Pirate Hunters

I can’t stand Johnny Depp. Thoroughly disliked the part of Pirates of the Caribbean film I saw and found no inclination to watch any more. I grew up with numerous pirate films on tv in the background, Errol Flynn prancing around with his skinny sword flailing in another “swashbuckling” adventure, enough to get bored with what Hollywood told us “pirates” were.

Now, though, now I find myself browsing for more information on pirates, particularly on one pirate – Joseph Bannister, captain of the Golden Fleece.

Why? Because I just read Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson – the story of two men’s fight to find just that ship and it’s told with such a contagious delight and reverence for the period that it’s impossible not to be caught up in the thrill of the hunt and the enthusiasm. Pirates, real Pirates, have, like so many, been done a massive disservice by technicolor.

IMG_4893Let’s rewind, a little, to the late seventeenth century – the Golden Age of Piracy. Pirates operating out of Port Royal in Jamaica are in their prime – silver pieces of eight are bank rolling a city that would give Sodom and Gomarrah a run for their money. A time populated by those pirates whose names now echo down through the years. Enter into this one of history’s all-but forgotten Pirate greats – Joseph Bannister.

During an age where Pirates such as Henry Morgan, William Kidd and “Black Sam” Bellamy and even Blackbeard himself roved the seas, plundering the English and Spanish galleons for all their worth, you’d have to do something pretty balls-out brave and audacious to stand out. How about stealing the very-well-armed merchant ship you’d captained for years, recruiting a crew of pirates and embarking on a new career of piracy? How about robbing Spanish ships, getting caught, convincing the jury (made up of locals that benefited profusely from the local Pirates) to find you not-guilty and, while awaiting re-trail, get your ship re-sailed and sneak it out of Port Royal under the noses and huge gun batteries of the governor and go straight back into piracy? How about then being cornered by two massive Royal Navy frigates tasked with destroying you and, instead of surrendering, careen your ship, mount your guns on the land and engage them in a massive two-day battle that leaves them with many dead, out of ammunition and, in an event never-heard of, force the Royal Navy to slink away in retreat?

Well that’s what Bannister did. All that an more. While Bannister survived the encounter and made his getaway The Golden Fleece was essentially destroyed in the battle and sunk, never to be found.

Never, that is, until a pair of modern-day treasure hunters John Chatterton and John Mattera took on the task of locating the wreck and, in so doing, discover only the second pirate ship ever found and positively identified.

Robert Kurson’s Pirate Hunters is the story of that quest. It’s a story of two men consumed by one goal, pretty much at the cost (financial and otherwise) of all else.

I’d given little thought to such adventures. Never watched any Discovery Channel-style documentary on it, never really realised just how much was involved – how much dedication, expertise and strength both physical and mental was needed to prise relics from their resting places. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think you’d pull up a 17th Century ship by paddling off the beach with a scuba mask on, but the events portrayed in Pirate Hunters are intense. Along with what must be mind-numbing and frustrating days of combing the depths with a sonar and diving on every blip, there’s painstaking research in Spanish historical vaults, consultations with legendary modern-day treasure hunters and risking it all on hunches and gut-feelings. At one point Mattera finds himself ambushed by opportunistic robbers while driving down the wrong dirt-road and, later, both he and Chatterton are pursued by yet-another would-be-robber on a motorbike. There’s also the competition from other treasure hunters looking to get in first, fraying personal relationships and a ticking clock as political changes threaten to scupper Chatterton and Mattera’s pursuit for the wreck.

Kurson relays the events that lead to the discovery of The Golden Fleece as though they’re that of a thriller novel – there’s no reason the quote on the cover comes from Lee Child. The pace maintains a driving momentum and avoids lingering on the slower elements of the chase. It doesn’t hurt that Johns Chatterton and Mattera are practically the stuff of legend in their own rights – both of whose biographies would provide a gripping read – and Joseph Bannister and his history provide a thrilling back story. There’s a whopping of amount of insight into the world of pirates and discoveries of more than just shipwrecks – the motivation behind Bannister turning Pirate is a revelation into a world that Hollywood has practically rendered dull.

In Pirate Hunters, Kurson not only injects excitement and enthusiasm into the pursuit of The Golden Fleece but re-injects a sense of passion and true adventure into a period of history so easily nullified by over-exposure. As is so often the case, reality can be so much more interesting than fiction and no amount of Hollywood script writers can do justice to the era in such a way as Kurson has done in just a few hundred pages. As an account of a search for sunken wonder, Pirate Hunters is both compelling and factual – a well balanced mix of fact and gripping narrative. As a taster, an introduction to the fascinations of the Golden Age of Piracy… it’s even better.

Oh, and a big thanks to Elliott and Thompson for sending this my way to read.



Currently Spinning

It’s not just books. I’m consuming a lot of music lately. Specifically I’m playing the arse out of the new albums from Built to Spill and Last Days of April (of which more to come).


I’m stuck on this song:


Still blasting the My Morning Jacket album from the car:


And, because my son still rocks out to this album:

He’s Back, and he’s Fuhrious

I’ll admit it – I bought this book after seeing the advert at a tube station and laughing at the pun “He’s back, and he’s Fuhrious”

Modern day Berlin. A man wakes up on a piece of scrub land in Berlin. He’s in full military uniform. He’s unaware how he got there and has trouble remembering anything of the previous day or two. He’s Adolf Hitler.

The Adolf Hitler.

IMG_4755So – Hitler has, somehow, been removed from the pages of history and deposited back among modern Germans. A world he expected to not exist: he had given orders for it to be burnt to the ground. He believes that he’s here due to the intervention of ‘fate’ and has been enlisted to save Germany, again, from the horror it – according to him -finds itself in.

Mistaken as an impersonator, a very intense one who refuses to break character, he finds himself taken in by a newspaper vendor conveniently located close to a television production company who buy into his act and line him up with a slot on a comedy tv show.

The humour here in Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back is both laugh out loud and extremely dark.

There’s a fantastic section early in where, having been caught in civvies while his uniform is cleaned, Hitler berates a young tv producer who had made a comment about Poland. Chastising him for his slovenly appearance, Hitler launches into a tirade, doubting that the young man even knows where Poland is, demands to know if he’s ever served in the army while doubting so as he clearly does not know where his uniform is. Hitler knows where his uniform is at all times, produces a ticket from his pocket and announces “it is at the dry-cleaners”.

There’s the suggestion that Hitler write a marriage / relationship advice book: “you could call it ‘Mein Kempf – With My Wife'”.

There’s the point that Hitler’s uniform is a little damp and, for some reason, smells of gasoline…

The combination of Hitler of old mixing with the modern world is funny but can run the risk of being a one-joke pony with diminishing results. So Vermes uses the voice of Hitler to take a satirical swipe at present day politics – Putin is admonished for appearing with his shirt off, Merkel mocked, the ideals of Germany’s Green party likened to some of his own and the Hilter of old rocking up on the doorstep of the current National Democratic Party and tearing them apart as pale imposters.

There are, however, two elements that stop this book from being a great one. Both are down to the fact that the character here isn’t fictional. It’s hard to imagine the real Hitler ever acclimatising and adapting to modernity quite as wilfully and quickly as he does – in order to propel it toward it’s function – here. The fact that he takes so easily to computers and smart phones enables all that follows and is necessary as such but isn’t quite plausible. That being said, suspend your element of disbelief and get past it, it’s a comedy after all.

And… therein lies the rub. It is a comedy, never lays claim to be serious. But while the book is clearly a satire and takes swipes at all things modern and politico, it does so from the eyes of one of History’s monster. As a bit of a history buff I’ve spent several years expanding my knowledge of World War 2 – not the dates and the statistics, the human stories. A large part of my bookshelves are given over to it. I’ve read the accounts of those who both witnessed, suffered and lost at the hands of this nasty entity and his followers.  Even if we are continually reminded that “the Jews are no laughing matter.”

There’s a theory that if you expose an audience to only one point of view, one take, one narrative for a certain amount of time, they’ll begin to find little ways to identify with that voice. To do so with Hitler is a very bold move. It works at times but the over-riding element here, especially given the lack of character change and arc (there’s no reason the real Hitler would consider any opinion other than his own so wouldn’t change), is that this is still told through the eyes of a man responsible for some of worst atrocities known to man.

As such Look Who’s Back fails to be completely laugh out loud throughout – it’s hard to laugh with abandonment at his admonishing of modern day Nazis for failing to to live up to the party when you know just what his version of living up to that party would be. But it is a very funny, satirical swipe at both how he rose to power in the first place and could, conceivably, do so again – anyone who’s been sickened by the rise of the petty, small-minded and similarly prejudiced Farage and his friends can see it’s not too much of a stretch after all.

This wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and a few moments that make you think.

Girl In A Band

IMG_4834When Girl In A Band was released earlier this year I didn’t rush out and buy it. In fact, it was my wife that added this one to the collection and got to it first.

It’s safe to say that going in to this book I had mixed feelings. On the one hand; I love Sonic Youth and was anxious to gobble down more insights into the band, its working process and its body of work. On the other; Kim and Thurston’s split meant not only the end of Sonic Youth but a shift in focus whenever the band or either of them were mentioned in print. As such all press surrounding the release of Girl In A Band – including the excerpts printed in various publications – seemed heavier on that matter than the music.

It’s also safe to say that coming away from this book I have mixed feelings.

This is a memoir, after all. Says it right there in the title: Girl In A Band: A Memoir. So not an auto-biog in the traditional linear sense nor a “making of the album” type book. Further ‘nor’ is it a My Time In Sonic Youth book. No; it’s Kim Gordon’s memoir and to expect it to be solely on SY would be rude and demeaning as Ms Gordon’s life revolves around a whole lot more.

Gordon writes movingly about her early life and family – the terror inflicted upon her by her older brother and the greater terrors unleashed by his illness – and finding her way in the art world and path into music.

All that being said, though, Sonic Youth is/was a big part of Kim’s life and so does get plenty of page time too. Gordon is remarkably frank about her limited singing abilities – explaining that she asked Kim Deal to sing the harmonies on Little Trouble Girl as she, well, couldn’t – and offers insights into the writing / recording of many of SY’s tunes including my own favourite Tunic (Song for Karen).

There’s also plenty of revelations about life with the band – touring with Neil Young and its pitfalls, Kurt Cobain (a gentle yet tortured and manic soul here) and enough to suggest that Kim Gordon and Courtney Love don’t exchange Christmas Cards.

For all of the above I loved this book and would happily read it again.

Though as it’s a memoir and a recent one at that, the dissolution of Kim and Thurston’s marriage hangs heavy over the book. Hindsight often gets a few words in on recollections of earlier times and then there’s the break-up itself. It’s dealt with in, again, a remarkably frank manner – the discovery of text messages / emails from the Other Woman, attempts at counselling and repairing the marriage and, throughout, Kim’s own devastation.

It’s hard reading. Perhaps, to me, because the two had previously been more private about their relationship. When the announcement of their separation was made it was very quiet and via their label. In a world where celebrity couples can’t walk the dog alone without speculation appearing across the internet that their relationship is on the skids, it was a welcome relief for private matters to remain just that.

But then, as mentioned, this is her memoir and its her right to use the medium to set her version on the record, perhaps so as to never need do so again. It’s a little uncomfortable to read given just how open and forthright the sordid details of Thurston’s betrayal and the abrupt collapse of their marriage are laid bare – as though, perhaps, the disclosure was a little too full.

Nonetheless, Girl In A Band is a compelling read.