Cheeseburger Gothic

Writing in cafes is bullshit

Posted March 28 into Writing by John Birmingham

I’m currently sitting in one of my favourite coffee joints. Pourboy in south Brisbane. (Okay, I guess I'm not any sitting there anymore cos I wrote this hours before posting it). You might have seen me rave about their croque madame because their croque monsieur is fucking awesome.

I find myself here once or twice a week during the school year because I drop Thomas nearby to a bunch of extracurricular stuff before class starts. Pourboy is a great place, but there’s a reason I’m writing this blog post and not the book chapter I should be working on right now. Pourboy is too good. It’s popular and crowded and noisy and I don’t know how any of these pretend bullshit writers and poets and citizen journalists ever get anything done in all of these fucking cafes they seem to live in because... GAH!

It’s busy here.

Funny thing is, it’s not usually this busy when I come through because I get here about 6.30 in the AM. It’s now just after nine, and I’ll be here a while longer while I run down the clock to an interview at the ABC studios down the road.

I brought in the new iPad, thinking I’d get some work done, and I did, but nothing heavy or deep. Not the book chapters I have due, or the TV script I’m working on. Nope. This ain’t the place for that. I avoided getting caught in a social media spiral, so yay for me, I guess. But I’ve been here for nearly two hours now and I’ve basically been triaging emails, writing short blog posts, and knocking over chickenshit admin that I’d leave until it was way too late if I was at my desk.

Given all that, I suppose it hasn’t been a complete write off. In a way it’s been kind of instructive. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the unconscionable waste of time that Twitter has become (and Facebook always was). I’ve been thinking about how I always mean to blog regularly but never quite build up the head of steam to keep it going because I’m so fucking busy during my writing day that I can’t justify spending time on the Burger. And when I down tools at the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is more writing.

I wonder then if the thing to do might be to carve out a little time in the early morning a couple of days a week, to do the stuff I’ve been forced to do here today by all these noisy fuckers invading my normally quiet coffee shop.

I’ve come back around to the idea that social networks are poison. That it’s not just the nazis and the advertising and the advertising for Nazis. It’s the very nature of the thing, the way these platforms are engineered to destroy people’s concentration, to lure them into mindless scrolling, and swiping and liking and kommunting. They are also, of course, intellectual property traps. Everything you post on Facebook belongs to the Zuck. Everything. And the original deal the Book made with artists, that the creators would provide content and the Zuck would gather the audience, that’s long gone. Now you provide the content AND you pay for access to the audience.

I’ll admit, it’s a lot of thinking, for a morning coffee stop to fill in some time. But I dont often get the time to sit and think. Even if I can barely hear my own thoughts.

I should do more of it.

16 Responses to ‘Writing in cafes is bullshit’

jl mutters...

Posted March 29
Thanks for the warning re: IP traps. Hadn't thought of that, although I'm not surprised.

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jason has opinions thus...

Posted March 29
I cant write anything with the TV on let alone in a crowded cafe. Although I do listen to the sounds of a crowded cafe on spotify sometimes when trying to concentrate, hmmm...

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted March 29
Yeah, me too. It’s weird, innit.

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Barnesm would have you know...

Posted March 29
Weirdly this sounds to me like a productive strategy, you admit to yourself its stuff that wouldn't othewise get done. I confess I never considered a graded level of distraction tailored to the work I needed to accomplish as a productivity tool. Nice one.

damian would have you know...

Posted March 29
I’m a believer in this concept of modes that you seem to be describing. You can write certain content in a certain context, because that’s what you have time for or it’s what you have brainspace (tipping a hat to Tim and Debbie) for.

Sitting in the food court at Brookside at the moment, after eating two greasy pizza slices from the kebab shop waiting for a bus (like the old days I guess).

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 29
I distresses me that I know who you mean by Tim and Debbie.

damian ducks in to say...

Posted April 7
...
Because it means you’re over 40?

Nocturnalist is gonna tell you...

Posted April 9
Age is just a state of mind, damian.

Or should I say, age is just a Braaiiinn Spaaace.

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Rob asserts...

Posted March 29
I was thinking today that a café might be a good place to study my online degree to avoid distractions at home. I might give it a go, mainly to see if the pretentiousness and embarrassment of getting out a laptop or tablet in a hipster café would make me actually study. As opposed to sitting at home and going look! a dog to pat, look! a cat to meow at, look! a video game to play.

On the plus side of social media, without it I would never had met and continued to know novelists, musicians, artists, art gallery curators and owners. Its been good in a lot of ways. But I have had to filter out the angry posters and tediously easy politics (of which I'm definitely one) .

But as a boredom shifter of the void that is the modern soul, it really needs a hand break. It will probably come in the form of a Facebook myspace moment or an Microsoft anti trust lawsuit.

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she_jedi ducks in to say...

Posted March 29
I honestly don’t know how JK Rowling managed to write Harry Potter in a cafe. Maybe it was before they became hipster traps of “pretend bullshit writers”...? Maybe she started it???

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted March 29
I was pondering this very question just yesterday.

Nocturnalist mutters...

Posted March 29
I suspect she spent a lot of time in there outside the breakfast/lunchtime/after work rushes. (It was owned by a relative, apparently, so at least she didn't have to contend with "Scuse me, but the boss says you have to order something or leave".

damian asserts...

Posted March 29
I’d hang out for hours in quiet cafés in the 80s and 90s. Mostly they’d be okay if it wasn’t busy and you got at least one coffee or a pot of tea. Worst you would get is after a while a polite “Are you going to order anything else? It’s just there are people waiting for a table...”

I did get writing done that way, though it was with a good old A4 notebook and a pen (or several pens, ball points ran out too fast, felt tip sharpies hadn’t really been invented). That’s while living alone or in share houses, too, which is a very different life.

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Nocturnalist is gonna tell you...

Posted March 29
There's a particular caff here that was pretty much my second home in my 30s. I'd knock off the day job at sixish, head in there, eat, then bust out the laptop and write until they threw me out at 10pm and usually go home and put another hour or two in before bed. It was a pain if it got too crowded, in which case I'd go elsewhere, but most of the time the noise level was just right, just enough to lull the looking-for-distraction part of my brain so it didn't interfere with the writing but not enough to, well, interfere with the writing. So maybe it's just a question of finding the *right* café.

Interesting thing was that when I was in a café with a certain amount of background noise I was fine, but on the nights I went to write in the library at ANU where it was much quieter, a single whispered conversation six desks away would drive me insane.

Did you ever work in an old-school newsroom in your journalist days, JB? I know Terry Pratchett said that once you've learned to write surrounded by ringing phones and shouting sub-editors you can write anywhere.

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted March 29
Yeah, it's a weird thing. I have no trouble writing in crowded newsrooms. It's a background buzz, I guess.

she_jedi mutters...

Posted March 31
I’m a business analyst so I have to write requirements documents, business cases etc, so creative but in a formal way? And I find I can write in a mildly noisy office, to the point where i’m doing my writing workshop stuff for uni in the office after hours before I go home because once i’m home the procrastination bug gets me and my creativity dries up. It’s weird!

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Jason Cox’s first book

Posted March 28 into Books by John Birmingham

A couple of years ago when I was collecting stories for the Dave Hooper anthology, I got this great little short from a guy called Jason. And then I got another one. And another one. And another. It just went on and on like the bombing of Dresden.

Except Jason’s word bombs were really good. All up he sent me seven pieces, and I’m pretty sure I used them all.

It’s been satisfying to watch him graduate to his own story worlds. His first novel, THE HARD MAN, dropped this week and he was kind enough to let me have an extract which you can read below.

I’ve already bought my copy right here, so I’ll be reading that.

2 Responses to ‘Jason Cox’s first book’

jl is gonna tell you...

Posted March 28
Good stuff by Jason, I was privileged to have Beta'd this. Enjoyed this book, recommend for anyone wanting an entertaining, fast-paced read.

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Therbs would have you know...

Posted April 3
Its sitting on my kindle yelling at me to start. Who am I to deny a hard man?

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[Extract] The Hard Man, by Jason Cox

Posted March 28 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

In any prison population there is a hierarchy. Most of the crims inside form groups along racial lines. The Aussies all hang together so do the Asians and the Muslims. If there are bikers inside, they hang in their own groups—often with other biker groups that they have treaties with.

Normally, the biggest group runs the jail, arrangements are made to be sure that it’s not a free-for-all every day. If you’re not connected, you’re fair game. Most people decide to get connected when they realise how hard it is in here. A few over estimate their abilities and end up bleeding from one orifice or another and then they make a decision.

The management structure of these groups is pretty simple. It’s normally the craziest, the toughest or the smartest crim that ends up in charge. Mostly it’s the smartest one, and the toughest and craziest tend towards middle management which, in this case, is in charge of smacking people senseless. In here, Lepke runs the show. It’s not his real name but he couldn’t resist using Murder Incorporated as a gang name and it just went from there.

I’m not connected. I have the sort of reputation that can scare smart people off, so I have a level of respect. Before I found my true talents as an armed robber, I used to fight in the cage. Twenty-two wins, no losses, and I can still walk. It mightn’t sound like much but if you knew cage fighting, it’s fucking amazing. This isn’t that UFC stuff you see on TV, this is bare-knuckle anything goes. Two guys walk into a chain mesh enclosure and punch the crap out of each other until one stops moving. Pretty simple and pretty brutal.

The problem with prison gangs is they get too powerful. Then they can make the guards’ lives hell. The boss ends up like some sort of king. I’ve even heard of some of them getting consulted on official jail-house decisions to make sure the prisoners will all go along with them. Lepke is that kind of boss. The head guard is too scared to come on the ward anymore because Lepke’s threatened him. They tried to transfer Lepke but no one else wanted him. All they want is a quiet life—the guards, the wardens, the decision-makers. But in return for a favour, I think I can help out a little.

I finish talking to Uncle John and I get the guard to detour me before I go back to the cells. I need a favour and, in here, you only get favours when you give them. A quick chat and a handshake, and the deal is done.

Lepke keeps his ‘office’ at the end of the rec room. He’s set up the best armchair and a small desk and thinks he’s hot shit. His two bodyguards are on either side of the chair, chuckling away. It’s not like he needs bodyguards in here but he likes the affectation of it. They top out at about six foot six, and have the sort of build you only get from steroid abuse and long hours in the prison gym. The prisoners call them the Gorilla Bros; they think of it as a comment on their physique not their intellect, which makes the truth of it self-evident.

As I approach Lepke, both the Gorilla Bros stand up and block my way, trying to look as menacing as possible.

‘Can we help…?’ And that is about as far as he gets before, I hit him straight in the throat with a right hand. My fingers are open and push right into the windpipe. It’s a sucker shot and he should have been expecting it. As I mentioned before, complacency can be a killer. The other Gorilla is caught a little off guard. They don’t really expect to be attacked, which is what I was planning on. His knees are straight, all the weight forward. Idiot. He still hasn’t moved when my heel hits the side of his knee—the crack is all the confirmation I need. I pull his head forward as he falls, and drive my knee into his nose. He falls flat and doesn’t move, unlike the other one who is rolling around and would be screaming if he could get any breath. Lepke starts to run, but there is nowhere for him to go.

The other prisoners are all moving away. They know this would be trouble for anyone who doesn’t help, so they need to be anywhere else but here. The only flaw in the plan is if someone wants to score points and tries to step in and help Lepke. No one does. Dropping the Gorilla Bros like I did was meant to deter anyone who was thinking about lending a hand. It seems to work.

I grab Lepke by the hair as he tries to run past. He likes to wear it long—no idea why, it’s just an invitation to hurt him. The brief was simple. Put him off the floor for as long as possible and ruin any credibility when he gets back. I just bash his head into the doorframe until he stops moving. The final touch is when I drape him over the unconscious Gorilla Brother so it looks as if he‘s sucking his dick. It’s the little touches that mean a lot.

The screws charge in after that, and I am hard up against the wall with a face full of capsicum spray and plastic cuffs on. They are pretty rough until I get out of sight, then it was all water bottles and eyewash. The cell in solitary even has a double thickness mattress and they send in fish and chips as a thank you. It made the wait easier.

Four weeks later, the parole comes through with time off for good behaviour being recommended by a grateful friend.

The old man buys the store before I get out.

5 Responses to ‘[Extract] The Hard Man, by Jason Cox’

insomniac reckons...

Posted March 28
I understand the need for the set up but I found the first few paragraphs hard going. After that though I found it very readable. A few lols here and there helped with that. I'll give the rest of it a go. Good stuff Jason.

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jl asserts...

Posted March 28
If y'all can find the time, please leave reviews on The Beast. They are incredibly hard to come by and they make a real difference.

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jason asserts...

Posted March 29
Much thanks to JB and JL. Taking time out to help a newbie like me is much appreciated.

jl would have you know...

Posted March 29
Brother, everyone is a newbie once. Never a problem.

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she_jedi has opinions thus...

Posted March 29
Wow Jason you write beautifully about a very ugly scene. Mad props to you, I need to see where this goes now :)

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The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole

Posted March 27 into Books by John Birmingham

I usually think of fantasy novels as epic. Epic in in scope, epic in length, epic in the sheer fucking tonnages of old growth forest felled to provide their thousands of pages. I’ve got all George RR Martin’s GoT books in hard back on the shelf somewhere behind me, and on quiet nights I can hear the hardwood groaning under their weight.

I was surprised then to discover that Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint is a genuinely slim volume, in hardback running to just over two hundred pages. The hobbit’s tea party at the start of LoTR felt longer than that. (Much longer. I never actually got past it).

And yet Cole has written such a densely packed story that I can’t imagine it running longer. It would be too much to bear. Every word, every line seems honed to strike a critical blow at the reader. Nothing is wasted and there is nothing that could be reasonably added to improve this novel. Not even ‘splosions. It seemed as I read it so perfectly crafted that I had to keep stopping to breathe and control my seething jealousy. I read one chapter a day, usually at lunch time, because that was all I could handle. The characters are drawn so vividly, their concerns so intimate, and the peril into which they pass seems so dire that it would fuck with my head if I read any more than that in one day, or if I made the mistake of reading it too late in the evening.

You don’t want to lay your head down with this story playing out behind your eyes.

So what happens?

The story is told by Heloise, a village girl in a grim medieval theocracy where warrior priests violently enforce a rigid stratification of the settled order. In fact they call themselves the Order. For a backward, priest ridden primitive hellhole, there’s a lot going on here. I won’t give away any spoilers, because I’m not a monster, but I can say that the Order’s unchallenged power derives from their historic role of protecting the realm from monsters and demons.

Except nobody’s actually seen any for so long that a rational man might begin to wonder whether they ever existed, or whether its just a dodge dreamed up by these scripture addled psychopaths of the unholy Order.

I will confess myself somewhat fucking shocked to discover the truth of it. Cole has great fun misdirecting, misleading and generally fucking with his readers. The world he has created here is beautifully realised. The characters live, and you really, really, really end up invested in Heloise and her terrible dilemma.

I’m just stepping outside to buy the next novel in the series. I may be gone for some time.

7 Responses to ‘The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole’

insomniac is gonna tell you...

Posted March 27
So...The Dave could be a prequel then. It's a short hop from 'The' to 'St.'.

insomniac puts forth...

Posted March 27
Reading the extract in Amazon, it's pretty tight writing. Perhaps I should add it, and the others, to the invisible pile of Kindle shame.

she_jedi mumbles...

Posted March 27
I added it to my invisible pile of iBooks shame when JB first mentioned he was reading it. This review has now prompted me to lift it from the invisible pile of shame and into the visible Reading Now pile of smugness :)

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she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted March 27
This review is excellent timing, because I finished my current book last night and was casting about for the next one. Sold!

Also, to be SUPER nit picky, you spelt Myke's name wrong in the title of your post. Autocorrect probably got to you again, but as someone who gets their name spelled wrong even when people have it spelled out in front of them in correspondence, I couldn't let it slide. Sorry :(

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted March 27
*Shakes fist at an uncaring sky*

"DAMN YOU, AUTOCORRECT!"

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Spanner puts forth...

Posted March 27
Damn you JB. Damn you to heck.

My pre order of Tiamat’s Wrath: The Expanse audiobook just landed in my audible app.

I’m currently listening to Batavia by Mr Fitzsimonds on my commute.

I can’t juggle a dead tree book and two audio books.

I can’t just buy this and toss it on my pile of shame...or can I.

Yes. Yes I can.

STOP JUDGING ME YOU JERKS.

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Barnesm puts forth...

Posted March 27
Look it’s all well and good for JB to casually toss another outstandingly great novel endorsement but for those of us with steadily accumulating to-read lists I’d appreciate if he would confine himself to only read those on my already voluminous ‘want to read’ books listed on my goodreads page.

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It's ... er... research

Posted March 13 into Games by John Birmingham

Seriously thinking of getting this game simply because the open world design looks very similar to what I'll have to do with Zero Day Code (minus zombies).

For those not up with current events, ZDC is my End-of-the-World Patreon project that just got picked up by Audible. It's The Stand, without a supernatural meta story. (Or Days Gone without the running dead).

13 Responses to ‘It's ... er... research’

she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted March 13
Research is critical. You should get onto this :)

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Barnesm would have you know...

Posted March 13
I don't know if it's research but it does look like something I could sink enormous hours of time into.

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Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 13
Over at Kotaku reviewed it thus "Jason, Kirk and Maddy touched on Days Gone recently in the Splitscreen podcast, describing it as "the most AAA-arse video game" imaginable. That's basically saying that Days Gone tries to merge every possible mechanic and system from every other AAA open-world game in recent memory, and after three hours with the game myself, it's pretty accurate".

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FormerlyKnownAsSimon would have you know...

Posted March 13
My video game playing days are behind me. I look at the quality of what these games offer these days and sigh wistfully. On the plus side i have 5 acres to look after and nurture (semi sarcasm intended)

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted March 13
Five acres, eh? That'll come in handy when the dead rise up. Apropos of nothing... where do you live? And do you keep weapons?

FormerlyKnownAsSimon would have you know...

Posted March 14
ha. Not going to tell you city dwellers!

(it's out between Lithgow and Bathurst). The land is poor for farming but doesn't stop cows and sheep. Also some very handy nature reserves and state forests on the doorstep for exploring. Unfortunately the nearest pub is about 10kms away.

jl would have you know...

Posted March 14
Rural life, you have to drive a lot. Has its upsides, though. Quiet, roomy, and clear fields of fire against threatening hosts of the undead.

FormerlyKnownAsSimon asserts...

Posted March 14
Zombie hoardes? No problem but if it gets into the wombat population we're all screwed. Those little tanks of blood thirsty one minded purpose? Zombats has to be a good b movie right?

Brother PorkChop mumbles...

Posted March 15
Zombats!! It could be a classic! Followed up by the inevitable DropBears and Pozzoms. Has to be shown on all flights into Oz as a documentary.
Reminds me of the Japanese hioneymoon couple in Cairns that called the front desk to tell us there was a wani in their room. Wani being crocodile which truned out to be a gekko.

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rainburger reckons...

Posted March 13
Really looking forward to this, It sounds great, the audible deal just makes it sweeter. When does it come out?

Also, I don't keep up with your news as well as I could, so I will just ask. Any news on WW3.1?

Also been hanging for new Dave for quite a while and was wondering about that as well.

Sorry to pester, I just love your writing and am generally impatient.

Keep it up John.

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted March 14
WW 3.1 should be drafted in about five weeks. It's my primary title now. Dave is delayed at the bar.

Rob is gonna tell you...

Posted March 15
more Dave. Maybe just sell the rights to Netflix? just sell it as a Orc-romcom with embiggining. That'll work.

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Oldy mumbles...

Posted March 15
It looks great. Like GTA San Andreas only with this decade's graphics.

Also, I'm busting for WW 3.1. Axis of Time was my intro to all things Birmo, and I'm especially fond of Ivanov and your Prince Harry. Keen.

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"The horror, the fkn horror, mate"

Posted March 12 by John Birmingham

The Herald today has a fascinating obit for an old digger, "Barry Petersen was an Australian army captain who led top secret CIA operations in the highlands during the Vietnam War."

He wasn't the model for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. (That was arguably US army Colonel Davd Hackworth) but like Kurtz "he got too close to the natives and the CIA wanted him out, dead or alive."

Petersen got on well with the Montagnard, particularly the Rade tribe who lived around the highland city of Ban Me Thuot. He learnt their language, honoured their customs and traditions, including drinking the potent rice wine. He paid them well with CIA money and armed them with CIA-supplied guns.

Even though he was operating alone in the mountains, Petersen was so successful that within a year he had more than 1000 Montagnard militia fighters using the same guerrilla tactics as the Viet Cong – ambush the enemy, hit hard and disappear into the jungle.

The communists learnt to go around Petersen’s territory rather than take him on. They put a price on Petersen’s head, but his militia kept a close guard on him.

He was extremely popular with his men. They declared the Australian officer a demi-god, and showered him with honoured brass armbands denoting him a tribal chief.

At his home he kept a pet sun bear and a baby leopard he’d been given by one of his men. Petersen’s militia became known as the Tiger Men because of the striped jungle camouflage uniforms he’d obtained from the CIA warehouse. He had snarling tiger head badges made for their berets to make the various Montagnard tribes in his units feel united.

But after almost two years in the highlands with the Montagnard tribesmen, Petersen’s relations with the CIA soured. Some CIA agents thought Petersen was becoming too successful, and getting too close to the Montagnard.

After that, things did not go well. They didn't send Martin Sheen after him, but his command was terminated, with prejdice.

Full obit is here.

5 Responses to ‘"The horror, the fkn horror, mate"’

HAVOCK21 has opinions thus...

Posted March 12
And yet, here we are, knowing so little about a man and his deeds that at first blush appear to be extraordinary. One might well find that its all political bullshit as usual, but we should not let that deviate us from acknowledging his rather heroic efforts!

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jl asserts...

Posted March 12
Going native is an occupational hazard. Godspeed, LTC Petersen.

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Naut reckons...

Posted March 13
He wrote a book Tiger Men which is worth a read. Pretty full-on story

Naut puts forth...

Posted March 13
It actually reminded me of some of the Coast Watcher stories from WWII.

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damian ducks in to say...

Posted March 16
Of course, Apocalypse Now is a movie adaption of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and that’s where the Kurtz character comes from. In practice sure it’s possible that Coppola had a modern inspiration, and it’s a pretty neat idea, but it isn’t a necessary one.

There are some really interesting learnings from Heart of Darkness in relation to current debates on a number of issues, but that’s a separate concern.

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