Friday, August 31, 2007

Families, eh? Mark Lawson, Guardian, 31.8.07

It has been the summer of the public mum and dad. First Gerry and Kate McCann and then Melanie and Stephen Jones, as if not already under intolerable emotional pressure from the loss of their children, have submitted to the stress of lengthy television interviews, trading their privacy for a possible solution to the disappearance of Madeleine and the murder of Rhys. And in a tragedy that is at present less final, the father and father-in-law of Amy Winehouse used a radio phone-in for an ill-tempered family summit on the best way of encouraging the singer to ditch drugs and drink.

Even in a culture in which privacy is a vanishing virtue, a significant shift seems to have occurred. A previous era gave children the injunction that they should be seen but not heard. The rule in the 21st century media appears to be that parents should be seen and heard vociferously. Yet there are already signs that this trend towards parental broadcasting comes at the risk of psychological cost to the families and voyeurism for the audience.
At the Edinburgh Television Festival last weekend, it felt deeply uncomfortable to see Gerry McCann interrupting his unimaginable family nightmare to fly to a media festival to appeal to the media to leave his family alone. A day later, I had to switch off the interview in which the Joneses described the searing horror of their bereavement, feeling that it was like reading secret diaries. Some will argue that these reactions suggest an absence of human feelings; I'd argue they indicate their presence.

Logic tells us that the last thing required by eyes sore from crying is exposure to TV lights, but the McCanns and the Joneses agreed to the ordeal for the same reason. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suspect that the second couple was influenced by the summer-long example of the first. The couples will have imagined a kidnapper or killer - or witness - watching the screen and being shamed into admission.

The tactic, though, was applied differently. Questioned on the outwardly calm demeanour which surprised some viewers, Gerry McCann revealed that he and his wife had been told that self-control might have most effect on a putative kidnapper tuning in. But, if such advice was given, it seems misguided. In a cruel kind of emotional theatre-reviewing of which Queen Elizabeth II was a victim in the week after Diana's death, the malevolent blogosphere gossip about the McCanns began with the observation that they were "not upset enough" when they appeared on TV.

There is no risk of that with Melanie Jones, who looked as demented with grief as we feel we might be in these circumstances, but, as often happens with modern TV, many viewers must have wondered if she should really be putting herself through this. Before it becomes the accepted wisdom for both police and media that participants in tragedies must speak in public, doctors and psychologists should properly study what the consequences might be for those who endure it.

But the couples' decisions to go public might also be practical. While some have argued, since that car crash in Paris 10 years ago today, that Britons have undergone some kind of emotional evolution towards greater self-disclosure, the climate described by the shorthand "Dianarism" has as much to do with technology as psychology.

In an earlier time of intermittent news bulletins, a story that wanted to stay in the headlines required one new development each day. Now new material is needed on the hour. And if it doesn't come it will be spun, demand overriding supply. Participants in a tragedy who choose to close the curtains and weep in private - the old way - know that reporters will, in any case, be standing outside the house speculating about how they are feeling. Already characters in a story being written by thousands of official and unofficial journalists, they might attempt to shape the narrative by providing some pictures and dialogue of their own.

But as the McCanns have discovered, media exposure, for whatever motive it's sought, makes a person famous and celebrity has consequences, of which the biggest is becoming fair game for personal comment, however hurtful or untrue. Accused of murder in Portuguese equivalents of the Daily Sport, which are conveniently reclassified as a "respected national newspaper" when the lurid rumours are recycled in Britain, they now suffer newspaper front pages speculating on alleged "cracks" in their marriage. God help the future tragic parent who has a lover, an unpaid parking ticket or a controversial opinion once committed to print.

More crushingly, as Gerry McCann seemed to acknowledge in Edinburgh, the belief that publicity would help the investigation is now questionable, the parents' appearances instead encouraging false sightings and false suspects. In the Rhys Jones murder, the parental exposure may be more useful, because of the suspicion that the killer was a child, more easily panicked by fear of consequence. But should Mr and Mrs Jones wish to return to private life after the funeral or after a trial, they may find they are assumed to be public property, pestered for regular updates on how they feel.

The easiest of these cases is the Winehouses and the Fielder-Civils. Something like this has happened in a million families: a disagreement over how a crisis involving a child should be handled, exacerbated, as often in England, by a class gap between the partners. It seems pretty straightforward, though, that Mr Winehouse and Mr Fielder-Civil would have been better served talking to each other or to Amy on a couple of mobiles rather than "the nation's conversation".

You can appreciate Mr Fielder-Civil's thinking. His son married a woman who is public property and so questions about what she's up to these days come not, as for most in-laws, in the high street but on the information superhighway. And so, because the public are discussing her, he ends up discussing her in public.

But his plea for fans to stop buying Winehouse records is naive because the music industry is not athletics: the spectators don't care if a performer is artificially assisted. And his intervention, followed by the response from the other side of the family, inflamed the story for another day, giving the paparazzi another excuse to follow around the troubled young woman these men were muddledly trying to help.

In May, the McCanns began the idea that publicity is the best response to family crisis, but recent comments suggest that they are retreating from the technique even as others adopt it. Instinct and history suggests that breakthroughs in the cases of these tragic children are more likely to come from decent policing and that Amy Winehouse's ability to beat addiction will be decided by her personality and treatment, rather than media appearances by her family. Distress is not always better shared and sometimes parents should be neither seen nor heard.

SPORTIN' LIFE: Guardian, July 6 2007

Amongst the swarm of minor pieces of information that slipped out of the press wires on Thursday there was a small snap, around about 4.55 in the afternoon.

"ST JOHN'S, Antigua, July 5 (Reuters) - Former West Indies fast bowler Courtney Walsh believes that Cuba has natural cricketing talent and could become a force in the game. Walsh said on Thursday he had visited the communist country several times and had been amazed by the talent on show."

Cricket in Cuba - a curious idea, that. Curious enough to make your eyebrow flicker up and down when you read it.

It could almost be a joke (the same kind of joke that led Matthew Engel to remark of Chinese cricket, in the 2006 Wisden Almanack, that "if I ever get the chance to report the first China v England Test at Guangzhou, I would be delighted to celebrate with a plateful of sweet-and-sour hat").

It's not. On Wednesday, the Texas-born billionaire Sir Allen Stanford announced that Cuba and Turks & Caicos Islands would be joining his Caribbean-wide Twenty20 competition. Stanford is investing $100m into Caribbean cricket over the next three years, with a genuine conviction that he can create a profit.

It's serious business. And it suggests that in Cuba, unlike the vast majority of the International Cricket Council's 101 members, the game is played by more people than just a few ex-pats in panama hats. As in so many other ways, Cuba is different.

On January 1 1899, the USA took formal control of Havana after the end of the Spanish/American War. Within four years a patsy regime was in place, and a lease was imposed by America on Cuba that allowed them to take possession of Guantanamo Bay. Construction of the naval base soon began, and a long and inflammatory history was sparked.

Cricket, in its first flourishing in Cuba, was one of the minor, and undocumented ripples of change that occurred in consequence. The American presence led to waves of immigrant workers from the Caribbean. At first it was Jamaicans coming to construct the base and its infrastructure, then, in the 1920s it was Bajans coming to work in the sugar mills.

The game came with them, and in Oriente region, to the east of the country, it thrived. Leagues were formed, cup competitions held. In 1955 and 56 the Guantanamo Cricket Club hosted teams from the Bahamas and Jamaica.

And then came the revolution. Cricket clubs were, like everything else, nationalised. The government did not take a great interest and the game dwindled and died. In the records the scorecards run up to one final match in 1974, and afterwards the game all but disappeared. One match a year was played in a town to the south, Baragua, in celebration of Emancipation Day.

For 25 years there was no cricket other than that, and a handful of games organised by various English-speaking diplomats, in Cuba.

The astonishing resuscitation that took place over the decade between then and now was caused by several things. Among them was the receptiveness of Fidel Castro's administration towards alternatives to baseball, even as Bill Clinton was preaching 'diamond diplomacy' and organising friendly matches in Havana between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team; also, the British government grew wise to this new angle of relations, and set up a 'Memoranda of Understanding' between UK Sport and the Cuban Sports Ministry.

More than either of those, though, the transition was, incredibly, brought about by just one woman.

Leona Ford was born in 1943, in Guantanamo. She is a second-generation Cuban; her father Leonard Ford came to the Cuban sugar plantations from Barbados. Leonard was the founder of the Guantanamo Cricket Club.

"The club meetings were held at my home, and when I was little I used to hear about it a lot. There were cricket photographs all over the house," Leona remembers now. After a lifetime spent working as an English professor, she decided to write a history of Cuban cricket in her retirement. The details above are only widely available because of her work. She was increasingly drawn towards the idea of re-establishing the game.

In 1998 she presented a paper on the subject at the annual meeting of the West Indian Welfare Association. In the crowd was a man named Sir Howard Cooke. Cooke was Governor General of Jamaica. What was more, he had captained one of the Jamaican teams that had visited Guantanamo CC in 1955, and remembered playing against Leona's father.

With Cooke's support, not least in the form of getting his old friend Courtney Walsh involved, Lord set about re-establishing the game in Cuba. They started appealing for donations for equipment, and rounded up elderly former players to act as coaches and umpires. Earl Best, a sportswriter with the Trinidad Express, volunteered to run a six-week coaching course, bringing an Argentinian copy of the Laws of cricket with him.

Amazingly, and despite the unique problems Best faced in a baseball-crazy nation ("for a Cuban a bat is held and wielded horizontally," he wrote), the game began to take off. It was designated a 'recreational sport' by the National Sports Institute of Cuba (INDER). That meant it could be taught in schools. With the help of the British Consul, the campaign grew and kit donations flooded in.

In 2002 they were given affiliate membership of the ICC. In 2003 the UK Sport started sending out teams of coaches as part of their new pact with INDER. By then there were eight senior teams, and the game was being played in 37 different schools by over a 1,000 children. The first provincial tournament was held in 2004. From there, the curve continued upwards until two days ago, and Stanford's announcement.

Ford, having spent a long time running the national association out of her house, spending much of her free time watching video copies of Test matches from overseas, was made the ICC's global Volunteer of the Year in 2002. Now 64, she is still the only female head of a national cricket association in the world.

Her's has been an astonishing feat, and one that now looks certain to have a real legacy. The descendants of the Bajans and Jamaicans who first introduced cricket to Cuba now make up 8% of its population. And of course the popularity of baseball ensures a certain affinity with cricket on the rest of the population as well. Possibly the only thing working against the game growing further is the fact that there's not nearly so much satisfaction to be had in whupping the USA at it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Simon Jenkins: Guardian, 1.6.07

BLOGGER'S NOTE: For connoisseurs of stupidity, visit the responses to this

Celtic nationalists should invest in their heritage instead of flogging it off

A pretence of local pride hides what UK devolutionists are really after - money. And their countryside is suffering

Simon Jenkins
Friday June 1, 2007
The Guardian

Where is the heart of the new "nationalism" sweeping Britain's Celtic fringe? So far it has seemed little more than a bid to spend British subsidies more generously than the English can. The Scots revel in freeing their students and elderly of fees. The Welsh give away prescriptions. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams refuse to speak to each other until their mouths are stuffed with English gold. This is pocketbook devolution. Read the nationalist manifestos and they are little more than shopping lists. Take away the British exchequer and I sense they would collapse like scarecrows without sticks.

Article continues


Meanwhile, almost the first decision taken by the new Scottish Nationalist first minister, Alex Salmond, was to refuse a grant of £5m-10m to save for his nation the most spectacular monument at risk in Scotland, Dumfries House. Tuesday's refusal means that offers of matching money (most of it from England) will fall and the finest mid-Georgian house in Scotland, complete with its original contents, will go under the auctioneer's hammer next month.
Why did Salmond refuse? I suspect it is because his nationalism is rooted not in the character, culture and heritage of Scotland but rather in the bid of a factional politician for English money to buy votes and thus win power. The motivation is ambition, not nationalist vision.

Wales's Labour administration under Rhodri Morgan has been much the same. It is proto-nationalist in all but name, denying affinity to its London parent and buying the Plaid Cymru ticket on everything from broadcasting to bloated public payrolls. It has backed Welsh language and culture, but neither Morgan nor his nationalist rivals have shown concern for such emblems of Welsh nationhood as its landscape and coastline or its historic houses towns and villages, or even its chapels. Instead, if the British want to give Wales money to despoil the Cambrian mountains (like the Highlands and islands in Scotland) with wind turbines, then nationalism means grab the money.

I have no doubt that if Birmingham and Liverpool proposed to flood Welsh valleys for cash today, as they did in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Welsh assembly would ask simply, how much? Like the Irish when they sighted Brussels gold to subsidise holiday cottages in every bog and headland, the most beautiful parts of the British Isles are being raped by those who should treasure them most: those who live in them. The spectacle offers the English a golden opportunity to jeer that nationalism is not fit even to be custodian of its own heritage.

The Dumfries House decision, unless urgently reversed, is a tragedy for Scotland and indeed for Britain, greater even than the loss of the Rothschild mansions in Piccadilly and Mentmore in the 1960s and 70s. The house, a secondary property of the Marquess of Bute, is an astonishing survival that he understandably no long needs. Dating from 1754, it is the first work of the Adam brothers, Robert and James, after their father's death and is filled with exquisite rococo plasterwork. It also contains, undiminished, the first complete commission by the young Thomas Chippendale, with some 50 pieces to his name. The tapestry room contains Gobelins donated by Louis XIV. The stripping of the house would leave it near valueless and vulnerable to that curse of deserted properties, fire.

The opportunity is undeniably challenging. The house is nowhere near Dumfries but lies close to the former mining town of Cumnock, which gave the world Kier Hardie and Bill Shankly. This part of east Ayrshire is not pretty, but Dumfries and its 2,000-acre estate is its one potential amenity and tourism draw. In terms of today's Olympic billions, the rescue cost is modest: £6.7m for the house and estate and £14m for the contents, of which £4m is the estimate for a single Chippendale rosewood bookcase. Save Britain's Heritage (Save), which has been orchestrating the rescue, puts a total price of £25m on buying the entire estate and preparing it for public access.

An extraordinary outburst of energy has gone into trying to save the house, locally and from English admirers of Scotland's past. The present marquess, Johnny Bute, offered Dumfries to the Scottish National Trust, an organisation of terminal lethargy and lack of enterprise, but negotiations failed. Yet Save has, in just a few weeks, generated offers of £7m from the Art Fund, its biggest ever grant, and the Sainsbury and Garfield Weston foundations: all from south of the border. Further promises, such as from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, are conditional on some show of pride, even of caring, from Scotland. Approached for £5m-10m, Salmond's heritage quango, Historic Scotland, refused to give a penny from its £68m budget on the grounds that the house was "not financially viable". The same might be said for its parliamentary building.

The scheme proposed by Save was commissioned from the developer Kit Martin to convert the less important parts of the house and its outbuildings into flats and devote the 2,000-acre estate as a leisure park for the otherwise deprived population of east Ayrshire. Martin has successfully done four such conversions in Scotland alone, but cannot proceed without start-up funds.

Iam sure that nationalism's attitude to these houses is similar to that of the Irish after independence when they smashed the streets and monuments of Georgian Dublin. One of the loveliest cities in Europe was defaced on the grounds that it was built by the English (even if the craftsmen were Irish). Dumfries, though built by Scottish architects for a Scottish aristocrat, somehow represents English values. The English love history, architecture, mountains and views. A real Scotsman likes money. If he can sell 50 Chippendales and get the idiot English to give him millions for wind farms on Skye, so much the better. His Robbie Burns is not the poetry of the Highlands but of a heavy night in Sauchiehall Street.

Dumfries thus tests the spiritual depth of modern nationalism. It is rivalled by Wales's neglect of its two most outrageously derelict masterpieces: Gwrych Castle near Llandudno, and the gothic mansion of Hafodunos in Clwyd. Both are classic works of Wales's 19th-century heritage that have literally burned while Cardiff fiddled. The loss of Welsh historic houses great and small, both during English rule from London and now under the Welsh executive, has been horrendous.

Ancient buildings should be the emblems of nationalism. The English have been comparatively good about preserving theirs, and I have no doubt that Dumfries, like Gwrych and Hafodunos, would be safe were they across the English border. What now should shame the Scots is that it is the English that are fighting to save what the Scots might one day enjoy.

The past is not a foreign country of which we know little. The essence of Scots, Welsh and Irish nationalism has been precisely the distinctiveness of its separate histories. In an age of increasing leisure but more costly international travel, reminders of those histories are their "family silver", the investment stock of national identity and of future tourist wealth. Those who cannot realise this are not nationalists but money grubbers.

Apologies for Absence

Sorry for lack of posts. This is due to life treating me like a slurry-pit. As Norm Petersen put it, replying to the question 'how's life?' ; 'Like it caught me sleeping with his wife'.

Normal service resumed from today.

Drink Newport beer. Listen to Bill Hicks. Do them both. Now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

TV Review - Jonathan Meades: Abroad Again

BBC2, 16.5.07

Television is not art. It is craft. Or is it? Sometimes one is tempted otherwise. Jonathan Meades is a tempter.

The present writer has tried to persuade the broadsheets’ arts pages to run a piece on this so-far unimprovable series; one hopes that those who hand out TV gongs display less indifference and ignorance. While not quite the equal of last week’s marvellous autobiographical episode, this again is one of those programmes that seems so good that one questions whether most TV is getting worse or whether a handful of programme-makers (Molly Dineen is another example) are getting better.

In ‘On the Brandwagon’, Meades’ lengthy and many-coloured train of thought gets up steam near Montpellier on a hot night in 1985 - where he had to lie his Englishness away to witness the Heysel disaster on a pub TV – and speeds up to negotiate many curves of logic in order to mow down the ‘regeneration’ industry. First in Liverpool where this strange late 20th-century gibberish first took root in the UK, and then nationwide. This horrid nonsense, he argues, has cheapened modernist architecture and demeaned the perception of the urban environment. At a time when one is ankle-deep in dissembled flummery about Olympic ‘regeneration’ of East London, this onslaught is especially timely.

I speak from experience. Your correspondent lives in Newport, a dreary South Wales town pathetically trying a city-reinvention where people of influence genuinely believe that an undistinguished but very large pedestrian river bridge will ‘rebrand’ the place. Rather like several equally vacuous, meaningless and useless erections before it, as though they also might guarantee everyone a job, a thousand flowers blooming and (I may be exaggerating here) Julia Roberts offering a blow to every male over 18. People of influence believed in those structures, too. It may not surprise the perceptive to learn that none of them has diminished the town centre’s incurable tawdriness, or occasioned a social or economic revolution. Julia’s not turned up either: funny, that.

It is this contagious fallacy, as shallow as it is lucrative (like motivational speaking and management consultancy), that Meades attacks, and also how it has become integral to the thinking of the intellectually idle, overpaid and nepotistic. It is a cancer of urban life, ignored or shrugged off by most, until the rates go up, until the town is defaced; it takes a surgeonly mind to spot it. For which service the eloquent Meades must inevitably face accusations of nay-saying and cynicism – but not from this quarter, and more power to him for it.

‘On The Brandwagon’ is one of Meades’ is more visually aggressive and assertive than usual and lacks a little for it – at one point he briefly assumes three fictional roles, reassuming the actorly profession he trained for at RADA - but this excitable M.O. presumably is an attempt to keep pace with the presenter’s mercilessly accurate autopsy of the discursive fraudulence which supposedly legitimatizes gravy-train urban vandalism, venality and vanity, this absurd late 20th-century phenomenon of civic life. ‘Opportunity pathway’: ‘regeneration community’, are just two jesterly pastiches in a searing PR parody, reminding us that such irredeemable bollocks is cheap and easy but also largely a province of Anglophonic countries. Nonetheless, he reserves especial scorn for the supposedly iconic and ‘regenerative’ but actually very very ugly Guggenheim museum of Frank Gehry that the good burghers of Bilbao in Spain allowed to have plonked on them (nice clip of Athletic Bilbao’s Andoni Goicoechea’s famous 1984 foul on Maradona, by the way).

Meades could have been on thin ice here; ‘look at me!’ is his verbal shorthand for Gehry’s nasty hulk and thousands like it. I have heard some say the same of him, but director Colin Murray has Meades in fewer frames than usual – a subtle and clever touch. Meades’ argument has legs up to its neck, but I must take issue with his calumnisation of the Catalan Sergio Calatrava, whose acceptance of show-off commissions doesn’t stop him proving that he is a very imaginative, modernist architect; in much the same way that Meades makes imaginative, modernist TV programmes.

‘It could have been an abattoir,’ Meades charges, rightly, when discussing the Guggenheim. Its only purpose is to be seen. It could be argued that Meades, canted forward and inscrutable as he strolls in trademark suit and bins, is, like the buildings he damns, a brand that stands only for itself. To which I would contend that if he is a brand, he is one that brings much more stimulation to life than any number of ‘riverside developments’ of ‘overpriced flats and shops selling useless knick-knacks’. He reminds us, constantly, that the ‘regeneration’ industry has brought little of substantial material benefit to the locations upon which it has been visited, usually in direct disproportion to that which said structures were supposed to bestow.

Whereas Meades, if he says ‘look at me’ (at 7pm on BBC 2? Come on), could, by contrast, improve us all.

TV as art? Hmm. I’m tempted.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

TV Review: Rick Stein in Du Maurier Country


BBC2, 12.5.07

It was Daphne Du Maurier night on BBC2. Hey, here’s a good one. Let’s get a celebrity from Cornwall. So we’ll celebrate an author with a telly chef and a deceased canine mascot. How very very English.

This was unpromising. But… despite her very English-Cornish locations, Du Maurier’s work was interesting because it was singularly not very English at all in its darkly passionate undercurrents and Stein is maybe the most unconventional and interesting of telly chefs because less interested in himself than his product. The result of this strange conjunction – Geoff Boycott on Lawrence, anyone? - was a curious and entertaining 50 minutes of television. It looked good, sounded good and probably didn’t do your mind much good, but it was more than OK.

Rebecca, which made Du Maurier world famous and which bored her when people went on about it (Franz Waxman’s biliously sentimental score in Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of the novel, shown earlier on Saturday, may have contributed to her reputation as a writer of ‘women’s’ fiction) took centre stage.

As it should. Rebecca is a book blending psychological depth, a lust-murder and love as a destructive force in a way Plath or Woolf never quite managed with the same panache; it is more Vienna than Bloomsbury, more Schnitzler than Sackville-West. Let us not forget that her writing also inspired the very bleak and sexually-charged likes of The Birds.

To his credit, Stein, while blowing a sizeable wodge of the Cornish tourist office’s budget on a dazzling array of backdrops, all wooded creeks speckled with yachts, and the splendid lifestyle enjoyed by the novelist’s heirs, didn’t shy away from her personal quirks and themes and thought-processes, didn’t over-sensationalise her sex life and highlighted her strained relations with her family. I’d take issue with Stein’s assertion that the first paragraph of Rebecca is the most memorable of any novel’s – any reader of Catch 22 or 1984 would. It’s also quite possible that she would have found as much inspiration in a coast of a county where Rick didn’t have a restaurant; North Devon, say, which inspired Kingsley’s romance Westward Ho! A bit of lateral thinking might have helped make the case secure for the peculiar Romantic draw of Cornwall’s land and sea – the St Ives posse, Hardy’s Beeny Cliff, Bax’s tone poem Tintagel, Ethel Smyth’s opera The Wreckers, and none of these phenomena are too far removed from sexual abandonment remembered, wanted or lived. But the lad Stein did well; words like ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ don’t tend to creep too often into TV chefs’ vocabularies, especially not when used appositely in terms of 20th century fiction.

The sea, the sea - that maritime leitmotif in Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek among others, was not too overdone here, and slowly persuaded one that fish-mad Stein, whose enthusiasm for whatever task in which he is engaged is too relaxed to be ersatz, is a committed fan of Du Maurier’s sensuously charged writing. In terms of literary criticism, F.R. Leavis this definitely wasn’t, but Stein might actually not have been as unsuitable a choice of presenter as might be imagined.

Stein’s unsinkable geniality can chafe sometimes, and there was unquestioning romanticisation of Cornwall, as in Du Maurier herself, omitting trade diseases among tin miners or the china clay wage slaves of her adopted home near the Helford estuary, for example. But this programme, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and its source, attempted and succeeded at popular entertainment of the first order that didn’t assume its audience were morons and that they had a degree of emotional literacy. Stein knows this, and gently makes sure you know he knows; his sense of discovery was palpable but never obtrusive; bank on a few of Daph’s books being loaned out from libraries on Monday.

While the very thought of Jamie Oliver one day ‘discovering’ the London of Iain Sinclair or Colin McInnes is too scary to bear, this likeable oddity made one writer as satisfied as the cash-strapped hoteliers from Saltash to St Agnes for whom a bit of telegenic publicity luring putative tourists, especially when summer holidays are on the agendas of well-heeled north Londoners, can’t come soon enough. Compliments to the chef!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

MUSIC: Review, Scriabin 2

Scriabin 2
BBC SO/Sinaisky*

It is dizzying to realise that it is almost 15 years to the day since Radio 3 last broadcast a live (ish) performance of Scriabin’s Symphony No 2, toured by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Riccardo Muti on the back of an EMI recording that remains probably its definitive essaying. But Scriabin does dizzy like few other composers.

The Second (1901) immediately prefigures Scriabin’s madness, his auto-deomorphism, in which an already luxuriant and virtuosic harmonic and melodic post-Wagnerian vocabulary went chromatically supernova. No.2. is the foundation for Scriabin’s chromatic ‘mystic chord’ which informs all his later pieces. You’d never guess from Vassily Sinaisky’s insensitive stumble through a work of fantastic eroticism that demands the listener savour every last drop of its gorgeousness, to lingeringly savour beauty as does Muti’s stupendous 1990 recording. What we got was less seduction than wham-bam. In Sinaisky’s hands, this sumptuous if flawed symphony – that fourth movement allegro will never work - resembled a rejected sketch by a fourth-rater like Steinberg or Kalinnikov.

Audible lack of belief in the music was ventriloquized by scrappy ensemble work in all departments; rarely does the appeal of the bar sound as vivid as it did in this awful, scurried-through travesty. Sinaisky, who has done irreproachably good things with Scriabin’s temporal and emotional contemporaries like Schreker, never had a handle on the architecture or tempi with which Muti and Eliahu Inbal drew out the full sensual scope of the work.

The slow movement, one of the most voluptuous symphonic statements ever made, never wallowed as it should; the march-like finale was so rushed one could hear Sinaisky’s embarrassment. Scriabin always hated it; but if a conductor programmes this big fat 45-minute pig-out, he should at least try and ignore the composer’s misplaced shame, and make of it what Scriabin thought was impossible; a bloody good symphony. Sinaisky didn’t.

TV Review: Jonathan Meades, Abroad Again

Lord Reith was a Presbyterian Scot, a Wee Free wallah, among whose folks the most timid involvement in sensual pleasures had you hellbound. Strange, then, that perhaps the greatest living embodiment of Reith's dictum "inform, entertain, educate" should be a bohemian epicure from Salisbury who extols indulgence in food and architecture.

Jonathan Meades' new series from BBC Scotland (the irony!) looks very much like further confirming this stature, if the quite startlingly wonderful first-of-five, "Father to the Man", is anything to go by.

Meades, thick-set and ambling in his suit and shades, was warmish property on TV at the turn of the 1990s - Abroad, Further Abroad, Even Further Abroad (you get the picture), he almost got the epithet "inimitable" in the listings - but since then has had to concentrate largely on hard-fought-for one-offs, cult offerings for the faithful. There was Joe Building and Jerry Building, or the iconoclastic mini-series Meades Eats, whose down-to-the-quick criticism of British food was buried in the schedules so as not to bugger with TV's glamorising of our "cuisine".

No bullshit; "Father to the Man" is time-capsule stuff. Magnificent - a good-looking but never glossified autobiography of the development of the author's sense of place and "how mankind intervened" in the world the child Meades saw around him. It is also a dignified tribute to a late and missed father and "a land of lost content and Koola-Fruita". An unsentimental salute to a provincial 1950s world of grocers who would sell that obsolete Maidenhead-manufactured ice-lolly and who would unashamedly sport "majestic comb-overs ... British Racing Green coffee-roasters and maroon bacon slicers".

Ricky Nelson and a pot-pourri of string-heavy British light music bandleaders put in appearances on the soundtrack, natch. The scent of Odense marzipan and eau-de-Cologne 4711 hangs heavy. Mmmm ...

But period picturesqueness apart, "Father to the Man" concisely details the self-education of a "midget auto-didact" in the means by which humans create the world around them into what is now called the "built environment" - from vernacular architecture to water meadows to shack settlements to Fordson tractors. It makes for a spectacle that would be compelling, varied, funny, even if it were not couched in list-heavy, multi-claused language of a richness and complexity worthy of a good Calvados. No, this is one thing Ant and Dec won't be doing to justify their salaries.

To say Meades is clever is to indolently miss the point. It's like saying Zinedine Zidane is a good midfielder, or Boris Yeltsin liked a nightcap. He is also imaginative (further programmes are on garden cities, the evolution of British horticulture on the grand scale, the hypocrisies of the Garden Cities movement, the elision of branding and urban redevelopment). He is also, perforce, very persuasive (how does he get these things made?). The answer to that parenthetical question, by the way, is that he is very, very, very good.

His programmes are opinionated, bracingly prejudicial, but rigorously argued. If your brain blinks for an instant, you'll miss it. The fact Meades and a small team of trusted directors manage to create such ravishing pictures, whose flow and rhythm are less redolent of British TV than Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Jeunet and allow the mind to remain engaged with Meades' lecture - is a marvel of television. Not only of this, but any era.

Meades does not assume, as many inverted snobs mistakenly believe, that everyone knows as much as he does - ie. where Totton is, the date of the demolition of Netley Hospital, what leets are, the source of a Flaubert quote, why he refers to Betjeman as "the topographer, not the poet". Thanks to the balance of image and text in his programmes, the sensuality of the visual - glaucous underwaterscapes, a splendid olive-green Morris 1000 estate, rostrum stills of Minibrix and Bayko - inspires a democratic and improving impulse to go and bloody well find out who and where and how and what and why. This programme makes cleverness, a hated bane of British life, seductive.

Reith would have loved it.

One review of a collection of Meades's essays, Peter Knows What Dick Likes (Paladin, 1989) described its author as an enemy of "cultural yobbishness". Meades is rather an enemy of received and obtuse unwisdom; of imagination and intellect stunted by orthodoxy. He is a natural, inoculant against tabloidism, that media creed which seeks to make of the commonplace a dictatorship of the familiar. In the hands of Meades and his cohorts, that which is unfamiliar in the commonplace becomes real and strange and beautiful.

"Your neighbours are the unknown stars," wrote the Tour de France's organiser Jacques Goddet in 1955, of the power of his race to exalt the reality of life for struggling rider and bewitched spectator alike. Here is ample proof - with sufficient application, we can all learn to find that fascination which resides in the apparently mundane.

There aren't enough superlatives, even in Meades' supersized vocab, to hurl at this, the programme of the year so far. If you don't get this, chuck your telly out of the window.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Hagmann on Schreker

Secrets of the grotto
Peter Hagmann raves about Franz Schreker's hot and heavy opera "Die Gezeichneten" in Salzburg.

Is it a man, is it a woman? (S)he sits in rose red silk, with black tights and patent leather boots and puts on fresh make-up. The body ranges between the sexes, the pose extremely lascivious while the lustfully mounting tones of the overture are played slowly, to be savoured.

We're in the Felsenreitschule (the former summer riding school), at the first of three opera premieres on the programme this week at the Salzburg Festival: "Die Gezeichneten" by Franz Schreker. When the piece was first performed in 1918 in Frankfurt, it was a scandal, as was reported by the 14 year old Theodor W. Adorno, who was in the audience. The work appeared "mammothly billowing, excessive" and "something jumpy" happened to him during the "shockingly erotic scenes".
Indeed, there's plenty of those. In the text that Schreker had originally written for Alexander Zemlinsky but ended up putting to music himself, there is a mysterious pleasure garden which contains an even more mysterious pleasure spot. Alviano Salvago, rich in spirit and fantasy but with a crooked frame, built the garden out of a desire for beauty and sensuality. Vitelozzo Tamare, an animal of a man, together with his cronies from Genoa's gentry, uses it as a place to abuse women of high society. The two men end up in a fight over the beautiful painter Carlotta Nardi; the fight drives one to his death, the other to insanity.

Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff was faced with the question of how to tell this story, rooted in fin de siecle Vienna, in such a way that its shock value is felt in a contemporary world of Internet pornography. Together with his stage designer Raimund Bauer and costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, he found a solution that is as plausible as it is theatrical. In complete contrast to the Stuttgart production of "Die Gezeichneten" in 2002, for which director Martin Kusej made ample use of blood and masculine nudity, Lehnhoff tackles the problem from a psychological angle. Alviano Salvago is no Rigoletto, he's not at all deformed, just a small, thin-legged man with serious psychic trauma. Terrified of being exposed by any form of communication that love, for example, might demand of him, he hides his body and his sexuality in women's clothing. It's seen very intellectually, shown very aesthetically, but the effect is no less dreadful.

Then the climax. After the intermission, there is a lush tableau in the spirit of the Grand Opera. Here, at the opening of the elysium for the people, there is little ostentation on stage. Instead there is good use of the arcades in the Felsenreitschule, bridled but in no way unambiguous choreography (Denni Sayers), and most of all, overflowing musical sensuality created by the exceptionally large and superior vocal ensemble and the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Among all the black robed Renaissance figures and the half-naked ones, a man in a bright white suit stands out. It's Alviano who, perhaps thanks to the scene in the studio, has found himself and is now looking desperately for Carlotta.

He is interrupted by the Duke Adorno (Robert Hale), who launches a suit against him and his friends. The last victim of the band is a child – the second shock effect of the evening. "Die Gezeichneten" and the case of Dutroux (the notorious Belgian child molester and murderer – ed.). Schreker's opera not as a work from a turn of the century long ago, but as a paradigm with very contemporary relevance. That aslo applies to the no less pathological but extremely familiar masculinity obsession embodied by Vitelozzo Tamare. When the secret grotto opens, Alviano is forced to realise that Carlotte has given herself to the handsome muscle package. The "marked one" reaches for his revolver and shoots his rival down in one well-aimed shot; he, in turn falls down with a dreadful sneering laugh like Don Giovanni – the tall, handsome Michael Volle with his robust baritone is absolutely right for the role.

After Frankfurt in 1979, Düsseldorf in 1987 and Stuttgart in 2002, this interpretation is a further milestone in the most recent history of Franz Schreker's opera «Die Gezeichneten». Peter Ruzicka, who has made his contribution to keeping "entartete Musik" alive and well, took a certain risk with this opening premiere in Salzburg. His courage paid off.

Jeremy Eichler on Schreker's genius: Boston Globe

In search of a distant sound
A composer's opera finally makes its arrival in America
By Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe

April 15, 2007
This afternoon at New York's Lincoln Center, the American Symphony Orchestra will perform an opera by Franz Schreker titled "Der Ferne Klang" or "The Distant Sound." It is, astonishingly, the first professional performance of any complete Schreker opera in North America. And herein lies a strange story, one of the great disappearing acts of modern music history.
Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was an Austrian composer of half-Jewish descent. His popularity in the German-speaking world rose to great heights in the 1920s, for a brief time approaching that of Richard Strauss. Of all the composers whose lives or reputations were eclipsed by World War II, Schreker was perhaps the most accomplished, and his vanishing from history has been the most eerily complete.
In the last two decades, his operas have begun returning to stages across Central Europe, buoyed by the politics of "cultural reparations" that have galvanized interest in music by once-banned composers ranging from Walter Braunfels to Alexander Zemlinsky. In this country, the recording industry has invested considerable resources in "degenerate music" -- a term the Nazis applied loosely to music they disliked, on either racial or aesthetic grounds -- but Schreker's operas have not gotten their due in live performance.
The neglect remains a mystery. Schreker was a voice of startling freshness at a time when music was seeking bold new pathways to its own future. His artistic instincts grew out of the fertile soil of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and his operas grappled with psychological themes of intense Freudian resonance. Like many of his characters, the composer quested for a "distant sound," elusive yet intoxicating, a new way of writing opera that was grounded in history, especially Wagner, but open to the quiver and flux of the emerging modern world. Unlike Schoenberg, he did not call for harmonic revolution but instead renovated an existing musical grammar, conjuring up orchestral sonorities whose tactile richness and subtlety of timbral detail had scarcely been heard before. Most unusual of all, he was an avant-gardist who never gave up on the notion of a progressive music that could spread sensual pleasure beyond a narrow clique of connoisseurs.
Leon Botstein, a conductor who has devoted tireless energy to reviving forgotten 20th-century gems, will lead this afternoon's concert performance. When reached by phone during a week of rehearsals, Botstein's enthusiasm was palpable. "It's mind - bogglingly good," he said. "So fresh, and so direct, and so delightful. It requires not a shred of apology."
"Der Ferne Klang" was Schreker's first work of greatness, and its 1912 Frankfurt premiere made him a young star of modern German opera. The plot centers on a composer's search for a mysterious magical sound that leads him away from his true beloved, only to discover too late that the sound he seeks is a refraction of their own love. The writing in the libretto by Schreker cannot measure up to the symbolist mastery of a poet-librettist like Maeterlinck, but as Botstein points out, neither do the librettos used in "La Boheme" or "Madama Butterfly." And underlying "Der Ferne Klang" is the composer's youthful faith in the strange, nearly mystical powers of the orchestra.
He was a composer of tremendous intellectual richness, but he never disavowed his devotion to music as sound, to music as lived experience," said Christopher Hailey, the leading Schreker scholar, by phone from Princeton, N.J. "He wants to bring us to an understanding of our aural environment, in which the magic of sound is very much part of our experience of the magic of being. I think that comes out most clearly in 'Der Ferne Klang.' He's a young man breaking all the rules, and opening perspectives that weren't pursued with real consequence until after the Second World War."
The near-disappearance of music that offers so much is difficult to grasp. According to Hailey, there was talk of bringing Schreker's operas to the United States in the 1920s, a time when the Weimar blockbuster "Jonny Spielt Auf" (by Ernst Krenek) received its American premiere. But the plans were never realized, possibly due to the giant scale of the works themselves and the prohibitive costs of mounting a production.
When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Schreker was forced out of his teaching positions and his operas were strictly banned, not only for their progressive musical language but for their frank embrace of sexual themes. In the words of one infamous Nazi poster: " There was no sexual-pathological aberration he would not have set to music."
But the fevered lushness of Schreker's oeuvre seemed to offend not just the zealots of the extreme right, but also the chaste mandarins of the left. Theodor Adorno, the most influential theorist of musical modernism, displayed a marked ambivalence about Schreker, calling him on the one hand "a minstrel in a world without minstrels" and superior to Strauss in "orchestral imagination," but also cruelly denouncing Schreker's work as "music for puberty" or the fruit of a utopia that was too "unsublimated."
To be sure, Schreker's music was a far cry from the austere 12-tone path taken by Schoenberg and his disciples, a model that, after World War II, came to be cast as the only true and legitimate path for modern music. This heavy bias toward Schoenbergian flavors of modernism held strong well into the 1980s and gasped its final breaths only within the last decade. As a result, there are now new paths to sunlight opening up for works long buried in the rubble.
Schreker's operas are among them, but don't expect "Der Ferne Klang" to muscle out "Tosca" anytime soon. This is music with a certain inner volatility, a dearth of easily quotable tunes, and a peculiar undertow toward the dark, unmapped regions of the soul. With the right advocacy, these works might achieve sumptuous rare-bird status in the repertory, but even that is far better than extinction.
After today's performance, the next domestic glimpse of a Schreker opera will probably be given in Los Angeles, where James Conlon and the Los Angeles Opera have plans to stage Schreker's "Die Gezeichneten" ("The Stigmatized") in a future season, as part of its essential multiyear "Recovered Voices" project devoted to music repressed by the Third Reich.
The location of this project in Los Angeles is also fitting, as that city became home to so many émigré composers who were forced to flee Hitler's Europe. Schreker was almost among them. He made contacts in Southern California and considered emigrating.
In preparation for his journey, Schreker began practicing English, and one of his notebooks was on view in an exhibit at the Salzburg Festival in 2005, offering a poignant window into the almost painfully basic preparations for a new life. On one page, the composer wrote simple equations: "Ja = Yes" and "Nein = No."
Schreker's second act did not take place, as he died at 55 after a stroke for which it is speculated that the Nazis' treatment was to blame. More than seven decades later, his music has now made it to this country. Much credit goes to Botstein and the ASO for taking the initiative.
But perhaps the final word here should belong to Schreker himself. At the bottom of one page in the same notebook, the composer scrawled a short and strangely haunting sentence with no surrounding context. He seemed to be practicing his more formal English, perhaps anticipating the demands of a new chapter -- one that is now, finally, taking place.
"Ladies and gentleman," he wrote with open-ended grace, "let us begin."

Deborah Orr:

Deborah Orr: A singular horror, a media frenzy and some disturbing facts about missing children
It is shocking that four babies have gone missing in Britain without us even being aware of their names
Published: 09 May 2007
Outpourings of empathy with Kate and Gerry McCann, whose three-year-old daughter, Madeleine, went missing from her bedroom at a resort in Portugal last Thursday, have appeared all over the press in the past few days. No doubt they are perfectly sincere. But they are also entirely unnecessary. They are what news organisations want when they have a big story on their hands that is not "moving".

These commentaries add nothing to anyone's understanding of what has happened, or to anyone's sense of what might happen differently in future, because they do not educate, inform or entertain - except, perhaps, the dissociated or the ghoulish among us. They exploit the interest of readers in a way that can only chime with their own worst fears and insecurities, and augment their own distress or panic. This can, and does, lead in the most extreme instances to red-top hysteria and vigilante action. Both of these hinder the debate about paedophilia and what to do about it, rather than help it.

Even without such unfortunate consequences, as is the case with most people simply touched by the suffering of other people, indulging in too many thoughts of "what if..." is a sort of perverse anti-luxury, because despite the almost inconceivable ill-fortune of the McCann family, and despite widespread declarations that one knows just how they are feeling, or more honestly, cannot begin to imagine it, there is next to no likelihood, statistically, of quite such a calamity ever befalling anybody else.

The McCanns will be dealing with the fallout of this singular horror that has been visited upon them for years to come. It may seem right to slide for hours or days into their tragedy, but it is a kind of self-indulgence.

It is usually female writers who are requested to write commentaries about "human interest stories", and it is already apparent, since I'm writing this now, that The Independent and its editors feel in no way divorced from this process. In Britain, certainly, the voracious need of the media for new information has been a huge factor in the manner in which the police "handle" such cases. During the Soham investigation, it was policy to offer some new piece of information to the mass of waiting reporters every day, in order somehow to take advantage of the huge coverage in investigating the possible whereabouts of the girls.

The Portuguese police have not been conducting their investigation into Madeleine McCann's disappearance in this way. During the Soham inquiry, the police maintained pretty much until Ian Huntley's arrest that they had every reason to believe that Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were still alive.

Chief inspector Oligeario Sousa, who is leading the Portuguese investigation, has no such strategy. Not only has he pointed out bluntly that he is not "a magician" and therefore cannot possibly know whether this child is alive or dead, he has also made no secret of the fact that when a small child has been missing for more than 48 hours it is time to fear the worst. He says Madeleine is likely to have been abducted for "sexual reasons", which is more candid than we are used to.

There is media disgruntlement at the paucity of information from the police, and their failure to issue a description of Madeleine's clothing or to reveal an artist's impression of a possible suspect. There is a lack of clarity about salient facts such as whether the apartment that Madeleine and her siblings were in was locked, or whether the windows were open. There was a failure to act quickly to set up checkpoints at the border with Spain, so that Madeleine could have been removed from the country with ease. British police sources even claim that the forensic integrity of the crime scene was compromised, making it impossible to get fingerprints.

The Portugese investigation certainly seems pretty shambolic, and it is only right that questions be asked. Kate and Gerry McCann, understandably, are reported to be very frustrated by the attitude of the Portuguese police. It was at their insistence that a televised appeal by them to the putative abductor was made, and one can understand why. Such appeals are a staple of UK investigations, even though their practical use is sometimes, very evidently, absolutely zero. Televised appeals are something we have come to expect distraught family members to do, and at times we have even been treated to the tears of actorly murderers. But we continueto believe they are A Good Thing nonetheless.

Most worryingly, the woman who runs Innocence In Danger, an organisation specialising in the protection of abducted and trafficked children first set up under the auspices of Unesco, says she was unable to set up a Portuguese office because "corruption and indifference hampers the country's investigation of paedophiles and child traffickers". Portugal would do well to look closely at such an allegation, because it would certainly not be the first nation to learn that it was being far too cavalier about this matter. In Britain today, some judges appear unable to grasp the profundity of the violation paedophilia entails.

Yet, in some respects, the Portuguese way of dealing with child disappearance does not seem so very different from our own. The Child Rescue Alert system was launched here nationally only last year, and is based on the Amber Alert system that runs in the US. Essentially, the system relies on the media being told at the earliest stage, to encourage the public to act as the "eyes and ears of the police". At a local level, at least, this appears to have been done in Portugal, as people were out searching for Madeleine very quickly. Then there are the statistics. The Council of Europe recommends that its members should run a national missing persons' bureau, and in Portugal, with a population of 10 million, the police list seven people who went missing as children, according to The Daily Telegraph, including one two-year-old who was abducted from home.

In Britain, in the past five years, 44 children have been listed as missing and unaccounted for, with 11 having disappeared when five or younger, and four under 12 months old. Our population is six times that of Portugal, and it is not possible to say whether the figures are collated in ways that make them compatible. But it is still shocking to know that four babies have gone missing in Britain in the past couple of years without us even being aware of their names.

One final word on the unfortunate consequences of media feeding frenzies, which is to call attention to some of the pitfalls of a lack of restraint in emoting and opining on personal loss. Jon Gaunt wrote in The Sun yesterday that the McCanns had brought their troubles on themselves. We should "include children in meals out," he says, "It's called family life." Suddenly all that feminine tit-beating seems very decent indeed.

Bill Maher On The French:

"Hillary equals France"
I hate to sink the GOP's toy boat, but it was the French who inspired the U.S. Constitution, a document written by geniuses so it could be followed by idiots.
By Bill Maher

May. 04, 2007 | New Rule: Conservatives have to stop rolling their eyes every time they hear the word France. Like just calling something French is the ultimate argument winner. "Aw, you want a healthcare system that covers everybody and costs half as much? You mean like they have in France? What's there to say about a country that was too stupid to get on board with our wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed war in Iraq?"

Earlier this year, the Boston Globe got hold of an internal campaign document from GOP contender Mitt Romney, and a recurring strategy was to tie Democrats to the hated French. It said, in the Machiavellian code of the election huckster, "Hillary equals France," and it envisioned bumper stickers that read, "First, not France."

Except for one thing: We're not first. America isn't ranked anywhere near first in anything except military might and snotty billionaires. The country that is ranked No. 1 in healthcare, for example, is France. The World Health Organization ranks America at 37 in the world -- not two, or five -- 37, in between Costa Rica and Slovenia, which are both years away from discovering dentistry.

Yet an American politician could not survive if he or she uttered the simple, true statement, "France has a better healthcare system than us, and we should steal it." Because here, simply dismissing an idea as French passes for an argument. John Kerry? Can't vote for him -- he looks French. Yeah, as opposed to the other guy, who just looked stupid.

I know, if God had wanted us to learn from the Enlightenment, he wouldn't have given us Sean Hannity.

And I'm not saying France is better than America. Because I assume you've already figured that out by now. I don't want to be French, I just want to take what's best from the French. Stealing, for your own self-interest -- Republicans should love this idea. Taking what's best from the French: You know who else did that? The Founding Fathers. Hate to sink your toy boat, Fox News, but the Founding Fathers, the ones you say you revere, were children of the French Enlightenment, and fans of it, and they turned it into a musical called the Constitution of the United States. And they did a helluva job, so good it has been said that it was written by geniuses so it could be run by idiots. But the current administration is putting that to the test. The Founding Fathers were erudite, well-read, European-thinking aristocrats -- they would have had nothing in common with, and no use for, an ill-read xenophobic bumpkin like George W. Bush.

The American ideas of individuality, religious tolerance and freedom of speech came directly out of the French Enlightenment -- but, shhh, don't tell Alabama. Voltaire wrote "men are born equal" before Jefferson was wise enough to steal it.

Countries are like people -- they tend to get smarter as they get older. Noted military genius Donald Rumsfeld famously dismissed France as part of Old Europe, but the French are ... what's the word I'm looking for? Oh yeah, "mature." We think they're rude and snobby, but maybe that's because they're talking to us.

For example, France just had an election, and people over there approach an election differently. They vote. Eighty-five percent turned out. The only thing 85 percent of Americans ever voted on was Sanjaya.

Maybe the high turnout has something to do with the fact that the French candidates are never asked where they stand on evolution, prayer in school, abortion, stem cell research or gay marriage. And if the candidate knows about a character in a book other than Jesus, it's not a drawback. There is no Pierre Six-pack who can be fooled by childish wedge issues. And the electorate doesn't vote for the guy they want to have a croissant with. Nor do they care about the candidate's private lives: In the current race, Ségolène Royal has four kids but never bothered to get married. And she's a socialist. In America, if a Democrat even thinks you're calling him a liberal he immediately grabs an orange vest and a rifle and heads into the woods to kill something.

The conservative candidate is married, but he and his wife live apart and lead separate lives. They aren't asked about it in the media, and the people are OK with it, for the same reason the people are OK with nude beaches: because they're not a nation of 6-year-olds who scream and giggle if they see pee-pee parts. They have weird ideas about privacy. They think it should be private. In France, everyone has a mistress. Even mistresses have mistresses. To not have a lady on the side says to the voters, "I'm no good at multitasking."

France has its faults -- the country has high unemployment, a nasty immigrant problem and all that ridiculous accordion music. But its healthcare is the best, it's not dependent on Mideast oil, it has the lowest poverty rate and the lowest income-inequality rate among industrialized nations, and it's the greenest, with the lowest carbon dumping and the lowest electricity bill.

France has 20,000 miles of railroads that work. We have the trolley at the mall that takes you from Pottery Barn to the Gap. It has bullet trains. We have bullets. France has public intellectuals. We have Dr. Phil. And France invented sex during the day, the ménage à trois, lingerie and the tongue.

And the French are not fat. Can't we just admit we could learn something from them?

SPORTIN' LIFE: Martin Johnson

No, not that one. The Telegraph hack. Good stuff.

The scenes outside Boots recently have, by all accounts, been reminiscent of Wimbledon tennis fortnight, with people camping out all night on the pavement to get their hands on a tub of miracle rejuvenating cream.

The rush began after a television documentary, but it may also be connected to a confluence of sporting events so proficient in their capacity to accelerate the ageing process that not even Cliff Richard would have got through them without finally succumbing to a wrinkle.

Cricket enthusiasts - or to be more accurate, former enthusiasts - are still being kept under 24-hour surveillance for signs of suicidal tendencies after the World Cup, which went on for so long that all those television viewers who drew the lounge curtains on a winter blizzard when it kicked off would have opened them again at the end of it all to find that the lawn was about four feet high.

For many of them, the will to live had only just returned when it was further eroded by the arrival on their screens of the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, which finally finished last night after beginning, or so it seems, with a maximum clearance from Joe Davis. Or even further back in the mists of time, when Willie Thorne still had a full head of hair.

Before the BBC's publicity department inform us that this tournament attracts higher viewing figures than either Wimbledon or the Open golf, some would say this merely reinforces Mark Twain's contention that statistics, lies and damned lies are irretrievably linked. After all, it's tough to change channels if you fall into a coma in mid-April, and wake up again only on May Bank Holiday Monday.
Even Ronnie O'Sullivan described the game as "boring" during last year's championship although, in snooker's defence, it has moved on a long way from the days of Cliff Thorburn and Terry Griffiths, who once finished a match at 3.51am. These were players so dedicated to the doctrine of safety that they didn't so much apply chalk to the tip as a condom.

Nowadays, balls go flying into the pockets from every conceivable angle, and O'Sullivan can clear a table in less time than it took Bill Werbeniuk to drain a pint of lager. When Eddie Charlton was playing, the organisers considered issuing spectators with complimentary razor blades, either to keep the beard in check while Eddie was pondering the best way of getting the white back on to the baulk cushion, or to open a major artery.

The fact remains, though, that snooker players spend about 50 per cent of their time during a match sitting down and doing nothing at all, apart from fiddling with their bow-ties or twiddling an ear lobe. Television has long since cottoned on to this, which is why the commentators now adopt the role of psychoanalysts, in an attempt to make a drama out of someone in a waistcoat staring vacantly into space. Or, in the case of Anthony Hamilton during a moment of absent-minded reverie in his quarter-final, picking his nose.

Hamilton also features regularly in the tournament's attempt to convince an audience whose animation rarely extends beyond attempting to suppress the urge to cough that they're about to witness some kind of personalised joust to the death. They do this by giving the protagonists boxing-style nicknames, and Anthony is invariably introduced as "the Robin Hood of Snooker". To qualify for this soubriquet, Hamilton - doubtless to his considerable relief - is not obliged to leap through the curtains wearing a lincoln green cap and a pair of tights. He simply has to come from Nottingham. Or consider the plight of Mark Selby, who was introduced as "the Jester from Leicester".

If the MC had been feeling more alliterative, "the Nottingham Nosepicker" might have been trotted out for his next match, but Anthony rather spoiled this by getting eliminated.

Snooker, all the experts seem agreed, is now a young man's game, although quite why this should be is hard to say. Especially when the energy required to sip a glass of water (or indeed remove the contents of a nostril for careful examination) don't exactly suggest that there is any great impediment to someone like Steve Davis still winning this event when he's 100.

Hand-eye co-ordination may have something to do with it, but given the length of some of the frames, it may have less to do with cue-ball control than bladder control.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Silent Revolutions book review

Gideon Haigh
Aurum, £8.99

It is often said amongst cricket cognoscenti that the over bowled by Michael Holding at Geoffrey Boycott in the West Indies in 1981 was the finest and fastest any Test quick has delivered. Holding peppered Boycott with every ball in a fast bowler’s artillery, at great velocity, the Englishman scarcely able to place bat to ball. before the peerlessly graceful speed-merchant Whispering Death got his man with a ball that sent a stump cartwheeling 20 yards. Gladstone Holder, in The Nation, wrote of looking to the England players; “[Chris Old]… with his mouth wide open ... he ... had the look of a man who had seen a monster’.

This concordance of Gideon Haigh’s essays on cricket is the equivalent of that over, although without the focussed hostility. It has no target, no mark, yet has found one – this critic’s Achilles heels, those pierced by untrammelled stylistic brilliance and breadth of reading. C.L.R. James, John Arlott, to a lesser extent Neville Cardus (whose star is faltering with time, as he might have mused); these are all Haigh’s natural forebears and knew what they were about by making the subtext of their sublime writing the fact that to the enquiring mind cricket, played and watched and studied, has a capacity to provoke responses across an emotional and intellectual range few sports can match and therefore an ideal subject for the literary imagination.

Haigh is the Cardus of the post-Packer era, his fine skills evoking the phenomena of commercialised cricketing from Lillee to Pietersen with just as much pungency and lyricism as the older man’s evocation of the Golden Era. But history, and its dialectical legacies, are important to Haigh; his studies of Bradman and Miller inform his critiques of today’s game. Haigh’s prose is taut and unshowy, wearing its author’s formidable and offbeat intellect lightly, so when Twain or Metternich or Shostakovich or Australian car manufacturers crop up in his discourse one doesn’t disparage the author for display.

Haigh’s schtick is the subtle disguising of admirable technical resources and power. His Australian location – he was a fixture at the Melbourne Age - makes him in no way parochial; in fact it may have fed his insatiable appetite for elucidating the game’s historical inheritance of multi-dimensionality, its variety of colour and nuance, its scope and historical anomalies and enigmas (one of the pieces is thus titled). His essays, half-James, half-Barthes, all superbly his own, on topics from the lexicography of cricket bios to cricket bats to the underrated South African pace bowler Vincent Van Der Bijl have matter-of-fact intros and open up at military-medium pace, but slowly and with sure craft develop a staggering gamut of arguments with references to cricketing, artistic, military, social, business histories, plus much more besides, gingering up and seducing the reader. By this time, it’s too late; Haigh has mesmerised you.

He is highly regarded amongst cricketers, by all accounts a bunch growing duller. Yet here, there is barely a cliché to be seen; I am on a successive re-reading just to try and find one. In sportswriting, that betrays class.

Unlike Holding against Boycs, Haigh’s aim isn’t to knock your head off or take you out, but he will outsmart you; he makes you want to go and improve your own knowledge of this infuriating game. Holding bowled the ideal over; Haigh has written just about the ideal cricket book.

Leo Lensing on Altenberg

never, never, never should feel a woman, unless I want to feel her. My name is Altenberg after all, not Strindberg.” In 1915, the year in which this aphoristic wish fulfilment appeared in print, the pen name of the Viennese prose miniaturist Richard Engländer (1859–1919) was still famous enough to play off against those of his most prominent European contemporaries. A year earlier, he and Arthur Schnitzler had been under consideration as Austrian co-nominees for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The First World War intervened, however; and Peter Altenberg’s literary fortunes entered a decline that would be hastened by the Third Reich and from which they have never fully recovered.

It was Altenberg’s first book, As I See It (1896), that made his literary reputation. Recommended by Karl Kraus to Samuel Fischer, the leading publisher of Austrian and German modernism, this collection of sketches, brief dialogues, prose poems and aphorisms drew admiring reviews in most of the major German-language newspapers between Berne and St Petersburg, and in The Future, the influential journal of culture and politics edited by Maximilian Harden in Berlin, from a young Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Although As I See It would soon be translated into several European languages and belatedly, in 1919, even into Yiddish, neither it nor any of the ten other collections that appeared during Altenberg’s lifetime were ever rendered into English. The only book-length translation until now has been Alexander King Presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love (1960), an eccentric compilation illustrated, edited and, all too frequently, blithely rewritten by a third-rate American novelist and caricaturist.

Peter Wortsman, himself the author of a book of “small stories and microtales”, makes no secret of his own imagined affinity with Altenberg; in an interview with, he even calls himself the writer’s “love god-child”. Among other things, this apparently means that the process of translation was something akin to secretion: “the whole project poured out of my pores”. Speaking on Austrian National Radio, Wortsman revealed that the selections and renderings had in fact poured out in a mere four months, while he rode the A train to work in New York City.

Telegrams of the Soul stakes its claim for Altenberg’s importance on a very modest number of texts. The anthology contains some ninety pieces from an oeuvre comprising more than 2,000 titles in the books alone, a figure that excludes hundreds of uncollected reviews and other occasional writings. Still, Wortsman has made some fine choices. Several of the best-known, humorously self-referential sketches are here, such as “The Walking Stick” or “The Mouse”, a vignette made canonical by Kraus in his famous public readings. There are also prose snapshots of eccentric relatives that coalesce into an unconventional family gallery featuring an aunt whose compulsive laughter masks her desperation about an empty marriage. Another compelling series gathers sketches about scents and flowers. “Tulips”, for example, its botanical details pulsing with submerged eroticism, reads like a caption for a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph.

Altenberg’s obsession with the thoughts, movements, clothes, and, inevitably, the “ideal” bodies of girls and young women, which he dramatized subtly and, sometimes, not so subtly in hundreds of texts, is also amply documented. The darker bands in the broad spectrum of his experimental responses to sexual themes, however, which include photographs published together with poetic or aphoristic commentaries as well as suites of calligraphically inscribed postcard portraits collected in private albums, scarcely come into view. Although the afterword offers a glancing reference to Lewis Carroll, Wortsman’s predilection for relatively harmless sketches about prostitutes and brothels obscures more telling connections. Altenberg’s verbal-visual collages can also be understood as anticipating the serially reproduced Medici maidens, dolls and other fetishized miniatures in Joseph Cornell’s “boxes” or even the unsettling armies of prepubescent girls in the illustrated epics of the outsider artist-poet Henry Darger.

Far too meagerly sampled are sketches about painters, dancers, vaudeville artistes of all kinds, and even about performing animals that constitute another important subgenre in Altenberg’s work. The best of these, which originated in newspaper columns and reviews, metamorphose almost imperceptibly into allegories of literary identity and artistic crisis. Missing, for example, are “The Female ‘Hunger Artist’”, in which the poet declares a young woman fasting in a glass box on a Berlin avenue to be his “spiritual sister”, and other texts that help to explain why contemporary reviewers of Kafka often compared him with Altenberg.

Texts with Jewish themes, which Altenberg usually treated self-deprecatingly in reference to himself but aggressively in reference to others, are conspicuous by their absence. “How I Became Me”, for example, describes how Altenberg was discovered by the poets of Young Vienna as he sat in a coffee house writing a commentary on a newspaper illustration. The text ends with the ironically ambiguous revelation that instead of becoming a proper writer he has turned into a “schnorrer”, a Yiddish term for sponger, but also, in its original medieval meaning, an itinerant storyteller who sings for his supper. Sorely missed is the post-humously published “Race Problems”, an astonishingly prescient analysis of Jewish cabaret artists who are applauded in Vienna, the “metropolis of ‘organic anti-Semitism’”, as long as they restrict themselves to performing their “Andersrassigkeit” (“racial difference”).

Even the thoroughly engaging texts that Wortsman does include are not always rendered free of false notes. The periodic resort to slang such as “no way” or “in the buff” introduces a deceptive contemporaneity that more often than not disturbs the subtle registers of Altenberg’s delicate diction. Phrases that reflect then current scientific theories or new technologies are routinely reformulated in ways that obscure their ideological frisson. In “Autobiography”, for example, Altenberg, who had himself fallen under the sway of Ashanti families on exhibition at the Vienna zoo in 1896, quotes public reaction to his father’s joining him on his daily visits to see them: “The old man has inherited a genetic defect from his son”. This humorous reversal is reduced to the flat pronouncement that the “old man and his son are two of a kind”.

Most distressing, perhaps, are deficiencies in layout, typography and punctuation that will be invisible to readers who do not know the originals. Altenberg’s characteristic dashes, quotation marks and exclamation points are reduced to a minimum. His consistent use of italics (Sperrdruck or spaced letters in the originals), which not only signals emphasis but also imbues the prose with poetic rhythm, is dispensed with entirely. As we know from his correspondence with his publisher S. Fischer, Altenberg, belying the cliché of the careless coffee-house scribbler, complained bitterly when his directions for such details were not followed.

Even as perceptive and efficient a reader as Walter Benjamin, who once acknowledged Altenberg as the exemplary “agitator” (Aufwiegler) for individualism in an age of mass culture, thought that his writings demanded “prolonged exposure for their absorption”. This is good advice for Altenberg’s next anthologist, for whom, one hopes, we shall not have long to wait.

Monday, May 07, 2007

You Are Sleepwalking Into The Abyss

All French readers of this who voted for Sarkozy. Fools!

How To Be A Journalist: Martin Newland

Martin Newland
Sunday May 6, 2007
The Observer

My brother-in-law, who lives in Paris, told me last week that the televised debate between the French presidential rivals Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy, watched by 20 million people, appeared to electrify the city even more than last year's World Cup final, where France lost to Italy. 'Politics here is far more of a spectator sport and many even use sporting terminology to describe a particular verbal sally by one candidate or another,' he told me. 'The next day, when I dropped the kids off at school, all the parents were clustered around the gates, staying for hours discussing the great debate. The French love a verbal punch-up.'

Twenty million viewers. And this on top of an 85 per cent turn-out in the first stage of an election process that finally ends this weekend. It is a far cry from Britain's recent democratic record, which has seen dwindling voter turn-outs over successive general elections. The relative lack of outrage at the impending coronation of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister is further evidence of a nation that has lost its appetite for the kind of all-out, raunchy, knock-down, democratic bunfights that we regularly see unfolding on the other side of the Channel.

Ms Royal refers warmly to Tony Blair's model of 'Third Way' politics, while Mr Sarkozy is a great admirer of British deregulation and devotion to free-market dynamics, but when it comes to public participation in the life of the nation, the French clearly have something to teach us. I have to admit to being increasingly irritated at the tendency of British commentators and politicians to present the election as France's last-chance saloon, for in most things that combine to make up a decent quality of life, from health to literacy, to gentility and solicitude for the vulnerable, France has us beaten.

Mr Sarkozy did not appear too convinced of this when he came to London three months ago to address expatriates who had fled high unemployment in France to find work in the City's booming financial-services sector. Referring to London as possessing a 'vitality' that Paris sorely lacked, Mr Sarkozy exhorted the crowd to return home - after casting their vote for him of course. 'France is still your country, even if you are disappointed by it,' he said, at the same time promising less regulation, more jobs and other free-market reforms.

The BBC's Crossing Continents took up the theme, broadcasting a documentary on how French graduates are flocking to the Square Mile. But the BBC should follow up its investigation with a comparison of how each country treats its citizens once they move from the freedom of youth to buying a house, getting from A to B, educating the children, staying healthy and growing old. For the fact is that British migration to France, at just over 40,000 a year, outstrips French migration to Britain. Most of those who leave cite what they see as a declining British values system, the soaring cost of living and poor public services.

London might be rich in 'vitality', but its pleasures are far more accessible to the super rich and tax-favoured non-domiciled billionaires than for the rest of us who are priced out of the housing market and forced to commute from an ever-expanding hinterland on a transport system that is as expensive as it is inefficient. I sometimes feel like apologising on behalf of my country to tourists at underground stations, rendered speechless by the cost of travelling a few stops on our glorious Northern Line. Research presented to the Foreign Office by Montesquieu University, near Bordeaux, shows that many Britons moving to France come from English urban areas in a bid to substitute overcrowding, soaring crime rates and high prices with 'things people associate with a typical French village that they feel no longer exist in Britain'.

Mr Sarkozy's visit lent extra weight to the arguments of our commentators who seem to accept that Britain's free-market system and relative lack of regulation automatically leads to a superior quality of life. But I grow increasingly frustrated with our assumption of superiority over the French, whose society in many ways is happier, healthier, better-educated and more carefully nurtured than ours.

The Telegraph's Simon Heffer contends: 'While much of the rest of the world moves on through the application of free-market economic disciplines, France is demoralised, impoverished, overtaxed and in despair.'

But any Barbour-clad, Telegraph-reading member of my Kent community, when asked about what is most irritating about Britain, rants about poor retirement income, high taxes in return for substandard public services, the high cost of living, the decline of civility and the decrepit road and rail infrastructure. These polemics often go in tandem with heartily delivered supremacist rants about Europe in general and France in particular, where performance in every aspect of Middle England's quality of life index is demonstrably superior. Yes, France is in dire need of economic and social reform, but the British would do well to look closer to home before labelling the country a society in crisis. French tax rates are higher than Britain's, but in France, the public services work. In Britain, they are, at best, mediocre. Both countries have high tax economies based on redistributive principles, but it is France that is better at fulfilling its social contract with its citizens.

I have first-hand experience of the British exodus. Recently, my in-laws moved to France. They follow my parents, who made the same decision two years ago. And they follow my brother-in-law, Dom, who moved to Paris years ago with his wife. My wife's parents are now settling down, among a growing band of British exiles, on the banks of the Charente, 600 miles from their children and the home they have known for a large part of their married life. Nearby Jarnac's population of around 5,000 has been swelled by 150 British families over the past few years. They are not all old people either, but families with children who are renovating properties and starting businesses.

My in-laws were finding it increasingly hard to cope with the cost of living in London and with inadequate health care. My mother-in-law, who has Parkinson's disease, has just found out that she is entitled to free weekly physiotherapy, a treatment deemed essential by French doctors, but not mentioned by her carers in Britain.

My father-in-law, who currently pays £500 a month for private medical coverage to supplement care by an NHS he already funds through taxation, expects now to contribute just £100 a month in the form of an insurance payable by French citizens (or their employers) to accompany state funding of the health service. My father pays less tax on his pension than in Britain, and the same will apply to my father-in-law when he registers as a resident.

My parents, who live near Angouleme, south-west France, are similarly surrounded by middle-class Brits who mutter darkly about about failing British health care, the country's dilapidated infrastructure, spiralling crime and the rising cost of living. My parents too have been joined by growing numbers of younger people with small children,families who are buying up the older properties and transforming them into gites.

Many young people are lured to France by its taxation system which, unlike Britain's, rewards fecundity and fidelity with tax breaks. Dom's third child arrived a few months ago, entitling him to a significant reduction in income tax. His carte famille nombreuse allows them half-price metro travel around Paris and half-price travel on the excellent national rail network. And the municipal authority, concerned at the lack of affordable housing for growing families, has capped his mortgage repayments.

Dom, who is a graphic artist, could not return to Britain even if he wanted to: 'Where would we live? How would we live?' he says. 'Even if I was earning two times what I earn here, it would not be enough to get a mortgage, let alone a comparable quality of life. The children would have a worse education; the family's health would be a big concern.'

So my experience shows me that France, despite its manifest social and economic problems, is kinder to those who are starting out on the road to family and responsibility, and to those who have reached the end of that road, and who should be able to expect, after a lifetime of paying tax, a comfortable and secure retirement. Mme Royal might admire 'New' Labour's 'Third Way' political and social model, but I can't help feeling that it is the belief that a government can be all things to all men - that near-unrestricted capitalism, for instance, can happily cohabit with comprehensive welfarism - that has created a British social model that is more confused and sclerotic than the French one.

In Britain, where the mainstream parties are tearing each other's throats out in the battle for something called the 'centre ground', choice is limited and voter turn-out low. How can David Cameron talk about patient choice, but eschew market principles in the NHS, defend the bloated public sector but campaign about the waste of public money, or defend marriage, but also uphold civil partnerships as of identical status?

Despite their admiration for Mr Blair, both candidates in the French election offer distinct visions for the country across the political spectrum from left to right. If this country remains on its current course after Gordon Brown's elevation, growing numbers on this side of the Channel will feel they have a greater stake in France's future than in Britain's.

Wilby On Blairography

Man without a shadow
No other leader has given more thought to his public image, and had so much written about him while in office. Yet what makes Tony Blair tick, and what he stands for, have eluded all his biographers. Will the prime minister, who rose without a trace, now leave none behind him, asks Peter Wilby

Peter Wilby
Saturday May 5, 2007


It is easy now to forget what a blank slate Tony Blair was when he became prime minister in 1997. In common with all but four of his cabinet, he had never held ministerial office of any kind. But nor (unlike Gordon Brown) had he been a student politician, nor (unlike Jack Straw) a ministerial adviser, nor (unlike David Blunkett) a local councillor, nor (unlike John Prescott) a union official. He was not even a prefect at school. At Oxford, he was almost invisible. As Anthony Seldon, the most painstakingly thorough of his biographers, puts it, "he did not become president of the Oxford Union, nor a leading actor, nor a sportsman, nor a well-known young legal blood, nor a debater". His subsequently famous band, Ugly Rumours, did barely half a dozen gigs. He did not join the university Labour Club and, even after he joined the party in 1975, rose no higher than assistant branch secretary, failing to get adopted as a local council candidate. When he fought a by-election in 1982 - losing his deposit in the safe Tory seat of Beaconsfield - he spoke in public for the first time.
What makes Tony Blair tick, therefore, has always been elusive. Nothing he did before the early 1980s caused anyone to remember anything important about him. Assessments of Blair cannot draw on any significant record of pre-parliamentary achievement, any youthful history of arguing through political principles with close friends and comrades, or any early statements of philosophy and beliefs.

This was not the only difficulty for the authors of the books considered here. Though biographies of serving prime ministers are nothing new - an "interim biography" of Clement Attlee was published in 1948 by none other than Roy Jenkins, then an obscure Labour backbencher - the amount published on Blair and Margaret Thatcher, during their terms of leadership and office, far exceeds anything on their predecessors. More relaxed official attitudes to ministers and civil servants giving interviews to journalists, the rise of the political adviser charged with ensuring that ministers' views and intentions are understood by the public, the decline of social inhibitions on divulging confidences (or, put another way, the increased acceptability of gossip and tittle-tattle) and the enormous growth of media scrutiny - all these have increased the volume of material available to contemporary biographers and historians. The authors' problem is to evaluate this material in an age when politicians and their advisers have given far more thought to "spinning" their public image than they did in the past.

The readers' problem is even greater. Inevitably, all these books rely at least to some extent on non-attributable interviews (where the writer can use direct quotes without identifying the source). Five of them - John Kampfner's Blair's Wars, Andrew Rawnsley's Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour, John Rentoul's Tony Blair: Prime Minister, Peter Riddell's The Unfulfilled Prime Minister: Tony Blair's Quest for a Legacy and Philip Stephens's Tony Blair: The Price of Leadership - are written by parliamentary lobby journalists; to say that they are accustomed to using non-attributable information without over-zealous questioning of the source's veracity is not to denigrate their professional abilities. Of the others, three - Leo Abse's Tony Blair: The Man Who Lost His Smile, Simon Jenkins's Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts and Geoffrey Wheatcroft's Yo, Blair! - are written from partisan positions to make a polemical point. Peter Hennessy - author of The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders Since 1945 - is a hybrid, a former journalist, who specialised in covering the inner workings of Whitehall, turned professor of contemporary history.

Francis Beckett and David Hencke's The Survivor: Tony Blair in Peace and War is even more of a hybrid. Hencke is an experienced Westminster journalist, though one noted more for his muckraking than for his work on the routine lobby beat. Beckett has worked as a journalist, as a non-academic 20th-century historian (who has written several good biographies of past politicians, including Attlee) and, most interestingly, as a press officer, mainly for trade unions and the Labour party. The resulting book, therefore, illuminates much about Blair's rise to power that the others don't, because Beckett, almost alone among these authors, has first-hand knowledge of the sometimes arcane processes of union and Labour politics. (Abse has similar knowledge, but makes less use of it.) Nevertheless, it is essentially an anti-Blair polemic.

Only Anthony Seldon, a public school history teacher and now a head rather than an academic, attempts pure contemporary history, using a team of seven researchers to collect evidence, mainly from interviews, and then evaluating it in Blair. The result, from an author who has previously written mainly about the Conservative party and its leaders, is admirably even-handed and often insightful. But it frequently suffers from Seldon's lack of day-to-day contact with Westminster and his unfamiliarity with Labour and its leading figures.

Contemporary history and biography dates quickly, and all these books will be superseded, particularly once the memoirs and diaries of the main actors, such as Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, are published. But, with the possible exceptions of Abse and Wheatcroft (entertainingly written from old Labour and old Tory viewpoints respectively), all are likely to provide some valuable insights for historians, and even those two have the merits of expressing the raw bitterness of traditionalists, of all types, at how Blair in particular and New Labour in general have been so careless of the things they hold precious. Whether historians can ever make more sense of what Blair truly stands for is another matter.

We can, from these accounts, compile a provisional narrative of why the Blair premiership turned out as it did and how the prime minister's personality influenced events. That will be the narrative from which future historians start, revising or elaborating as necessary. But they will find a persistent difficulty: because the pre-leadership material is so thin, in the political sense at least, the tendency in all these books is to read Blair backwards, to assess his personality and motives in the light of later events. The most striking example is the extraordinary account by Abse, MP for Pontypool until 1987. First published in 1996 as The Man Behind the Smile, it was revised in 2003 as The Man Who Lost His Smile. Abse attempts to psychoanalyse Blair, arguing that he is a classic victim of childhood trauma and that this explains his "evasion of confrontation and his accompanying manipulative placatory style". Blair's father, Leo, suffered a stroke that, for a period, rendered him speechless. Since all children unconsciously harbour death wishes against their fathers, argues Abse, the young Blair, seeing his wishes all but fulfilled, must have suffered crushing guilt. Moreover, after his father's recovery, he must have feared that more confrontation would provoke another "murder". This explains why he cannot fight the "undeserving privileged" and displaces his aggression on to distant enemies in Kosovo, Sierra Leone or Iraq.

Jenkins, in a book which argues that Blair is more of a Thatcherite than Margaret Thatcher, describes him as "an outsider with neither hinterland nor destination". His family background was "that of a communist turned Tory, lower-middle-class turned upper- middle-class, Scots, Irish and north-eastern, yet somehow metropolitan". Other writers, noting Blair's childhood years in Adelaide, his informal style and his respect for Rupert Murdoch, see him as, at heart, an Aussie. Wheatcroft, whose Yo, Blair! is essentially an extended Daily Mail op-ed, detects "an antipodean aversion to flummery and deference", but no "respect for tradition, sense of history, reverence for custom". Seldon thinks "Australian people, and culture" had "a profound influence". Since Blair was barely five when the family returned home, this seems unlikely.

With few exceptions, anyone who writes about Blair is forced to the reluctant conclusion that what is really at the core of him is Christianity. This idea is so unfamiliar in English politics, and so distasteful to most metropolitan journalists, that only Seldon comes seriously to grips with it. Blair "conceptualises the world as a struggle between good and evil", he writes.

Blair was confirmed into the Church of England at university when he would have known that his mother - who, unlike his father, was a believer - was dying of throat cancer. His faith, far from being an affectation, is likely therefore to be the driving force of his life. All his biographers accept that he is a consummate actor, but none seriously questions his religious faith. Piety, after all, is not incompatible with a theatrical career. "God was far and away the most significant discovery of his life," write Beckett and Hencke, whose hostile account acknowledges Blair's sincerity, particularly on Iraq.

The difficulty is to know how the Christianity influences the politics. Blair himself is reluctant to talk about his religion and, as Rentoul, one of the earliest biographers, points out, even his best friend at Oxford didn't know of his confirmation. Only after John Smith, himself a Christian socialist, became Labour leader did Blair's religion become at all visible to political colleagues and the wider public. Not until 1996, when he was interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph, did he give it a significant outing. After that, his press secretary Alastair Campbell closed the subject down: "We don't do God," he said, fearing that his boss might be portrayed as either an unworldly dreamer or a sanctimonious hypocrite.

Stephens argues that Blair's religion was fundamental to his premiership and that his true political inspiration was William Gladstone. Iraq was not a distraction from his premiership, but the defining moment of his leadership, when the thespian, the ruthless pragmatist and the practitioner of low politics were put, as it were, to good use, in the service of "the 19th-century leader of conscience".

Stephens insists that religious faith explains Blair's actions. Seldon, though by no means a hostile biographer, sees him rather "shoehorning his policies in to fit the principles retrospectively". His inner team in Downing Street, Seldon and his research team found, saw his Christianity as "an add-on, an enigma that is neither much discussed nor valued nor comprehended". Where religion is important to Blair, in Seldon's judgment, is in providing inner reassurance that he is doing right. He believes that "he alone can resolve difficulties" and "more subtly ... that in him alone all differences can be synthesised". He engages with critics, but only in the belief that he can persuade them. "In this sense at least," concludes Seldon, "his faith has narrowed him, and made him less willing to listen ... His convictions also made it very hard for him to admit that he has ever done anything wrong."

To Wheatcroft, this is the key to Blair, and it explains the sleaze, the spin, the warmongering, the lying, the dumping of Peter Mandelson and other old allies, and no doubt the willingness (Wheatcroft himself didn't think of this one, but Beckett and Hencke did) to see even his own wife trashed by Downing Street staff over her friendship with Carole Caplin and her purchase of flats in Bristol. Wheatcroft quotes the biblical saw that "to the pure, all things are pure" and compares him to "those heretics who thought that, if you were of the elect, you eat, drink and merrily fornicate in the certainty of salvation".

But this does not quite explain why a prime minister who aimed so high achieved, if not little, far less than he and others expected. For that, we have to turn to the authors who are intimately familiar with the inner workings of both Westminster and Whitehall: Rawnsley and Riddell, political columnists for the Observer and Times respectively, as well as Hennessy.

Rawnsley tells what he describes as "a human story" about a small group - "each one of them fantastically gifted but also highly peculiar" - who underwent "the immense bonding experience" of taking control of a party and then of a country. His account, published in 2000 and therefore confined to the first term, is usually considered favourable to New Labour, yet its revelations of how Blair and his team approached government are extraordinarily damning.

The picture Rawnsley presents is of an inexperienced government in permanent panic and almost wholly paralysed by fear: fear of not being re-elected, fear of economic crisis, fear of rebellious old Labour MPs, fear of the civil service, fear of the press, fear of repeating their party's past mistakes, fear above all that they simply weren't up to the job. "New Labour ever had a palpitating heart," writes Rawnsley. Blair may always have known in his heart that he would do the right thing but, in domestic affairs at least, he didn't always know what the right thing was or how to do it. The specific policy promises were modest, to the point of being mundane. Blair would, however, make a nicer, happier, kinder society, though also one that was more youthful, modern and dynamic. The NHS would be saved, schools and universities made "world-class", the constitution streamlined, the leadership of Europe grasped. Blair promised national renewal, a spiritual experience, not a political one.

But what Rawnsley calls "the vaulting scope" of New Labour's ambitions added to the fear of getting it all wrong. Blair and his acolytes fell into a Leninist style of government. "Within New Labour," a senior civil servant told Rawnsley, "they were a revolutionary cell within the party ... [they] were used to working intimately together with as few people as possible privy to their secrets. They wanted to carry on like that in government."

What this meant is spelt out by Hennessy and Riddell: the biggest centralisation of Whitehall power in peacetime. The old model of cabinet government, an official told Hennessy, was "dead as a doornail". Cabinet meetings had no formal agenda, few papers and insufficient time for discussion. Members of Blair's personal team were allowed to give orders to civil servants. Yet Downing Street gathered all this power to itself without knowing how to use the machinery of government to make anything happen. As Rawnsley puts it, Blair is an artist (some would say a dreamer), not an engineer. The defining image, a close adviser told Rawnsley, was the Monday-morning strategy meeting at which Blair would scream: "What are we doing about health? What are we doing about crime? What are we doing about transport?" And nothing would happen.

"What he wants is results," Hennessy was told. "He has a feel for the policies but not how the results come. He finds it hard to understand why things can't happen immediately." Moreover, Blair lacked the resource levers that Gordon Brown - another centralist, but one with more feel for the mechanics of government - had available to him in the Treasury.

It was precisely because Blair tried to run so much that he achieved so little. Not only did he attempt to accrue all government power to himself, he also tried to take it into new areas, setting targets for smoking, obesity, drinking and teenage pregnancy, to give just a few examples. As Riddell observes drily, "what ministers say has run well ahead of what they can do".

The lack of a guiding philosophy made Blair's government even less likely to work. Ministers and civil servants, writes Rawnsley, "need a sure map to guide the myriad decisions they make each day". Otherwise, they are at the mercy of random events and a media-driven agenda. As Stephens explains, most politicians have firm ideas about the limits of markets, the size of the state, tax rates, welfare benefits, the boundaries between the public and private spheres. Blair started with a blank sheet of paper, and made a virtue of it. The guiding principle was not "markets are good" or "taxation is bad", which had helped Whitehall to navigate the Thatcher era, but "Tony wants" or, to borrow Abse's phrase, "apple pie and motherhood and amen". "His constant refrain was that values were what counted," writes Stephens. "Policies mattered not for their own sake but only in so far as they promised to deliver those values." But the values were not fully worked out, still less which policies could best deliver them.

As we have seen, Blair's philosophy of life is religious rather than political, and his summary of John Macmurray, the Christian philosopher who is supposedly his guiding light, was hardly rigorous: "What he was on about was community. It's about fellowship, friendship, brotherly love." A succession of ideas and gurus were briefly embraced and cast aside, though the sociologist Anthony Giddens remained a constant, "conjuring", as Jenkins puts it, "a swarm of abstract nouns, consuming all meaning in their path". The Third Way is dismissed by Rawnsley as "a food-mixer". It tried to reconcile, in Blair's own words, things that had previously "been regarded as antagonistic": patriotism and internationalism, liberalism and socialism, the market and public services.

Some biographers suggest Blair's true gurus were more mundane figures than Giddens or the American communitarian Amitai Etzioni. Beckett and Hencke propose Charles Handy, a prolific author of management books who is sufficiently pious to get himself a regular slot on Thought for the Day. Blair has apparently read his books and learnt from them to "tear down all the bureaucratic civil service structures, all the paraphernalia of meetings, minutes and consulting: do it like the business leaders we admire, on the hoof, in your shirtsleeves, latte in one hand and mobile phone in the other". Seldon proposes Blair's focus group convenor, Philip Gould, whose influence on Labour goes back to 1985. Many of the phrases and buzzwords of the 1997 campaign - "one nation", "renewal", "the future not the past", "the many not the few" - came from Gould, whose book The Unfinished Revolution (1998) provides, in its homespun way, the most coherent guide to what New Labour is all about. Gould's instruction that "mass politics is becoming middle-class politics" has been followed faithfully through all the Blair years.

New Labour's overriding domestic aim can be quite clearly discerned: to make the public services acceptable to the middle classes by giving them standards of service they could expect in the private sector. If public services were not reformed in this way, ministers thought, the middle classes would desert the NHS and state schools and ultimately refuse to pay taxes (or, more precisely, demand tax rebates) for them. The more sympathetic biographers try to argue, without great conviction, that Blair had begun to find his way on this project by the end of his first term. Riddell argues that he probably left reform too late, but the second-term legislation, creating foundation hospitals and trust schools, opens, in the author's judgment, at least the prospect of a distinctively Blairite settlement for public services.

This "legacy", as Blair came to call it, was the main source of the tensions between him and Brown. As Seldon argues, "Brown was content as long as Blair's domestic policy remained inchoate and containable." There was always a difference of emphasis between the two men, best summed up by the Whitehall official who told Stephens that, given £5bn, Blair would spend it on hospitals and schools in middle England, Brown on tax credits for pensioners and the poor. But the first term tensions were mostly about power, not policy. Only as Blair developed his "choice and diversity" agenda in the second term did Brown - who believes ministers, rather than consumers, should choose between rival providers of public services - begin actively to frustrate him. The relationship, as Seldon puts it, increasingly consumed "time, emotional energy and goodwill", not least because it was the one area of government on which the press would always take an interest. "Its poison," writes Seldon, "seeped into almost every office and corridor in Whitehall and Westminster."

No wonder Blair turned increasingly to foreign affairs. There, he found greater philosophical certainty, more opportunity to use his personal talents, and more capacity to achieve quick results. As Jenkins puts it, "he found it a satisfying theatre of power where orders are obeyed and things happened". Stephens's suggestion that Blair had long been a Gladstonian liberal interventionist has him waiting to leap on to the world stage, his Christian faith driving him to the view "that civilised nations had the right and duty to confront suffering beyond their boundaries". And it is true that, in his only foreign policy speech of the 1997 campaign, he said it was "the destiny of Britain to lead other nations". But that is almost certainly another example of a biographer reading Blair backwards. His early statements echoed what he thought middle England wanted to hear and were intended to provide further evidence that Labour was truly new.

It is true also that Blair's concerns about Iraq date back to 1997, when he was telling the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown that he had been looking at "stuff" on Saddam's WMDs and "it really is pretty scary". But that was hardly a policy position. The first time he ordered the British military into action, in Operation Desert Fox against Saddam at the end of 1998, he did so nervously, trailing on President Clinton's coat-tails. Then, as later, Britain and America acted largely alone, without the support of most EU members and against doubts about the operation's legality. But the sky didn't fall in, and it ended with Blair sitting in the cockpit of a Tornado, emulating Thatcher's appearance in a tank after the Falklands.

Blair thus discovered an arena in which he could act confidently and decisively. Each time he went to war, he did so against bitter criticism, but each time he survived. In Kosovo, he was the hawk, demanding ground troops be sent in and straining his friendship with Clinton near to breaking point. The war went badly at first and Blair told aides that it could be the end of him. But he held his nerve, took personal charge of the British effort, sent Campbell to give Nato's public relations a facelift, and emerged triumphant. Better still, he stumbled on a philosophy.

As Kampfner puts it, "he had demonstrated his instincts, but he had yet to fashion them into a coherent vision". A long-standing engagement to speak in Chicago provided the opportunity. The military historian Lawrence Freedman was invited, according to Kampfner, to craft, within two days, "a philosophy that Blair could call his own", complete with benchmarks as to when countries should intervene in others' affairs. Freedman obliged, thinking he was one of several people being consulted, and was amazed to read a speech that relied almost entirely on his proposals. Blair had announced "a new doctrine of international community" and proclaimed "we are all internationalists now".

But Kosovo created a new Blair image: not a man, as Stephens puts it, "tossed to and fro in the winds of public opinion", but one firm of purpose and resilient in adversity. The admiring Rawnsley writes: "He took a stance and, as others scurried for cover, he held to it." In his insistence on stepping up the war and introducing ground troops, he was largely isolated both in the Western Alliance and in his government. The outcome, writes Seldon, "further increased his reliance on and trust in the small circle around him". It also "ingrained in Blair that he was the bridge between the United States and Europe, and that he uniquely could explain the one to the other".

The road to Baghdad therefore led directly from Pristina where, after the Kosovo war, Blair was acclaimed as a hero. All the evidence produced by his biographers suggests that, after Kosovo, Blair was itching to implement once more the newly minted philosophy revealed in Chicago. According to Kampfner, Blair's concern about the election of George W Bush in 2000 was that this would be "a stay-at-home president". He told Mandelson that "we've got to turn these people into internationalists".

9/11 did exactly that, after a fashion. But there remained a crucial difference between Blair and Bush. The latter would act when he saw a threat to American national security. America was strong enough to protect herself. Allies were not essential, but welcome, and not even that in some neoconservative quarters. But as Stephens explains, Blair wanted a new "global architecture" in which the leading nations took continuing responsibility for peace-making and nation-building. To him, how Saddam was overthrown mattered as much as whether he was overthrown.

For the war in Afghanistan, he was able to help construct the necessary alliance. In the three months after 9/11, reports Kampfner, Blair "worked the phones and travelled", meeting the leaders of more than 70 countries to put together a coalition not just for military action, but also to work with America for a new world order.

Iraq presented Blair with a much bigger challenge. Once more, he thought he could rely on his persuasive powers, both in wooing EU and Security Council members to support UN resolutions, if not join the invasion force, and in disarming critics at home. But as Stephens admits, "here the self-belief that was so often a political strength showed itself as a weakness". Most authors are at a loss to account for Blair's stubbornness over Iraq, putting it down to a determination slavishly to follow the US. As Beckett and Hencke remark, even Anthony Eden had support from his own party when he took the country to war during the Suez crisis, but Blair went into Iraq "knowing that most of his cabinet opposed it ... the overwhelming majority of his party opposed it ... even close members of his court (probably including his wife) opposed it".

The explanation is quite simple, and Stephens puts his finger on it: "Blair was a politician who had never really experienced failure." He had survived Kosovo, Afghanistan and another brief military adventure in Sierra Leone. His talent for deal-making and personal diplomacy had secured peace in Northern Ireland, despite widespread media and political scepticism. He had never been behind in the opinion polls since he became Labour leader or suffered any serious setbacks in his political ascent since he entered parliament in 1983. He had every reason to think his luck would hold.

Yet, if we are to believe Stephens's analysis, he had been defeated in Iraq even before the bombs fell. Saddam would be deposed, but not in the way Blair wished. So anxious was he for this new bout of liberal interventionism that he failed to bind Bush, without whom the venture was impossible, into its most basic principles. Though they grudgingly agreed to "go the UN route", the Americans put little effort into securing international support and hardly any to push the Middle East "road map" for peace, another essential part of the Blair package. He made it too easy for the Americans to take him for granted. In Seldon's view, "he committed the greatest error in diplomacy: he declared his hand too early".

In one sense, however, Blair's judgment was right. Iraq would overshadow his premiership and, as the situation there deteriorated, his political brand was damaged beyond repair. Yet even that took time. After the war, Blair would still win another election by a substantial, if reduced, majority, deploy his personal diplomacy again to bring the Olympics to Britain, and when the bombers hit London on 7/7, find the precise words for the occasion just as he had on 9/11 and on the Princess of Wales's death nearly eight years earlier. The talent to charm and persuade did in the end see him through, if not for quite as long as he might have wished.

Perhaps there is no more to him. Biographers and other authors have tried hard to put a shape on his life, to find some meaning in it. He has defeated them all. He is not a Thatcherite, not a Tory, not a liberal, and certainly not a social democrat. He is not a Ramsay Macdonald, hard though Beckett and Hencke try to make the charge stick ("both were vain, handsome, charming men with theatrical talent"), because Macdonald betrayed a party he had spent a lifetime building up, and Blair had no Labour commitments to betray. His Christianity may be important to him, but attempts to show it has materially guided his political actions fail to convince. The only explanation he ever managed for why he went into politics at all was in an interview in 1989: "I suppose you just look at the world around you. Think things are wrong. Want to change it."

As Rentoul acutely observes in the 2001 edition of his biography - which is distinctly less reverent than the first, 1995 edition - his great political strength is his ability "to pick up and reflect back the banality of the majority". Blair swept up Gould's middle-class masses for Labour because they felt he was an ordinary sort of person like them, with an ordinary family life, ordinary aspirations, and an ordinary view of the world, a British version of "the regular guy" who so often succeeds in American politics. In many respects - a public school and Oxford education for a start - he is anything but ordinary but, in the unsophistication of his opinions, there is no reason to believe he was ever dissembling. As early as 1991, Melanie Phillips, after interviewing him for the Guardian, described it as "a bit like talking to a man without a shadow, a man with no form ... a pleasant man with a pleasant family living in a pleasant north London house".

Blair may best be seen as a clever barrister who absorbs himself in his brief, which, for the past 13 years, happens to have been the Labour leadership and the mission to make it the natural governing party. In that, he succeeded, but probably only in a short-term and superficial sense. He failed to pull the right party levers to achieve permanent change, just as he failed to pull the right levers in government. As his Downing Street staff became well aware, he had little interest in using power and influence to place "his" people in parliamentary candidacies, and the fresh Labour MPs of 2005 were overwhelmingly Brownite, not Blairite. "Blair has failed to remake the party in his image," writes Riddell glumly. Having risen without trace, the likelihood is that one of Britain's longest-serving prime ministers will also leave, in the political and ideological sense, no trace behind him.

"Blair," writes Rentoul, "is an Augustinian preacher-politician, always promising the virtue of clarity, but not yet." Future biographers will achieve some clarity about Blair's place in history, but will struggle to find any about the man himself. "Definition deferred" is the title of Rentoul's final chapter, and as an epitaph for Blair's premiership, that is still probably as good as it gets. A blank slate at the beginning, he remains, despite all his biographers' efforts, a blank slate at the end.

The first eleven

Tony Blair: The Man Who Lost His Smile
by Leo Abse
(Robson, 2003)

The Survivor: Tony Blair in Peace and War
by Francis Beckett and David Hencke
(Aurum Press, 2005)

The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders Since 1945
by Peter Hennessy
(Allen Lane, 2000)

Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts
by Simon Jenkins
(Allen Lane, 2006)

Blair's Wars
by John Kampfner
(The Free Press, 2004)

Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour
by Andrew Rawnsley
(Hamish Hamilton, 2000)

Tony Blair: Prime Minister
by John Rentoul
(Time Warner, 2001)

The Unfulfilled Prime Minister: Tony Blair's Quest for a Legacy
by Peter Riddell
(Politico's, 2006)

by Anthony Seldon
(The Free Press, 2005)

Tony Blair: The Price of Leadership
by Philip Stephens
(Politico's, 2004)

Yo, Blair!
by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
(Politico's, 2007)