July 18, 2016


'If you think you don't want to read anymore about
Vietnam, you are wrong. 'Dispatches' is beyond
politics, beyond rhetoric, beyond "pacification"
and body counts and the "psychotic vaudeville"
of Saigon press briefings. Its materials are fear
and death, hallucination and the burning of
souls. It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a
cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful
of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.'

Review by John Leonard. International Herald
31 November 1977.
[The Generalist Archive]
This post is a tribute to the writer Michael Herr, who died on 23rd June 2016 aged 76.

'We got out and became like everyone else who has been through a war. changed, enlarged and (some things are expensive to say) incomplete... A few extreme cases felt that the experience there had been a glorious one, while most of us felt that it had been merely wonderful. I thought Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.'

 It’s very rare to meet two god-like writers in one evening but that’s what happened.

 Hunter S. Thompson was in London, hanging out and writing stuff for a magazine, for which he was being paid, or part-paid, in coke. It was definitely in a pub in Covent Garden but the date is uncertain (Autumn 1986 perhaps). The Editor was going down there to meet him and sort out the deal and I tagged along.

We walked in the pub and there was the unmistakable figure of Hunter at the bar, tall and built, with glasses and cigarette holder, wearing one of those kind of fishermen jackets that anglers, reporters and photographers wear, with lots of pockets.

I stayed at the bar while the Ed and HST went to the toilets to sort things out. When he came back to the bar, he stood right next to me. 

How to start a conversation with this legendary towering personality? I asked him how Oscar Zeta Acosta was. Oscar was the attorney in ‘Fear and Loathing’ and had written a great book ‘Autobiography of A Brown Buffalo’. That got me some attention and we chatted amicably and fairly briefly before he left.

I was in an excited daze after that meet but then the Ed or someone else said you know who that is sitting over there. I stared into a darker corner of the bar. That’s Michael Herr, author of ‘Dispatches’. My God! My hero! Without a moment’s hesitation I went over there, emboldened perhaps by my recent encounter, where I was able to say hello, say how much I admired ‘Dispatches’ and other pleasantries. I think I might have mentioned the idea of an interview. We shook hands.

Michael had moved to London in 1979 to avoid the celebrity generated by the publication of ‘Dispatches’ (1977 in the US/1978 in the UK) and the launch of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (Premiered 15th Aug 79 [US]/Dec 79 [UK]).

I got the interview, tied into the launch of ‘The Big Room’, a large format paperback featuring paintings by Guy Peellaert with text by Michael. At that time I was working for The Guardian.  The interview with Michael was conducted at another London pub – the Brompton Arms – on 9th October 1986. I interviewed Guy on the phone. The final piece, containing a tightly edited version of the two interviews, was published on Wednesday 22nd October and the book was officially published two days later.

I republished The Guardian piece in The Generalist on January 29th, 2009 [See Previous Post: GUY PEELAERT: Rock Dreams & The Big Room], the day when The Guardian finally ran Guy's obit, which carried a quote from my interview. He had died on 17th November the year before.

Michael and Guy’s publisher in the UK was Picador Books, run by Sonny Mehta, one of the greats of modern publishing, who, for the last 30 years, has been running Knopf in the US.
There was a party at Sonny’s apartment, which was held sometime shortly after the launch of The Independent (7th October 1986), at which I met Michael and Guy together. I remember the timing because Germaine Greer was there, flicking through the paper's latest issue and saying they needed to get a crossword. Salman Rushdie and many other luminaries were also present.

This transcript of another chunk of my interview with Michael Herr– published here in full for the first time - focuses on his early years and Vietnam. It has been  augmented with extra material I gained from doing a phone interview with Michael shortly after our initial meeting.

In preparation for this work I collected together all Michael’s books: ‘Dispatches’, the second edition of Guy Peellaert’s ‘Rock Dreams’ (to which MH contributed a new introduction), ‘The Big Room’, ‘Walter Winchell’ (a hybrid between a novelised biography and a film script) and a short but incisive and revealing book on Kubrick, published as a homage after his death, as a counter-point to the off-colour obits and commentaries that Herr felt unjustly represented this iconic filmmaker. 

Herr of course worked closely with Coppola and his film editors on ‘Apocalypse Now', helping to refine the film’s structure and providing the telling narrations that give voice to Martin Sheen’s inner thoughts. He co-scripted the screenplay with Kubrick's ‘Full Metal Jacket’ which gained them an Oscar nomination.

Few of the greatest writers have written so much and published so little. As he discusses in this interview, he wrote very slowly, using pencil and paper. Each sentence being scrutinised and re-tweaked, no doubt to effect a form of prose that was dense and insightful, often describing diaphanous ideas and states of mind so subtle that it required a man of deep insight to produce their charcoal outline. He was a master craftsman with a remarkable ear for a memorable passing phrase and a sharp eye for keen detail that brought the bigger picture to life.

Herr gave relatively few interviews for such a celebrated writer. Having lived in London from 1979, with his English wife and two daughters, they all decamped back to New York in 1991 and later moved upstate where Herr stayed out of the limelight and became a practising Buddhist.

" [I have] complicated ambivalent feelings about the interview process. You always feel like, when you read them, that you’re just honking your brains out. Not much is revealed really. [It’s an] awkward and artificial convention."
 I covered the anti-war movement [in] an extensive magazine article [for the] New York Times Sunday magazine in 1964 but [they] never ran the article, even though I finished it and I was paid for it. I don’t know really why they didn’t run the article but I have my suspicions: deliberately spiked. It was very sympathetic.

JM: Do you have a copy of it?

MH: I don’t even have a copy of ‘Dispatches’, let alone the juvenilia I wrote when I was 24 years old. 

JM: Your biographers are going to have a hard time. 

MH: I’m hoping to discourage them in advance.



‘Herr was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on 13 April 1940, and later grew up in Syracuse, New York. He attended Syracuse University, but ultimately dropped out in favour of a wayward life of travel - akin to writers like Ernest Hemingway.

 MH: Syracuse was always - when I was a kid and for years before - one of those cities that was so normal in every American respect it was used as a test site for a new automobile, new washing machine, movies, Broadway shows, It was considered a magic town where the equation, the numbers, were just perfect. If they liked it there, everybody had reason to believe they'd like it.

My dad had a mercantile, merchandising, retailing background. He managed a small department store until his death [and] bought a couple of motels.

Syracuse was like a combination of a farm community outside with a kind of hard industrial core inside. [It was] just close enough to New York to not be the Mid-West but, in many ways [it was] the Mid-West, with Mid-Western values: Republican. It was a great place to grow up actually.

JM: Where you always looking towards the big city?

MH:  I think I started living in New York City in my mind when I was about 10 years old and I just had to wait eight or nine years to send my body along because I was a kid.


JM: So was writing always going to be a thing for you?

MH: Since I was a teenager. Since adolescence, The first things I remember writing were imitations of S.J. Perelman stories, New Yorker magazine [articles] and then, inevitably, Hemingway and then whoever I was reading.

When you're young and you are writing, you write like whoever you are reading for a long time. Any writer will tell you that reading a book is work too. It's a creative act and there's a way in which, no matter what anybody says to about your work, it never means the same as when another writer says they like it. You feel better and, if there's a knock, you don't feel so bad about it but you take it very seriously. You consider there's a real possibility that you were a little over the top here, a little lax there.

I never really studied writing, I just wrote. Rod Serling was a cousin of mine, Very useful, when I knew I wanted to become a writer, to have a very successful example in the family, made everybody feel a lot better about it. Rod did the ‘Twilight Zone’, wrote dramas in the so-called Golden Age of American television, very famous in their day. I loved him very much, very fond of him, quite close, rather distantly related but very close. He was encouraging.

When I was very young, 19 or 20, I was asked by New Leader magazine to be their film critic. I don't think it exists any more. It was a sort of left-wing, more radical than liberal magazine.

I didn't last very long because, one, I was very young, two, I had no politics. I was totally saying the wrong things - at first, quite innocently and, eventually, out of sheer perversity - because it was hollow, doctrinaire.

The trouble with politics is that it's adversarial - here it's nothing but adversarial - so there's no impulse towards some consensus. That's one of the problems with politics, the other one being the people who become politicians, and the rest of it being, I don’t think I know what the word means. You know, when I hear the word ‘politics’ it has no real meaning for me. It's like a dead word.

JM: So you started travelling a lot and eventually you went to Vietnam.
MH: I worked for about a year as an editor on a magazine called Holiday which was a wonderful magazine in its day. Its cover was as a kind of glamorous travel and leisure magazine but actually it had great writing in it and often on very strange subjects, subjects you never would imagine would appear in a magazine like that. V.S. Pritchett wrote two major pieces every year, often book-length pieces. Hemingway wrote for them, Faulkner wrote for them. It was interesting except I wasn't doing any writing, just having lunch a lot. That was great for a little time.

JM: So then you went straight to Esquire?

 MH: I never really belonged to Esquire. I did freelance pieces for about three years, mostly so I could travel all over the place including Asia, South America. Travel stories, I hope, with some atmosphere, modesty.



Photo by the legendary Vietnam war photographer Tim Page.
His moving tribute to Michael Herr can be read here.


JM: Did you approach Esquire with the idea of going to Vietnam.

MH: Yes I did, 1 wanted to go. I had wanted to go for quite a while but all the ways I could figure out of going there I knew were a mistake because my peculiar pathology, my peculiar talents, didn't lend themselves to that kind of journalism of deadlines and obligations.

Esquire was really prepared to send me, knowing that I wanted to write a book. It was very informal, amazing, because they were really taking on a lot of responsibility by accrediting me as a journalist.

I wanted to go. I wanted to write a book about the Vietnam War. I felt that we were getting all the facts and lots of pictures and tremendous coverage [but] somewhere, something just wasn't being communicated. There was a lot of confusion, most of it moral confusion.

JM: Presumably you're army experience had given you great sympathy for the ‘grunts’ if you like.

MH: Not really. My army experience was a joke. It was basic training, eight weeks as a clerk typist. I had basic infantry training. So I don't know if it was grunts as grunts I had sympathy for. It’s really hard to know where you acquire sympathy. 

I went into the service at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis [October 16–28, 1962] when, in fact, I happened to hear that I was about to be drafted which would have meant a two-year hitch. So I instantly got in the reserve programme which meant six months of active duty ‘cos I knew it was unavoidable. I was going to have to serve, one way or the other, so I took the short route. That meant I was exempt from the draft.

JM: Were you anti the war?

MH: In the shortest possible answer and in a word, yes. I was anti the war. It was more complicated than that.

JM: Where did you first land?

MH: Saigon. You virtually had to spend a week in Saigon before you could go on, to get your papers in order, both with the Vietnamese government and the American mission. You'd got to get your field gear, got to find a place to live, meet a few people, see where to go, how to go.

JM: Were you required to file stories during the time you were there?

MH: No. I was only there eleven months, make it a year, because I did have a three or four week break but it was after I’d been there almost ten months. So even though I was in Hong Kong I was still on the story in a funny way.That’s why it was extraordinary that Esquire ever sent me because they didn’t really require anything of me. There was some vague idea that I would write a monthly column. I was there two weeks when I saw what a preposterous idea that was and I wrote the editor Harold Hayes. [He] was a great editor. There’s no-one like him anymore. I hate to sound like some old pooperoo but he was really extraordinary. He didn’t care. He said just do what you want to do. So I did.

JM: ‘Dispatches’ didn’t come out until very late 1977. Were you working on other things?

MH: No. I was working only on that, I had a few really rough and woolly years where I wasn’t really writing much of anything and I was barely making it – a very marginal existence.

I always felt - I’ve said this before and I believe it – it’s very unpopular to say it to the Veterans ‘cos they don’t want to know this:

I don’t want to minimise what they suffered or what I suffered even though I know I had a better time than they did. I may have actually been in more combat than they were but I had a better time ‘cos I never had to. I didn’t have to. That’s really what it was about, I didn’t have to be in combat nor did I have to go through those horrible long interludes between combat, which are a kind of combat.

Whatever it was that happened to me a year or so after I came back from the war wasn’t simply the war. It was everything, it was my whole life and the war had crystallised certain problems, emotional problems. The war just set that off. Whatever it was, man, I was really paralysed for a couple of years.  

I was in New York City which was a very bad place to be when you’re going through that kind of rough time. I think if you can survive a period of extended breakdown in New York it gives you a lot of strength. You can survive anything.


JM: Was the Vietnam War the death of conventional journalism?

MH: I never was a conventional journalist. It didn’t seem to kill conventional journalism, on the contrary. But for me, I never thought of myself as a journalist. A writer always, even if I was carrying a card that said I was a journalist. Well they didn’t give cards to people who called themselves writers. You had to have a journal behind you.

JM: Was it a slow and difficult process to write ‘Dispatches’? When was the first time when you realised you had a hold on what you'd experienced?

 MH: I felt it strongly from the first piece I ever wrote and I felt it really strongly when I was writing the Khe Sanh thing. A lot of the book appeared in Esquire, all but two sections, [which] appeared somewhere else.

I didn’t want to finish it, man, I just didn’t want to finish it. That’s really where it was at. I simply didn’t want to finish it. Then I did.

JM: Why didn’t you want to finish it?

MH: Complicated. Because you become so attached to those horrible negative states of mind.

If you think that you’re writing a book that will change your life if you finish it, you don’t want to change your life. It’s like having to move house in the middle of the night. Even if you know it’s going to be a great house, infinitely preferable to this hovel you’re living in, you don’t want to make the move ‘cos you’re so attached to that depression, negativity.

But then I just got fed up. I sort of had that moment when I sort of touched bottom. It had a strangely cathartic and cleansing effect and I said, alright, let’s do it. Used it up, just totally. You get yourself in these awful positions and then you use them up. 


Original publicity stills from the EMI Press Pack.
[The Generalist Archive]

JM: So how did you feel when Coppola came to you?

MH:  It was as soon as the book had been published. I think I heard from him within a few weeks of the book being published: He told me of his dream for the movie at great length, very operatic. Then I sat down to what I remember as being a nearly five-hour assemblage. It wasn't even really a cut; an assemblage of footage that they had had for a year.

They'd been back from the Philippines for a year, worked on it, on and off, for an eighteen month period, on more than just the narration. I got involved with the shape of the film. I spent a lot of time working with the editors, timing the narration spots.

Everybody knows there's a problem with that film but it's a great film. Everyone says the same thing. I say it too. That it's like two films that never quite meet so that, in a way, there's never a payoff and that's a big formal flaw in a work of art.
All I can say is that ‘Apocalypse Now’ survives that flaw. It's a great film. I never had one second of regret for being involved in the film or working with Francis or being exposed to really interesting information, interesting people.

If it was totally up to me I'd never write another film but I sure don't mind writing films. I like writing films. I like movies. I like the people. Excepting Sonny Mehta, I like them a helluva lot more than I like publishing people. You know where you stand.


JM: What do you think about the ‘Rambo’ movie?

MH: I think it represents the kind of male hysteric violent unquiet. Everything that's most brutal and violent in the American psyche perverted. Perverted. It's not like Jesse James. We know too much. We should know better by now. If we don't, man, we'll never know.

He's a false hero. There's no innocence about that proposition. It's all very manipulated. It gets real nasty with ‘Rambo’ and it gets real political. It's comic book politics. Plus it wasn't even very well made, so you've got that gripe too. It wasn't like a consummate action adventure film where all the details work and the production was beautiful and it was great to look at.

It had this horrible self-pity about it too. It was self-righteous, self-pitying. I mean God, man, John Wayne, at the worst moment he ever had on screen, never stoops to that kind of self-pity and it was self-pity.

But what do I know, man. I saw it on a video. I’m not up to going down the street with all my brothers and sisters and sitting in a cinema on 42nd Street and listening to the crowd. I mean I did that on ‘Death Wish’ and it really depressed me, I mean I felt like I was really standing on Dover Beach for sure and the last boat had just left and I was there with this crowd screaming for blood. And I'm not a liberal, I promise you man, I'm not a liberal.

JM: What are you?

MH: A Jeffersonian Maoist, man. I don't know what I am. Sometimes, man, I have a political swing like people have mood swings, you know. I swing from left to right, depending on what the phenomena is that I’m looking at, but one thing I can really say: I could be a fascist, I could be a radical, I could be many things at many moments but I don't have that liberal impulse any more. I plumb wore it out in the ‘60s. I wrote it to death. Just doesn't hold water. I think we're sitting in the wash of a lot of misguided liberal ideas and actions.

JM: Presumably a lot of people in America feel the same way,

MH: A lot of people everywhere feel the same way.


JM: Does it surprise you there's a resurgence in Vietnam publishing.

MH:  No it doesn't surprise me. It would surprise me if it hadn't happened. If I could say this to you off the record: It sounds very boastful. I know that I broke the Vietnam War in the culture. That I sort of broke the story as a respectable... as something that wasn't just polemic or just a political thing or a piece of news. I broke it as a cultural event.

It encouraged a lot of people to write about the Vietnam War. It encouraged publishers to publish books about the Vietnam War because, at the time ‘Dispatches’ was published, that was absolute poison. You didn’t publish books about the Vietnam War. It was a foregone conclusion they were going to be a commercial disaster, break their author’s heart.

JM: So you tested the market.

MH: I just wrote a book and published it but I knew that the book would have an impact. One of the results [was] that, between the book and the films that were coming out at the time, it was suddenly a serious subject for serious writing. Now there are dozens of books every year and three big films to come out.


JM: Tell me about Stanley Kubrick?

MH: I wrote a film with Stanley Kubrick, a Vietnam film called ‘Metal Jacket’ [based on a book entitled ‘The Short Timers’] by an author called Gustav Hasford, It’s extraordinary, Scripted it with Stanley. He’s extremely particular.

Once again I must say that I was thrilled that I was able to work with him. Whatever his reputation may be elsewhere, in other departments: one, I don't totally believe it and, two, I never had that experience. I got on great with him. I mean, essentially, Stanley wrote a treatment, I wrote the script, he rewrote the script, I rewrote the script. When shooting started, things 'had to be rewritten occasionally, and we would do that.

JM: How does the view of the Vietnam war portrayed in the book compare with film version?

MH: I think it's very similar. It's more inside in a way. Gus was a marine and the characters are all combat marines in combat situations and it really gets into the marine corps ethic.

It does leave you feeling a lot of ambivalence. It’s full of great, dark, Melvillean ambiguities and it’s very potent writing, He's a natural incredibly gifted writer. [Off the record, the guy is a looney tune]. You read the first section of the book, which is basic training [and] boot camp, and you finish it and you feel like you've read a whole novel but it's only 23 pages or 28 pages. He has a kind of economy and power.

JM: A lot of the movies being produced these days are about Vietnam in the same way that movies of the ‘5Os are about World War Two.

MH: I don't know. I haven't the faintest idea.I don't know where the Vietnam War sits in the American psyche and where it is in the memory. It won't go away but, whether there’s any enlightenment or not, I don’t know.

JM: Have you been to the Vietnam Veterans memorial wall?

MH: No. I tell you man, I functionally said goodbye to Vietnam when I finished the book. I refused for years to speak about it, write about it, do films about it and I refused right up until Stanley contacted me, I wanted to work with him. I loved his movies since I was a teenager. I wanted to work with him. I like him enormously. I’m very fond of him.

That really is it. I never wanted to get involved in anything public. I never wanted to participate in the 10th anniversary celebrations or commemoration, whatever they were. It seemed like some kind of celebration with nothing to celebrate. I mean it was treated in the media like the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty [with] not much discrimination, I was asked by virtually every network and major magazine to jump in and I told them all I really wanted [was] to remember that anniversary in my own way, real private.


The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is considered by many to be one of the greatest books on the Vietnam War published in recent years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year and numerous other awards. The author is a Vietnamese American who is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Its a gripping and highly readable well-told tale which is part historical fiction, part espionage thriller and part satire. Its narrator is a Vietnamese army captain, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent who escapes to America at the end of the war. He tries to adjust to life as an immigrant but he and his military colleagues hatch plans to return to Vietnam to battle the triumphant Viet Cong. In-between he signs up for a job on the set of a Vietnam movie (clearly based on 'Apocalyspe Now'), to recruit and manage Vietnamese extras. The book's struck a big chord in the US, bringing fresh perspectives to a conflict that is still an open wound. Its dark humour sprinkled with visceral reality brings to mind 'Catch-22'. An important and thought-provoking work.

'The Sorrow of War' (1991) is a novel about a man writing his experiences of the Vietnam War. Bao Ninhwho served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the North Vietnamese army and is one of only ten survivors of the 500 who set out in 1969 to fight the war.  

The book's protagonist Kien feels a burdensome debt as if he's 'carrying with him the history of his generation.' and he is forced to relive in flashbacks the horrors he witnessed, scribbling at night as if his life depended on it. The opening jungle chapter catapults you into a visceral, surreal world of darkness and danger - one of many vivid scenes of front-line conflict that pepper a story which also encompasses a intense and tragic love affair. 

To cut to the chase, this is as powerful and moving as Michael Herr's 'Dispatches'. It is an outstanding work that provides a valuable insight and perspective on the War from the North Vietnamese side – a much-needed corrective. [Originally posted August 2012]