If April is planning on being the cruelest month this year it has some catching up to do, because January and the first half of February have just about convinced me to move to the tropics, and I loathe even the concept of the tropics. Horrid places, full of sweat and bugs, sweaty, biting bugs, bugs building nests in your ears, spiders the size of poodles…. Anyway, I remember standing in our north field on a very cold winter day right after we moved out here from Manhattan, icy wind spitting freezing rain in my face, looking at the horizon across several hundred desolate acres of frozen corn stubble, and thinking, “Y’know, if I didn’t have that nice warm house to go back to, I would die rather rapidly out here.” (Yes, I can be hired for parties.)
So when I innocently clicked on my weather widget the other afternoon and discovered that it was 20 degrees below zero out there (actual temperature, not “wind chill”), I started to freak. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and lived in New York City for more than 20 years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times the electricity went out. That’s fewer than the number of times it’s gone out here, often for days, in the past year. In warm weather, it’s merely a colossal drag. But if the power goes out in this kind of weather, we’ll be in serious trouble within about 1/2 hour. A few years ago, we had to squeeze five cats and two dogs into a tiny flea-bag motel room (on Christmas Eve, no less), and I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t work. Not an option.
Meanwhile, in the world of popular culture, we finally caught up with the third season of Homeland last month after dodging spoilers for weeks and, boy howdy, the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity were absolutely right. Utterly moronic, the entire season. It started stupid and went downhill from there. Don’t get me started. It probably didn’t help that they killed all the interesting people and left us with the most relentlessly unpleasant troubled teen in TV history. Whatever. I hadn’t paid any attention to Mandy Patinkin since The Princess Bride, but now he’s the only conceivable reason to watch the show, which probably means he hasn’t long to live.
Anyway, in an attempt to reboot my mind, I decided to re-read John le Carré’s so-called Karla Trilogy, consisting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People (Karla being the pseudonym of the head of Soviet Intelligence). Unlike the idiots who cook up nonsense like Homeland, le Carré was an actual intelligence officer, running field agents for MI6 until his cover was blown (and his career thus ruined) by Kim Philby, a Soviet “mole” (le Carré popularized the term) who spent decades in the highest precincts of British intelligence. Tinker, Tailor, not coincidentally, centers on the detection and capture of a Philby-esque Soviet mole in MI6.
Midway through revisiting Tinker, Tailor, I remembered that the BBC had made a highly-praised seven-part TV mini-series of the book back in 1979 starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, so, after I finished the book, I found and watched that again (all the bits are on YouTube, if a bit low-res for my taste). It’s an amazingly good rendition of a very good book; Alec Guinness is the perfect Smiley, and the rest of the cast are exactly as you’d picture them. I haven’t seen the more recent Hollywood film of Tinker, Tailor, primarily because I don’t want the original diluted for me; Guinness is Smiley, period. Here is a wonderful interview with le Carré, done in 2002, in which he recounts working with Guinness on the film, his own path to MI6, spies and the culture of intelligence work during the Cold War, and the switch from the painstaking cultivation of human intelligence to “vacuum it all up” signals intelligence, which he considers, with good reason, a serious mistake (“I believe there’s such a thing as too much information.”).
One of the pivotal characters in Tinker, Tailor is Bill Haydon, an oleaginous and snarky British intelligence officer played with perfect pitch by the late Ian Richardson, which brings us back to American TV, or whatever you’d call Netflix. I watched a few episodes of the first season of House of Cards when it appeared, but lost interest because it seemed pretty thin and Kevin Spacey has always annoyed me. I knew that the Netflix series was based on a UK show with the same general plot, but I didn’t know until recently that Netflix streaming actually carries the 1990 UK House of Cards series as well as their own. Bingo. So I watched some of the first season (apparently also available on YouTube), and I’m here to tell you that it is an entirely different animal, far more subtle and Shakespearean than the US version (not surprising, since it was meant to echo bits of Macbeth and Richard III).
The Frank Underwood character here is Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip of the Conservatives, played by (tada!) Ian Richardson with absolute brilliance, malevolent and occasionally murderous but not entirely inhuman. His signature catch phrase, “You might very well think that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” was quoted on the floor of the House of Commons at the time and was later used in an amusing Rover commercial starring Richardson. Susannah Harker as political reporter Mattie Storin is also very, very good.
Speaking of Netflix streaming, it often doesn’t work very well out here because of our primitive low-end DSL access (the smaller the screen, the better it looks, which makes sense), but I was surprised to see that the rest of the country isn’t having a great experience either. Evidently Netflix and Verizon are having a tiff over peering arrangements, with Netflix accusing Verizon of a kind of passive extortion and possibly intentionally slowing things down to favor its own Redbox Instant streaming service. In other news, there’s apparently something called Redbox Instant. Good luck with that. Their kiosks, at least out here, are stuffed with absolute crap like “Chainsaw NASCAR Ninja Killers” and it’s hard to picture them streaming anything worth watching. But I could be wrong.
In any case, I hope Netflix gets well soon, because at $8 a month it’s going to be replacing the satellite TV we can no longer afford. I’ll kinda miss Al Jazeera America, which has turned out to be surprisingly good (and it’s nice to see all the folks who used to be at NBC, CBS and CNN again), but buying cat food is more important. Did you know that Fancy Feast is really not bad as a sandwich spread?
Which brings us to our last point, which is that it would be awesome if y’all would subscribe or contribute in the interest of keeping the lights on here at Word Detective World Headquarters. It would be nice not to have to worry about tripping over cats in the freezing dark.
And now, on with the show….