Friday, 27 April 2012

Who's Gatsby?

Jay Gatsby - mystery man, surrounded by wild Roaring Twenties party animals who arrive in lines of expensive cars to gatecrash the lavish bashes at his seaside mansion near New York - was almost certainly based on bootlegger and former Great War hero Max Von Gerlach, an acquaintance of F Scott Fitzgerald's. Gatsby's adored love, Daisy Buchanan, was based on Ginevra King, a beautiful but rather empty Illinois teenager the young Fitzgerald (above) fell for with a big bang during the Christmas of 1914.
Gatsby is a composite, as are all Fitzgerald's characters, and there's a certain amount of Scottie himself in Jay - the outsider desperate to be an insider, the naif who thinks he's a sophisticate. His profession is a whispered-about mystery throughout the book - is he a bootlegger, involved with the Mob or the Jewish gangs, as suggested by his mentor who reveals to the seedy narrator Nick Carraway that Gatsby has 'gonnections'?
Gerlach was a reputed bootlegger, one of the roiling mass of friends and semi-friends surrounding the Fitzgeralds in the grande monde and demi-monde of 1920s American high society and its outreaches in Paris and the South of France. He was rumoured to be a bootlegger, and a surviving note from him in July 1923 survives in the Fitzgeralds' scrapbook: "En route from the coast - Here for a few days on business - How are you and the family, old sport? Gerlach" - 'old sport' is Gatsby's great catchphrase.
Gerlach, it is said, was a mechanic when he went to war, and a society man when he came back. Things went wrong for him and he shot himself in the head; it was this that blinded him; in the 1950s, he was blind and living permanently in pyjamas in a New York hotel.
All this has been discovered by Charleston, South Carolina detective Howard Comen, who has been years on Gerlach's trail.
Another plausible candidate for at least part of Gatsby's personality is the Fitzgeralds' actual next-door neighbour in Great Neck, Long Island in 1922 and 1923, the stockbroker Edward Fuller. Damon Runyon's joking use of 'broker' for someone who's broke is accurate for Fuller, who declared himself bankrupt owing $6 million - imagine that in today's money. Fuller was buddied up with the racketeer Arnold Rothstein, the model for the sinister yet fatherly Meyer Wolfsheim who takes Gatsby under his wing in the novel.
In one turning point in the novel, Gatsby talks to Carraway, reveals his love for Daisy, and his belief that they are a fated couple, he can win her from her thuggish ex-football-star husband. But Carraway himself is no clean-cut hero; when we meet him he is trying to slither out of a commitment to one woman to pursue - or rather, be pursued by - another, the equally slithery golfer Jordan Baker.
In a writhingly embarrassing confession, Gatsby tells the sneery yet somehow human Carraway about himself: he's from 'the Midwest' (from San Francisco! - to Americans, the 'Midwest' is actually the central northern states of their union), he has attended Oxford (transparently untrue), he has been a hero in the war, his heroism recognised by many nations, 'even Montenegro - little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!' - and he produces a medal, engraved on the back. The war heroism, it seems, is true; not that it helps poor Gatsby's future. He confesses his love, and asks Carraway to help him win Daisy - bring them together.
No better man. Carraway is soon involved in a louche facilitation. Daisy is immediately taken with the new Gatsby, adoringly watching him tumble his priceless couture shirts - symbols of the wealth he thinks will win her - through the sparkling air of his hard-won mansion.
Carraway, always the hurler on the ditch, watches the courtship, and also observes Daisy's husband Tom's brutal courtship of a working-class woman, another imprisoned wife, who believes Tom is about to leave Daisy for her, even as he breaks her nose with one swift gesture after she mocks Daisy's name.
The end comes with a crack when Tom realises, to his utter astonishment, that Daisy is in love with Gatsby. I'll leave off the spoiler, for those who are still reading.
And Gatsby's profession? In the end, it turns out to be the ultimate symbol of the Roaring Twenties before the crash, and of Celtic Tiger Ireland for that matter: he's running fiddles with bonds. Carraway, too, is in the bond business, so when he picks up the phone in Gatsby's deserted castle in the end and hears: "Young Parke's in trouble... they picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter. They got a circular from New York giving 'em the numbers just five minutes before. What d'you know about that, hey? You never can tell in these hick towns -- " - when he hears that, Carraway knows what the story is.
In the end, despite grubbying his life for the love of the worthless, disloyal Daisy, Gatsby is a true knight, chevalier sans peur et sans reproche.
The seediness, the mistresses, the tearing-away of the glamour that shone from the high life of the Twenties, meant that the book would sink like a stone on publication, only to be recognised years later for the masterpiece it was. Only Fitzgerald could take a wealthy young crim and make a true hero of him.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Riviera Tiger

F Scott Fitzgerald got the blame for the excesses of the Roaring Twenties. And it's true, he was a boy who loved to party. (Would he have hated the verbing of 'party' or loved it as an amusing new usage?) 
Fitzgerald wrote afterwards, from the viewpoint of the Depression - worse (for the moment) than we are bearing, a time when it was not unusual to go hungry and, if you were lucky, to queue for a meagre bowl of vegetable soup, a time when my great-uncle Cecil, son of a Dublin solicitor, tried to cross from the US into Canada, listing his profession as 'labourer' and his means as 'destitute', and was turned back, and shortly died in a fall in the mountains. 
Fitzgerald remembered the Twenties as a time that was not all bad.
"There were so many good things," he wrote. (I quote from Matthew Bruccoli's superb biography, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur.) "These eyes have been hallowed by watching a man order champagne for his two thousand guests, by listening while a woman ordered a whole staircase from the greatest sculptor in the world, by seeing a man tear up a good check for eight hundred thousand dollars."
Fitzgerald, a party animal who made the rock stars of the 1960s look like amateurs, wrote: "It is our custom now to look back ourselves on the boom days with a disapproval that approaches horror. But it had its virtues, that old boom. Life was a great deal larger and gayer for most people, and the stampede to the Spartan virtues in times of war and famine shouldn't make us too dizzy to remember its hilarious glory."

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Beautiful things: Rowan's honey jar

Once upon a time, we made beautiful things in Ireland. Al O'Dea made lovely monastic chairs, stern and strict and stark. Waterford Glass's designers made beautifully clean and subtle designs in glass. Sybil Connolly made sexy, irresistible clothes - my mother had a dress I always wanted, silk, with an aquamarine bodice and skirt - but the skirt unlooped itself from the front and fastened on the back, revealing a reverse of deep sea-green. And that reversible skirt was in such light silk that the hem had to be weighted with lead shot, so that if you whirled around it flickered and spun around you with a faint, lovely whistling. Oh, there were lovely things, but my favourite was   very simple, the Rowan's honey jar. Rowan's were seedsmasters, with a gigantic shop in Westmoreland Street, at the centre of Dublin, where you could browse for your needs: calendula, whose peppery orange petals would give savour to your lamb stew; parsley, the secret ingredient that turns every dish to magic; sweet rocket, whose fragrance rises from the garden like an expensive French scent. But Rowan's also made honey - in those days before the horrifying neonicotinides the First World's pet owners put on their dogs' and cats' necks to keep away fleas, and gardeners put on their earth to kill vine weevils... in those days before the neonicotinoids were implicated in colony collapse disorder, which is killing all our beloved bees; in those days, Rowan's honey was everywhere, in every shop. And Rowan's honey was sold in these jars, the shape of a cell in a beehive, the shape of the joy of bees. The honey was delicious - not "a mixture of EC  and non-EC honeys", but pure Wexford and Clare and Galway and Dublin honey, won from the pollen of local plants, with the wherewithal to help your health and set your taste buds on fire with deliciousness and wonder. I still have one of these jars - somehow I managed to throw out the lid, so its lid doesn't close properly - and I decant the pretend-honeys won from acacia or  robinia or anything but native heathers and wildflowers and suburban flowers into its hexagonal glass, and try to pretend that this is the honey of my childhood, that honey I took so happily for granted, that honey that slipped onto my tongue. It's not hard to keep bees, if you're not allergic, and most people aren't; but beekeeping is not yet fashionable. It will be - in 10 years, it will become deeply trendy to have a hive on your back wall - but for now this is an unusual and slightly offside skill to have. (By the way, the Irish Beekeepers' Association runs courses, should you want to be an early adopter.) For now, all I can do is search out the beekeepers who hide in our midst, who keep their swarms in Rathmines and Greystones and Dalkey and Ranelagh, and edge up to their door to buy and take away a comb in secret. And as I take it out of its wooden structure, I'll drain it into the old Rowan's jar, and look at that lost love. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Killer overtime

IT’S the curse of the 21st century: too many people working crazy shifts and double jobs, trying to keep the wolf and the bankers from the door. 
The result - obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes. People who regularly put in overtime and work 10- or 11-hour days increase their heart disease risk by nearly two-thirds. 
A study by Finnish researcher Mianna Virtanen of 6,000 British civil servants published in the European Heart Journal found that after accounting for risk factors such as smoking, those who worked three to four hours of overtime a day ran a 60pc higher risk of heart attacks.
Francesco Cappuccio, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Warwick, is running a huge series of studies called Sleep, Health and Society. Prof Cappuccio is using metanalysis - pulling together lots of studies of population from the last 60 years - to study how long people sleep and how that is related to the illnesses that stalk and kill them.
“The results show a dual effect,” says Francesco. “Those who were consistently sleeping five hours or less per night tended to have about a 12pc increased risk of dying early.”
And people who sleep too long have a 30pc bigger chance than normal of dying early. But it is thought that the risk from longer sleep is mainly because people spend more time asleep when they’re falling ill with a serious disease. Very long sleep can also be a sign of depression.
“We’ve pulled together studies carried out in Europe, in America and in East Asia,” says Francesco - and the results were the same everywhere.
Shift work has led us to sleep less and less over the last 50 years, he says, and shift workers have a worse health outcome compared to people who work an old-fashioned working day. 
This bad health is consistent over all classes - labourers, pilots, journalists, doctors - who work odd shifts that affect their sleep. Laboratory studies of short sleep show that it sends your hormones haywire and makes mad neuro-endrocrine changes. In extreme short sleep your cortisol increases, your glucose intolerance gets worse, your insulin resistance increases. “These are the precursors of diabetes.”
Your blood pressure and cholesterol go up, and your adrenaline and noradrenaline secretions, the stress hormones. “Many other changes of this kind, like ghrelin and leptin, the hormones regulating appetite, which work in a see-saw fashion. They will increase  your appetite and reduce your metabolic expenditures.
“When you sleep less, these hormones move in a way that will stimulate your hunger and appetite, and reduce your metabolic expenditures.”
The link between obesity and sleep isn’t that clear, though - it’s complicated by the fact that weighty people find it harder to breathe when they’re lying down, which may make sleep difficult. 
The real terror is cardiovascular disease - strokes and heart attacks - which kill one in three men, and one in four women. “A 12pc risk of death in short sleepers… would equate to over 6.3 million attributable deaths in the UK in people over 16,” says Francesco, “and 25 million in the US.” For coronary heart disease the risk is estimated at 23pc of the population. 
So if you’re thinking of taking that high-powered job, with its crazy working hours, think again. The hours just might not be worth it.
© Lucille Redmond 
First published in the Evening Herald, Dublin, Ireland

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Reaping the artists

I've come across several old friends in the last couple of weeks, all artists in various disciplines, and all people who supported a lifelong dedication to their craft with a couple of days' work. And all now unemployed.
The first was a brilliant man whose work is in every art-loving household in the country. I had always thought of him as someone who was on the staff of the college where he worked. But he looked up from where he was sitting and reading a manuscript with one hand and rocking his baby with the other, at a table in a cafe, and greeted me gladly, and then told me that no, he'd been a part-timer. "They were always on at me to go full-time, but I wanted to work at my own stuff." When the reaping time came, he was for the high jump. "It costs too much to get rid of someone who's on the staff, and the union will back them, and they'll be entitled to redundancy," he said.
Next was a star, a household name whose craft and technique must have been invaluable to his students in the 20 years he has taught them. One day a week, though. "It was the reaping," he said, and laughed. "They just scooped out all the part-timers and got rid of us all."
Another had a newspaper column; the editor rang up and said sorry, all the columns were going to be done in-house from now on.
Another provided regular witty, arty pieces to a magazine; de trop now that things are tight - syndicated material will fill in.
It's a crazy, crazy policy, leading to mediocrity. The best minds of our generation - of two or three generations, given that a generation is taken to be 15 years - can't work, while the play-it-safe people continue to trudge in and collect their wages.
The only near equivalent I can think of is the 1920s and 1930s, when the left-wingers were deliberately frozen out, and left the country in droves, leaving a tight-arse right-wing republic fawning on the bishops and doffing the cap to the gombeen men. And we all know what that led to. But maybe that's what the Irish people want.

Monday, 9 April 2012

ePublishing - fun, but complicated fun

SO I put my book online - a collection of short stories I'd written over the years, mostly already published and anthologised. The idea is that you produce a .mobi file, upload it on Amazon and wait for the dollars (euros, pounds, bolivars, krone, yuan) to pour in. 
Amazon is wonderful. I love the fact that you can now buy obscure or forgotten books with a click, listen to music from tiny African countries, see films by makers long dead. I particularly loved the idea that I could sell my book without complexity - without contracts with publishers, months of waiting, obfuscatory audits. Ebooks were crystalline, gloriously simple - I'd put it up, you'd buy it, I'd be paid.
Reality, as usual, bites. And bites in the ass. The tech bits are easy enough - I use Scrivener for writing, and this produces an immaculate .mobi with the press of a key. And artist Syd Bluett made me a stunning cover

in the various sizes needed - a 600x800 Jpeg file under 127kB for 'inside' the ebook - this is the one readers will see on their computer or e-reader; and a 900x1200px (or 938x1250px) tiff file at 150ppi for the 'product catalogue' - Amazon's or iTunes' or Smashwords' web page about the book.
Amazon is the monster of the market, a monolith that sells millions of books every day, so obviously it's the one to go for first. And as a friend who preceded me into the ebook publishing game pointed out, you can take 70% profits on the sales of your book if you sell it for $2.99 or more.
I duly uploaded my book to, and said yup to sell it in France, Spain, the UK, Germany and Italy too, through the various 'local' Amazon sites. Here it is: (US and Ireland) (Britain) (France) (Germany) (Italy) (Spain)
I signed up for the $2.99 deal, and sat back rubbing my hands and waiting for the golden profits to pour in. With growing excitement I saw my sales soar - one book, then five, then eight! I was going to be almost a millionaire! But... well... not quite. Because as it turns out, Amazon's payment model is reminiscent of the complex theologies of a Catholic girlhood. 
I looked at the sales reports on Amazon's publisher site. Five of the books had been sold in the US, and for these I'd get 70%. But for the three sold in Ireland (my native land, and therefore the most likely source of sales), I would get only 35%.

I asked on Amazon's forum where publishers and authors can share their wisdom, and was told that the 35% of profits coming to me from books sold in Ireland was because Amazon had higher expenses in dealing with foreign countries: "There's VAT, there's wireless charges, there's the hazard of being taxed by crazy treasury types who decide that suddenly Amazon is a local business...."
This is puzzling; Ireland is so crazy for American business that our taxes and tariffs are rock-bottom to facilitate US companies doing business here. (VAT, Value Added Tax, is kind of like sales tax in the US - Ireland doesn't have sales tax, but we pay varying VAT on different items; food is VAT-free, as are other essentials, with occasional weird anomalies; women's sanitary items were taxed as 'luxuries' for a long time, for instance, though they're now zero-rated, but condoms incur 23% VAT.) 
No VAT is charged on books, but on ebooks VAT is charged at 23%.
This is slightly complicated for me by the Guardian's recent article saying that Amazon's UK arm is based in Luxembourg so it charges its customers the Luxembourg VAT rate of 3% What can this mean for sellers?
Anyway, back to my Amazon millions. The next horror was the discovery that Amazon withholds American tax, unless you fill out a form that convinces the IRS, the US tax authorities, that you're going to pay your legitimate tax on your millions in your own country. Then you give Amazon the 'EIN' - the tax non-withholding number - and they send you your millions, untaxed.
There seem to be various forms, depending on whether you are an employer or a sole trader; some require the signature of a notary public to convince the IRS that you are legit. The simplest thing seemed to be to phone the IRS and get them to guide me through it - I haven't done this yet, but an app programmer who's done it tells me that the IRS are knowledgable, helpful and kind, and you do it once only. (If you're going to sell your book on iTunes, Apple also requires this number, by the way - in fact, Apple won't even let you fill out their form until you provide this number.) 
The final strangeness is that Amazon - which has never shown any great reluctance to take my money in electronic form - won't pay Irish sellers electronically if their ebooks are bought from or On the US site (from which Irish purchasers of ebooks must buy) payment will be made in the form of a dollar cheque, and on the UK site in the form of a sterling cheque.
And you have to wait a while for your millions. Amazon won't pay anything until you rack up profits of $100, and then they wait to fill out that cheque (or since they're American, a check) for you - 60 days after the end of the month in which you have made that $100.
Strangely, this page on the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) site says you can be paid in euros to a bank in Ireland - but when I tried to set this up, Amazon's site didn't make it possible for the UK and US sites. Instead I was told: 
"Your royalties will accrue separately for each Amazon marketplace. For example,,, and sales will accrue separately from sales. The balance of each account will be paid sixty days after the end of a month in which the balance accrued at least $10/£10/€10 for Electronic funds transfer or $100/£100/€100 for payments by check."
Apparently I'll be paid fast and electronically for all the German, French, Spanish and Italian sales, but in the distant future for UK and US sales. 
It's all a fascinating lesson in the limits of the e-world. Back in the 1980s a telecoms engineer in Ireland showed me his computer, on which he was talking to an engineer in MIT. "Wow," I said, "that's going to kill the post office, and imagine how cheaply trade could be done all over the world if everyone had interconnected computers."
"Don't be ridiculous," he withered. "People will never have computers in their homes. Interconnected trade?" He snorted. 
Maybe he was right. Dreams have their limits, after all.