Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Elliott and Atkinson - they're back

The Gods That Failed - Bodley Head, June 12. The latest must-read from the two fearless buccaneers against free market madness. No money's changed hands. Not even a drop of beer - although that can change, guys - the extracts thus far printed, and the entries on suggest that the quiet and unrelenting logic continues to consume all in its path. Get it. I will.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Guardian 16.4.08 - Jenni Russell

Last week," said a friend of mine, "I read a list of the issues that Brown plans to take up after the May elections, so that he can seize the political initiative. And do you know what they were? Britishness and constitutional reform. I mean, my mortgage is going up, and I can't afford my petrol bills - for God's sake, what planet is the man on? What's that got to do with my life?"

As Labour slumps in the polls it's apparent there is a dangerous disconnection between the issues that concern voters and those the government thinks they should be worried about. This week, for instance, the government will be trying to push through 42-day detention for terror suspects, and combating a rebellion over the doubling of 10p tax. Meanwhile, election canvassers report that the biggest issues on the doorstep are post office closures, the loss of the 10p band, and the economy. Yet it was only on Monday that Gordon Brown finally managed to sound as if he understood he was meant to empathise with people's fears about the coming economic storm. The week before, in an impatient interview with Nick Robinson on the BBC, he had managed to convey only a resentful irritation with the electorate for being so anxious and irrational.

For the past 12 months, ever since the leadership election that never was, commentators have been warning uneasily that Brown needed to establish a connection with the voters by making it clear what he stood for, and what his government wanted to achieve. For the most part, that argument has had little traction. Brown has been able to shrug off complaints about his remoteness, his indecisiveness, or the political incoherence of decisions like the doubling of inheritance-tax thresholds, because the polls kept showing the Tories were unable to open up a substantial lead over Labour. The global financial earthquake has changed all that. Labour's last trump card was economic stability. Now voters are looking at the party with a much more unforgiving eye.

Labour's support has always been drawn from two key groups. One votes chiefly from self-interest - the party's policies match its social and economic needs. The second votes largely as an expression of values. It is drawn to Labour rather than the Tories because it believes that the party stands for a fairer society and a more rounded, generous view of what it means to be a human being. Brown's government is in trouble because both groups are becoming increasingly disenchanted.

MPs for marginal constituencies have been acutely aware of the party's vulnerability for some time. One minister I spoke to was frank about the tactics that are being adopted. Labour's national message was now so muddled, and its priorities so unlike voters' own, that some MPs were no longer selling the party's brand on the doorstep. "It wouldn't work. What people want to know is, what can you deliver for them in their daily lives? You can't knock on the door and give them some vague slogan dreamed up in Downing Street, 'Hello, I'm here to unlock your talent.' Instead I'm selling my own brand. I ask people, what are the issues that matter to you locally? And they want a CCTV camera, or a hospital to stay open, or their daughter to move up a housing list. And you act on it, and it's hugely time-consuming. But that's what people want. And it's only at the end that you say, we're just collecting some details here - and you say you're from the party."

The minister says about a dozen MPs have adopted the same personal approach to their constituencies, because trying to defend national policies is not what's going to get them re-elected. People are too confused and disillusioned. "We've created an ideological vacuum. All major political parties have abandoned ideology. The Tories have done the same; they've abandoned tax cuts. Then, when Brown came in and talked about his moral compass, you thought ideology might be coming back. But it wasn't. His actions don't fit his words - inheritance tax, ending the 10p rate. So you can't argue, this is what we stand for."
It is the disjunction between values and actions that is so damaging for Brown. He claims to believe in social justice, economic prudence and individual liberties, yet his record shows remarkable inconsistencies on all three. He presided over a boom based on cheap credit and mega City bonuses, while inflicting the giant mortgage on the nation that is the private finance initiative (PFI). His final budget snatched money from the poorest purely in order to score a quick hit against the Tories, but he never had the courage to bring in higher taxes at the top. His government found billions to bail out Northern Rock, but refused to find the £40m to refund the struggling families who had saved for Christmas clubs through Farepak.
As for freedoms, his instincts lead him to favour intrusion, oversight and control. Not only is he pushing ID cards and detention without trial, but his government has given councils and 318 other bodies unprecedented powers to spy on citizens suspected of the most minor offences. Even his introduction of tax credits to help working families has been fatally flawed, because the process of claiming them has been made so bureaucratic, punitive, intrusive and censorious that many of those who go through it end up hating the government and its agents.
This record in itself is enough to alienate millions of voters. It is made worse because although Brown is drawn to abstract ideas, he thinks public services should only be judged by outcomes that can be costed or measured. That obsession prevents him understanding the real impact on ordinary lives of so many official decisions, from shutting post offices to closing swimming pools or forcing people to go to giant GPs' surgeries. He doesn't grasp the fact that economic efficiency is not always people's overriding concern - that in their search for good lives, people expect that to be just one of the factors involved in making a political choice.
What Brown's supporters still maintain is that the man must be given more time and opportunities to set out his stall. That's no longer a credible stance. Brown has had well over a year to make an impact since Tony Blair announced his departure, and he has to be judged on his record. Reluctantly, those of us who hoped that the man had hidden depths have had to conclude that he's a man of hidden shallows. It's not a question of, as one MP put it, letting the nation see who he really is. We've seen it - the flickers of grim worthiness beneath the nervous, bumbling, indecisive arrogance - and on the whole we're not impressed. But since Brown is neither likely to acquire a new personality nor to be replaced unless the electorate throws him out, the only question is whether the party and the cabinet have got the guts or the mechanisms to push him into making the coherent and worthwhile decisions that will resonate with both the party and the voters.
Labour's chief politicians are currently divided between those who are pouring their energies into plotting their own paths to power, and those who are transfixed in the headlights of the impending disaster. The onus is now on them to start making collective decisions on Labour's future before they find that there isn't much of one left.

Guardian 16.4.08 - Christian Wolmar

The London mayoral debate has focussed to a ridiculous extent on what type of buses the two main candidates favour. Boris Johnson's admission that he underestimated the cost of replacing bendy buses with revamped Routemasters is belated but welcome - if only in that it may allow the hustings to move to more fruitful areas.

Bringing back the Routemaster is simply not realistic. There may be better alternatives to bendy buses, such as conventional double-deckers with more doors and fewer seats downstairs, but the main point is that there are far bigger matters at play in the election. The most pressing issue facing the successful candidate is what to do about the failure of the massive Metronet public-private partnership contract, and yet this has hardly featured in the discussions.

Ken Livingstone does seem to have saved a large amount of money by renegotiating the contract with Bombardier to supply trains for the Victoria line. There was certainly no shortage of fat in all the various contracts which Metronet brokered with its subsidiaries.

The way the contracts were organised raised some serious questions, and I find it surprising that the police have not been involved. It worked like this: Metronet was a consortium of WS Atkins, Balfour Beatty, Bombardier, EDF Energy, and Thames Water, which signed contracts with those same companies for track maintenance (Balfour Beatty and Atkins) and trains (Bombardier) that were hugely favourable to the suppliers. In effect, Metronet tried to hoodwink TfL and the arbiter of the PPP, Chris Bolt, into accepting that it was obtaining a fair price from these suppliers when, in fact, they were designed to make huge profits for them. Then, because the PPP deal was regulated by the arbiter who could make TfL pay for any extra costs provided they were "economic and efficient", Metronet would have been able to make a profit for itself, as well as for its owners.

However, the pricing was so excessive and Metronet was so bad at trying to ensure that the work it paid for was carried out with a modicum of efficiency, that Bolt inevitably spotted something was seriously amiss with the contracts. Tim O'Toole, the very capable American who runs London Underground, has now ensured that the renegotiated contact with Bombardier delivers much better value for Londoners, with Livingstone suggesting that as much as £500m has been saved.

All this is far too complicated for the hapless Johnson - why does everyone insist on calling him Boris? - who has never run more than a small heavily subsidised magazine and who has uttered barely a word on the subject of the PPP contract. Yet if he were elected, he would seek to oust Peter Hendy, the transport commissioner, who also has long experience of PPP deals. Indeed, Hendy is in the process of buying out the Croydon Tramlink private finance initiative deal, effectively nationalising the business, because it is poor value for money and the contract prevents TfL from expanding the number of services cheaply.

Livingstone, however, is also guilty of ignoring the big issues on transport as he concentrates on hitting Johnson's long hops for six. He needs to articulate a real vision for London that builds on the success of the congestion charge scheme. That does not mean simply charging £25 to "gas guzzlers" which is a laudable though cheap stunt, but going much further and genuinely trying to squeeze the private car out of central London. Articulating such a policy would offer a real opportunity for debate, rather than ridiculous slanging matches over bus types.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Time and mourning

An old friend has just lost his mother. I struggled for words, and then struggled to find why it should prove such a difficult task. Apart from the inability to share in an intimate bond I cannot ever know, I wondered why empathy breaks down when it comes to mourning.

Is it to do with time? Our perception of time, shaped by our progression from birth, the mental tabulation of our memories, anmd their chronological ordering? If our parents divorce, or we lose a valued sibling, a first lover, there is a caesura in time, insofar as that, like viral cells queueing to invade a healthy one, at any one moment there is an ordering of time around a still centre.
Is this still centre seconds, minutes, hours, days? Is it a heartbeat? And is it ever a still centre? Or just an idea of one?

Review: NYO/Petrenko


If this was supposed to be a birthday party, the presents were all lousy and someone’s Dad started dancing. If I have ever heard the NYO, the 60th anniversary of whose founding this marked, ever play worse, I’d be surprised. If I ever hear a worse performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, I’d shoot myself.

The curtain raiser buoyed everyone; a razzle-dazzle piece of rabble-rousing postmodernism by James Simpson, 2006’s Young Musician Of The Year, which displayed a sinewy muscularity and a brash command of light and shade redolent of late Soviet music. It was executed with as much élan as Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, although one could already sense maestro Petrenko looking forward to supper. The anonymity of his pacing transmitted itself to his young charges, but they were simply perplexed with what he did to the Strauss, which resembled nothing more than a drunken cartographer’s sketching of Alpine contours. Beim Schlafengehen passed so slowly one could only fumble after some interpretative irony, and at one point I seriously thought the final song, Im Abendrot, had stopped. Nobody really seemed to care by then – ragged, half-hearted solo and ensemble- especially not with the characterless, mazily-intonated and sometimes scarcely in tune soprano of Gabriela Fontana upfront. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was noisy and rumbustious, but when wasn’t it? By this time it was hard to feel anything but feeling more than one year older. Less a celebration - more a wake.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Green at the gills

I take a morning constitutional. In doing so, I usually buy some cheap, tacky sweet substance. Rowntrees' Fruit Gums. Lucozade. The other day I Tango'd myself. At the end of the circular walk I pass a recycling centre, with an orifice into which the socially-conscitneitous can insert drinks cans. I went to do so, and then...

The 18th HGV in as many minutes roared along the narrow B road that bisects my village. These vile machines are aggregates carriers, plying to and from two brick/cement works nearby, often on journeys connected with the absurd redevlopment of the 'Celtic Manor' golf course, a horror whose traffic is slowly destroying the historic town of Caerleon. I looked at the can in my hand and thought: 'why bother?'

Most public discourse in the UK built around dissembling - from the folderol parroted by the backhander-pocketing pillocks of civic disgrace that are sweeping Newport into the gutter of chavviness and gimcrack anonymity to the garbage that the Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor will somehow create 8 million jobs within a few seconds. Green issues are much the same - here was I, gullibly conscientious with my tiny attempt at environmental goodwill, an example Mr Brown and co contionually exhort us to set and yet here was a road choked with roaring juggernauts dutifully attending the destruction of more acreages of virgin countryside.

It's as cheap a con as notices adsvertising 'real ale' outside pubs who don't stock a drop of it, the phrase 'your call is important to us', the insertion of the word 'gourmet' on menus when gastronomes would only enter into a contract with the 'chef' on the promise he paid them and provided a bucket. As Paul Fussell writes in BAD (1991) we live in the Age of Publicity - the Age of Disinformation, not of Information.

But to interfere would be to interfere with business, the ultimate heresy for New Labour. And worse, to ionterfere with the road transport business, that accursed boil on the backside of British social and economic life since the 1950s. After all, the fate of the planet might be important, but loosening the shackles on hauliers, cowboy and choirboy types alike - takes precedence. They are, as those obscene 'Fuel Protest' clowns of 2000 realised, 'the lifeblood of the country' - because the destruction of the rail and canal networks has allowed the development of social and economic infrastructure to make this status secure.

I used to like lorries - the scalloped lines of the face of Fodens, and of Scammells - one cab designed by none other than Pininfarina - of AEC's Ergonomic cab. Now they are not only toxic avengers, they don't even look attractive. They have, in the words of the song, crashed the gate doing 98. I say let them truckers rolll, 10-4! And we have.

I stood, foolishly, the crushed can in my hand, and watched another four barrel by.

Then I put the can into the recycler. Fuck 'em. Anything to fight back.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Why? There's always a why.

'The Whole Goddam Mutha's Gonna Blow' may never have been said in a movie. But it does climactic shorthand for any number of musclebound disaster and crimefighting'epics', the latter usually featuring Steven Seagal leaping from an exploding oil refinery, volcano, etc. In slow motion.

So now you know. All 2 of you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Battleship Potemkin

“Myth,” the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote, “is language.” Insofar as that language develops exponentially over time, so do components of a story, and can be individualized as ‘mythemes’. But, what Levi-Strauss only hints at, is that at the kernel of myth is – however murkily, and however mediated – a truth. It becomes a primal means of language to describe history and the present and the human condition.

If film is a language, Sergei Eisenstein’s brief, urgent masterpiece uses myth as its logical centre but has also become a myth in itself. And, as Levi-Strauss posits, at the heart of both is truth. The truth of brutal struggle against oppression, and in the film’s afterlife and Eisenstein’s memory, the truth of its furious, bracing genius.

Eisenstein’s reputation is largely unassailable; the only quibbles are about what was his greatest film (Strike (1925)? Potemkin? Alexander Nevsky (1938)?). Briefly setting aside the politics (to totally separate this from Eisenstein’s vision is dissimulation of the worst kind), Battleship Potemkin is a visually stunning essay in the montage techniques pioneered at Mosfilm by Lev Kuleshov in the extraordinarily bizarre ferment of creative energies unleashed by the Bolshevik October Revolution, which gave the world visual artists such as Tatlin and Malevich, composers Shostakovich and Roslavetz and the theatrical innovators Stanislavski and Meyerhold.

The film is a straightforward bellow against oppression, with a rising of matelots on the eponymous ship against their Imperialist bosses in the signature year of 1905, the year of the failed Russian revolution that first Kerensky and then Lenin set out to avenge.

It’s in your face. Of course it is. But it’s an embrace you don’t mind. The grotesquely-treated sailors take control of the ship, the port city of Odessa mobilizes its poor and hungry who are shot down by Tsarist battalions in one of cinema’s iconic moments – and it is here that myth takes hold. Apart from a stream of superbly composed images, devised on the hoof in partnership with conematographer Eduard Tisse - there is the still-stunning Odessa Steps sequence, the tumbling baby carriage, the smashed specs of the screaming babushka, the jump-cutting from this to that agonized figure, hard-pedalling of the dehumanizing banality of evil – even 80 years on, this grips like a vice. The savagery, for 1925, must have reduced cinema audiences to silence, but the harsh contrasts of light on the steps lent film an entirely new language, and thus the visual patois of the last century. The massacre never happened – although Tsarist troops did commit atrocities in the town. The triumphant peroration as the squadron of ships sent to destroy the Potemkin join in its revolutionary fervour is another myth, as naïve as the Socialist-Realism of smiling peasants with huge shiny biceps atop collectivized tractors. And yet, while it is a great big clenched fist, it retains its own individual, inimitable beauty and integrity.

The American cultural critic Garry Wills railed against the ‘fist’ approach of Hollywood blockbusters, telegraphing images and creating its own mythology but Eisenstein – no matter how one views the USSR – did this with good taste and a visual language that simply had not been invented until he did so. Not by Méliès, not by Griffiths. There are period references – the florid gestures of the players, for example – but Eisenstein reinvented the cinematograph in the same way that George Martin reinvented the recording studio.

Watch carefully. Kuleshov and his pals were schooled in revolutionary idealism and their experiments in montage technique were aimed at measuring emotional response in viewers. This is not to diminish the extraordinary pacing of Eisenstein’s cutting from the face of a sailor to a terrified Odessan – the continuity of Hollywoodian visual narrative, still so familiar today, was cut to ribbons, as vital scenes (the slash of a sabre, for example) were reduced to nanoseconds – or the beauty of his sometimes homoerotic dwelling on military hardware. It’s easy to see why Goebbels admired this visual language, as it prefigures his vision of stahlende Romantik – steely Romanticism, as a metaphor for the elemental struggles of the 20th century. But Eisenstein is no totalitarian patsy. Far from it. Indeed its very success – it was an international sensation, not just among communist or even leftist critics and audiences – helped create cinematic myth, in the same way as Citizen Kane (1941), or Triumph of the Will (1935) or Psycho (1960). It used a form of mythology to create its own.

In the last years of his life, Eisenstein stood in ever-increasing isolation, accused of formalism, or the deliberate promotion of style over revolutionary content, and while Nevsky was a masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible (1942) remained a tantalizingly unfinished monument to Stalinist nationalism. Other great Soviet directors followed him through the Party mill – Tarkovsky got into the crap too, and even Elem Klimov, whose 1985 WW2 film Come and See is widely considered to be the most harrowing war movie ever made, never quite made it past the commissars. We should be grateful that Eisenstein’s pre-eminence entered western consciousness before Stalin’s dead hand regimented USSR cultural life. This is not just one of the greatest films ever made, but, along with Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Joyce’s Ulysses and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, one of the defining cultural works of the past 100 years. Potemkin is a myth. But as with all myths, there’s truth in the reasons for its fame.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Withnail and I

The best of times, the worst of times

Has a movie ever consigned so many catchphrases to posterity?

‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake! Are you the farmer? Stop saying that Withnail. Course he’s the fucking farmer!’

This writer distrusts cults and sensations, and even more those loved by students (don’t get me started on The Smiths, for example). But if one memory of my sister’s largesse will abide, it’s when she sat me down to watch this almost sickeningly funny film.

‘Scrubbers! Scrubbers!’

It IS funny – quite apart from the tragic-comical way in which struggling thesps Withnail (Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) scrape what can’t really be called an existence, let alone a living, there’s the strawberry-faced outbursts of scandalously camp Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths), the coffee-house confrontation in Penrith, all of which are time-capsule jobs for British cinematic historians.

‘I mean to have you, boy…even if it must be burglary…’

But Bruce Robinson’s script and direction have another dimension, that of time - remembered, passed and wasted. The verminously scruffy dealer Danny (Ralph Brown) recites his own lament for the end of the 1960s (the setting is the autumn of 1969). Thereafter, in the teeming rain of Regents’ Park, Withnail bids farewell to Marwood - who has finally found work - and thus to a part of his sagging, defeated life. For Robinson, this is also a monument to a past become unthinkable in the Britain of Thatcher and monetarism into which the film was released; a 1960s that was not all Jane Asher, Carnaby Street and mod ensigns.

‘I feel like a pig shat in my head…’

It’s the film’s quality of tackling temporality, often concealed by the belly-laughs, which is what elevates merely a great British comedy into a classic movie, one which – unlike, say, Brassed Off (1996) or The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) – can resonate with audiences from Camden Town to Kuala Lumpur. Even if the bits we remember are the bits everyone remembers.

‘Look at him, Withnail! His mechanism’s gone.’

The signature piece featured on the soundtrack is Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower as the heroes motor up an empty M1 in a ruined Jaguar D-type. This is a neat analogy – popular culture at its most inventive, dynamic and inspiring.

Le fabuleux et al

Amazing Amélie

Pre-Iraq II, Time magazine ran a cover story rationalizing the ‘freedom fries’ line - WHY FRANCE IS DIFFERENT. Interestingly, the cover star was Audrey Tautou, which was a pic ed’s nice take on softening the editorial frog-bashing. This was indicative of the unarguable fact that nobody could quite rationalize - beyond Tautou’s indescribable beauty - what made Amélie (as it was known in the anglophone territories) such a sensation in spite of its unashamedly atavistic celebration of a dying Frenchness, right down to Amelie’s clogs, the Catholic notion of charity, the Proustian notion of nostalgia.

The premise is simple - a bright but offbeat girl embarks on a mission of charity for the lost and marginalized of Paris, and acts as an avenging angel to the harsh and horrid. But Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sly trick was to use the swashbucklingly brilliant technique that made Delicatessen (1991) and La Cité des enfants perdus (1995) such breathtaking pictures and place it in the service of a humdrum urban France in a social transition as laboured as a slow panning shot.

Few living directors have a better sense of visual dynamics than this maverick; how could the commander of Alien: Resurrection (1997) make a sweet, oddball love story in Montmartre into an international hit? That he did will perhaps be the ultimate monument to his genius. It should be.

Mathieu Kassovitz had known infamy in France for his role in the classic of racism La Haine (1995) makes his presence as Amelie’s love interest all the more poignant.

Amelie’s France never existed. But Jeunet’s gift is to make a watertight case that it did, in a visual language that combines lingering facial shots with biff-bang pop-video jumpcuts. Stunning, ravishing, you know the drill. It’s a sensation; one of those films you always promise yourself you’ll see. Don’t put it off any longer.

(c) Picturenose

The Apartment

Bad day at the office?

Thank your luckies you’re not CC Baxter, Jack Lemmon’s resentfully downtrodden clerk in an NYC corporation, who has become so cowed by the predations of his boss and the insecurity of his position he allows his superiors use of his flat to have it off with their mistresses. He’s 9 to 5 – they’re cinq-a-sept. Baxter’s immediate overlord, Sheldrake, is a nauseatingly complacent rat played to oleaginous perfection by Fred MacMurray whose attempts to ingratiate himself with Lemmon’s character amount to no more than using the insulting and hated nickname ‘Buddy Boy’ to a man he is doubly exploiting.

Wilder’s offices are striplit hives of paper-pushing drones, reminiscent of King Vidor’s wage-slaves in The City (1927), as regimented as a galley’s navvies. There is a curious, anodyne beauty about the interiors as much as there is of a New York of brownstones and rain, as later essayed by Woody Allen in the likes of Manhattan (1979).

The script – by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond – concentrates on the claustrophobia of interiors and how two people in a room can be continents apart. Not that Baxter wants to be anything but as close as possible to Shirley MacLaine’s lift attendant Fran Kubelik; MacLaine, her unfeasible legs aside, plays Fran as a plain, mousy, downtrodden wench, whose only common ground with Baxter is hatred – of her job, of her corporation, of her life. MacMurray spurns her, she attempts suicide chez Baxter, and the halting, touching empathy – not love – that grows between them is one of cinema’s most affecting romances, culminating in MacLaine’s madcap dash to be with a desolate, broken Lemmon. In this inky-black comedy of cynicism and hopelessness, of alienation and quiet desperation, the glow of human warmth finds a way through, as feeble as an usherette’s torch in a cinema’s gloom – but it’s there. Wilder rarely surpassed this miracle of a film, and few pictures have ever deserved their Best Picture Oscar more.

This is comedy as weepie, and the more the years pass the faster the tears come…

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

SPORTIN' LIFE: Munich 1958

Much ink and more self-righteousness has been spilled about the possible desecration of the one-minute silence to honour the fallen of Manchester United in Munich. And yet very little has been done to address the causes of why such behaviour might break out.

The mystique of death and loss is its discontinuity and finality; when referred to ourselves, it is akin to the physical removal of a component of the body. Mourning has become a maudlin and morbid part of late-capitalist Britain; as we have less and less control over our lives, we cling to what we see or feel or imagine to be indissoluble from ourselves. One word: Diana.

But the mood surrounding the 50th anniversary of Munich is similarly presumptuous; it assigns to a terrible event an unwonted significance, that elevates a football club into something more than a football club - a presumptuousness that has led to anti-United animus in the first place. An awful lot of piffle has been expended on what-ifs; if Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor had survived, England would have been world-beaters, Manchester United would have won eight European Cups on the trot, etc.

Fiction. That Edwards was a very, very good player indeed is not in question. Taylor, also. But consider the fact that with Edwards, England had lost calamitously to Northern Ireland at Wembley the previous autumn; that they were to be tanked 5-0 by Yugoslavia in the spring of 1958, a quite appalling fiasco now almost never mentioned in the media - that this rout and the heavy-legged, unimaginative performances at the World Cup in 1958 would have been transformed by the presence of two or three players simply defies reality. It belittles the greatness of Real Madrid (Kopa, Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas) and Brazil (Pele, Didi, Vava, Garrincha).

All over the footballing world, people will mourn Munich with respect. But only outside of these shores is a sense of proportion and a lack of atavistic sentiment likely to apply. On the 20th anniversary of the crash in 1978 the consensus was that a very good team had been wiped out; now, it is as if it were the downfall of gods.

Harry Gregg, the United keeper who pulled team mates and others from the wreckage, claimed that 'I'm not John Wayne'. He does himself a disservice, but United have for too long been part of a Hollywood narrative that is of their own invention and that of apologists. Grief distorts reality; but grief should be a private thing, not something that transcends a collective history of sport.

Sports Book Reviews from The Bulletin

Sports Book of the Year

Silent Revolutions – Writings on Cricket History
Gideon Haigh

Don’t like cricket? Don’t get it? Don’t go away.

Joey Kramer, the Aerosmith drummer, almost gave up music when he first saw Billy Cobham playing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s – the Panamanian seemed to inhabit an unreachable realm. Sometimes when I read the young Australian journalist Gideon Haigh I feel the same, that it’s time to chuck in writing and get a proper job (brickie? clown?). Haigh is one of Australia’s great nonfiction authors, a documentarist of peerless stylistic ease whose subject happens to be cricket.

This beautiful book is a collection of his random essays on the history of cricket – like any nonfiction writer of the top rank, he knows his history, and he knows the rules of his idiom – laid down by John Arlott, Neville Cardus and the great West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James – so he feels confident enough to break them.

Few sports have been as well served by a writer. He ranges from the prosaic pathos of his own club knockabouts with a lumpen bunch of larrikins called the Yarras in a Sydney suburb to the professional pinnacle, Test cricket, with the urbane and unforced method of a great batsman compiling a long innings. He rekindles the latent intellectualism of the situations into which cricket often pitches its players – while never brushing away a grimy drop of the game’s sweaty realities, struggles, suicides. Trundling journeymen are as poetically conjured as the game’s greats, Warne, Richards, Grace. I cite ‘poetry’ – but this poetry is spare and tough as that of Banjo Patterson, the laureate of the outback, without ever lapsing into Ocker self-consciousness. He does what has to be done, and with the minimum effort and the maximum effect. His scattering of reminiscent quotes around a quite gorgeous cameo of the Australian all-rounder Keith Miller – a task apparently so easy to execute, but so difficult, as any writer will tell you - is like the distribution of fruit in a tarte au raisin by a master patissier. To use a cruder metaphor, one man’s cut-and-pasting is another man’s tapestry, and this is of the latter variety because Haigh has his own brand of panache. A history of an Australian cricket association should ‘come with matchsticks for the eyelids’, writes Haigh, yet few can summon as much interest for such a dry subject as he. ‘Doesn’t it make you sick?’ said one English friend of mine after reading this, ‘the Australians aren’t just content with beating the hell out of us at cricket - now they’re better at writing about it.’

I went and picked up a bat for the first time in 25 years when I’d finished this. Much of Haigh’s subject matter will be esoteric to the non-cricket fan (they’re a curious bunch, but one has to live with them). If you don’t get this addictively dotty game, get this book. You’ll get it then. If you love fine writing, get it anyway. A certified masterpiece.

Paul Stump

Silent Revolutions is published by Aurum.



Graham Fife’s two books for Mainstream about the Tour de France belong on the shelf of any wheelman. His own memoir, The Beautiful Machine: A Life In Cycling, From the Tour de France to Cinder Hill (Mainstream) never quite grips, and occasionally wobbles like an unaligned rear wheel. There is fashionable emotional incontinence: neglected childhood, rumbustious compensatory sex in adolescence, mid-life crisis. Yeah, yeah. But when he sticks to the bike and draws amusingly pathetic comparisons between his own riding and the giants of the Tour about whom he is so elegantly and powerfully eloquent, without superfluous superstar namedropping, it’s a superb spin. His take on the riders Ivan Basso and Lance Armstrong climbing one of the Tour’s great passes is simply stunning sportswriting.

Other than that, he knows he will never quite make it, but pushes on gamely. Much the same could be said of his prose, which has altogether too much effort, working well in places but wasting energy in others. One wants to stand on the sidelines yelling ‘allez!’ and ‘courage!’

An uphill ride, but as Fife says, it’s worth it in the end for the view from the top.

Anyone who ever caught the whiff of a distantly decaying moral rat about the Olympic Games should read Guy Mitchell’s Berlin Games:How Hitler Stole the Olympic Dream (John Murray). Mitchell’s description of the 1936 Olympiad is a thrill-a-minute muckraker, but also suggests that the ‘Olympic Dream’ wasn’t stolen by Hitler, but could have been gift-wrapped for him. The craze for perfecting human bodily culture that inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s ‘original’ 1896 Athens Olympiad found its ne plus ultra in Nazism – de Coubertin and the big cheese of contemporary Olympism, Avery Brundage, were both anti-semites, for example. The sporting cameos are marvellous – Jesse Owens acclaimed by 100,000 Berliners in the Olympiastadion, the farcical comedy of an Austria-Peru football match, the moral courage of German long-jumper Luz Long in befriending his vanquisher Owens – written by an author with a feel for physical achievement, its ups, downs, silliness and cynicism. Oswald Mosley is there, sundry Mitfords cluck around, the usual infamous fanfanorade of Hitler-worshippers – but there’s also a lot of fun, whose cosmopolitan zest and élan tries to conjure an ideal Olympics out of what was a pretty sorry affair, and points fingers at those who prevented the ideal from ever happening. Good sport should excite – this is an overdose of excitement.

29-stone darts player Andy Fordham once said: ‘I’m a sportsman – I wear trainers and I’ve been on [BBC TV sports programme} Grandstand’. It matters less to quibble about the definition of what is sport and what are games than to talk of angels and pins. Bellies and Bullseyes: The Outrageous True Story of Darts (Ebury) by Sid Waddell, the motormouth, polymath Geordie who helped the BBC make a pub diversion a national must-see, reminds us that playing darts is as ultimately pointless as playing football, but can embody a sizeable range of human experience, usually working-class, but gentlemanly and proud..‘Sizeable’, of course, is the apt adjective for many of the lagered-up podges (Leighton Rees, Jocky Wilson) who gave this brilliantly simple, fiendishly difficult endeavour of accuracy and hand-eye coordination its profile in the UK, and in the Netherlands, the wildly implausible source of the coming men – and women - in darts. Aside of an affectionate portrait of the great Dutch player (and former postman) Raymond Van Barneveld – not to mention his indefatigable wife, Sylvia - a little more could have been written about the game outside the UK, but this is subsidiary.

Waddell’s comparisons with Alexander of Macedon may be a little exalted when a champion like Eric Bristow, ‘The Crafty Cockney’ stands on the oche to throw the next arrow, but his grasp of the irrationale of playing games, and the joys it can bring, is as sure as the irony the players knowingly embody in their costume-jewellery, tattooed machismo. As the subclause in the title implies, this is populist, silly, lovely. So, anyone fancy a pint?

All titles available from Waterstones, 71 Maxlaan, Brussels.


Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell

Memo: if you are lucky enough ever to meet the French cycling great Bernard Hinault, do not mention Paris-Roubaix. Not ever. Despite winning the ‘Queen of the Classics’ [one-day races], Hinault regarded L’Enfer du Nord (The Hell of The North), this headlong 250-km
charge along cobbled farm tracks through the gaunt, war-torn flatlands of northern France as a travesty. Pros shouldn’t ride these roads, he grumbled. Because it’s only after 200km (count ‘em) that the real ‘hell’ of the cobbles begins.

This stupendous book proves him right. And wrong.

Paris-Roubaix is about a race that takes place in France, but no Belgian, or Belgium-dwelling cyclist worth his or her salt would dream of missing it. Nobody will ever match photographer Stefan Vanfleteren’s slim portfolio of Flemish and nordiste cycling impressions, Flandrien (, 2005), but this gargantuan homage to pro cycling’s maddest race punches its weight on its own terms. The English translation from original French journalism is top-notch; nutshelling the whole Paris-Roubaix ethos.

L’Enfer du Nord careers from Compiègne to the supremely dreary post-industrial frontier city that is Roubaix early in every April, often in appallingly wet and muddy conditions. A pic of the Belgian sprinter, Eric Vanderaerden, from 1987, is one of the most evocative portraits of the pitiable mess of sport ever taken. Why do they do it? This book tells you, slickly and briskly, and rarely stints on the superhuman efforts of the riders. It is the ultimate test of the cycling skills and stamina of that inextinguishable breed of Flemish and Nordiste racers; it is as significant to them as the spring equinox. Mardi Gras? Yeah, yeah. For anyone with a bike in Comines or Kortrijk, Mons or Menen, summer only starts with Paris-Roubaix. For some Flemings, they would rather see one of their men win the Paris-Roubaix than the Tour of Flanders. Why? Buy the book.

Crucially, although stacked with stats and stories and stars (Van Steenbergen, Coppi, Merckx, Boonen), the book does not confine its appeal to wheelers. Its pages could have been infused with the smells of stoemp, coal dust and bière de garde. One can never turn a page without expecting to see a frituur in the next picture. Repointed brickwork is inescapable. It is indispensable for anyone who lives in Wallonia, for example, for anyone who knows the dank bruised skies that so often hang over the plains of the forsaken borderlands which the historian Richard Holmes memorably termed ‘the fatal avenue’, the feel for the Belgian French that Vanfleteren so exquisitely and unforgivingly catalogued. The magnificent photographs of the absurdly difficult cobbles of the Foret d’Arenberg, the puddles of slime that line the route on wet days, leave an indelible impression of having been out riding in fresh air and drizzle for hours. It has been compiled because it had to be compiled; there is no other race – save the mighty stage races. Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta d’Espana - that warrants such loving and meticulous treatment.

Paris-Roubaix is the sensory antipode to the race: it is comforting, easy to read (and always well-written), something to savour over a bottle of Jenlain or Trois Monts beer. It is a treat; its price is something worth putting in extra effort for, like its subject. Ask Bernard Hinault. Actually, don’t.

Paris-Roubaix, A Journey Through Hell is published by Velopress.

If I Could

Pat Metheny's astonishing slowie of that name is not a love song - or not a conventional one. From the 1985 ECM album First Circle, its scarcely-bearable sense of yearning refers not to unrequited love but to unrequited technical desire, that of being able to emulate jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Those lacking a musical sweeth tooth may find the piece a little too wistful even by the standards of the tousle-haired Missouri guitarist, but its sense of brokenheartedness is unparalleled in jazz; it evokes Baudelaire's image of the albatross with the damaged wing. The melody is very, very long - underpinned by Steve Rodby's bass, Lyle Mays' synthesizers and Paul Wertico's brushes - and resolves with such perfection it renders the sadness of the piece, of that which is not there, can never be, all the more poignant.

Friday, February 01, 2008


Tom's back. So am I. Except he's bigger than I am.

it's back - with new pisspoorness

Yes, folks, I'm back. To the 27.5 peeps in the world that tuned in to TWGMGB then, here's some more web Horlicks for ya. Watch this space.