One of my other bloggy places, Tremr, is having a political writing competition that is well worth checking out if you’re into that kind of thing. Link below for those interested.
One of my other bloggy places, Tremr, is having a political writing competition that is well worth checking out if you’re into that kind of thing. Link below for those interested.
This is the last piece of writing ever found by Alexander H. Cochran, a self-described failed novelist. His work was never published.
My folks died when I could barely call myself a man. Fresh out of college and ready to face the world I was, when that truck hit ’em on the highway back from my grandfather’s funeral. They never had a chance. There was a lot of death in the air that day, I guess.
My daddy made his money in oil when I was a young ‘un, so I never had to worry about nothing from that day forward. Looking back, I like to think that was the first mark against me, as a writer. I never had to do it, never needed it to provide my next meal, would never not be alive the next day if I didn’t sell a story. I never needed writing to survive, at least not physically. But hell, maybe that’s just me making excuses in my old age.
Not that I hadn’t always wanted to be a writer, far from it. When I was going through my adolescence I could barely believe people got paid anything to write, let alone could make a hell of a living off of it if they were any good. Words had always had a strange old draw for me, they provided a kind of haven for my imagination, somewhere that worlds could be created and personalities fleshed out that were far more interesting than anyone I’d been unfortunate enough to meet in the real world, where they teach ya that a firm handshake is more important than a good story. Bullshit.
And it wasn’t that I was no good, or that I didn’t try neither. I wrote some stuff that I was kinda proud of too, but it never saw the light of day. My words were fine for me, but I couldn’t imagine how anyone else would be interested in any of the things I had to say. A curse of being even a moderately good writer is to be forced to be a great reader, and to be a great reader is to be aware of just how damn good so many others are at this writing business.
How, then, knowing the work of Papa Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of Verne and Faulkner and Whitman, how am I supposed to let my thoughts out into the world and try and compete with them? Anything I could think of in a year any of them could do on a bad morning. Hell, Hemingway wrote drunk better than I ever have sober.
I tried that too, tried every trick in the book to try and get something, anything that I wasn’t sick of the sight of by the time I finished writing it. I drank bottles and bottles and bottles of scotch, and it never did nothing for me. It didn’t make me no Hemingway, just made me tired and sick and cranky.
I tried to travel myself interesting, but that didn’t work, the cultures jumbled and produced a mess, so that nothing I wrote seemed honest or believable. I even locked myself in a damn cabin out by the lakes with nothing but a typewriter, a box of cigars and some matches, but I ended up using the matches to burn the mediocrity that I’d written and hightailing it back to the city with nothing.
You might wonder why I’m writing this now. I’ve asked myself that question too. Well, I know the answer, I’m going to die soon, my heart’s finally given up on me it seems. I guess I wanted to write something honest before I went, ’cause I think that might have been the problem all along. I worked so hard to create worlds, and emulate my heroes, that I never put an honest word down on paper. Not once, in my 45 years of trying to write, did I ever write anything that I would want to represent me, that I would want my name attached to once I’m gone. That’s why I never sold anything. Oh, I had the offers, would have made a tidy sum too. But like I said, I was never in it for the money. I’d’ve only sold if I knew it was going to go down real well in posterity, not some market pleasing fiction that anyone can churn out if they turn their mind to it.
I wanted to be a novelist remembered as a great, but in chasing that dream, and stubbornly sticking to it, I failed to be a novelist at all, and in ten years it may be that nobody even remembers my name. In trying to change the world, I overreached, and couldn’t even change my own. But that ain’t to say I ain’t proud to have tried. Better to shoot for the stars and dance with the moon than content yourself with changing to please the masses. Never forget that.
Alexander H. Cochran
A Self-Confessed Failure
The sun glinted her final rays over the hills as she fled west. As she made her escape, her fingers clung promiscuously to the green meadows, knowing she was destined to slip away once more, as she did every evening. As the nightly abyss engulfed the landscape, the moon began to rise, bringing with it the tide that surrounded the small island every day, cutting it off from civilisation.
On the island stood a large abby, built two hundred years ago by those who once ruled here, and it was flanked by a small, enclosed town that provided sustenance for the monks there, and a few other amenities that had grown out of its proximity to the sea.
Every day without fail, the tide came in and isolated the small populace, making travel to and from the place next to impossible, with the result that the townsfolk had to resort to a rather bizarre schedule if they wanted to leave the town, often waking during the middle of the night to go out in search of the larger markets inland, before returning in the bright daylight to the relative comfort of their beds.
It was not often that the moon was obliging enough to bring the tides in at night, but it was not just the everyday folk who delighted when it did. Beyond those who rejoiced at a properly scheduled sleep, there were those with more sinister reasons for willing the alignment of moon and water.
In an ageing townhouse in the middle of the city, the killer sharpened his knife. Nowadays, we would call him a serial killer, but they didn’t have such an expansive vocabulary back then, nor as much competency solving crimes. People died horribly, and often, and even those who weren’t dead disappeared frequently, wandering off to begin life anew. The rare combination of the tide and the dark night provided him with just the opportunity for which he had been waiting, a time when his target had no hope of escape, even if they did see their end before it came.
There was no science to it, but he was always identified his victim ahead of time, knowing that ultimately the time would come when he could strike. He selected the elderly, the infirm, the drifters and those who begged for alms, for mercy to be laid upon them by this religious town. He was doing God’s work, he thought, sending those in need to a better place, ending their suffering before it became unbearable.
Finally satisfied with the cut of his blade, he pulled up the hood on his habit and melted out into the night.
As anyone kind enough to follow this blog on a semi-regular basis might have realised, I have not been incredibly active of late. This has been down to a number of factors, but mainly due to my work as Senior Editor for a new website that has recently launched, which has been taking up most of the space in my head.
As such I have very much neglected my creative duties here on this blog, failing to judge contents I started, and not writing for months on end, for which I can only apologise.
However, having now achieved more of a balance in what I am doing, I am attempting to make a foray into the more creative world once again. I won’t be doing any contests for now, due to not wanting to take on more judging time than I can hope to give back to read all the superb entries I invariably get sent. I will, however be writing some stories of my own, both of the six word and short variety, as well as allowing the poetic side of my brain to crawl slowly out of hibernation. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy reading, then read on, friends, read on, I’ll be back soon.
Hello, long time no see, largely down to my own fault. I’m kicking off the return of the six word story challenge, with the rather appropriate RETURN.
Entries by Friday at 5pm, via the blue frog and linking back to me on your entry so I get a ping back. You can find my effort below.
He knocked, knowing she wouldn’t answer.
Long absent, the prodigal son returned.
The IS attack on France has sent shockwaves around the world. The appetite for decisive action against ISIS is at a record high, and yet there is no clear consensus on what should be done. Here’s your chance to have your say on the key issues. Click on the link below to join the debate
All things pass,
Leaving their scars
Upon our skin.
Moments of ecstasy.
All of it, fleeting
Fixed in its place.
The remains are there
For all to see,
A reminder not of who I am,
But of how
I have been made.
What can I be
But a palimpsest of
Shaped by how
I have lived.
Living by how
I have been
Written in response to Mara Eastern’s Poetry 101: Rehab
as long as you’re here.
Last week Trevor McDonald attempted the impossible; to shed light on the current state of the Mafia in America without taking into account the complex history of the organisation. The show, rather self-explanatorily titled ‘The Mafia with Trevor McDonald’ largely failed as an exercise, but that is perhaps more to do with the direction that was taken within the programme itself.
McDonald could have made an interesting exposition of the history of the mob from Sicily to America, tracking the rise in the late 19th century to its more recent fall from grace. Instead, however, it became a rather banal two hours of watching what felt like the same five minute interview over and over again, feeling like a circle of Dante’s infamous inferno. Abandon hope all ye who enter beyond the first five minutes, it gets no better.
It did, however, get me thinking about the cultural power of the Mafia, and how little we actually know about the inner workings of the gang. Sure, we have The Godfather, The Sopranos and Goodfellas as our pop-culture reference points but how accurate are they really? So I thought it would be a good excuse to dive into the history of the group, from its origins in Sicily to its more famous American cousin. In order to give a brief background to this, I am going to ignore the offshoots that have appropriated the name mafia in other countries such as Russia and China, and focus solely on the rise and fall of the organised crime unit that began in Italy and slowly planted its roots across the Atlantic.
So how did it all come about? Myths abound about where the Mafia came from, but it all probably started a lot more recently than you think. Despite various sources claiming it comes from the times of Arabic occupation of Sicily and the feudal system that was created because of that, actual evidence of the Mafia’s activities cannot be traced until the mid 1800s, just after the forced unification of Italy by Garibaldi.
According to John Dickie’s excellent book ‘Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia‘ the now eponymous crime organisation actually began in a somewhat unexpected place; the citrus groves of the Italian island. According to Dickie, by ‘the mid-1880s an astonishing 2.5 million cases of Italian citrus fruit arrived in New York each year, most of them from Palermo’.
This burgeoning industry required an incredible amount of start-up capital, but could make you rich if you spent your money right. This, however, created the ideal setting for the mob to hone their now famous intimidation tactics. To quote Dickie again:
‘As well as being investment intensive, lemon trees are also highly vulnerable. Even a short interruption to water supplies can be devastating. Vandalism, whether directed at the trees or the fruit, is a constant risk. It was the combination of vulnerability and high profit that created the perfect environment for the mafia’s protection rackets.’
So, the most famous criminal fraternity in the world has its roots in intimidating extremely wealthy lemon farmers in the late 19th century. Hardly the first image that springs to mind when you hear the word mafioso now is it?
Of course, the Cosa Nostra has moved on a little since those days, and we are principally aware of it because of the pop-culture influence it had during the late 70s through to the late 90s. From Scarface (loosely based on Al Capone) to The Sopranas, we are lucky to an abundance of riches in mob figures taking over our screens, but of course these principally focus on the American arm of the infamous mob, so how exactly did what started as a small but successful profiteering racket manage to make the leap across and ultimately have such a huge influence on the organised crime of the world’s most powerful democracy?
The short and honest answer is basically immigration. From the 1870s onwards, America, and particularly New York, saw huge waves of immigration from Italy, some of whom were inevitably ‘men of honour’ who had had some exposure to the Mafia lifestyle in Sicily. This led to the establishment of the prototype for the American arm of the mob, the Five Points Gang, by Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli. This gang would be the making of some of the most famous names in Mafia folklore, from Al Capone to Charles Luciano, and was the foundation upon which the pyramids would later be built.
The American Mafia’s true period of success, however, came during America’s bizarre experiment with the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. A fresh wave of Italians showed up, fleeing Mussolini’s Italy, and joined forces with their Mafia brethren that were already settled in the States. Together they created a huge industry of illegal alcohol production and bootlegging, and established themselves as the most powerful organised crime network in the country, finally overpowering their Irish-American rivals in a long-running battle that ended in Capone ordering the now notorious Valentine’s day massacre in 1929. This marked the beginning of Mafia domination that was to last decades.
For 50 years following Prohibition, the mafia had a hand in most industries of which you could think. After alcohol was made legal once more in 1933, they had to branch out into more traditional money making roots in order to keep the healthy profits they had accrued in those years, and they began getting involved with things as wide ranging as construction and drug trafficking to go along with their traditional racketeering, and thus they were cemented as easily the most successful crime syndicate in the country.
The mafias true power, though, came from its mix of intimidation and influence, which allowed its code of silence, the famous omertà, to remain functional. Part of the success of the American Mafia was that anyone that was caught committing illegal activity knew they had a better chance serving their time in prison than they had if they broke the code. Traitors were murdered in cold blood, while those who co-operated with the families’ wishes found key witnesses in their cases disappearing or refusing to testify, while those who did end up in jail always had their families looked after while they were away.
However, this could only last so long before the police began to offer better deals than even the Mafia could offer, and everything came crashing down in 1992 with the conviction of ‘Teflon Don’ John Gotti, head of New York’s Gambino crime family. Gotti had previously been acquitted in a number of high profile trials, hence his name – nobody could make anything stick to him.
This all changed in 1992, when Gotti’s former underboss Sammy Gravano agreed to testify against him, based on the fact that Gotti was looking to blame the family’s violent nature on Gravano. The FBI offered him protection to pin it on Gotti, with whom the blame lay, and the rest, as they say, is history. The illusion was shattered, and since then an increasing number of pentiti (former mafia men turned informants) emerged from the woodwork and undermined the power of the organisation by showing the authorities how it all worked.
This isn’t to say the Mafia has disappeared of course, only that now they hold significantly less sway than they once did, but they are still certainly alive and well, if perhaps not in the way we think of them in the movies. One thing McDonald’s documentary did do was shatter that illusion. Most men he interviewed were street level thugs in hoodies, hardly the suit wearing, fedora-tipping, gun-toting mobsters of our imaginations.
So there we have it, a very brief history of the development of the mafia from Sicily to the present day. It is far from comprehensive, of course, but I can only hope that it provides some context to any of you who saw the ITV documentary, or indeed have a passing interest in the subject. There are a number of fascinating longer histories of the subject out there, and the works of Mario Puzo are an excellent introduction to the genre, but if you want a more scholarly approach then I would certainly recommend John Dickie as a starting point, who himself gives an extensive bibliography of works worth reading on the subject for those interested in further reading.
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