Clive Sinclair (1948-2018)


This week we mourn the loss of our friend and contributor Clive Sinclair.

Clive’s stories ‘Billy the Yid’ and ‘STR82ANL’ appeared in Contrappasso, as did his essay on the film Custer of the West in our special Writers at the Movies issue. We also ran, as an online exclusive, his short piece on ‘The Café Lumière at the Hotel Scribe’

You can also read our long, career-spanning interview: El Hombre Valeroso.

Clive’s forthcoming book of stories Shylock Must Die, will be published by Halban in July.

Writers at the Movies: ‘Custer of the West’ by Clive Sinclair


(Originally for the Custer Association of Great Britain, 2012)

REVIEWING Custer of the West upon its release in 1968, Showguide (a precursor of Time Out) informed its readers that: “The script of the film— based on several years of research—has been splendidly written by Bernard Gordon and Julian Halevy, who delved into a private library of more than a thousand books, folios and letters to find their facts.”

The review is quoted in Bernard Gordon’s memoir—Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist—which admits a less scholarly genesis. Walking along Madrid’s “main drag” with Philip Yordan—boss of the European script factory in which he toiled—Gordon was informed that his next task would be to write a motion picture about George Armstrong Custer. The news was not well received.

“Custer?” said Gordon. “My God. All I know about him is that he was an Indian killer, and the Indians finally killed him at Little Big Horn!” Yordan shrugged, and Gordon continued: “Who in this day and age would want to make a film hero out of someone who did his best to butcher Indians?” “I don’t give a damn about Custer or the Indians,” said Yordan. All he was interested in was the fact that he had been paid to produce a film about Custer.

Gordon died in 2007, but his writing partner Julian Zimet (who—also being blacklisted—used the pseudonym Halevy), lives on in Rome, in an apartment he shares with his wife Anna Maria (Primo Levi’s sister). At 93 some of his senses are failing, but not his memory. And his tongue could still run a marathon. Nor has it lost its sting. “The first thing you should know,” he said, “is that Gene Autry was a prick. A prick and a shit both.”

Raised on the east coast, Zimet had ventured to Hollywood early, and then, by dint of perseverance and native talent had risen from script reader to script writer. Among his early sales was Sierra Sue, a vehicle for Gene Autry. Not only did he write it, he also found himself advising the director how best to shoot it, at least until its star noted his presence. “I don’t want any Jew spies on my set,” said Autry.

On the other hand the government thought him patriotic enough to be drafted (though prompted by Joseph McCarthy the powers-that-be eventually came to share Autry’s opinion). When the witchfinders decided to dignify prejudice with judicial authority, Zimet elected to quit America: he had no intention of naming names, as other quasi or real communists had done, but he had no wish for martyrdom either. First he went to Mexico, then Italy.

It was from Rome—many years later—that he travelled to Madrid to work with his old comrade, Bernard Gordon, on the Custer project. By 1966, the year in question, Vietnam was beginning to dominate the political agenda. One major side-effect was that it overturned the authorized version of America’s past, in particular the conquest and colonisation of the West. The few Westerns that went into production were made with reversed polarities; the Indians were now freedom fighters—the Viet Cong in warpaint—and the US Cavalry the militant arm of colonial oppression.

It was these changing times that prompted Gordon to say to Yordan: “Fine. Let’s do a film about Custer, a really modern film that tells the truth about him and the whole American policy at the time.” Policy which—it went without saying—found its modern equivalent in Vietnam. But Yordan had no interest in contemporary relevance: “It’s people like you with your antihero ideas who are ruining Hollywood! We’ll just figure a way to turn Custer into a hero!”

Even so, the finished movie is far from innocent. Robert Shaw was cast as Custer, and Mary Ure—his wife—as Libbie. According to Zimet, the actor was even more determined than the script writers to view Custer through modern eyes. “The original brief was to turn out a typical Western sainted hero martyr script, which Gordon and I duly delivered,” he told me. “But Robert Shaw figured he would make it over to suit himself. Which he did. He turned Custer into a sadist of Shakespearean depth.”


Gordon, in his memoir, implies that he retained some of his original scepticism, and gives the leading man only a secondary role in shaping Custer’s character: “Production stumbled along on Custer as Julian and I tried to give the Indians a fair shake. Robert Shaw was helpful. A bright man and a fine writer, he approved of our point of view of that the Indians were victims right to the end. He even wrote one speech for Custer… that made this point sharply.”

Either way, Shaw had no time for either Gordon or Zimet. According to the latter, he regarded the pair as “American philistines,” to be treated with contempt. As far as Shaw was concerned movie-making Hollywood-style was little better than a criminal enterprise. This disdain was extended to the director hired by Yordan. As a matter of fact both scriptwriters were also unimpressed by the appointment of Robert Siodmak, a former Hollywood insider, now involuntarily retired, and so eager to work that he would (in Zimet’s words) “have agreed to direct the telephone book.” “Why are you hiring Siodmak?” he protested to the producer. “Why do you want a broken down, dying man, when you could have a splendid new director such as Lindsay Anderson?” “You jerk,” said Yordan, “Siodmak is a name I can take to the bank.”

In Hollywood Exile, Gordon elucidates this terse response: “We need a star or we have no deal,” said Yordan. “We have no script to show to a star, so what do I do? I go to Robert Shaw and ask him to do the picture. He wants to be helpful. But without a script, how can he agree? I tell him I’ll get him an experienced director. How do I get a respectable director to take the job? I still have no script. I find out Siodmak is hungry. He has an impressive track record, but he’s out of work in Switzerland. The phone isn’t ringing. He’s dying to do another picture and pick up another fee. So I get Siodmak and I’ve got Shaw—and I get the four million bucks to make a picture.”

Similar considerations lay behind the casting of Sgt Mulligan, a character who appears out of nowhere, has a couple of big scenes (in the second of which he pleads with Custer for his life, forfeit on account of desertion), and then vanishes as if he had never been. Mulligan owed his brief existence—was enlisted—because Yordan felt it necessary to attract another star name, to put on the marquee and in advertising. Enter Robert Ryan, who took the money, said the lines crafted for him by Zimet, and ran.

“Shaw took care of the battle scenes himself,” recalls Zimet. “Siodmak preferred directing ballroom scenes, which he had done so often in his long career they required no invention. What he didn’t anticipate, as he choreographed fifty couples, was that the actor—whose intervention was designed to give coherence to the scene—would go crazy, punch him in the chops, and walk off the set. I was already working on another project, but Yordan insisted that I write some lines for a minor actor, which would account for the miscreant’s absence. This would allow the ballroom scene to continue, save having to locate the crazy or drunk actor, and save having to reshoot. While Siodmak kept the dancers in motion, I rehearsed the new actor in his role, and tailors stitched together a bespoke uniform. Within minutes he burst upon the scene, apologised on behalf of the government minister for his absence—due to a crisis in Washington—and announced an impending honour for Custer. It was a weak solution, but it saved a lot of money. That’s show business for you.”

In short, the producer, having cooked up a deal to sell a Custer movie (with profits assured in advance), had no real interest in whether the end product was any good, let alone historically accurate.

When John Ford made My Darling Clementine he boasted that his friendship with Wyatt Earp guaranteed authenticity, then went on to set the film in the wrong year, and kill off both Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton before their time. No such claims were ever made for Custer of the West—pace Showguide—so scholarly analysis would be as useful as using a tomahawk to scalp Yul Brunner.

Even so there is one howler that cannot pass unremarked. The movie contains no reference to either Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, and the entire Lakota nation is only mentioned en passant. Instead the uneducated viewer is led to believe that Custer’s nemesis was Chief Dull Knife (who, in reality, thought it more politic to sit out the conflict), and his primary antagonists the Cheyenne. At one point Custer confronts Dull Knife with the following piece of realpolitik: “I’ll make it very simple for you. The fact that we seem to be pushing you clear off the earth is not my responsibility. The problem is precisely the same as when you Cheyenne decided to take another tribe’s hunting ground. You didn’t ask them about their rights. You didn’t care if they had been there a thousand years. You just had more men and more horses. You destroyed them in battle. You took what you wanted, and right or wrong, for better or worse, that is the way things seem to get done. That’s history. I’m talking about history. You are a militarily defeated people. You are paying the price for being backward. And whatever my personal feelings, and I don’t say I have, there’s nothing I can do to change all this. Do you understand?” In fact, of course, it was the Cheyenne who were driven from their ancestral lands—including the Black Hills—by the Lakota.


If the movie has no place in the lecture hall, how well does it fare in the movie theatre? Like the 7th Cavalry it stands or falls on the performance of its star. At least Robert Shaw’s hair is the right colour. And he looks sufficiently like the ‘boy general’ who sat for Matthew Brady that the portrait hanging on the wall of his quarters does not appear out of place. Moreover the sadistic impulses that Shaw sought to emphasise are only apparent in a few scenes, all of them early; for example, he orders his new command to run in circles until—one by one—the men drop. But as Shaw’s performance progresses sadism becomes less and less Custer’s defining characteristic; he becomes more complex, and his impersonator more beguiled, as though a dybbuk—the General’s—had taken up residence within.

This internal conflict becomes manifest in his behaviour: natural justice, personal liberty, and romanticism versus manifest destiny, military discipline, and patriotism. It is best expressed during a scene in which a representative of the military-industrial complex demonstrates the efficacy of a new weapon: a gatling gun mounted upon an armoured railway carriage. Custer—a chivalrous man—recoils in horror: “War isn’t just killing, you know. It’s a contest. It’s a man against a man.” Later he has the following exchange with Libbie: “If this is the future, I don’t want any part of it!” “Where does that leave you?” “With the Indians!”

In which case the final battle represents the psychological struggle made flesh and blood, as the irreconcilable positions take up arms against each other. The movie began with a montage of Civil War charges, and it ends with a civil war made personal. This dualism finds further expression in the contrasting characters of Custer’s two fellow officers; Benteen and Reno. Jeffrey Hunter plays Benteen as a “bleeding heart” liberal, forever expressing the other side’s point of view, whereas Reno is presented as a gung-ho racist.

The pivotal moment—when Custer is most himself—occurs when he is summoned to Washington to appear before a congressional committee. Obviously the scene could not be shot in situ, and budgetary constraints ruled out reconstruction. “It was inconceivable that we should build a replica of the real chamber and people it with the dozens of representatives and senators in period dress,” wrote Gordon. “Yordan solved the problem economically by having Shaw, as Custer, pose in front of a painting of the crowded congressional chamber. I thought it looked fake but few other people noticed or cared.” Obviously Gordon had not viewed the movie for some time when he wrote those sentences: the backdrop is not the chamber, crowded or otherwise, but the dome itself.

In any event, the important feature is the speech, and Shaw’s delivery of it. “There is no Indian problem,” he says. “There is only a White problem.” The problematic issues par excellence being hypocrisy—treaties broken even as they are signed—and corruption. It is not officers in the field who are growing fat, Custer says, only politicians. “The American people have the right to know who is responsible…” thunders Shaw. “The guilty parties… You are going to have to look right here in Washington. And you are going to have to look in high places. I know the men who are responsible and I am going to give you their names.” I can well imagine the secret smiles of satisfaction on the faces of Zimet and Gordon, for whom (in a different context) the naming of names would have been abhorrent, as Shaw concludes the accusatory speech, the sort of speech they must have dreamed of throwing back in the faces of their persecutors at HUAC.

A curious postscript to the movie suggests that the Committee might have been better advised to look in a different direction for un-American activities. It turned out that Ty Hardin, who played Reno, was typecast. He could have been Clint Eastwood, but instead of directing Unforgiven and being elected Mayor of Carmel, his career went nowhere, and four years after playing Reno, he became the guiding light of the Arizona Patriots, a quasi-fascist militia, and editor of their in-house magazine, which urged Christian patriots to band together, and reprinted antisemitic diatribes. Its members stockpiled weapons and ammo in anticipation of Armageddon. Eventually even the FBI reckoned that these self-styled “freedom fighters” were anything but, and raided their HQ, scattering their members to the four corners.

Like all movies about the Frontier, Custer of the West is a palimpsest, in that it uses the past to comment upon the present. Gordon’s wry joke about how “a couple of blacklisted writers did succeed in smuggling a bit of red propaganda into a Hollywood film… well, redskin propaganda anyway,” is both funny and true. It seems that Custer’s dybbuk—or ghost—is doomed to shuttle between left and right, between martyrdom and villainy, depending upon contemporary circumstances, notwithstanding the best efforts of the Custer Association of Great Britain to stick to the facts.



CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles.

Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

[The title picture is a detail from the original movie program as reproduced at In Cinerama]

Contrappasso Ebooks! 99 cents! Get ’em here!

Many readers picked up handsome print copies of our December 2013 double-header: issue #4 and the special Contrappasso Noir Issue. Now both issues are available for purchase as ebooks in multiple formats – Kindle at, and EPUB, MOBI, PDF, etc., at

And for a limited time we are running a special ebook promotion. We are selling all five issues of Contrappasso for the staggeringly reasonable price of US$0.99 each. Yep. Ninety-nine cents.

So if you’ve been curious about Contrappasso, the exciting new journal of international writing, there’s never been a better time to grab an issue – or all five.

‘Nimble Innovators’ by Alice Grundy


Alice Grundy at the Sydney Review of Books writes about the spate of new Australian literary journals including Contrappasso:

Contrappasso, edited by Matthew Asprey and Theodore Ell, released their first issue without external funding. They did so by taking advantage of short-run digital printing, controlling their costs by starting with a small print run. They organised their own distribution and held their first launch at Sappho bookshop in Glebe, Sydney. Their ‘Noir’ themed issue is a testament to the ability of literary journals to cater to niche subject matter and to establish personal networks. Their events in Sydney, which have had a particular focus on poetry, have been well patronised and their flexible publishing model – using print-on-demand systems, they can produce a single copy which bypasses the prohibitive expenses of shipping and warehousing – means that they can guarantee international distribution for each issue, which is particularly important in this case, given Contrapasso’s emphasis on publishing work in translation, as well as international poets and writers.

Read the rest of the article HERE.

from issue #1: ‘The Magic Streets of Pittsburgh: An Interview With Lester Goran’ (Part 1 of 3)

Here again is the first part of Matthew Asprey’s extensive interview with the late American novelist Lester Goran (you can click on through all three parts). The interview appeared in Contrappasso issue #1 (August 2012) alongside an unpublished Goran story, ‘Don’t I Know You?’. Contrappasso was honoured to publish two further pieces by Goran – a short story called ‘1908: The King of a Rainy Country’ in issue #3 (August 2013), and his memoir of Charles Willeford in the special Noir Issue just two months ago. The Willeford piece was the last published work to appear during Goran’s lifetime.

Contrappasso Magazine: International Writing

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

[LESTER GORAN was born in Pittsburgh in 1928. In 1960, reviewing The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, the New Yorker declared Goran had “the vitality and true perspective of a born novelist… [his] first novel gives reason for rejoicing.” As of 2012, Goran has published eight novels, a memoir, and three short story collections including Tales From The Irish Club, a New York Times Notable Book of 1996.

In September 2008 I travelled to the University of Miami in Coral Gables where Goran is a Professor of English. I had the opportunity to observe his weekly creative writing class. From 1978 to 1988 he taught this class with Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Goran also translated many of the stories to be found in Singer’s late collections The Image (1985) and The Death of Methuselah (1988). Goran memorialised their sometimes…

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Special: Roger Hickin on Sergio Badilla Castillo (Issue #3)

Photo (CC) Alexander Torrenegra @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Alexander Torrenegra @ Flickr


Issue 3 of Contrappasso features a selection of work by Chilean poet Sergio Badilla Castillo, translated by New Zealand poet, artist and publisher Roger Hickin in collaboration with the author. Roger has written this short description of Badilla’s work especially for this blog, as a guide to his main themes and many variations.


Sergio Badilla Castillo (b. Valparaíso, Chile, 1947) is a poet who, to borrow Ben Belitt’s words about Pablo Neruda, “makes a discipline of . . . [his] excesses”. Such was Badilla’s talent as a young man, he was hailed as Neruda’s heir apparent, and like Neruda’s his poetry is mercurial, oneiric, protean, torrential. Like his literary forebear too, Badilla is a nomad (his real father was a sailor), a pirate whose poems are studded with vivid images and graphic incidents ransacked from the accumulated wealth of world history and culture. On a deeper level, he is a latter-day shaman who throws himself into perilous journeys to report back on the chaos at the heart of things, transmuting his observations and experiences, jostling and blending reality and myth, certainty and uncertainty, beauty and horror, in hallucinatory, “transreal” poems that disrupt the linear coherence of past, present and future, encompassing multiple dimensions and temporalities in a single parachronic glance, whose aim is ultimately the “uchronic” (cf. “utopian”) release from the tyranny of time as the salt-grain of the lyric “I” disperses with all else into the waters of eternity.

Two bi-lingual chapbooks of Badilla’s poems––La cabeza de la Medusa / The Medusa’s head  and Espectros y Sombras / Ghosts and shadows, with translations by Roger Hickin and the author––have recently been published in New Zealand by Cold Hub Press,



Roger Hickin is a New Zealand poet, visual artist, book designer and publisher.  Although he has written and translated poetry and since the late 1960s, for many years his main preoccupation was with sculpture and painting. In the early 2000s poetry began to demand more attention. His Waiting for the Transport (Kilmog Press, Dunedin) and The Situation & other poems (the initial Cold Hub Press chapbook), both appeared in 2009. Roger is the director of Cold Hub Press – – which publishes New Zealand poetry as well as international poetry in several languages, including So we lost paradise, a bilingual selected poems of Chilean poet Juan Cameron, and two chapbooks of poems by Sergio Badilla Castillo (in collaboration with the author).

from issue #2: Poetry by Erin Martine Sessions (I)


Photo (CC) Josh Semans @ Flickr


If I were a house

I would have a cast iron
spiral staircase from the cellar
to the attic so that head
and heart could confer.
I’d have a rocking
chair on the balcony that arches
back to indecision and lurches
forward to light bulb moments.
There would be a weather
vane on the roof to warn
of my swarming mood.
I’m pretty sure my floors
would be polished
hardwood for resistance
to your whirling elements.
The laundry would have
a machine just for
washing my mouth out.
My wine-coloured dining
table would always have
an extra place set.
I would have one window
left open
for you to climb in.


New Year

Your eyes were colder and sharper
than the icicles that overhung
from your gutters. Your hair, like the sky,
was greying, and your new house was as
ostentatious as your introduction.

In August you snuck a glance
over the tops of your agapanthus,
their finger-like fronds
reached through our
fence and into my yard.

A month later you ventured
past your melting ice
demeanour and flower-fence
to watch me through the window
with those steely eyes.

In Spring you followed me,
steam rising from
the footpath, but the heat
I felt was your gaze
on the back of my neck.

I knew from the knock
it was you on my stoop —
some excuse to borrow
a book. You smelled
like coffee and Christmas.

At a New Year’s party with
all our neighbours, I avoided
your glimpses and fixed my eyes
on the fireworks. The moon
was round and gold like your wife’s ring.



ERIN MARTINE SESSIONS is an emerging poet based in Sydney. Contrappasso is the first place in which she has been published. Later in 2012 her work will also appear in Sparks, the Sydney University Anthology, and Volume 11 of Swamp, an online magazine for creative writing postgraduates. Erin has a Bachelor of Ancient History (Honours) from Macquarie University, a Bachelor of Christian Studies from the Australian College of Theology, and a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney. She is a part-time student, part-time registrar, part-time librarian, and always a poet.


from issue #2: ‘STR82ANL’ by Clive Sinclair (excerpt III)


[In addition to a career-spanning Clive Sinclair interview, issue #2 of Contrappasso features STR82ANL, a never-before-published novella by the British author. Here is the third of several excerpts.]

MEANWHILE, alone in their 7th floor hotel room, Zachary Siskin is beginning to pine for Ida. When the phone rings sometime after midnight he assumes—not unreasonably—that she is calling to explain her absence.

“Where are you?” he says.

“Perhaps I should tell you who I am,” a man answers, “before I tell you where I am. Hickory Waxwing at your service. Ruddy Turnstone’s right-hand man. That’s the who. The where is downstairs in the lobby. Now for the why. When he got home from the Sapsuckers’ soiree—which he said had developed into the dinner party from hell—my lord and master immediately dispatched me to guide you through Atlanta’s demimonde. ‘Leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of pleasure,’ were his instructions. I am here to carry them out to the letter. Am I to understand that your wife has not yet returned? Meet me in the bar, and we’ll wait out her coming in the company of good ol’ Jim Beam.” Hickory Waxwing adds that he is easy to spot, his hair being the colour of a Georgia peach (though not naturally so).

Sure enough Zachary Siskin spots him easily. Both men order their bourbon neat.

“Have you noticed,” says the blond-haired one, “that our names are practically homonyms? Though we don’t look much alike. And probably don’t act much alike either. What is it you do, Mr Siskin?”

“I’m a rabbi,” replies Zachary.

“Jesus,” exclaims Waxwing, “a Jewish one?”

“Most of us are,” replies Zachary.

Hickory Waxwing whistles.

“I would never have guessed,” he says. “Does it bother you to be seen with someone like me?”

“Someone like you I do not know about,” replies Zachary, “but with you I have no problem.”

“I was under the impression that your God took a dim view of Sodom and its eponymous perversion,” says Hickory.

“Fuck my God,” says Zachary Siskin, “I am a rabbi not because I believe in Him, but because I believe in man.”

“I believe in men, too,” counters Hickory, “but not to the extent that I worship them.”

“I don’t worship man, either,” says Zachary, “I simply maintain that he has the capacity to do harm, and the capacity to do good, and that it is my duty to encourage the latter proclivity.”

“Encouragement is perfect,” says Hickory, “the problem with religion over here is that it’s all about control.”

Is that what I am doing, wonders Zachary, trying to control Ida? Nevertheless he calls up to their room three times during the course of the next hour, to check if she has returned unobserved, or at least left a message to ease his worried mind.
From Hickory he learns that his wife had left the party with the Kingfishers. Although it is close to 2.00 am he phones their home. Mrs Kingfisher picks up. He makes his apologies, and is assured that Ida is fine.

“She’s with Art in his studio,” the woman adds. “Been there for a couple of hours at least. I can only assume that he persuaded your wife to sit for him after all. He can be a very persuasive man.”

Zachary downs another measure of Jim Beam (his sixth) and says to his new bosom buddy: “Okay, Hickory, let’s go turn over a stone or two.”

Waxwing does a double-take. He knows how to burn the candle at both ends, but doesn’t know how much of this knowledge he should share with a rabbi.

“What is it you’re hoping to find under them?’ he asks.

“Naked women,” replies Zachary.

“What sort?” asks Waxwing, beginning to wonder if his companion really is what he said he was.

“Not whores,” replies Zachary, “dancers.”

“You want to see a titty show?” exclaims Waxwing.

An excerpt from Clive Sinclair’s novella STR82ANL, whichappears in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.