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“This land of Texas we shared along with its own monumental legendry, though I don’t ever recall the two of us talking about it. In our very blood ran those epics of the lariat as well as the Alamo story which so shadows the mass psyche of Texans. But during those years when I knew Bob Howard, our minds were fixed on the hills of Wicklow that we had never seen, rather than those peaks of Callahan County we both knew. We wrote to each other about Brian Boru and Bob’s alter ego, Conan, rather than Bill Travis or that bumbling, if Irish-descended Quixote, Jim Callahan, who had been my grandfather’s Ranger commander and for whom the county was named. “
So wrote Robert Ervin Howard’s fellow writer Harold Preece in 1968, in an utterly engrossing essay called The Last Celt, where he remembered and eulogized so beautifully his friend, who had died 32 years previously.
There are a small number of artists that I discovered and fell in love with at an early age. And I never grew out of my interest – sometimes bordering on obsession – with them. To this day, forty-eight years after seeing him direct Steve McQueen and Ida Lupino in Junior Bonner, Sam Peckinpah remains my favourite film director bar none. To me there is just no one to touch him; and even his weakest, drink-sodden, cocaine-addled efforts (I’m looking at you, Convoy) remain of at least some interest.
I was thirteen when I saw Junior Bonner in 1972, but a year or so later I was able to smuggle myself into the Orient Cinema through a side door where I sat with jaw dropped and no doubt a little drool of saliva coming out of my slack mouth as I watched the X-rated Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Oh man; after all these years I still get a tingle down my spine just thinking about it. There was cool-as-bedamned James Coburn as Garrett and – are you kidding me? – Kris Kristofferson, who I would see in concert many times over the coming years, as the Kid. Yeah, of course, a donkey’s age older than Billy ever was, but I got what Peckinpah was trying to do here.
And of course also starring and with a soundtrack by none other than Bob Dylan, not yet a grumpy old git but enigmatic and with those beautiful cheekbones that made Cate Blanchet the obvious, if daring, choice to play him years later. What was his character? Well, Alias of course: Alias whoever you please.
And there was the darker side of Peckinpah even then. Chickens that were buried in the ground exploded in a welter of blood and slow-motion feathers as Billy and Pat took potshots at them; and since this was 1973 these were real chickens. Mad when you think about it now, really. Just the same as when you see those horses crashing to the ground and kicking in the dust we know now that the director was using trip-wires.
I moan about things changing for the worst; well, sometimes they change for the better and thank God that barbarism against animals on a film set would never be allowed today.
My dad hated Peckinpah. He just detested this kind of film and of course at fourteen that made me like them even more. There was a kind of poetry to Sam’s movies – yes, even to Straw Dogs - that I just didn’t see elsewhere. I liked the fact that these guys were flawed, that they weren’t John Wayne, that there were moral ambiguities. Not that I could have put it into those words back then but I felt it instinctively: that we were living in a world – Vietnam was still going on, for heaven’s sake! – where the old values were being replaced by… what?
Dad had seen Sam’s masterpiece The Wild Bunch in 1969 (I was too young) and he nearly had a heart attack when William Holden shot a woman in the back. He loved William Holden, thought he was a real man’s man. I still remember his quiet enjoyment when he took me to a rerun of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Now to him that was a movie. So he really wasn’t crazy about Holden as Pike Bishop.
The only thing that saved him from dismissing Peckinpah was his appearance on the Barry Norman film show for the BBC, where Peckinpah was obviously so proud of his ancestors coming from County Tyrone. Being proud of your Irish background on an English show was a big thing to my dad.
I’d like to think that another of the artists who became a lifelong favourite to me – the pulp writer Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936) -- would have enjoyed Peckinpah’s movies. Certainly there is that feeling of moral ambivalence that I mentioned; but more than that, there is this wonderful lyricism with which Howard’s circle of Irish-Texans spoke and wrote. No matter how much I pore over these old letters, they still astonish me.
Here is Bob Howard to H.P. Lovecraft in 1931, writing about the death of a certain way of life:
“Well, they have gone into the night, a vast and silent caravan, with their buckskins and their boots, their spurs and their long rifles, their wagons and their mustangs, their wars and their loves, their brutalities and their chivalries; they have gone to join their old rivals, the wolf, the panther and the Indian, and only a crumbling ‘dobe wall, a fading trail, the breath of an old song, remain to mark the roads they travelled. But sometimes when the night wind whispers forgotten tales through the mesquite and the chaparral, it is easy to imagine that once again the tall grass bends to the tread of a ghostly caravan, that the breeze bears the jingle of stirrup and bridle-chain, and that spectral camp-fires are winking far out on the plains. And a lobo calls where no wolf can be, and the night is dreamy and hushed and still with the pregnancy of old times.”
Would Howard have loved the elegiac poetry of Peckinpah’s movies? Oh yes; I have no doubt. There’s a yearning for the past with both these men and I wonder what Peckinpah would have made of his unfinished project at the time of his death -- The Texans, in which a boy learns about life during a cattle drive.
It’s the lyricism that gets me with these Irish-Texans, though. Get a load of this from Harold Preece:
“Far away and long ago it all seems now. As far away as Texas whose rhythms yet run in my veins. As long ago as those legends of Ireland recounted by Bob… All [of us] probably required, during those years of impatient early youth, some feeling of belonging to something that might be beyond those gargantuan, often smothering, dimensions of our native state. For Bob and myself, that extra entity became Ireland, which we believed to have been the apex of a great Celtic domain once extending across most of Europe.”
Next month, if I haven’t fallen off the twig and joined the dear departed, I hope to talk about Robert Howard and what he has meant to me over the decades.
*And with heartfelt thanks for this column to the great Bob Howard scholars Rusty Burke and Mark Finn, whom I had hoped to finally meet in 2021 at the Howard Days festival in Cross Plains, Texas. Looks as if I’ll have to wait until Covid-19 gives us a break. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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