In Memoriam – Dorothy Perkins

Where these days you would see a monitor, you’d see an ashtray; where you would see a recycling bin, you’d see a stack of computer printouts; and where you would see a water fountain, you’d see some sample garments and hope no exotic spiders were lurking in the pockets.

It wasn’t quite Life on Mars nor Mad Men, but the Dorothy Perkins Buying Office of 1986 would look just as much like a museum installation to a millennial today. As the name – an anachronism even then – looks set to leave the high street to the tender embrace of charity shops and bookies, the time is right to reflect on my four and a bit years basking in the Lawson Boom that put money in pockets and had retailers living high on the hog, secretly dreading what we knew was lurking around the corner come the 90s. 

I nearly didn’t make it. At a time when new technologies and changes in industrial relations saw new newspapers and magazines launched almost every week (The Sunday Correspondent anyone?), Robert Maxwell was planning a British version of Sports International to be called Sportsweek and I was set for a final selection for the post of trainee sports journalist (like Maxwell, Sportsweek didn’t last long). But a Friday morning phone call from my old student digs, interviews at 12.00pm, 1.00pm and 3pm, a handshake at 4pm and Monday morning saw me emerging from Oxford Circus tube station no longer a student, but an employee again. The Burton Group hired plenty of us bright young things then – some swam and some sank, but nobody had much student debt and there was always another job round the corner (in London anyway).

The heart of the West End was the greatest place to work in the world back then. If the sheer weight of shoppers meant that the doors of 214 Oxford Street couldn’t be prised open some days, all that energy zapped its way into your very soul. 

Lunchtimes meant trips to Soho’s Berwick Street Market for fruit and sandwiches, coffee bought at Angelluci’s, pasta at Lina’s; evenings were for restaurants with their burgeoning range of vegetarian options or, if not that, a quick cannelloni at Pollo’s in Old Compton Street before cinema or theatre or stand-up or jazz or just jawing the night away in the pub. And every pub was a world of its own.

Christmas brought some very long lunches (courtesy of suppliers) in one of the West End’s more upscale establishments. The whole department team would decamp for the afternoon to a private room in Frith Street or St Christopher’s Place and we’d eat a little too much and drink a lot too much before floating back at 5pm or so. I quickly discovered that a free bar and I were the very best of friends – until we suddenly weren’t. It was a lesson I learned more times than I ought to have. 

Twice a year, a large ballroom of an old school hotel would be hired and we (the buying departments) would show off our new season ranges to the branch manageresses, hundreds of whom would descend on the metropolis for a critical booze up, preview of the fashions to come. If they were all perfectly professional over the three days or so, it would be remiss not to point out that some faces were rather wan beneath the make-up by the third morning. I would don my best Commes des Garçons and Workers for Freedom tailoring and show off and flirt unashamedly while giving the 30 minutes or so presentation – but it proved that I could hold an audience, something that was invaluable when I started teaching in a university. 

Office politics were very different not only because sexual politics were different (one can only imagine the fallout these days from tabloid revelations that our Chief Executive, Sir Ralph “Five Times A Night” Halpern was cavorting with a young model, Fiona Wright) but because the office was overwhelmingly female. Conversations were not as they would be in the newly deregulated City a couple of miles East, there was less ego on show (though definitely not “no ego”) and we were more polite to each other, the nascent boorish bantery barrow boy culture absent. It wasn’t all sweetness and light though – there’s another word that begins with “b” that was never far from the surface in an office like that.

Things were relaxed – never mind suits, long trousers were optional in the summer and Birkenstocks almost de rigeur for us few blokes. With staff discount at Harvey Nichols, designer clothes were affordable and, since we were all, by definition, interested in fashion, looks, whether Sex in the City metropolitan or Camden Market urban, were cultivated, noticed and discussed. When visited by friends whose office environments were more traditional in dress codes and male to female ratios, they would ask me how I could work in such an environment – I blushed a little and said that you didn’t notice after a while. Not true of course.

It wasn’t just gender, it was sexuality too. At a time when the AIDS pandemic (yes, that’s what it was) had exacted and was still exacting an appalling toll on gay men living with a ferociously hostile media, many felt safer inside the closet than out, with the appalling mental stress that caused. In a fashion buying office, I doubt anybody cared about anyone’s sexuality because all colours of the LGBT+ rainbow walked through the doors every day. I don’t doubt that bad things happened, but I expect worse things happened more frequently elsewhere. 

I recall a conversation I had at an office party with a bisexual colleague and I asked him about the differences between his relationships with men and women. “Well, you wake up one morning with a hairy leg across you and another with a smooth leg.” In the late 80s, wisdom like that inoculated this straight man from much of the brutal prejudice that passed for acceptable conversation in the public domain.   

We were young (fashion retailing was – and is – a young person’s game) and talent was often spotted early, partly because the steady stream of suppliers who would come in to punt their ranges might snap up those with the most potential for their own business. The Burton Group grapevine was always in play too – get a reputation at Dorothy Perkins as an up-and-coming player and you might find yourself at lunch with a Top Shop director making you an offer from another of the Group’s brands that you couldn’t refuse. 

After less than three years as allocator, merchandising and distribution assistant and assistant merchandiser, I was appointed merchandiser of Trousers, Shorts and Jeans, with a team of eight or so, planning (in conjunction with a very wise buyer) almost £40m of garments that were a bit older than Miss Selfridge, a bit younger than M&S and (to our eternal chagrin) a bit more expensive than C&A. I learned that picking up the phone and saying “Hello, Trousers” – the standard greeting in a buying office – was transformed by my still strong and somewhat camp Liverpool accent into a joke that never got old. At 25, I had that mix of 75% bravura (verging on foolish) confidence and 25% street smarts experience that perfectly suited 1989. I was a lucky boy who was just bright enough to realise it – which made me even luckier.   

For all the money that rolled into the company and Halpern’s scandalous £1M per year salary (it really was seen as scandalous!) our working environment was pretty poor. An open plan office (Top Shop were a floor below, Principles and Evans a floor above), it still bore the stamp of the Peter Robinson department store it once was. Lifts were inadequate, an icy blast roared in from the staircases at the back of the building (I wasn’t alone in often working in fingerless gloves) and the ceiling once collapsed above me. I took to wearing my cycling helmet (a gigantic 80s affair) for that morning, half in protest and half in jest. Hell, we all thought ourselves immortal in our 20s!

Air Studios occupied the top floor and sometimes teenyboppers would congregate outside on the rumour that Bros were warbling into microphones up there. One heard whispers that George Michael (known and liked by all the North London Greek dress suppliers) was in the house or maybe Eric Clapton, but the most famous singer I saw was Leo Sayer – at least I think so, but those long lunches addled the memory. 

Such is the arrogance of youth that, by mid-1990, I was left cold by the tyranny of the weekly sales figures, finding it hard to get as excited with a win over Top Shop as once I did. I knew that I was good at interviewing applicants and at instilling the belief that was often the only thing between talented and hard-working young women and the step up into management. And I knew that the 90s would be a much tougher decade for retail than the 80s. I jumped ship and went off to teach what I had learned.

Thirty-odd years on, that decision looks hasty, but it wasn’t really. I never got bored with the work, never bitter about my lack of promotion, never complacent about fashion nor retail. Teaching merchandising through the 90s, I was always able to communicate that delight without ever having to mask the cynicism that young people are almost programmed to sense. The cavalcade of interesting people at Dorothy Perkins made me a good teacher and a better person in so many ways – and I’m grateful.

So, while the name will soon fade into a footnote in the long tale of the British High Street’s strangulation at the hands of avaricious landlords, uninterested governments and tax regimes that favour robots over humans, dear old Dottie P’s stays within me, shaping more of my life than ever I would have guessed that sunny Friday afternoon in July 1986. Lucky boy indeed.     

Cycling through France, Italy and Spain – in 2020

If you watch elite sport, you’re watching it on television. You can opt for the piped-in crowd effects, eerily a step behind the pictures, like soft thunder after a flash of lightning; or go for the thrill of hearing the curses between the “Time. Time.” shouts at every throw-in. “It’s just not the same without the fans” is the lament, stretched polyester no replacement for rows and rows of supporters holding up their phones.

But I can snipe from the sidelines all I like about those denied the chance to snipe from the sidelines, but football, cricket, rugby etc irrefutably isn’t the same and cycling isn’t the same either. But here’s the thing – it’s better.

In the sorry parade of sports governing bodies, professional cycling’s UCI has a record that stands with the most dismal, but it said that all three Grands Tours would go ahead and they have – chapeau! (Okay, the Vuelta has reached Madrid yet, but the only vultures in sight are those circling the peaks of the Asturias). Putting on a bike race isn’t easy at the best of times and at the worst, it’s a leap of faith that had many cycling fans shaking their heads and speculating on which day the broom wagon would come along to sweep up the whole peloton. Chins were stroked when Tour de France Director, Christian Prudhomme tested positive and left the race for seven days – Paris looked a long way off.

Across the three tours, we lost some riders, even some teams, and we saw stages cancelled and shortened, strikes called and truces arranged when the weather got too much. Nothing too out of the ordinary in any of that – the travelling circus of a GT has never been short of clowns, highwire acts and ringmasters with wobbling authority. Grands Tours usually reach the finishing line, even if there are casualties en route.

What has been missing in recent years is a real sense of jeopardy. The big teams have used their big money to develop specialised squads with clear objectives. Sprinters’ teams would close down breaks and then deliver the fastest man to the front of the race at the perfect moment for the 80 metres at 80kmh that would get him over the line, arms in the air, his teammates safe in the peloton to ready to go through the same thing the next day. So too, the top general classification riders, with super-domestiques who would lead in all but a couple of rival teams, controlling the race for their man’s effort in the final and those few vital seconds on the line. Marginal gains for the directeurs sportifs; pretty big losses for us.

Not in 2020.

Partly due to the lack of precise preparation, partly due to the absence of some old favourites on the start line but, I venture, mainly due to the sheer 2020ness of it all, stage after stage has been crazily unpredictable. The old certainties have been hammered on the anvil of contradiction and the only answer that anyone in the know could honestly give was, “I don’t know.”

At the Tour, 21 year old Tadej Pogačar returned to Slovenia with the Merckxian haul of Yellow, Polka Dot and White jerseys after a penultimate stage time trial that ripped the maillot jaune from the back of his friend and compatriot, Primož Roglič. The older man was so shattered, physically and mentally by the shock of it, that all he could do was… go across and congratulate the kid. Both men and the sport itself soared in the hearts of those of us who value decency in a world in which there’s less of it about every day.

At the Giro, favourite Geraint Thomas, hit the bidon and was out before the race had reached the mainland so, just as the chorus girl steps forward to become a star, his domestique, Hackney lad Tao Geoghegan Hart, led his Ineos Grenadiers team to the Maglia Rosa. Again, there was tremendous sporting courage on display, especially from the two Aussies, a stone-faced Rohan Dennis who gave everything to his erstwhile co-water carrier and Jai Hindley, the youngster from Perth who rode with one eye on his team leader, the brave but outclassed Wilco Kelderman, until he tilted at the lead. Fairytales sometimes do happen.

The Vuelta has been a duel between our man Roglič and a foe from France, Richard Carapaz, but heroism on the hills from Lancashire lad, Hugh Carthy and Irishman (sort of) Dan Martin, kept them in range as the race entered its third week. It’s gripping stuff with all to play for.

None of the above count as household names and, while excellent riders, they’re unlikely to go into the pantheon of multi-GT winning greats – but it doesn’t matter. Sport is about competition, spirit and joy and it’s hard to imagine that cycling’s three great races will match 2020’s on those criteria for years to come.

But there’s more.

We’re stuck inside as the nights close in and the news gets grimmer and grimmer. The awesome television coverage has brought the outdoors indoors. Asphalt snaking through the valleys following the path carved over millennia by bluest rivers; roads rearing up towards snow-tipped peaks, glowering as they await their winter whiteness; waves breaking on cliffs as a helicopter yaws, pitches and rolls the better to capture the sheer majesty of the scenery through which the riders pass, barely noticing. But we do – and it makes us happy.

Best of all, the absence of fans on the high passes has brought unobstructed pictures that we may never see again. Rain teeming on to roads, rubber gripping and slipping, lycra no protection, as races are ended in the cold and the pain. Riders minuscule against the background of the Stelvio Pass – cycling as imagined by Werner Herzog, sport at its most epic. On the brutal L’Angliru, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich swam into my thoughts, men alone in a barren untamed landscape, in it but not of it.

I’d fallen out of love with cycling – hard not to if you were in Paris for the conclusion of the 1998 (Festina Affair) Tour and thought “Well, at least it can’t get any worse…” Little did I know what the next ten years would bring. I’d come back to the sport a little, as the racing looked more real, the absurd EPO-boosted days fading in the memory, the cyclists betraying their real efforts on their contorted faces. But this year, I’m smitten again, ready to forgive unconditionally, as fools in love do. When I needed my four walls to fade to grey, cycling’s Grands Tours brought the preposterously beautiful roads of France, Italy and Spain and all that sky to me. I’m grateful.

On serving on an Old Bailey jury

A letter arrives with the dread word “SUMMONS” blazing on garish, John Waters pink paper, screaming its way past the junk and the bills, demanding attention. You scan the key paragraphs, fill in the slip to confirm that you do not fall into the limited disqualified demographics and set aside the advice leaflets that nobody ever reads.

A few weeks later, you make your way to the heart of The City, to the site of Newgate, where crowds would gather to see public hangings (until as late as 1868). Once you locate an entrance door that defines the word “unprepossessing”, clear airport security, prove your identity and register, you ascend to a fifth floor room with which you become very familiar. Part airport terminal, part polytechnic refectory, you find a seat amongst the curiously long rows and stare at a lost world from the time before the franchising / branding / management of such spaces became a globalised, homogenous “customer experience”.

Notices are blutacked on walls, the words formed by letters individually printed, one per sheet of A4, to make up words like “E N Q U I R I E S”. A canteen area offers coffee from a machine, a croissant or two – and I do mean one or two – and an almost heroically limited range of sandwiches, as if it were still 1974. Later, a hot lunch is offered, “choice” limited to three dishes, my old school dinners inevitably brought to mind. It’s not the fault of the staff who multi-task in the way of things today, serving food, taking the money, clearing plates – but quite why a Starbucks or a Pret-a-Manger cannot deliver something a little less 70s I do not know. (One day, I did glimpse the kitchen staff arranging a tray of rather attractive looking asparagus, lightly buttered, but I suspect they were delivered to the Barristers Mess on the other side of the fifth floor).

While court announcements (which we have been told to ignore) blare on the (excellent) PA, staff dedicated to managing juries use a local system that cracks and hisses but, just about, gets the job done. Indeed, that is but one example of the staff’s patience, professionalism and bloody good humour in the face of an infrastructure that shows the impact of The Years Of Austerity – perhaps best exemplified in seats the PVC upholstery of which is held together with gaffer tape (you really have to see that to believe it). For all that, the security guards, the court ushers, the canteen workers, indeed all the staff I met, were a credit to the country.

Though it was barely an hour earlier, the information imparted in the induction is entirely forgotten as you file into a court for selection and avoid eye contact with the defendants. I was one of forty or so candidates for a trial we were told would last up to eight weeks, news that caused an invisible, but perceptible, frisson of excitement to pass through our number. Names were called out and we squeezed past the desks, up to the judge for a whispered conversation and then, more often than not, were recused due to family obligations, holidays booked, hospital appointments. Reasons for standing down did not need to be substantial, but they did need to be real and, after an hour or so of this palaver, we were whittled to 12 + two reserves that soon became just 12 – charged with being a just 12 after swearing in.

Court is assembled every day before the jury enters (and we’re first out come 4.00pm too), so you can’t help but wonder if there’s a Toy Story thing going on with dancing and singing (perhaps a Rocky Horror style party with the Judge as Frank N. Furter and the usher as Riff Raff) that stops the moment we walk in and starts again the moment we leave. It is an eerie experience to file out of the court each afternoon and see it, identical in all details, the next morning. Such fantasies have plenty of time to brew in the long hours of argument.

While the Judge sits on the biggest chair and gets the coolest wig and lots of “Milords” and bows from the barristers and police officers (and the more experienced witnesses, who know the bureaucratic ropes in the same way that Fletch knew them at HMP Slade in Porridge), we sit in two rows like the worst Blankety Blank panel ever. But the Judge is very solicitous of our needs, eying us for signs of fatigue (and there, ahem, a few such in the post lunch watches) and ensuring we can hear the arguments and the words of the more reticent witnesses. There’s an occasional glint in the eye and cutting aside from the Bench that allows just enough humour into what is often a grim, occasionally tragic, show – but those lighter moments serve as an inoculation against a sometimes strong urge to shout or laugh loudly, Tourettishly, as the hours drift by.

There’s jargon of course – there is in any workplace – but it’s genuinely limited as far as we are concerned since explaining matters to the jury is a priority for pretty much everyone involved. There’s a “My Friend” or two in court naturally, and notices around the building are splattered with acronyms, but my favourite bit of inside talk was the Judge’s reference to chats “downstairs”. Yes, you guessed it – “downstairs” refers to the custody cells. When things got a bit heated amongst the QCs – and they did – we were ushered out of court since there were points of law to decide (matters that you wouldn’t want to expose to your wife or servants to I suppose). On return, things were noticeably less fraught, and the ship sailed on.

One of my few talents is an ability to concentrate – six hour adaptations of Shakespeare in Dutch and three hour subtitled Russian epics I can lap up – but one’s mind inevitably wanders a little to the personalities on show and, for all the talk that wigs and gowns divest the actors of their individuality, the people really matter and we get to know their habits and foibles quite well. Because of severe restrictions on what we can talk about with regard to the evidence – every day is akin to the interval on a Press Night with its omertà on discussing the play – so, in the long periods of waiting, we default to talking about the cast.

The avuncular judge gets a good press from us – firm but fair always goes down well. Counsels get mixed reviews, the inevitable verbal and physical ticks revealed over the hours in court provoking amusement and annoyance in roughly equal measures. There’s fun to be had observing the more spiky exchanges that emerge when briefs run cut-throat defences, attacking each other as much as the witnesses. With the stakes as high as they were, the emotional temperature could rise swiftly and unexpectedly, the posh boys getting stuck in for their clients. Some of us enjoyed analysing the relationships between barristers and their hardworking, but usually silent, juniors too – and speculating on how much time it took to tousle out the hair, just so, from beneath the horsehair wig.

That said, the real stars of the show were the witnesses, telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… or so their oaths obliged them. What a cross-section of humanity were paraded before us! There’s an ultra-professional pathologist, seemingly flitting from one court to another, graphics in hand, his Estuary English accent tempered by education and erudition – a wonderful turn. There were the nervous, the frightened, the hungover, the confident, the aggressive, the submissive, the meek, the bold and the utterly compelling. That last descriptor fitted a pair of brothers, key players in the case, with pasts that might be charitably described as “chequered” (even they admitted that) but the kind of presence that is the product of a charisma given to few. It was plain to me how they could easily have made successes of many walks of life – The Bar for one – but the dice had rolled differently. That said, if Guy Ritchie is pitching another one of his Lock, Stock follow ups, casting directors need not look too far beyond this pair of likely lads.

We’re not always in court of course, and not always in the waiting room. The halls and corridors of The Old Bailey form a warren of ill-described rooms and spaces, one ideal for parkour boys to glide, vault and slide through – indeed, a film of such an escapade would open up the whole stuffy environment beautifully, humanising the harsh wooden panelling and hard marble floors that turn the brightest of summer days an autumnal grey. Tall people are everywhere – some police of course – but I’ve never seen so many stiletto heels this side of a production of Chicago. Must be a thing.

Outside court, I mused on how things had changed, yet had not, as a group of builders, carapaced with hi-vis jackets and lots of training, carefully avoided flirting with a group of mollish women, all push-up bras, lycra-based fabrics and spiky shoes, waiting for their men to complete evidence inside or be released on bail from the dock no doubt. The jury box can be a grim and silent space too, so I enjoyed the good humour and smiles at Coco di Mama across the road, whose wonderful staff stood me a valedictory cappuccino on the house when I told them it was my last day.

I have a letter now that offers a free pass for ten years if I am called to serve again, but I doubt that I’ll use that er… Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not only is jury service an important civic duty, it’s also a longstanding check and balance on the powers of the three pillars of government: Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. And, if court proceedings aren’t quite as packed with razzmatazz as they were in medieval times when The Assizes would come to town trailed by jesters, jugglers and pickpockets, there’s still plenty enough to entertain and inform. But one should never forget – and it never was, not even for a minute of my eight weeks or so as a juror – that lives are being weighed in our hands and that justice, expensive, slow and cumbersome as it is, is very much worth the whole crazy show. 

A bientôt, rather than farewell, to the Lady with the Sword and the Scales.

A 48 teams FIFA Men’s World Cup? Yes please

FIFA's 2026 plan is not a load of World Cup balls
FIFA’s 2026 plan is not a load of World Cup balls

What’s a World Cup for? “To make money”, so the “Elite” (who aren’t getting a good press anywhere) can fly the world First Class, drink Dom Perignon champagne from golden goblets and, for all I know, pay Russian chambermaids to turn down their bed linen. But it’s also for the “World” (the clue’s in the name), so it strikes me as a good idea to invite as many guests as one can – within reason. Look at the FIFA’s decision to go to a 48 nation tournament for men from 2026, and the sniping and snarling it has provoked begins to appear a little like the media bemoaning a 50% increase in its “research” for all those “Ten players to watch” listicles that will start pretty much the moment the presentation ceremony of the 2022 shebang finishes.

Okay, there are genuine concerns about a bloated competition, the matches splattered over weeks like a Jackson Pollock painting superimposed on a 2026 calendar… but, heavens above, FIFA have actually thought it through and have devised an intriguing plan that preserves the current 32 days “Opening Ceremony to Bouncing For The Photographers” schedule . There are 80 matches to be played rather than 64, but is 16 more games once every four years really too much to bear? If we can stomach the Europa League (aren’t IFK Sheepshaggers playing CKSA Stasischaft in that competition’s preliminary qualifying round for the group stage play-offs somewhere next week?), surely a few more World Cup games will be okay, particularly with (I presume after a bit of haggling) some matches being played simultaneously on the red button – so you don’t, you know, have to watch all of them.

The three team groups format may mean fewer dead rubbers and, though the (mooted) penalty shoot-outs for 90 minutes draws are hardly satisfactory as a decider, if the actual bloody Final can go to pens, that ship has long sailed. Okay, shares in local bus companies may rise as national coaches look to park them, then hope their goalkeeper can give it the wobbly legs and sneak his team through, but recent World Cups have hardly been short of unambitious teams and dull defensive matches, nor the possibility of sides producing a mutually beneficial scoreline. Why not see if coaches do the equivalent of leaving two men up when defending a corner and decide that the best way to defend is to make opponents defend – getting their retaliation in first, so to speak?

The pundits’ version of “Who will think of the children?” is “What about the quality?”, a phrase of which I’ve heard plenty over the last few days on radio discussions, often from people whom I am sure would be hard pressed to name five countries ranked between 32 and 48 (the imperfect, but best, indicator of current “quality”) never mind the players comprising such squads. So who are these minnows tipping their hats to the regulars, “giants” (like England) who must agree to share their ball. the “no-hopers” set to pollute the purity of the 32 team tourney?

The current rankings suggest that the extra teams would include the likes of: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt, South Korea, Algeria, Romania, Paraguay, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, Serbia, Japan, Denmark, Australia, DR Congo. Okay, not many likely winners there, but plenty of contributors – all of them worthy of being described as “dangerous floaters” in any draw, certainly as far as England are concerned.

But the qualifying competitions are structured so a straight “Top 48” to progress to the Finals will not happen because each confederation has an allocation: Europe 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (0.5), Host nation 1 (1). Who wants to deny Africa and Asia that representation given that football is the global game and the continent’s players’ tremendous progress over the last generation? South America only get 6 qualifiers, but that’s from the 10 nations in that confederation. Thus the Jackson Pollock tournament begins to  look more like a Piet Mondrian, the blur resolving into something quite neat.

In as much as World Cups can be summarised, my experience of the Finals since 1970 is one of a flattening of differences in talent, tactics and skills: the lesser teams are more competitive; the top teams less dominant. A true “World” Cup Finals should reflect the world, with as many hats thrown into the ring as possible. FIFA’s clever plan balances that objective with a manageable schedule (easily accommodated in a limited number of stadiums given 21st century pitch preparation and recovery) to the benefit of all.

So, England to play Mexico and Senegal in their group matches in 2026? What times are the kick-offs?

American Pastoral – Review

apTwo images stand out more than most in my memories of watching television as a child. The first is the summary execution of a civilian on a Vietnamese street, and the second the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk protesting against that war. Even now, I can see the charred skin and the upright body toppling sideways, a human being disintegrating. As a child, it both horrified and fascinated me. What kind of will was required for such a fate to be embraced? How could this be happening in what looked like an ordinary public space? How did the “victim” retain such preternatural calm? There were no trigger warnings back then and, since these pictures were “real”, they were almost certainly not subject to the 9.00pm watershed, before which “private parts” and patently fake violence could not be shown, but the unspeakable consequences of war were fair game.

Meredith Levov, a pre-teen, sees what I saw on television and reacts with the same horror – but decides to do something about it, eventually hooking up with an terrorist cell based in New York at the peak of the late 60s urban riots. She “brings the war home” by bombing the post office in her sleepy middle class Newark suburb and goes on the run, to be pursued by her father as her mother’s mental health spirals out of control.

That is the central storyline of Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral, based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name. Though I have read a few Roth novels, I have not read this one and, in consequence, the simplifications, the telescoping of plot and the awkward shoe-horning in of an unnecessary framing device, did not concern me as it did others (reviews, largely negative, continually refer back to the source material).

Ewan McGregor is a little monochromatic as “Swede” Levov, high school football hero and successful businessman – everybody loves him, but the charisma seems secondary to the square jaw and seeming immunity to ageing, physical gifts trumping emotional intelligence too easily. Jennifer Connelly does the crazy-beautiful turn (with which we have become familiar) as Swede’s shiksa goddess wife, Dawn, at her best when facing down old man Levov (Peter Riegert in midseason form) when brokering her marriage conditions across the Gentile – Jew divide. She gets the therapy and “moves on” but it’s all a little predictable.

Dakota Fanning’s work stands out as the troubled Merry, full of the burning certainty of youth and the solipsism of teenagers. She never loses touch with the child she once was, even dead-eyed and broken in an inner city squat. Fanning ensures that Swede’s obsessive pursuit of his daughter is genuinely grounded in rational hope, because Merry is forever only just out of reach – she isn’t totally brainwashed and she’s not that far away.

There’s much that is wrong with the film – themes such as the Merry’s precocious Oedipal rivalry with her mother, morphing into vehement hate and the racial dimension of the riots, are treated with an almost flippant haste, dropped and disregarded. Instead of the film broadening its perspective as the narrative moves forward, it narrows to the kind of “Parent vs Cult” trope that we have seen many times before. A sprinkling of visual cliches to mark the passage of time doesn’t help lift the sense that the desire to make Roth’s always complex work more accessible, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

And yet this is a thought-provoking movie, especially for parents of bright teenage kids. It’s barely worth stating that teenage lives are a closed book to their families – and there’s a strong argument for saying that they should be – but we know the lure of cults, the pull of the easy solutions offered by radical politics or religions, the understandable dissatisfaction of finding an identity in a world full of unacceptable elements yet demanding that they “fit in”. What do we do to “protect” our kids? The film shows that a carapace built on orthodox family love allied to a kid’s bright and inquisitive nature, may not be enough to repel the call of something different – the “Whaddya you got?” reply given by Marlon Brando in The Wild One when asked what he was rebelling against.

Reviewers have been too harsh on this movie – there’s a distinct feeling that McGregor’s hubris in starting out as director (and star) with the notoriously difficult Roth needs calling out – but there’s something universal and something particular in this work that bubbles up through the film’s flaws. I need to read the book I suppose – and I expect that I will.

Rio 2016 – The stars you may have missed

M.T.C. Ting waiting to take to the sand

1. Snottey Greenpool – American swimmer who picked up a silver medal behind Michael Phelps in five events and is still waiting to be interviewed by American TV in the mixed zone.

2. Konstantli Fallinova – Ukrainian distance runner who paused to help Mo Farah back to his feet in the 10000m only to be lapped by the British athlete ten minutes later.

3. Malaria Shok – Romanian sailor whom organisers did their best to keep off-shore.

4. Jung-al-Kanopi – Out of favour Qatari athlete hardly seen in Brazil having been a major presence there for many years.

5. M.T.C. Ting – Thai Beach Volleyballer who has attracted little attention despite being a regular on our screens.

6. Guus Pairinoff – Dutch cyclist specialising in tandem events and much sought after by the Daily Mail.

7. Braak Keerfu – Sent home for the South African synchronised arm-wrestling team for unspecified reasons.

8. Britt Goldeggen – Danish reporter seconded to the BBC, famous for her only question, “How does it feel?”

9. Viagra – Exciting Brazilian footballer now an iconic veteran.

10. Lord Teflon – IOC member.

Rio Olympics – Ten To Watch

So I can go back to Spain now?
So I can go back to Spain now?

Zika Panikova – Will team up with fellow Ukrainian Ivana Jabnow in the women’s doubles, where they intend to cause havoc in the tennis.

Ray N. Forest – American golfer ranked 370 in the world. Favourite for the gold medal.

E.P.O. Putin – Russian 50km walker whose recent world record bettered the marathon world best by ten minutes.

Skinnilatte Venti – Italian long jumper said by some to have his name on a medal.

Favela Kerfu – Unpopular local, but likely to challenge in the shooting events.

Charlie Coker – As usual, he’s likely to feature strongly in the Closing Ceremony.

P.K. Nelson – Rio taxi driver who guarantees the shortest time from city centre to Olympic Stadium, and, maybe, back.

Anna Konda – Big hope in the wrestling, with her famous strangle hold likely to kill off opponents.

Cameron Brexit – Pole vaulter who sensationally cleared a high bar last week, but now looks likely to spend months on the sidelines as his coaches squabble over what comes next for him.

Robin Hoodie – Teenage Brit who aims to take gold in the Archery (and if not, silver – or just cash).

A route out of Brexit

Let's help him back down to Earth
Let’s help him back down to Earth

The problem with pressure group politics, referenda and suspension of cabinet collective responsibility is that two can play at that game.

The British people have voted Leave and already its implications (real ones this time, not “Project Fear” or whatever soundbite was last doing the rounds the last time the bickering was underway) have begun to sunk in, not just to horrified Remainers but to quite a few Leavers, who never really expected their vote to be on the winning side, but wanted to give David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn a bloody nose. There’s a petition collecting signatures to re-run the Referendum, but that’s not going to happen – not as the result of a petition anyway. But there might just be a route back for the UK, a way of carving out a kind of “cooling off” period that applies to big financial decisions and subsequent reconsideration. Fire must, after all, be fought with Fire.

A new political party should be formed which defines itself as a kind of reverse Ukip (say “Ukeu”), a single issue party with the sole objective of putting MPs in Parliament who will move a Referendum motion immediately after the next General Election, therefore long before the mechanism to divorce the UK from the EU has run its course. The Labour Party, the SNP and other parties committed to EU membership should allow their members to join and campaign for the Ukeu alongside their usual party work and commit to voting for the motion. Ukeu would, in return, only stand against candidates who refuse to back their Referendum Now position.

The beauty of this proposal is that it would bring lots of political outsiders into the electoral arena (they would commit to resign any seats they won immediately after the Referendum is secured). Eddie Izzard might be the figurehead / leader but many more well known, non-politicians may wish to take up the chance to stand as prospective Ukeu MPs. The party would be a magnet for the protest vote against the political machines, something that surely motivated plenty of Leavers on June 23.  Ukeu need not win any seats  – how many has Ukip won – its mere presence in marginal Tory seats being enough to jeopardise chances of a Tory majority and, in consequence, Boris’s grip on Number 10. And, having fought so hard and sacrificed so much to get there, he’s not going to let go easily is he? An EU associate membership, a five year suspension in the leaving process, a new treaty might all look attractive to Remain Tories if the alternative is a Corbyn – Sturgeon coalition. Compromise, presented sensitively, might stick with all but the Farageist Right.

This is why referenda are such dangerous and unpredictable political beasts to unleash – it’s a reason why they are so rare, why so many governments of such differing political hues did not reach for the option. If the plebiscite worked to get us out, can we not use it to get us back? There’s millions of Scots thinking the same thing now about their referendum for independence and it’ll take a lot of denying if the UK moves quickly to Brexit. A broken UK (with rumblings in Ireland) is a prospect that many natural Tories will do all they can to avoid.

In the febrile political climate in which we find ourselves some 48 hours into thinking the unthinkable, it might just take a leap of Machiavellian boldness to show the way forward. If there’s a Ukeu for me to join on the terms above, I would and I suspect I would not be alone.




Andrei Rublev – Review


We’re there. Right there. Somewhere. Near a ruined castle, as a man fills a rudimentary balloon with hot air and clings on as it climbs and pitches and yaws. And we’re still there. With him, as he looks down on a desolate landscape of swamps and broken woods, like Passchendaele centuries later. He, like the country on which he gazes, is not destined for a soft landing.

So begins Andrei Tarkovsky’s uber-arthouse masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (part of this summer’s retrospective), its opening sequence an extraordinary inspiration for much of the best work in The Revenant and a signal for what Tarkovsky will do later in Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. The film continues, in episodes that sometimes work chronologically and sometimes don’t, the images building into a tapestry depicting Russia, past, present and future, in all its appalling glory. Fleeting through one’s mind as images pile on top of each other never less than visually gorgeous, come thoughts of spirituality, artistic endeavour, friendship, honour, compassion, joy, sex, war, cruelty and, ultimately, love. They crowd the mind, the film demanding that the viewer meets it half way in its work.

An immense bell is cast in an sensational imagining of the sheer effort and elemental complexity of that task as undertaken in the Middle Ages. The works are led by a boy thrust into the role through his chutzpah and desire to save his skin and by his father’s sudden death. On the bell is etched the familiar scene of St George slaying the dragon – is the boy the Georgian Stalin and the bell Russia itself, being called upon, deep in Soviet times, to find its voice and ring again?

There are plenty of Tarkovskyian long takes, but a relentless pace too – not necessarily of narrative, but of imagery, the landscapes filled with people moving in the foreground and the background, battle scenes suffused with the fog of war, life always vibrantly present, yet always hanging by the sliver of princely favour or warlord’s whim. It’s a frighteningly modern evocation of the fate of ordinary people slain as they are caught in the backwash of alliances forming and fading of which they know nothing, shocking in its visceral impact, random in its dispensing of death and salvation.

It’s also a totalitarian film (reminding us of how the making of Apocalypse Now descended into a kind of dysfunctional fiefdom) with the director’s hand present at all times, his apparatchik cinematographer the instrument of his complete control. It has nothing in common with the Hollywood epics of today, but does trigger memories of the scale and confidence of Birth of a Nation, but without DW Griffith’s neo-fascist ideology polluting every scene. Over and over again, as the film plays back in your mind, you wonder how it ever got made – technically and politically – its authenticity irrefutable. But how?

Ultimately, it’s a extraordinary cinematic experience, made to be witnessed on a big screen, on grainy film, in the company of others with you for the full three hour runtime, still pinned to our seats as the titles roll by, in indecipherable Russian script. It is cinema as an aesthetic, collective assault on the senses – and, in those terms, it’s never been more ruthlessly conceived and executed.

Euro 2016 – Ten to watch

The man who puts the bite into the Romanian midfield
The man who puts the bite into the Romanian midfield

Igloo Igloosson – Iceland’s centre-back is built like an ice outhouse and is renowned back home for his cool head (and arms, torso and legs) in one-to-ones. Is rumoured to be a cousin of Bjork – as is the rest of the squad.

Benny Bjornsson – Sweden’s defensive midfielder whose partnership with Bjorn Bennysson has provided a platform for the twin strikers who have caught the eye upfront. First noticed playing in the Belgian Second Division (for Waterloo Chargers) he will be a designated penalty taker if involved in shoot-outs, having successfully pleaded with his boss to “Take a chance on me”.

Vaseline Slidezin – The Czech’s strength is his box to box work, always finding the space he needs to come good with his ball play. A slippery customer, defenders will aim to keep a tight grip on him.

Snappa Bollokov – Uncompromising Albanian full-back whose tackling has attracted the attention of referees (and opposition physios) over the years, with  a career record 25 red cards in his 103 international appearances. Nicknamed “The Castrator” by his fans at ICU Tirana.

Kuck Uklokk – Swiss midfielder who sets the rhythm of his team’s play popping up regularly in the opposition penalty box where he impresses in the air. Temperament suspect however, as he can be wound up by opponents.

Idon Shotalodeov – Russian who comes alive in the box where his explosive skills, particularly with his head, can cause chaos. Does go out of the game for long periods, but can spring to life if balls are stroked through to him.

Nosfer Ratu – Romanian forward who openly admits to basing his game on his idol Luis Suarez. Has notched 10 international goals, all of which were scored in floodlit matches. Good on the wing, and, though very left-footed, prefers to play on the right and cut inside as he claims not to like crosses.

Badi – Widely tipped as successor to Xavi, the Spanish midfielder’s career has been stalled by disciplinary problems, but he is now being mentored by Sergio Ramos. Recently linked to a move to Manchester United (along with the other 22 members of the squad).

Pepe Lepew – French star who can be irresistible when his tail is up. Fans will hope that recent rumours of multiple romantic liaisons (which have caused a stink in France) will not affect his play. Linked with a possible move to Newcastle United or Juventus.

Ryan O’Leary – Irish goalkeeper, known for charging (out of his area) for everything, but also good in the air and usually delivers in Europe. At corners, he can usually find space in a congested six yard box. Like the rest of the squad, it’s his first international tournament, so he brings no baggage with him.


Son of Saul – Review

_46751064_gateI looked out on a perfect summer’s day, as the fields rolled by outside the window of a rickety train heading from Krakow to Oświęcim. I fell into conversation with a couple of Dutch lads and we speculated on which countries’ athletes would do well in the upcoming Barcelona Olympics if they had to compete in the costumes worn in the Opening Ceremony – I told them I didn’t fancy Holland’s chances in the sprints, you know, with the clogs and all. We bought some beer from the conductor’s stash – as you did then – and the time passed quickly.

There were maybe a dozen more tourists who made their way towards  the gates, the chilling message “Arbeit Macht Frei” crowning them in wrought iron, as they had nearly 50 years earlier. The banter had already left our lips, but we were still talking, though a stillness, even a coldness, had started to slowly drive the air from our lungs. We found a guide, stared at the red brick buildings that went on as far as the eye could see – the word “camp” is really too small for what is more a town than anything else – and braced ourselves for what was to come. We said a few words as we looked at displays of teeth fillings, walking sticks, hair and the endless records that catalogued human beings turned into commodities.

The words stopped. And soon we stopped and looked at one another, pausing outside the low brick structures into which so many thousands were led for the showers that did not cleanse with water, but murdered with Zyklon B. We did not go in – we did not need to see the endgame we knew, the inevitable conclusion to the depravity we had seen over the previous hour or so. We walked back through the gates and the words slowly returned with each step towards the railway station.

The combination of the vast scale of the murders and the tiny details of its administration defeated language and, hence, thought. I had something of that feeling again, years later, when I read Primo Levi’s memoir of the camps, If This Is A Man. That masterpiece also crushes with its accounts of the life or death imperative of finding shoes to the sheer effort required to extinguish industrial volumes of human beings. Opening up a space in language, in imagination, in imagery to tell the story of the camps, is one of the great artistic challenges of the last 70 years.

László Nemes, a first time director, finds his space in the tight frame that gives us Saul’s face and, sometimes, what Saul can see – and nothing more, at least not in focus. The camera never lingers for long on anything other than Saul’s empty eyes, Géza Röhrig  brilliantly, and with great subtlety, showing us disgust, disdain, fear, obsession, hope, selfishness and much, much more, even, eventually, reconciliation. It is an acting performance that deserves the very highest praise delivering a complete realisation of Nemes’s aesthetic decisions.

The film follows Saul’s quest to give a boy (whom he suspects is his son, but whom we suspect is more a symbol for an innocence utterly absent from his world) a funeral that may restore some humanity to a child murdered in the most depraved way imaginable. He seeks a rabbi to say Kaddish, perhaps to place religion in the role of a science that has foresaken its moral compass. He clings to this quest and to the boy as a revolt is plotted and executed pathetically, even the camp’s relatively privileged Sonderkommando, broken in mind and spirit as death suffuses every breath they take.

The director has cited Elem Klimov’s epic Come And See (which left the cinema audience as dumbstruck as Son of Saul when I saw it in the late 80s at the Scala) and that was my reference point too. As is the case with that Soviet masterpiece, there are times when you can’t look, but you can’t not look either. Watching the film becomes, like reading Primo Levi’s book, an act of bearing witness, an act rooted in duty, in honouring those whose stories are told.

I expect to gain a fuller appreciation of the movie on a second viewing, when the mosaic built up at the edges of the frames will complement the expressions of Saul, the film digging deeper into my mind. But I don’t need a repeat to recognise this film as important, as utterly relevant and, at this very moment in politics, critical to an understanding of the ultimate consequence of dehumanising human beings. It will be in my mind when I read newspaper headlines and hear the increasingly shrill demagoguery that passes for political discourse – you cannot blink it away.



Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) – review


LWBShaking the earth from his greatcoat and pulling his cap down over his eyes, Adolf Hitler stands up and looks at what has become of the site of his Berlin bunker. He sees the grim concrete blocks of postwar reconstruction and the kids playing football, one in a Ronaldo 7 shirt. He ponders his fate, but not for long, secure that his convictions about Germany and politics and believing that his brand of agitprop is universally applicable.

Oliver Massuci is devastating as Hitler. A montage early on reminds us of how the Führer has been played by others, but Massuci carves out an interpretation all his own, from his historically inaccurate height to his charismatic wit (both conscious and unconscious). Sometimes he makes people laugh the nervous laugh of those who aren’t sure if violence is just a step away; sometimes he makes people laugh because he’s funny; and sometimes, critically, he stops people laughing at all. This is the power of Nuremberg brought down to a human level, but just as dangerous.

This Hitler recoils from the excesses of 20th century television, so when he finds a home as an Ali G figure on a struggling commercial channel, he foregoes the demagoguery and peddles his message of hate through a polite, even charming, insistence. In these moments and in the scenes on public streets and in meetings, and, brilliantly, on teenagers’ YouTube channels, the satire really bites down hard. In this Hitler’s appeal to the self-defined disenfranchised, the inchoately angry, the Little Man of Wilhelm Reich’s imagination, we see not the bogeyman of the past, but a thoroughly 21st century operator. In his scapegoating of The Other, we see fascism’s divide and rule philosophy, but we also see the popular Press of today cheerleading for morally bankrupt politicians.

Filmed in eye-bleeding HD, though David Wnendt’s camera also carries echoes of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematography in Triumph of the Will, we’re never in any doubt that Hitler’s ideology is establishing a home in the 21st century. If that’s the engine of the plot, less successful is a rather pedestrian subplot concerning a failing documentary filmmaker working on a failing TV station (but it does, at least, allow everyone to enjoy a drop dead perfect Downfall parody which the cast got through, somehow, without corpsing).

If you do keep catching yourself wondering “Didn’t that happen in  Borat?”, it doesn’t matter. Because, though this black comedy is often very funny,  this film is about a chillingly realised, horribly credible resurrection of a uniquely evil man, but one whose narrative of evil is gaining ground every day. Just look at the papers in Britain and the television in the USA: Look Who’s Back could easily be titled Look What’s Back.


It's not 42 Hardy, it really isn't!
It’s not 42 Hardy, it really isn’t!

One of the best biographies I’ve read was Robert Kanigel’s The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, the writer’s rehabilitation of a man whose methods (if not motivation – Taylor wanted to make work more efficient to improve the lot of workers as well as managers) influence much even today. I’d always intended to read Kanigel’s well received biography of another figure whose thinking sits beneath so much work today, the Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, but well, I needed to find the time to do so. But first time feature film director, Matthew Brown, did read the book and used it as the basis of his film of the same name, The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Brown’s camera is unafraid to linger on the glorious locations where Ramanujan spent his tragically short  life, with Madras and Trinity College Cambridge vying to be the more exotic. The Indian scenes are gorgeously lit and largely forgo the easy options of the elephants and the poverty for a portrayal of his early life in a colonial accounts office as tough, but not impossible, his home life influenced but not determined by caste and religion. I could not help think of his near contemporary, Albert Einstein, who also spent time in a drudge job (at the Swiss Patent Office) whilst being rejected by an academic establishment who could not see his genius for what it became.

That genius is still not recognised when Ramanujan, having had a letter read by Cambridge don, GH Hardy, and an invitation to visit extended, arrives in Trinity’s famous quad to be met with The Academy’s healthy methodological scepticism and its unhealthy overt racism. Like cricketer Basil D’Oliviera forty years on at another pillar of The Establishment, MCC, his rustic technique (Ramanujan hasn’t much time for the proofs needed to buttress the work prior to publication that Hardy implores him to write) and his untutored, intuitive approach make him a poor fit with a culture that stretches back to Isaac Newton and beyond. There’s plenty of bigotry and a touch of envy too in those men who cannot accept that an vegetarian Indian in sandals is pushing back the boundaries of a discipline built on thousands of years of history with ideas that just come into his head.

Jeremy Irons plays Hardy as a chain-smoking atheist doyen, with a lifetime spent managing an undiagnosed autism, but with enough vision to see what Ramanujan could become and enough tough love to get him at least part of the way there. Hardy is contrasted with Jeremy Northam’s foppish Bertrand Russell, already showing the radical streak which would overwhelm his philosophical brilliance as his life’s work and the many harrumphing colleagues who believe he’s being indulged once too often.

Brown doesn’t flinch from engaging his audience with the mathematics (and gets some negative reviews in the Press as a result). We get plenty of blackboards filled with incomprehensible symbols and definitely no Margot Robbie in the bath, and there’s due respect shown to the hard work required by mathematical enquiry, even when it comes from its most mercurial practitioners. There’s no Eureka! moment staged to underline Ramanujan’s revolutionary achievements, just papers being read by middle-aged men in glasses with a mixture of doubt and wonder – like real research in other words. There is a particularly well written and delivered speech towards the end of the movie in which Hardy gives us an unimpeachable summary of Ramanujan’s greatness – a setpiece in a film that largely eschews them, tempting though they are to directors working in such environments.

Dev Patel gives us a Ramanujan whose eyes tell the tale of his discomfort amongst the accounts clerks in India and also amongst the racists (conscious and subconscious) of England. He misses his wife (Devika Bhise) whose conflict with his mother is an understandable, if slightly overdone, sub-plot, and makes the kinds of social faux pas that anyone from an accounts office in Manchester would make at Trinity, never mind one from Madras. Patel is at his best in his conversations with Hardy, where there is just a hint that the older man may have felt his attachment to his protege to have a romantic dimension were the times more enlightened. Patel’s performance may be short of the histrionics that can garner award nominations, but it’s probably true to a man whose interior life of the intellect and the spiritual drove him rather than a willingness to become a symbol for tolerance or Gandhian political radicalism. Brown should be commended for not shoehorning easy options like those into Ramanujan’s story.

Possibly the result of his strict vegetarianism maintained through wartime rationing, possibly the product of the cold Cambridge winters or maybe the consequence of an undiagnosed liver condition brought from his homeland, Ramanujan is carried away by tuberculosis at just 32 years of age, but not before his achievements were recognised at Cambridge and beyond. Though widely known in mathematical circles, this film, at least as watchable as last year’s multi-award winning biopics of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, will bring his name to popular audiences and underline yet again that intellectual power can come in packages that don’t fit into preconceived boxes. It’s a lesson those who wish to reduce Higher Education to league tables and box ticking research exercises might do well to reflect upon.

Dr Strangelove – Review

Ride 'em Cowboy
Ride ’em Cowboy

Somehow, I had never seen Dr Strangelove. For a while, that state of affairs was just laziness, then it became a reluctance due to fear of a letdown (the same attitude that stops me venturing into “Curb Your Enthusias” or “The Sopranos” – absurd really). Then, browsing Netflix and approaching the familiar dull conclusion that there were just too many choices, I clicked on the monochrome still of a crazy looking Peter Sellers and… well, it’s every bit as good as everyone says. 

What impresses first (and last) is Kubrick’s mastery of the lens. It moves continually, especially around the cigar chomping visage of Sterling Hayden’s mad General Jack D Ripper, instigator of the B52 attack on Russia. The lens may be restive, but it’s never moving just for the sake of visual stimulus – it’s always revealing another aspect of each character, image and script in harmony. This is the opposite effect of the literally nauseating camerawork in Les Miserables (and many other recent films) in which you can feel as though you’re watching the action at sea, so unsteady is the viewpoint. I also caught more than a touch of Leni Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia and, particularly in the still astonishing Flying Fotress scenes, Triumph Of The Will, lending a touch of Nazi aesthetic to the work long before Strangelove’s Touretteish right arm offers a whole lot more.

Ken Adams’ War Room is justly celebrated as one of the great sets in film history, a pre-cursor of that used in You Only Live Twice and countless other films as the lair of maniacal megalomaniacs (up to and including Mike Myers’ Dr Evil). Long before the supercasinos of Las Vegas constructed their vast gaming rooms, Adams’ captured their ambience for the highest stakes game of poker played between the American military and the Russians in an environment uncannily similar to those you find on The Strip, 50 years on.

Kubrick, not always entirely ethically, gets great performances out of his cast, led by Peter Sellers, who delivers as masterful a display of black comedy acting as Alan Arkin gives as Yossarian in Mike Nicholls’ underrated adaptation of Catch 22.

It’s hard to know where Sellers is at his best. His upper middle class RAF man, Mandrake, never quite loses his English reserve even as Armageddon is literally just over the horizon, the accent, moustache and rhythm of speech wavering, but always held by a man who reported Japanese torture as if it were a late reverse in the Varsity Match at Twickenham. It’s lovely stuff.

His President Muffley is played straight, but to hilarious effect, especially in his interactions with George C Scott’s completely overacted General Turgidson (Kubrick told Scott that the takes were only warm-ups, so he would let rip, and then used the footage – and who wouldn’t, so magnificently wild-eyed is the man who went on to win (and refuse) an Oscar as General Patton). His improvised telephone conversation with his Soviet counterpart is beautifully controlled too.

Sellers finally gets his chance to go to 11 in his cameo as Strangelove himself, a mad MAD scientist inspired by any number of MittelEuropa types, but most obviously Wernher Von Braun, architect of the Nazi V1 and V2 weapons and de facto chief of NASA’s rocketry programmes (and hence, ICBMs). Strangelove is barely a character at all, but his type, fiercely intelligent, but full of zealous commitment to ideas rather than people, are present wherever powerful people gather. It’s why the name has become a shorthand embedded forever in popular culture.

Stealing the show is a man who didn’t really know what the film was about, having not been privy to the full script. Slim Pickens pretty much played himself when acting as Major “King” Kong, commander of the rogue B52 and man utterly determined to carry out his orders. Kubrick got a good ‘Ol Texas Boy off the set and so he simply asked Pickens to be himself on the set – and he is in a piece of largely unintentional comic genius.

That the film is so good to look at gives a timeless feel to the experience of watching it, but, in a year when the US Republican Party seem in thrall to demagoguery and bombast, the satire is terrifyingly contemporary – indeed, it’s with a shiver that one is forced to acknowledge that, 53 years on, it’s barely satire at all.


Eddie The Eagle – Review

I believe he can fly
I believe he can fly

What, then, is “the truth”?

Such philosophical diversions crossed my mind as Eddie The Eagle slid towards its predictable, if satisfying, conclusion with the accidental hero greeted by hundreds on his return to England and embraced around the world as a man of great courage and determination, if not great skills and success. Because what we see in Dexter Fletcher’s feelgood movie is not a succession of scenes that “happened” building to a History Of Mr Folly, but a more holistic truth about spirit, about heart and about the consolation one can find in participating rather than winning – which is the fate of almost all of us after all. It does its job well.

Tarun Egerton follows up his role in the almost unwatchable Kingsmen with the much greater challenge of portraying our hero, a turn he pulls off with great aplomb. Though Eddie was not as hapless a sportsman as written here: in fact, he was gifted in a number of sports – how else could he even have reached the level he did as a skier, never mind landed jumps off the 70m hill after so little practice? Egerton moves and looks an athlete, so the potential to be competent is never in doubt for all his rustic technique. Though consistently rejected by the blazers, Egerton refuses to play Eddie as a victim, literally jutting his chin out and standing tall, a shy, but articulate man, full of plain-speaking humility. It’s a considerable acting feat to stay just the right side of caricature.

Hugh Jackman’s Coach Peary is a caricature, but ol’ Wolverine has charisma to burn and goes through the motions as the man who coulda been a contender pleasingly enough. (Though the less said about Christopher Walken’s walk-on cameo at the end the better). Jackman is a deus ex machina (there was no coach, at least not this kind) but, with the film making no pretentions to documentary status, why not?

Best of the rest in a cast not required to do much more than play out types with whom we can be comfortable, are the two women in Eddie’s life, his mother, Jo Hartley delivering a rare underplayed performance in a movie that doesn’t leave much unsaid, and Iris Berben, who has much of Nigella Lawson’s er… presence as Petra, the bar owner who takes Eddie under her wing.

(There’s a clever little nod to Cool Runnings in one scene and (I hope) a nod too towards another hapless trier, Richard Dunn, the Bradford boxer who traded punches with Muhammad Ali. And was Tim McInnerny styled to look like Giles Clarke, former Chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the sports administrator who features in the film Death of a Gentleman? Maybe it was a coincidence).

Try though I did to be cynical (with incidental music is well up the John Lewis Christmas Advert scale when it comes to enhancing the sentimentality, you feel the cynicism welling up), I couldn’t quite manage it. I knew I was being manipulated, I knew that things weren’t quite like that, but I knew that Eddie walked the walk (or, rather, jumped the jump) and that alone took real cojones, never mind his struggle to get the chance to stand at the top of that hill in Calgary. I also knew what you saw was what you got from the flying plasterer – and that, ultimately, is also the case for the film. It’s no Raging Bull, but if you slide alongside, it will, like Eddie himself, make you that little bit happier with the world. And that’s no bad thing.


MPAbout 20 years ago, Marco Pantani, the Italian cyclist, was the most captivating sports star on the planet, a force of nature who would seize the moment and, with a passion that crossed frictionlessly to his huge fanbase, deliver superhuman feats. I was a fan – a big fan. In July 1998, at my parents’ house, with my one year old son toddling and playing with bright plastic things in front of me, I watched all six hours of Eurosport’s coverage of his evisceration of Jan Ullrich in stormy weather en route to Les Deux Alpes. I was there in Paris a week or so later, to see him in yellow on the Champs Elysees too.

But that Tour is not remembered for that most epic of all epic stages, nor for Pantani’s GC victory just three years after a head-on collision (in which he was blameless) threatened his life, never mind his career. It will be remembered for The Festina Affair – the moment cycling (and its fans) had to acknowledge its endemic, systemic doping problem, the endgame (of sorts) coming nearly 15 years later with Lance Armstrong’s 2013 TV confession.

Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist (available on Netflix) tells the tale of the man through highlights, interviews and reconstructions. There’s Marco as the bike-bonkers boy, washing his machine in the bath and furtively tinkering with the derailleur in the middle of the night (echoed later in scenes showing cyclists training in hotel rooms at 3.00am to thin blood thickened to heart attack danger levels by EPO). There’s the amateur successes – Marco with hair – and a fierce will to win emerging from the short, slight, shy kid. Then, after metal pins held his leg together in hospital and the learning to walk again, there’s his re-invention as Il Pirata, and with it the adulation, the girls and the girlfriend and the Giro and the Tour.

But Marco’s eyes never really change. There’s a melancholy there, a window on to a soul that was most at home pounding out the training miles, flying uphill past, and not with, team mates, a man who both longed to be alone yet could barely cope when left to his own devices. He could endure physical pain – that’s pretty much the first line of the pro cyclist’s job description – but he couldn’t deal with the mental pain of defeat, but also, perhaps,  the burden of the pervasive doping deceit. Cycling, with its curious combination of an emphasis on individual endeavour within a strong team framework, its weeks on the road in grim cheap hotels with the aircon blocked for fear of catching a cold and its routine monastic lifestyle punctuated by wild celebratory blowouts, does not lend itself to preparing its heroes for retirement. Like cricketers (who have to cope with many of the challenges listed above) too many cyclists find the adjustment to the outside world too disorienting after they hang up  their cleats.

He’s been gone 12 years, but would only be 46 now and, in that way that those who look 40 when 20, would almost certain look exactly the same if he were around today. Cycling, sport in general, hell even I, miss him, because the likes of Il Pirata don’t come round very often and they leave huge gaps when they go.

And yet, cycling, sport and I have plenty of culpability in his demise at his own hand in a dingy hotel room on a cold dull day in February 2004. Cycling didn’t (and maybe hasn’t) grasped the nettle of doping and rooted it out from top to bottom – or at least as far as it can. Sport demands more and more of its heroes, especially those who transcend mere winning and losing and become icons, their every move photographed, filmed, dissected. And I, and millions of fans like me, bought the magazines (I subscribed to Cycle Sport and Procycling so as not to miss anything Marco) and looked on amazed, but knowing that what looks too good to be true probably is too good to be true. But we still thought of the Marcos and the Frankies and the Jose Marias as winners (in the game of cycling) and not losers (in the game of life). The film’s title may nod in the direction of Dario Fo’s play, but there was nothing accidental about this death.

That said, Marco bears some responsibility for his fate, but there’s plenty of faceless men with money and a vicious amorality who constructed a culture in professional cycling that destroyed many of its brightest stars and countless others down the ladder of success. The film Pantani shows much of the beauty of this most beautiful of sports – and plenty of the ugliness of this most ugly of sports too.

The Revenant – review

What would Werner Herzog have done with a Go-Pro and a drone to play with?

Surely I can have that Oscar now?

That’s really too facile an opening gambit for an epic film that owes much to Aguirre – The Wrath Of God and a little to Bertolucci’s The Conformist. (Of course, I need not say that this is praise of the very highest order.)

Hugh Glass, a guide in the early stages of America’s infatuation with its Manifest Destiny, having been ripped to shreds by a bear, is left by his party of fur trappers to die in a shallow grave, his son already murdered by Fitzgerald, the amoral egoist who always seems to hitch a ride in a group like this. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, not so much acting as enduring) somehow survives that ordeal – something he makes a habit of – and doggedly (that is, on all fours) sets off to exact revenge on Fitzgerald (a wild eyed Tom Hardy, whom you would think had had enough of this sort of thing in Mad Max: Fury Road).

The plot hardly matters though – the star of this show is the American landscape. Filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki (with a love touched by sadism) by means – I can only presume – of steadicams mounted on drones, nature’s malevolence is shown in both the most gruesome of close-ups and the widest of panoramas. There are times when you want to freeze the screen and question whether a frame was inspired by Southern Comfort, Badlands, Deliverance or the paintings of Casper David Friedrich. There’s nothing really new in the landscapes themselves, but the urgency with which we move through it, is exhilarating and (literally) awesome.

As is the case with Herzog’s cinematic battles with soil and water, the music (by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai) adds much to the otherworldy feel of the movie, at once viscerally felt, but also mythic. It’s another reason why this film demands a visit to a cinema – its epic scale will inevitably be diminished on even the largest of domestic screens.

I’m going to see it again, but second time round, I’m not going to bother much about following the plot and worrying a little about the clunky introductions of one or two characters inserted, like Chekhov’s Gun, because the story needs them later. I’m going to let the images and the sounds wash over me, treating it like a visit to the Musee D’Orsay and trying not to be overwhelmed. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous movie, Birdman, I felt too nervous, too dependent on fussy showy long takes and ultimately disappointing, but his control in The Revenant is complete, the long takes bringing back memories of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. Such confidence is rare to see so fully realised – if anyone beats him to the Oscar for Best Director, they’ve done bloody well.

And, as I reach for a word and come up with “bloody”, I guess that underlines just how the film, like Leo and his dead horse, has got under my skin.

The Man In The High Castle (TV Series) – Reviewed

MITHCNote – this review contains no spoilers.

In a phildickian world, much is familiar, but much else is different, knocking us off-balance, surprising us, but more importantly challenging us, to re-examine our own world and our agency within it. It is this demand that we be defined (wherever we find ourselves) not by who we are, but by what we do, that underpins many of the ideas that weave in and out of Philip K Dick’s writing and the growing number of adaptations of his once easily dismissed works. The most succinct statement of this quasi-religious aspect of Dick’s thinking is this famous scene from Total Recall; the most thoroughgoing is found in the sublime short story, Human Is.

There’s plenty of this stuff (and more recurring Dick enthusiasms such as the I Ching, paranoia and non-reality) in The Man In The High Castle, an Amazon Prime adaptation of an early novel, unusually for Dick not science fiction, but alternative history. This follows the basic plot of the novel (with some significant changes), includes many of the same characters and, of course, explores Dick’s uneasy relationship with perceptions and truth. It is set in a eerily authentic post-War world in which the United States is divided between the triumphant Axis Powers (after Heisenberg had won the race to build the H-bomb and the Nazis had dropped it on Washington DC). Films are emerging of an alternate reality in which the Allies won, the Resistance running them to the mysterious Man In The High Castle avoiding the SS who, acting on Hitler’s orders, will stop at nothing to intercept these reels.

Dowloaded as ten one hour episodes, there are inevitably spells when the plot drags a little and is over-complicated (but so is the novel, to be fair) but the series remains compelling as a result of two key storytelling elements that television may now deliver more consistently than film.

The ensemble acting is excellent, the standouts being Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the Japanese Trade Minister who carries sadness in his soul and is guided by the I Ching but also his understanding that men can shape their own fates within their destinies. There is a beautiful stillness to much of his performance, the tilt of his eyes telling us all we need to know about what’s going on behind them. Rufus Sewell may begin as a caricatured ruthless SS Officer, but, though he never loses that frightening overarching power, Sewell manages to make us empathise with him as he wrestles with his competing motivations: love for The Reich and how it feeds his ego and love for his family, an apparently picture-perfect Nazi unit.

But the real stars of this show are the production designers who have created a chilling, yet strangely beautiful world in which the delicate structures of traditional Japanese design are being overwhelmed by German technology exemplified by its rocket-planes, its huge buildings and rooms and (off-stage, but ever present) its bomb. Even the beiges and browns of the dinghy homes and workplaces of “the Whites”  are lit wonderfully well and nothing is grimy, even if it doesn’t exactly sparkle. I’ve never enjoyed CGI, but watching it in HD on a small screen, it complements rather than overwhelms the action. (There are lots of in-jokes too with references to Taxi Driver and The Stand and some drolly deadpan re-workings of events like the Kennedy Assassination to keep the viewer on their toes).

There are plenty of the twists and turns one can expect in a thriller, but there’s an underlying intelligence and depth to the big ideas that are ever-present just below the surface and, more often than expected, bubble upwards to drive the story forward. This Amazon Prime Original Series (watch it with the free 30 day trial) is not afraid of pushing its audience, who will be rewarded with something not quite unique, but richly rewarding in its otherness. And, like all the best dystopian works of art, it makes our own world feel that little bit fragile – and that little bit more worthy of protection.

(The photograph is my 25 year old paperback, the cover design of which falls somewhat short of 2015’s standards!)


Amy – Reviewed

awAmy Winehouse lived all her adult life in the 21st century and handheld cameras and phones filmed much of it. There are the girly teenage birthday parties, the holidays in Spain, the shaky shots of her waking up in the back of a car on a road trip with mates. It’s ordinary stuff really – maybe a few more cigarettes and a bit more booze than average, but nothing much that any of us didn’t do as kids.

Except the moment that, at 14, she starts to sing… and that familiar voice is there, fully formed, filling all the space with its fragile frankness, the jazz, the soul and the pain innate rather than learned. Like the teenage Michael Jackson, her singing seems informed by adult emotions and by an adult world that would be both saturated with success, but also slashed by the dread power of celebrity. No wonder the record companies and promoters were goggle-eyed at this tiny funny Jewish girl from North London, who spoke like she had just come out of a bog-standard local comprehensive and sang like she had just come out of a New Orleans nightclub.

Asif Kapadia uses only contemporary film to tell his story of Amy Winehouse, stitching together home movies, backstage material, news clips and concert footage to bring us close to our subject – so close, you half expect to turn round and see her sitting behind you. What emerges is a portrait of a life that provokes feelings of anger, admiration and sorrow – and an uneasiness about our role then, and now. Amy’s troubles – her bulimia, her hedonism and her emotional rollercoaster of a love life – are the engine of her art: crudely put, if you want Amy’s songs (and she did – she really did) then you want Amy too, and all that comes with that.

The music weaves in and out of the narrative, lyrics written on the screen (often in Amy’s own beautifully controlled and rounded hand) – and what the songs say is the same as what the images say. The songs are the woman and the woman is the songs.

If that’s the admiration, the sadness comes from the slow motion car crash that unfolds before you. The life and soul of the party after half a dozen drinks, is unable to stand up after a dozen more; the courage and vivacity that lifted her from East Finchley to global stardom becomes a liability when the absence of an off-switch takes her into some dark places full of false friends; the hideous knowledge that, amongst all those people that loved her, not one loved way in the precise way required to save her, nags at you from start to finish. And the anger – what do you do with the anger? The main villains are the two men she loved with an uncontrollable passion: the father, whom she never stopped trying to please despite his dismally misjudged attempts to balance his needs with hers; and the boyfriend / husband, who fed her voracious appetites for sex, drugs and rock and roll – which, conveniently, were his driving passions too.

Could not this woman who would stare deep into her own soul to write and then sing those songs, not see through these men’s mere veneer of care for her wellbeing? I suspect she could, but she couldn’t stop the worship of them – no off-switch again you see.

But we’re complicit too, not just in wanting the music, not just in laughing along at the late night comics’ gags about Amy’s carousing (I don’t think I’ll ever so much as smile at a cheap gag at a 25 year-old’s expense again), but in our noses being pushed further and further into her life – through the vector of the papparazzi’s lens that tortured her. And, the irony is that we only really come to know just how dangerous the flashlight can be for a woman who needs space, time and love, through those very images that make up the film’s blazing, brutal second half. Its nadir comes with the footage of her dead body, barely covered by a blanket, being carried from her Camden home to a private ambulance – a broken bird that will fly no more. We didn’t need to see that… yet, somehow, we did.

The Politics of Mad Max

guernica3When I first saw Mad Max, it seemed straightforward to my teenage eyes: a revenge movie, like the Charles Bronson vehicle, Deathwish or, more upmarket, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Yet it also seemed both less than those films (and their many imitators) since the exposition was perfunctory and the characterisation minimal; and also more, because we could fill in so much of the movie’s morality ourselves. The MM1 has something of Picasso’s Guernica about it, a montage of images through which violence is mediated, the impact not so much linear (as in narrative) but holistic (as images connect, then slide away). It helps that the film is remarkably beautiful to look at, every shot soaked in an exotically other Australianess that is also present in another violent movie that is much more than it appears on the surface, Chopper.

But what of Politics of Mad Max seen with eyes now 34 years older? Much has been made of Mad Max: Fury Road’s lead character, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, a woman who, like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, would not take it any more. She doesn’t attempt to assassinate the President – instead she makes a break for a mythical rural idyll with his most prized possession: five women (The Wives) who look like they’ve wandered in from a Helmut Newton shoot (and, along for the ride, two men). One of those is Max himself, looking after Number One as usual, but more explicitly buying into Furiosa’s dream than he did Pappagallo’s in MM2. This may be the softening of Max’s heart by the recognition of a kindred spirit in Furiosa (and lest we forget, her extreme beauty, though he is unmoved by Newtonish models after a first lustful look), but it’s also an important clarification of Max’s motives as they have developed from MM1 through MM2 to MM:FR.

MM:FR is firmly fixed in the dystopian novel / film genre, but it is not nihilist in its depiction of its world. Not only does Max edge towards Furiosa’s idealism, Nux, the would-be suicide bomber, is also won over (perhaps a little too glibly) to Furiosa’s cause by the gentle hand of one of The Wives (and, a little, by his own disillusionment with his brainwashing). This may be just another re-working of John Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” but it’s an important message about the redeemable nature of human beings, one all the more important in an age of religion-inspired terrorism when even a court in Boston can calmly sentence a man barely out of childhood to be executed by the State. The left-leaning viewer can have their qualms about MM:FR, but can also relax knowing that the film is, at the very least, open to an interpretation with which they can be comfortable.

MM2 is the most conventional of the three films under discussion (click here for my reviews of MM1 and MM2 and MM:FR), a conventional tale of a town under siege needing heroic sacrifice to be saved. The good guys are recognisably modern democratic people, fighting anarchy not with greater anarchy or authoritarian clampdowns, but with the solidarity that a shared and decent culture brings. The key question is whether you believe that Max knew what he was doing when he offered to drive the rig in the final chase – I suspect he did, seeking redemption for his failure to protect his own child in MM1 by saving the Feral Kid, with his music box (the music box reappears in MM:FR, a nice touch). Again, a message that the politics of the Left (if not the politics of pacifism) can feel at ease with.

Which brings me back to MM1 – is it just another yarn about a vigilante standing in for a state that was too weak to protect his wife and kid? There’s plenty that says yes, including the greasy lawyers getting the bad guys off and the overwhelming outnumbering of the police by the crazies. But is there also a reluctance too, an absence of joy in Max’s retribution, a longing for the domesticity that has now gone forever, casting him out into the Outback, shutting out the bad dreamtime as much as he can? This is not the tease of “Do you feel lucky punk?”, it’s a hollowed out man, finding a way back to himself.

Well, maybe – but perhaps a leftist sensibility can only enjoy MM1 as a guilty pleasure – as it does American Sniper and many movies (and the novels of Evelyn Waugh and much else). Not so MM2 and MM:FR. For all the uber-violence, these movies bear messages that support a leftist Weltanschauung. Pleasures without the guilt.


CTWe have, of course, been there before, but, whether it’s a sequel, a re-imagining or a franchise reboot, the one thing we’re not expecting is new ground being broken. However, we do expect everything else to be broken and boy, does it get broken! The genius of Mad Max: Fury Road (apart from that twee punctuation in a film that piles ! on top of !) is that it gives you exactly what you expect yet still surprises you – or rather, awes you with its spectacle, its self-belief and its refusal to back off, even for a moment.

Max (a taciturn Tom Hardy, more early Clint than early Mel and, perhaps paying a little tribute, without a name until the very end) is still having flashbacks, the ghosts of his lost family still haunting his dreamtime, still on a road to nowhere. This time he’s much more one of a team though, Furiosa (Charlize Theron, who, shorn of her tumbling locks and provided with just Castrol GTX for make-up, has surely never looked more beautiful) his equal in all but his unshakeably nihilistic Weltanschauung. She’s doing the escape from hell into an unseen, unreliable nirvana that animated the Eloi (okay, wrong story, but they were definitely Eloi in MM2 and they are definitely Eloi again in MM:FR), but this time it’s not about the how they will flee, it’s about how they are fleeing.

So how does something that is pretty much a 120 minutes car chase not bore like a 120 second drum solo? Well, partly it’s due to the acting (Hardy and Theron get some great support from Nicholas Hoult and Hugh Keays-Byrne, back for another go after his turn as the Toecutter in MM1) but it’s mostly due to the car choreography and cinematography. Placing CGI at the service of the crew (and not the other way round, as is so often the case) allows director George Miller to deliver scenes of terrible beauty, nodding towards the likes of the legendary Hollywood stuntman, Yakima Canutt, ensuring that the whizzes and bangs never quite overpower the people. And, though it’s a tinge disappointing to know (and see) that the location is not the Australian Outback, teeming with hostile life, but Namibian desert, bereft of anything living, the wide shots are wondrous to behold, and so, so worth investing in a cinema seat rather that waiting for the DVD release, which will be flat beer after this heady brew.

Not everyone will like it – at times I felt the awful prospect of Zardoz looming into sight and there are plenty of parallels with Total Recall, but none of Paul Verhoeven’s wicked wit – but such are mere quibbles about a movie that was costed at $150M and puts every last cent on the screen for us to enjoy.

He’ll be back too, and it won’t take 30 years this time.

You can read my review of MM1 and MM2 here.


One man and his dog
One man and his dog

Every creature in Australia is out to kill you – and, in George Miller’s extraordinary debut movie, that applies to the human creatures as much as the spiders and snakes who have long been man’s adversary in the brutal Bush. There’s not much story in the Mad Max movies – they don’t need much – but there’s a visceral sense of place, of jeopardy and, in those faraway days before CGI, of reality.

I first saw Mad Max in “my mother’s” cinema in 1979 on my father’s recommendation (an unlikely one, given his general distaste for dystopian sci-fi shoot-’em-ups). Back then, it was perfectly possible to see a film blind, as tabloid newspapers didn’t review many movies, Barry Norman was only on BBC 1 once a week and there was, of course, no internet. And, at a time when multiplexes were just starting to be rolled out and a night at the flicks still comprised a B movie and main feature, you could see a lot of cultish stuff (so long as it wasn’t subtitled – that was for BBC 2 and probably a mite racy for Liverpool). Like most who saw Mad Max first time round, I emerged blinking and shaking after the ride of my life.

We knew more about Mad Max 2, the success of its predecessor making a star of Mel Gibson (not yet bonkers) and the marketing budget set for a mainstream blockbuster release. It was still a shock to the system, its tattooed, post-punk warriors feeling barely human at all in 1981. There had been nothing on screen quite like them before, although since there have been many imitators, especially in computer games.

Watching both MMs again now in a double bill on the big screen, the two films seem much more tame – but what they lose in visceral gut-wrenching thrillerdom, they gain in aesthetic pleasure. Everything looks perfect, from the low shots of the high brick walls of the police station in MM1 to the high shots looking down on the pathetic compound of the Eloi-like commune surrounded by their Morlockish enemies in MM2. Australia’s flat land, broken by its spiky rocks, and (especially) its huge sky sending forth that bright, bright light, has never been more integrated into a film and I include Walkabout in that. The big screen, the HD and the sound system of a 21st century cinema create literally different films than the ones you’re familiar with on DVD or Sky Movies. You can’t do epic on a 52 inch screen – but on a 52 feet screen? Well…

I had wondered whether it would be worth it to make the effort to see such familiar work again – and MM2’s plot is barely more fleshed out than MM1’s – but it was, it really was. Perhaps the same thinking can now be applied to the first two Terminator films and we can see those masterpieces on a double bill on the big screen to support its franchise’s summer reboot too. Indeed, why not reserve one screen on one day per week for a retro-evening giving us 20th century classics in a 21st century cinema. Let’s start with Apocalypse Now and Aguirre – The Wrath of God: because that’s definitely not just messing about in boats.

X + Y Reviewed

XYThough you know it’s coming as it’s been signposted like Chekhov’s Gun, there’s a real gut churner in the last ten minutes of X + Y – and, for an old seen-it-all type like me, that’s irrefutable proof that this film is a notch or two above the “awkward geniuses at Cambridge” fare that will follow the successes of the award-laden Turing and Hawking movies.

Our hero this time round is Nathan (Asa Butterfield in a nicely understated performance), a kid with more baggage than Heathrow at 7.00am on a Monday morning. No dodging the doctors here – we’re told upfront that Nathan is autistic – and he’s soon locked into his own world, with the patterns and predictability of numbers providing all the company he needs. He’s dealing with more than the spectrum, as if that wasn’t enough!

But the kid can do maths like Mozart could do music, so he’s soon on his way to Taiwan for a brutal selection boot camp for Team GB’s squad limbering up for the International Mathematics Olympiad (to be held in Cambridge – natch). There he meets kids even brighter (and even more extreme) than he is, which lends him some perspective; but his life really changes when he’s paired off with Chinese hopeful Zhang Mei (Jo Yang, who has plenty of everything needed to break down any teenage boy’s defences). Nathan learns that some things in life don’t reduce to binary numbers and edges towards the empathy that his autism has denied for so long.

It’s easy to spot a little Harry Potter here, a soupçon of His Dark Materials there and a light sprinkling of Spellbound (the Spelling Bee movie), but, somehow, the movie cliches (and they do keep coming) glide past painlessly. That’s a testament to highly impressive cinematography from Danny Cohen, who captures the contrast between urban Taiwan and the straight lines of the classroom with an elegance that made me very pleased that I was watching the film in a cinema. Praise too for Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s teacher and mother, two characters who made me groan when introduced – they might as well have been written with a cookie-cutter – but two splendid performances carried an over-familiar subplot along with aplomb.

Perhaps the best recommendation for the movie comes not from me but from my two teenage boy mathematicians (they’re not at Nathan and Zhang Mei’s level, but they’re good). Asked if they liked it, they drawled “Yeah – it was good. Yeah” which is about as much as one can wrench from boys aged 14 and 17. Then I thought a bit and realised that they had hardly moved through the film’s 111 minutes – no squirming, no grabbing for their drinks, no kicking off shoes. That told me that they identified with and cared about the boy on screen and those trying to relate to him. And I hope, when their turn comes to step out of their comfort zones as life “gets complicated”, they’ll recall this film’s central message – because sometimes the best things in life just don’t add up, no matter how much maths you know.


Bradley Cooper - or near enough
Bradley Cooper – or near enough

When I was a kid, Manifest Destiny was the stuff of Saturday morning kids’ telly. The Cowboys would hit the Injuns with firearms, knocking them dead (literally) and the Injuns would return fire with arrows, like the darts at the Ally Pally. My grandad once said about these 60s black and white American import series (and it’s stuck with me for forty years or more, so it hit home), “Nobody cares about those dead Injuns much do they?” No, they didn’t care much – not much at all.

If Clint Eastwood wasn’t in that cheap TV filler, he was in Rawhide, which probably wasn’t much different. And he’s been active in Republican Party politics for years – once interviewing an empty chair in some stunt or other to rile the Democrats. So, on saying, “Two for American Sniper please,” and shoving the card into the reader to pay, you have to leave your Guardian editorial-honed sensibilities behind at the popcorn stand. This is no documentary, no examination of the case for war, no even-handed inquisition into its impact on all combatants. So, rather like the grunts over there, you just have to get on with it.

What impresses is not the film’s “depth” – the impact of PTSD, the ebb and flow of the marriage of Bradley Cooper (good, but too charismatic surely) and Sienna Miller (not given enough to do – but, you know, by Clint), the buddies rubbing along – it’s the shallows of the film.

Well, not quite the shallows, but the surfaces. The battle scenes are photographed with real panache, the flat light that washes out all but the greys I last saw in American History X (another film with its problems) is back and doing the same job, twenty or so years on. The broken cities are given dignity by a camera that laments for their lost completeness and disdains the tiny humans ducking in and out of doorways and windows. Like the New York of The Warriors, the city overwhelms its occupants.

Good too is the camerawork on the action sequences – for once we feel present without feeling the seasickness attendant on the fast cut, wobbly handheld sequences that seem almost obligatory these days too. There’s CGI, but its unobtrusive, and lost in that light that just floods out such detail. Eastwood’s politics may have hardened over the years but so too has his confidence – this is a film-maker with nothing to prove (at least, technically) and it shows.

Ultimately, American Sniper shares a lot with (of all things) pantomime. It can be coarse and derivative, it demands that the audience buy into its conceits and it’ll attract plenty who will deride it (mostly without the benefit of actually seeing it). But grit your teeth, leave your politics in the foyer and enjoy a film that is more successful (on its own terms) than the other Oscar contenders I’ve seen and then see if you agree with me – if Clint does get the nod for best director, he’ll 100% deserve it.


The Theory of Everything – Reviewed

Jarvis Cocker and Christine Keeler - maybe
Jarvis Cocker and Christine Keeler – maybe

You know the form. Oxbridge actors filmed by an Oxbridge director while the sunlight dapples the honeyed college buildings and (probably Oxbridge) extras walk about quads looking, well, very Oxbridge. Nobody seems to do much work, money sloshes about and someone is overcoming extreme personal challenges. Between this caricature and its Mike Leigh / Ken Loach mirror somewhere up North with ex-members of 7:84 or Hull Truck Theatre doing the Oxbridgers’ roles, you might just be able to tell why I tend to cast a rather jaundiced eye at British films.

The Theory of Everything deserves better than that – just. It is distinguished by two splendid central performances from bee-stung lipped pretty boy turned twisting professor Eddie Redmayne and bee-stung lipped pretty girl turned saintly carer Felicity Jones (as Stephen and Jane Hawking). Both should feature in the upcoming awards jamborees with Redmayne well ahead of Cumberbatch for my money in the Eton vs Harrow old boys face-off. The principals are worth keeping an eye on (well, it won’t take much effort doing that I suspect) as both almost certainly have much more to offer in future projects having had to throttle back in the second half of the movie.

And that’s where the problem lies. For an hour or so, the love story under pressure is set against Hawking’s rapidly disintegrating body and burgeoning scientific career. Though (as the quip doing the rounds claims) there’s not much theory in the The Theory of Everything, there’s a sense of his genius, of the nature of academic work, of something unique. Hawking is funny too, but, apart from his atheism and Jane’s High(ish) Anglicanism, we’re told nothing of their backstories, so we do what we can to fill in the gaps with cues from accents, clothes and all the tedious markers of English class – because, well, it matters (even if it shouldn’t).

And, once Charlie Cox walks on the scene with a sympathetic eye and a sympathetic story of his own that made even me want to hug him, the film loses its extraordinary quality and becomes a rather conventional tale of two people drifting apart as they find the needs they had in their mid-twenties differ from the needs they have in their late-forties.

Hawking falls for a rather less rounded (if more curvy) nurse whom one is given to believe is not driven by the most noble of motives, and soon the removal men are in and the family photos are being divvied up. You end up pleased for the two of them really, as it can’t have been easy, and it’s especially heartwarming to witness the late, somewhat unexpected, reconciliation at Buckingham Palace. That said, it’s disappointing to have to flick the Wikipedia switch to find out that Jane is a professor in her own right having been seen for less than ten seconds actually studying her subject of Iberian medieval poetry (barely tolerated by the geekish men of course). At least she fares better than Alicia Nash, John Nash’s wife, in the dismal A Beautiful Mind, a film that shares much with this one though is inferior in all aspects.

That real-life events have been manipulated for dramatic effect (see this piece in Slate for some of those elisions and extensions) is fine by me – it’s entertainment, not history – but it’s a shame that the film falls away into something not far removed from a soap opera storyline. Perhaps, in the last 45 minutes or so, a little more E = mc^2 would made the time pass a little less slowly.



The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 by Michael Palin – Reviewed

Keeping matters in hand - on the set of Jabberwocky
Keeping matters in hand – on the set of Jabberwocky

I like diaries. Of course, there’s the frisson of excitement that comes with looking at anything forbidden, the pulling back of a curtain and the peek inside the life of another. But, aside from the voyeurism, three other structural qualities give the reader of diaries a real thrill.

Firstly, the roles of writer and reader are reversed. There is no omniscient narrator slowly revealing the plot to us, the denouement held back just long enough for that oh so satisfying resolution. It’s us, comfortably sitting in 2014, who know the diarist’s future not them!

Secondly, one is immersed in a permanent present, each day self-contained and as likely to butt up against Triumph or Disaster as any other day. And one can track one’s own parallel life too – the months and years at the tops of the pages as much a map for one’s own memory as for the entries of the writer.

Thirdly, one sees the doubts, the paths not trodden, the sheer chance of life explicitly – diarists do not plot a route to becoming Prime Minister at 45, they muddle through as much in thrall to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the rest of us. They’re lifted from our lives of opportunities missed or refused only partly by talent – it’s hard not to conclude that it’s as much luck, energy and boldness that defines a person’s life as the dead hand of socio-economic class etc etc etc.

These observations seem to cut through all diaries, whether the politics and positivity of Tony Benn, the decency and melancholy of Chris Mullin, the snobbery and gossip of Sir Roy Strong or the wit and tragedy of Kenneth Williams. So it’s no surprise at all to find them applying to Michael Palin’s Diaries, the first volume of which is an ascent from post-Oxbridge umming and ahhing to global megastardom with the Pythonic apotheosis, “The Life Of Brian”.

Palin is, of course, a notoriously decent cove, something that shines through on page after page. He sees the best in people and that sunny disposition means (as so often) people return the favour by seeing the best in him – he’s good company. He’s not without his frustrations: Graham Chapman’s boozing; John Cleese’s eye on the cash and a certain impatience with unionised film crews come through strongly; but nothing like as strongly as his respect for the talents of others. Though not prey to false modesty, Palin knows that his fellow Pythons are immensely gifted too and this combination of egos (incredibly) holds together on this gossamer-thin thread of multilateral respect, as they are tossed on the stormy seas of international fame. There is, of course, much to be said in any relationship for the ability to make one another laugh – and they never stop doing that.

Other names outside the magic circle flit in and out of shot: a charity football match vs Radio One, in which Ed Stewart plays a blinder in goal; The Secret Policeman’s Ball with Peter Cook’s virtuoso judgement on Jeremy Thorpe; George Harrison, all quiet decency and sly scouse humour. Nobody is given short shrift: even John Belushi (who surely can’t have been easy to work with, jetting in and out of Saturday Night Live) comes across well.

Insights pop up on almost every page. One of the best half-hour comedies in the BBC’s rich history of the format, “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite” was filmed between his father’s death and the memorial service a week later. Pre-Diana, that was the way things were. The now classic “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” that closes “Brian” was received “coolly” by the Pythons at a preliminary read-through. The brilliantly funny School Leopard in “Tomkinson” was an ad-lib, the sequence dropped in later.

There’s more, much more, as we sit in on the creation, execution and (though there’s rather more of it than I would like) marketing of some of comedy’s highest peaks. What’s remarkable is the willingness of the Pythons to maintain so much control over their work, regardless of its impact on their lives. Each of them write, perform and direct (or otherwise work on casting, editing etc) day-in, day-out, the inspiration seemingly on tap and available at 2.00pm – 5.00pm between a morning spent acting and an evening schmoozing potential investors. Perspiration trumping inspiration yet again on the production of great art.

Though in the late 70s, Palin and co are cushioned by substantial (but nothing by today’s standards) pots of cash (even travelling by Concorde can be hard work), the ordeals involved in filming “Holy Grail”, “Jabberwocky” and “Brian”, all of which demanded much of Palin’s good humour, physical fitness and will to succeed, the business of making films is gruelling and would break lesser men. Palin’s feet were fixed firmly to the ground by (it has to be said, cliche though it may be) dollops of Northern common sense, ordinary domestic arrangements (wife and three kids in North London house with Mini parked outside) and a keen curiosity in everything – the urge to travel, manifest in later life, pokes through the narrative regularly. Quite how characters less anchored than Palin survived such workloads is a story in itself – some, of course, did not.

There are few laugh-out-loud passages in the diaries – there seldom are in this format – the need to get things down at the start or the end of busy days with no time for rewrites is hardly a recipe for style. But the ordinary prose about extraordinary events leads to a rhythm that makes the volume unputdownable. I’ve already downloaded Volume II and I know I’ll do the same for Volume III.

Thanks Michael – see you again soon.

Mr Turner – Review

2014, MR. TURNER
No oil painting

Mr Turner opens with a gorgeous shot of windmills in Holland with our eponymous hero looking at the yellow light, taking it all in, the better to express it on canvas. Unfortunately, apart from a few more Tarkovsky-like moments of cinematography from Dick Pope, the gorgeousness gives way to Timothy Spall’s ungorgeous jowly countenance and as gnarly a set of teeth as you will see in 2014. And that growl, deployed almost randomly, starts off as irritating but soon becomes unbearable.

Nor is Turner a particularly pleasant man – in fact, he’s a particularly unpleasant man, arrogant, aloof and with a dismal attitude towards women, even for his time (the early, hypocritical years of the 19th century). I found myself longing for the movie to finish so I could get away from a man I wouldn’t choose to spend two minutes with, never mind a ludicrously stretched out two and a half hours.

Of course, many great artists were appalling individuals (step forward Amedeo Modigliani) and JMW Turner was undoubtedly a genius as a painter, anticipating impressionism both in technique and its subject matter of the emerging modern world. Instead of this being made clear (surely three of those 150 minutes could have been spared) we get little help in locating Turner within art history beyond a bit of sniping at John Constable and some frankly unbelievable scenes (not helped by bad CGI) where he is suddenly inspired to paint the celebrated The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam and Speed etc.

There’s little too that explains Turner’s attraction to middle-aged women from drawn from well below his social station and a curious incident with a beautiful 22 year-old prostitute in which he seemed to have some kind of seizure at the mere sight of her in repose, left me none the wiser as to its significance.

I took my seat knowing that Turner was a great artist who had a thing for working class women and who left his paintings to the nation in a bequest that was only made good a century or more after his death with the opening of the Clore Gallery. I left my seat knowing no more. 

The Imitation Game – Review

From 1992
From 1992

There may be people left who don’t know about Alan Turing – miracle code-cracker, father of the Computer Age and victim of anti-gay laws – but there really shouldn’t be after the biography, the novel, the TV adaptations, the pardon, the road… So the challenge for The Imitation Game was to say something new – and, often commendably and sometimes less commendably, it did.

On the downside, the film is anchored not by the race against time, as U-boats sank the convoys that crossed The Atlantic carrying the food that sustained a Britain that was completely isolated off the coast of Nazi Europe, but by Turing’s emotional life, its secrets foregrounded more than those of Hut 8. He loses more sleep agonising about Joan Clark than about Colossus (here renamed Christopher after his dead school paramour, turning Turing into something of a Gore Vidal). There’s also a great deal of focus on Turing’s Asperger’s-like disdain for empathy and jokes, something that seems to surprise the near-geniuses with whom he works (who appear to be unimpressed with his Cambridge Fellowship achieved at 24 – an unlikely story as that is very hard currency indeed in those circles).

So much for the Hollywoodisation of the Turing. Focusing on the film’s many strengths, most of which flow from its slightly surprising faith in its audience, yields a more balanced view of an excellent film. Exposition is largely eschewed – we’re trusted to “get” cryptography pretty quickly and to understand why the work at Bletchley Park is the toppest of Top Secret. We’re also trusted to disentangle the layers of espionage and counter-espionage that provided Bletchley Park with its carapaces of deniability and leak justifications – should they prove necessary. Turing may have thought he was in charge; a old buffer Admiral played by a permanently ruddy-faced Charles Dance certainly thought he was in charge; a wisely off-camera Winston Churchill was in charge; but it turns out that the Sir Humphreys were pulling all the strings (as ever).

Best of all are the two stars’ performances. Benedict Cumberbatch catches the quirks, the arrogance and, most of all, the humanity of a man never at ease with his personal destiny, but entirely at ease with that of his his work. It’s always award catnip to play a troubled real-life character, but one can so easily imagine the standing ovations for speeches that laud a man wronged in his time, but rehabilitated by the movies, as Cumberbatch blinks back the tears cradling his BAFTA / Oscar – it’s going to happen isn’t it?

Keira Knightley, though not exactly a dead ringer for Joan Clarke, bubbles with brightness and decency, a balance for Cumberbatch’s ticks and grimaces and, crucially for the film, credible as both a mathematician and a woman for whom Turing can “care for”. She may be cast partly for the glamour she brings to a film that hardly screams it, but she more than pulls her weight – as does her character, despite the caricature prejudice she faces.

Though the Turing argument was won many years ago, the recent Royal Pardon merely confirming what had long since been established public sentiment, an epilogue rightly points out that 45,000 more men were prosecuted (as Turing was) for, well, being gay. Sod the floodgates argument, we should honour the debt we owe to Turing’s work by pardoning every last one of them in his name – The Turing Pardons. Let the Daily Mail lead a campaign against a war hero who unequivocally loved his country and see how far they get with that one.

Interstellar – Review

Not Matthew McConaughey
Not Matthew McConaughey

Earth’s soil is turning to dust, destroying crops and choking the people left trying to hew a living from a land disintegrating beneath their feet. But NASA, literally as well as metaphorically underground due to political expediency, has secretly sent ten astronauts through a recently discovered wormhole near Saturn to jump to another galaxy with planets (and a black hole). Ten years later, little has been heard from them, so a mission sets off after the explorers led by ex-ace astro Cooper (a curiously often inaudible Matthew McConaughey). He leaves behind his super-bright daughter Murph after a bitter parting and strikes out for the sake of humanity.

Christopher Nolan’s epic, intelligent and beautiful new film is wonderful to look at, unafraid of dealing with hard science and a fine addition to the dystopian film / novel (as it acknowledges with a prominently displayed copy of Stephen King’s The Stand on a bookshelf). But it’s (bafflingly) both too long and too short – too long in introducing an obvious villain and too brief in rushing to its set-up of an inevitable feelgood ending. Having invested so much exposition on gravity, time, black holes and relativity in the first 120 minutes, all kinds of stuff just seems to happen in the last 40 or so as time and space are suddenly malleable even to us flesh and blood humans. (And, as ever in this type of science fiction, it’s never quite explained why intelligence so superior to our own can’t just make things easy for us poor saps so in thrall to them).

There’s lots of talk about how it’s impossible to visualise a black hole – ironically much of it while Anne Hathaway’s enormous saucer eyes are onscreen – and an endearingly “human” computer (thanks due to Nolan here for resisting the temptation to make its voice camp, as so many have done in the past), but there are very few laughs in a relentlessly earnest warning tale that might not go down too well in the American Midwest. Michael Caine delivers a pleasing cameo: but do watch out – you know what an English accent signifies in a Hollywood movie don’t you?

So does it work? In a cinema, I’d say yes. The photography pleases the eye, a limited pallet of greys, browns and monochrome black and white lit to allow the eye to rest on the colours shifting on the screen if the brain fancies a timeout from the exposition. The CGI (for once) complements rather than overpowers the action, the servant rather than the master of the director (and there’s plenty of adverts for forthcoming features to show how rare that is these days). McConaughey makes a passable hero, though I couldn’t help but think of Sam Shepard’s dazzling performance in The Right Stuff, the definitive “pilot as hero” in my time – he’s good, but not that good. Jessica Chastain does the pent-up anger and intensity well as adult Murphy Cooper, but she’s outshone by Mackenzie Foy as young Murph, who has to deliver almost all the emotional thrust of the film and does so brilliantly – surely a nomination for Best Supporting Actress should follow.

So, if you’re a Nolan fan or enjoy mass entertainment that doesn’t treat its audience as a group of five-year-olds in their first science class, go see the movie now, in a cinema, with no distractons. If you’re thinking about waiting for the DVD – don’t. Shorn of the spectacle on the big screen, there probably isn’t enough drama nor romance nor plotting to carry 169 minutes in your own living room. Few films could stretch that far – maybe, few films should.

Only When I Laugh — My Autobiography by Paul Merton

How's the picture in the attic Paul?
How’s the picture in the attic Paul?

I saw Paul Merton once — at Jongleurs in Battersea in about 1989. He was funny, but not spectacularly so — though the success or otherwise of a comic’s set was determined as much by my beer gauge (about five pints imbibed was perfect: a few either side of that mark, and the reception was less than optimum). He was already a star, but has since gone on to become — wait for it — a national treasure, pulling off the remarkable trick of retaining most of his cultish appeal while working extensively right across the mainstream. Like Michael Palin, he seems both ubiquitous and loved, a granny’s favourite who can still show the fangs when he needs to. It’s clear that this oft-lonely, oft-insecure, only child has never had any problem getting people to like him — a rare and precious gift — but that he doesn’t always like himself, nor others.

If that less than earth-shattering revelation about a funnyman emerges from the text, I’m afraid it’s one of the few. Not that it makes for a bad book or a whitewashing whinge or a backstabbing bitchfest. What we get is a narrative of Paul’s outward life. There’s a lot of, “The phone rang and soon I was on my way to a lunch meeting about a new six-part series about which, I confess, I had many doubts but that proved to be one of the biggest hits of the decade”. It’s not short of, “We fell in love and soon we were renting a little / large flat in Streatham / Fulham”. either. How Paul? How?

This absence of introspection (strange in a man who has thought very hard indeed about how comedy is created in the cracks between what the mind expects and what it obtains) is most apparent in the book’s central interlude in which he is falls prey to paranoid delusions brought on by anti-malaria meds (his explanation) and overwork (my speculation) and spends some time in hospital pretty much run on the along the lines of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The horrors of mental illness are described unflinchingly, but, on his discharge, normal life is resumed as if nothing had happened with little more than a footnote that his marriage to Caroline Quentin fell apart soon after.

Enough of the downside — the upside is plenty steep enough. The best parts of the book are those handful of occasions where he drops a gag into the text (though the economy and almost tangible crafting of the joke contrasts with the somewhat pedestrian description of “things happening” that surrounds it). Writing was hard graft, demanding hours of work (often with longtime collaborator, John Irwin) drawing on an immense reservoir of self-acquired knowledge of classic comedy from radio, television and film, accumulated since early childhood. Though often self-effacing, Merton is proud of his work and his awards and not dishonest enough to hide it.

There are also many warm tributes paid to a Who’s Who of British comedy over the last fifty years: Forsyth, Milligan, Galton and Simpson, Hislop, Parsons and many, many more emerge with an enhanced humanity for Merton’s accounts of his dealings with them, especially his waspish sparring partner from HIGNFY. This warmth is most evident when he breaks his leg in an ill-advised football kickabout and loses money on a cancelled Edinburgh run. A starry list of “alternative” comics show that all the previous stuff about the camaraderie on the road was no soft-soaping, as they club together to raise money to settle his debts with a one-off gig.

Come the last page of the book, one can only be satisfied that things have worked out so well for a man who had to swim against the tide so often — no Footlights conveyor-belt to the BBC for him — his domestic and professional lives balanced beautifully in his mid-50s. But there’s still much more to say, more to reveal, depths hinted at but not plumbed — which is, of course, the right of an author — but nags at the reader. One can’t help wondering what a biographer with psychological insight would make of Merton’s mind, a fecund but not entirely comfortable place and how that has carried him on his unique and still unfolding journey. For that we must wait.


DBVolume 2 picks up where Volume 1 stopped… except that it doesn’t really. More so than Going To Sea In A Sieve (reviewed here) Alarming starts out of synch (with a 24 carat gold story that should have been in Sieve) and continues with tales only loosely related to a conventional temporal sequence. It’s more a scrapbook with some of the pages missing and some of the pages a little out of order – but it’s no less enjoyable for it!

There are some wonderful yarns: getting shot, twice; never quite getting to award shows in quite the right gear; Twizzle, the family dog, and his vendetta with the scrapyard mutt over the fence; and many, many more about Spud, DB’s hero, father, muse. There’s more – plenty more and the temptation to throw in a few spoilers here is almost overpowering!

But that is exactly what one would expect from all those radio shows that mine the seemingly inexhaustible seam of “things that have happened to me”. The tales transfer from the mic to the page with no loss of comic timing and with the same curious combination of self-deprecation and glee at being the centre of attention one more time. This is Danny the Showman, Danny the Turn, Danny the Holder of Court – the Danny that many consider a national treasure (sorry, but that is the mot juste) and some find insufferable.

But for all the parading of his working class cultural credentials (and they do ring true – my brother was also shot for a laugh and also laughed it off) and his Floyd Mayweatherly approach to money, the book hints at something deeper, something that he himself has often remarked that comics should avoid, as it’s much harder to make people laugh than to make them cry, or rise in anger, or even just think. When DB does serious, it’s not like Mike Yarwood singing, “And this is me,” so provoking every viewer to switch over. DB is very good at serious.

He didn’t like being called a “Professional Cockney” reasoning, with some justification, that this was merely a veiling of a “Cockney” who should know his place amongst the Oxbridge media types. But how did that passive aggression towards him manifest itself? How was he patronised? Who did it? DB is not really one to name names or dish the dirt – like writing about his brother’s untimely death, that wouldn’t sit with the book’s overarching motif of the hat on the side of the head, luck just turning up to sort things out, life consisting of one sunny day after another. So we don’t really find out.

The relentless optimistic timbre does make the occasional cymbal clash resonate though. There’s a rant (like some of his more celebrated radio meltdowns, it’s directed at faceless managers whose job it is to impose order on what should be chaotic) that underlines his firm ideas about what is valuable in life and what isn’t. There is a real warmth evident in his feelings towards Paul Gascoigne (and a rare moment of regret at the friendship’s fading) and plenty that suggests how the inevitably “troubled” ex-footballer connected to his kind – and some pranks that makes Gazza sound like a Bullingdon Boy had he gone to Eton and not Heathfield Senior High, Gateshead. An acid account of journalistic manipulation of an interview also bares teeth that are otherwise reserved for smiling at life’s crazy coincidences – meeting The Queen in Deptford anyone?

The pages roar by, the laughs keep coming – yes, I lolled on the Tube and two or three times forced my son to read a few pages that were just too funny to miss – but there’s another, more balanced book buried inside these pages with many tales left out (still no giant firework in the LWT lift, my favourite of the many, many stories he has told on the radio). So, before we get to Volume 3 and the cancer, let’s have something that is not more serious – that would be the wrong word – but something that gets beyond the overdeveloped Baker funnybone.

There is a precedent and it comes from one of his heroes – PG Wodehouse. The greatest comic novelist wrote about serious matters in his Berlin Broadcasts.  Hopelessly misjudged though they were, the transcripts balance PGW’s almost pathological need to entertain with a hard-edged account of what it was like to be a POW and why those left at home should not think that their incarcerated loved ones were in agony 24 hours a day (at least not those banged up with PGW). Put to happier purpose, DB’s gift for entertainment could tell us a lot about where the working class of England’s big cities have gone and why so many are disconnected from politics and culture.

That might never come fully formed, but it’s there hidden, somewhere between the cracks of this too-soon-finished rattle through some of the jests and japes of the Daz Doorstep Challenge Man (and so much more).

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis – reviewed

photo posted on post-gazette.comTwenty-five years or so ago, ordering a beer in a Prague cafe, my bad German attracted the attention of the only other English speaker in town, an American, and we got talking. I wasn’t intending a trip to Poland, that slab of plain so unfortunately flung between Germany and Russia, because I had no visa, the London Embassy needing more time and money than I had found convenient. But, following the American’s directions to an upstairs office nearby, ten dollars bought me the entry documentation and I was off on the sleeper to Warsaw and on to Krakow.

Two days later, an old train rattled over the lines left unbombed to Auschwitz. There was no sense of ghoulish tourism then, barely a tourist in those rickety carriages, so I was relieved to fall in with a couple of Dutch guys with whom I shared beers and jokes, imagining the Olympic Games staged like an early round of Miss World in traditional national dress (they didn’t fancy their chances in the 100 meters – the clogs you see). We reached the small rural railway station in laddish good spirits and a handful of us disembarked, the air still, the clouds pushing down a little, the station quiet. There was a guide and we listened respectfully to her introduction as we walked towards the gates, wondering whether they were Soviet impostors or if they had somehow survived all, all… that. The path’s gravel crunched under our sandals reminding us that we had some dominion over this awful space, but, as we entered the nearest building, words wouldn’t form in our mouths and and we could hear only our guide’s soft voice as we read the multilingual labels on the display cases of false teeth, walking canes, children’s shoes. Soon she joined our silence and nothing was said – nothing could be said.

We bore witness to the blocks in which men, women and children were invited to shower in rooms with floors that had no gullies, no drains, no water – but we had long since been overpowered by the scale of the camps, the banality of its evil, the collapse of the comfortingly abstract into something terribly tangible. We sat on the steps of, what, some building or other and still said nothing. Or rather, still could say nothing. Words, language, thoughts even had run out – insufficient to do the job they had done for 25 years or so. One of us eventually broke the stillness and we walked, heads bowed a little, back to the railway station to catch the return train. That evening, we played pool, sank a few very cheap beers and tried to chat up the local girls, but our hearts weren’t in it. We made our farewells and the Dutch lads headed towards Berlin, while I made for Budapest. 

Weaving in and out of The Zone of Influence, Martin Amis’s novel set in a thinly disguised Auschwitz, is the same problem I had – what can language do when set against this vast depravity? Amis feels compelled to write about the Camp, but feels equally compelled to acknowledge that the subject exhausts language, exhausts understanding, exhausts explanation – indeed, exhausts even the question of whether it is explicable at all. What emerges is an unsatisfactory, disgusting book that it also moving and thrilling, worthy of its sources (including, read halfway between my first and now my third “visit” to Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s heartbreaking If This Is A Man).    

Amis gives us three narrators, all with familiar, if re-energised, Amisian voices, their accounts overlaying each other, as events are described by each of them in turn. 

Golo Thomsen is the nephew of Martin Bormann, an photofit Aryan if not quite a photofit Nazi, who uses his connections to cover the fact that his ardour is more directed towards the Fatherland’s big, busty Mädchen than the Fatherland’s thousand year destiny. Thomsen is educated, an intellectual and a cynical exploiter of what comes across his path – until his eye falls upon Hannah Doll, the kind of woman who looks like she might, just might, serve foaming steins of bier in a keller, but is actually the apparently demure, much younger wife of Paul Doll, the Camp Kommandant. 

Doll is the second narrator and a classic Amisian man: small (in every sense); unintentionally funny; drunk on power. His voice drives the narrative forward simultaneously revealing the horrors he supervises mediated through euphemism and a 180 degree skewed perspective, so twisted that even a fanatical dullard like Doll has cause to question. He gets most, if not quite all, of those signature Amis sentences that fizz off the page provoking a guilty laugh, the author catching you again in that smartarse’s net he has used since The Rachel Papers. How about (Doll at an opera) – “It wasn’t like the last occasion, when I became gradually immersed in the logistical challenge of gassing the audience”. BANG! There’s more, a lot more, like that – unspeakable crimes spoken of in the argot of the put-upon middle manager.

The third voice is that of Szmul, a Polish Jew in charge of the processing and disposal of thousands of dead bodies. Intelligent and sensitive, these two traits serve both to keep him alive, as he continually makes himself too valuable to kill, and to torture his soul, as he wrestles with his guilt at not fighting back and his desire to ensure that his story is told. His compromises reach their inevitable endpoint when he sees one of his teenage son’s childhood friends heading for the shower block and intervenes to call in “a favour”.

Other characters, factual and fictional, turn up in the narratives, as the War slides away from German control after Stalingrad, but the Camp is the fixed point of the novel, a crushing, cruel, incomprehensible site of the application of industrial logic to psychotic ends. In an Afterword, the author writes of the impossibility of identifying why the Holocaust was not just prosecuted, but prosecuted with such fervour, to the very end, the Camp lasting longer than the Reich itself, smashed and overrun, its demise long expected, not least by its wretched architects.

By the last page, Amis, like me and the Dutch lads a quarter century gone, has run out of language, explored all the places words can go, exhausted all the accounts of the unaccountable. He has left behind a book that jars the reader with its appalling humour and its sickening scenes and reminds us – not least because German, the language in which the Final Solution was framed, sits so close, so uncomfortably close, to English, the means by which we, a we that has unimaginable military and industrial power at our disposal, explains and manages the world. The Camps may be bounded by the iconography, the politics and the social conditions of Europe in the first half of the 20th century – but not the men. Thomsen, Doll and Szmul walk amongst us – they always have and they always will.

Slaying The Badger by Richard Moore – revisited and reviewed

The greatest kit in sports history
The greatest kit in sports history

Bernard Hinault was The Patron of the peloton, the four-time winner, the force of nature – in the unwritten, but understood and fiercely enforced rules of the Tour de France, that gave him rights, rights he was very happy to exercise. In 1985, he had used this throwback to a version of droit de seigneur (and his team leadership, though that seemed almost incidental) to stifle the opportunity of his young team mate, Greg LeMond, to ride for the maillot jaune. Though injured and riding as much on reputation and that ferocious will as physical power, Hinault’s record equalling fifth jersey was secured in Paris: in return, LeMond secured a promise (well, a sort of promise) that Hinault would ride for him come 1986.

Richard Moore’s Slaying The Badger is the story of that unforgettable Tour, a story that holds its mysteries to this day. It speaks of a race that is now gone forever – not just because it was written prior to Lance Armstrong’s confession that sliced cycling history into a “Before and After”, but also because the 1986 Tour is so very French, the domain of radio-free riders grabbing information and instructions on the fly and still rooted in cycling’s long gone culture of riding hard and playing hard. There are no marginal gains here, no diet sheets and no hypodermics either..

The book sets up – aided by long and (mainly) frank interviews with its key personalities – the men whose actions decide the 1986 Tour. What seemed at the time like madness (I watched the nightly Channel 4’s coverage avidly, bewitched by even bit-part players like the great Colombian climber, the wildly attacking Lucho Herrera, never mind the two main men) becomes, if not quite explained, then certainly explicable, as a set of characters who surely could have been invented by Anton Chekhov, emerge to duel in the sun.

Hinault’s force of will is illustrated with the already legendary deeds of winning in the snow of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the mud of Paris-Roubaix; in his ascent from a ravine into which he and bike had tumbled, rising to use the spare machine to win 1977’s Criterium du Dauphine Libere; in his leadership of a riders’ strike in his first Tour and his willingness, even today, to take the direct physical action French farmers such as he employ to deal with those invading their space. Though a brawler in both the metaphorical and literal senses, Hinault emerges as a man who knows his obligations as much as his rights, not so much a monster as a man who could be monstrous when required.

LeMond is, of course, his opposite. Prone to self-doubt, American and so, so keen to be seen to be doing the right thing, only his extraordinary physical attributes give him anything in common with the Hero of France. Hinault knew that LeMond would win the Tour – as proud a champion as he would only assert that he could handle LeMond so forcefully, so frequently if he felt it needed to be said – but he didn’t want him to win in 1985 and, when the combat went mano-a-mano in 1986, he didn’t really want him to win then either.

Managing these two most alpha of alpha males in the same team was Dr Paul Kochli, a technocrat who logged riders’ data on 80s era computers and preferred to focus on the team rather than the rider – it was not a recipe for harmony at La Vie Claire. Behind him lurked a man for whom harmony was anathema and victory was expected, the larger than life team owner, Bernard Tapie – industrialist, singer, jailbird. Tapie loved the limelight and the Hinault-LeMond saga gave him plenty of that.

1986’s Tour was a combustible mix and it caught fire when Hinault decided to “stir things up” with a series of random attacks to which his team-mate LeMond was not privy (nor was the anglophone half of La Vie Clair). Was Hinault reneging on his promise of a year earlier? Was it really ever made? Was he riding to reduce the field to himself and LeMond to ensure a La Vie Claire man on the top step of the podium supported by another just one rung down? Or did he glimpse a sixth Tour and immortality with just a Yankee kid in the way?

As the book follows the stages of 1986’s Tour, Hinault’s mind games get to LeMond and they get to the reader too. Is Hinault bold and brave, tilting one last time at one of sport’s greatest prizes with the panache of his youth? Or is he cruelly playing every card in his hand against a team-mate to whom he owes, at the very least, a moral obligation to support? In an astute afterword, David Millar’s nuanced interpretation rings most true – but we’ll never really know.

It’s no surprise to learn that the book has been adapted into one of ESPN’s series of sports documentaries as it’s a page-turner full of suspense, humour and no little pathos. It’s also a reminder of why my generation fell in love with the sport, despite its flaws which were to metastasise in the two decades to follow into the obscenity of Armstrong’s bullying, lies and the culture that supported them. Richard Moore’s research, his love of the race and his respect for its riders rekindled memories undimmed by the passage of time (that iconic La Vie Claire jersey hardly fades does it) but also the joy of discovering a sport with so vast a canvas, a sport that so brutally revealed human character and, yes, a sport that was such fun to watch. Hinault may have stirred the race, but the Tour stirred our souls.

The Chris Mullin Diaries

TB and CM
The man behind The Man

“Tomorrow is another day” did not just give comfort to Scarlett O’Hara – the phrase pretty much defines the experience of reading diaries. It often comes to mind if slightly bogged down with accounts of a (then) crucial Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meetings (for example). So the best political diaries have the pace that comes from the extraordinary day-to-day variety of a pol’s life and the presentation of history’s ever unfolding first draft, warts and all, from a ringside seat. Alastair Campbell’s Diaries are all testosterone-fuelled execution (of policies and enemies); Tony Benn’s favour an extraordinary mix of high political ideas with personal and family introspection; Gyles Brandreth’s go for the laughter in the dark, as John Major’s decency is smashed by his party’s deathwish.

Chris Mullin’s Diaries (published in three volumes, but very much a continuous narrative) are none of those things – not as power-soaked, not as personal, not as funny – but those absences allow much more to bleed through the text and the details accrue. The diaries start when the man Mullin calls The Man wins the leadership of the Labour Party and with it, becomes heir apparent to 10 Downing Street’s keys. Pretty soon, the Blair charm is radiating everywhere, not least on the former leftwing journalist and campaigner and MP for Sunderland South. He doesn’t quite fall in love like a 13 year-old does with Harry Styles, but, well, that’s near enough.

The personal connection animates much of Mullin’s work – something of a surprise in a politician with such a strong leftish history, if a continually fading belief in The Left as a coherent ideological construct. Though his open-mindedness tortures him on Iraq and many other issues as he tries to plot the route his conscience is dimly revealing, it allows him to form and discard opinions with entertaining haste. Sometimes The Man can do no wrong; and sometimes no right; sometimes John Prescott is a tongue-tied bully; and sometimes an inspiring and caring boss; sometimes Mullin yearns for high office and sometimes he dreads it. In other words, he’s a lot like the rest of us.

Along the way, there are fascinating insights into how high stakes politics is played – the whips as ever, scheming, plotting, paybacking. There are beautiful accounts of trips to Africa, with the edge of corruption, poverty and war insisting in from the margins, polluting paradise. There are friendships that endure – Jack Straw weaves in and out of the text, a decent and loyal man, and other unlikely buddies from across the House in the persons of Tory grandees Nick Soames and George Young. Even a boyish David Cameron wins praise in the far off days when he talked sense about drugs policy.

Mullin agonises most about making a difference: to the asylum seekers who arrive in his office shaking with fear at the prospect of deportation to a failed state; to the government departments run by the Sir Humphries for the Sir Humphries; and to his own family, growing up as the months fly by. If he wasn’t given the chance to do all the right things, he (mainly) did the right things when he could and left us these diaries as a wonderful insight into why the right things (and the wrong things) happened.

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – Purple Noon (Plein Soleil)

René Clément’s 1960 movie is a beautiful thing. It has Italian locations – in the deep South too; astonishing scenes filmed on a boat that would not be out of place in one of Wernher Herzog’s more ambitious (ie mad) productions; and a sun every bit as hard and uncompromising as its original title suggests. And it has one of those endless stream of European actresses of that time who can just ooze erotic charge out of the screen, in this case singer-actor Marie Laforet. And, topping the lot, in his breakthrough role, only Alain Delon.

Don't listen to him!
Don’t listen to him!

Of course, he plays Tom Ripley, one of the twentieth century’s great literary creations, and one notoriously tricky to capture on film. Matt Damon wasn’t much good in the 1999 film The Talented Mr Ripley and John Malkovich scarcely better in 2002’s Ripley’s Game. Delon, eyes darting and staring as befits his situation, gets much closer to Patricia Highsmith’s asexual, amoral antihero, even with the terrible dubbing. There’s Ripley’s magnetism, his look that sees through the merely clever (especially through the merely clever) and his almost wilful courting of danger, the better to give himself the chance to thumb it in the eye and walk away smirking. Delon is at his best when the least active in any scene, the watcher and learner, soon to be the manipulator.

Mme Laforet may be introduced as little more than very upmarket eye candy, but she shows how Marge falls not just for Ripley’s looks (who wouldn’t!) but also for his Dorian Gray approach to his evil. She never says that she knows, but we know that she knows – and, once in Ripley’s grip (metaphorically and literally) she doesn’t care. It’s a very accomplished performance for a woman barely out of her teens.

There is one flaw in a near flawless film. Ms Highsmith would never have scripted an ending like that – and said so having praised much of the rest of the movie. Nor would Ripley, a consummate professional in his derring deeds, ever be so sloppy. It’s the only false note, but it’s a real clanger.

I had not heard of this movie until my attention was drawn to it by a below the line comment on a Guardian click-gathering list piece – which goes to show that it’s sometimes worth reading BTL stuff even these days. There’s an excellent print on a Russian website (click here). Better still, read The Talented Mr Ripley, on which the film is closely based – it’s the kind of book that you envy those who are yet to read it, as so much pleasure lies before them. And now they can picture M. Delon in their mind’s eye as Ripley, well, it’s even more of a treat.

A Blaze Of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries by Tony Benn – Review

TBI met Tony Benn once. Though it feels like I met him thousands of times – through the famous diaries, the ninth and final volume of which is somewhat different to those that have gone before. No longer at the heart of politics, no longer driven past any intimation of fatigue by the fierce fire of his convictions, no longer a politician, the political has given way to the personal. This is still a diary of ideas but, contrary to an entry in which he deplores his self-obsession, this is very much a diary about friends and family.

The political principles still weave through the text: socialism; the commitment to democracy as the only means to organise life; the support for the Palestinian cause; the relentless opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the trust in trades unions.

Criticism of Benn as a champagne socialist is unfair and trite, though one can’t help thinking of the line about enjoying one’s grandchildren more than one’s children (because you can get away from them when it becomes too much). Benn’s sentimental vision of the working class is (in the eyes of this writer, who has observed it up close and personal) underpinned by the townhouse in Holland Park Avenue, the Palace of Westminster and some very non-working class friends. I’m left with the impression that he loves the working class like a grandparent loves their grandchildren – though it’s no less real for that.

He despises Tony Blair and, not without a pang of sadness, comes to despise Gordon Brown too, as New Labour flounders in the absence of its Charismatic Leader and in the backwash of the crash of 2007-8.  He’s not above a few “I told you so”s – and why shouldn’t he be – remarking, not for the first time in the diaries, that there’s always money for war and for The Establishment in crisis. He remains disdainful of the need to spin and compromise in the furtherance of electoral ambition – he still prefers to win the argument, rather than the majority.

In his mid-80s, he’s become more interested in his friends, his family and the little struggles that make up life at an advanced age. He glows with pride at the achievements of his (now middle-aged) children and their children, thinks often of his brother, dead at 22 in the War, and apologetically relies on the Benns to fix his computer, cook Christmas dinner, clear his gutters. Friends – glitzy and glamorous like Saffron Burrows and Natasha Kaplinsky and the less well known, but equally valued brothers and sisters from political battles past and present – pop up for conversation and company. As ever, his loyal editor, Ruth Winstone, goes far beyond the call of duty – something for which readers too are grateful. Amongst so many friends and family, one feels, for the first time since the diaries began in 1940, that Tony needs their company more than they need his – and that he knows it.

Inevitably, his body is breaking down – though not as much as a dedicated and unrepentant smoker might expect – but, his mind betrays him only a little (the usual forgetting of names etc). He is tired often and – what a change for the man who barely slept at all in his Cabinet years – he stays in bed more than he would like (though he’s still not afraid of a 5.00am alarm for a 6.30am taxi). Slowing down – like so much else – is relative.

The time I did meet him was about five years ago. He arrived at London College of Communication alone, slightly doddery on his legs but ready to speak to the students. I had wondered what I should say on greeting him and knew that there was one thing I definitely did not want to say. I shook him by the hand and said. “Mr Benn. I have read all your diaries and I want to thank you for them. They taught me much about politics and history.” And then, almost automatically, I said what I was determined not to say.  “They also taught me about what it is to be a man.”

I’m not sure which of us was the closer to tears.

London – Paris – Rome Days Two, Three, Four, Five and Six

Both hands needed to build an empire
Both hands needed to build an empire

Trains, though sharing with planes the consent to incarceration with strangers, enjoy a completely different vibe. Conversations start, flow and finish, with an understanding that suspension can come at any time. Maybe we were just lucky, but both Paris – Rome and Rome – Paris passed through happy chatting and fitful, though sufficient, sleep. I wasn’t overjoyed to share a compartment with an Italian family who filled it with half a dozen suitcases, but Jesper, Amandine and I were travelling light, so everything was stowed. Mme A was a student at the Sorbonne – very bright and very beautiful and in grave danger of giving the otherwise somewhat diffident French a good name.

Rome was very Italian, despite even more tourists than I recall. Little has changed since first I went a quarter-century ago, with a handful of exceptions. Of course, the main one is the cost of everything. Who is paying for all this kept popping into my mind, almost immediately followed by its answer – the Germans. Though I remain committed to the EU project and and (I think you have to be if so) committed to the Euro, one can’t help thinking that a devaluation of a “Southern Euro” by about 33% would line things up and probably help weaker economies export. Or maybe I’m just nostalgic for crossing borders and seeing prices change with the countries as they should I suppose. But Kentucky’s dollar is the same as Manhattan’s, and that experiment has largely succeeded.

Though there are plenty of Italian bars and restaurants, fast food is more common than it was and multinational brands too. Rome still feels more “Italian” than much of the North of the country, but it’s slightly diluted these days. The food is still very good and the views on any street corner still reek of history, art and Italy’s unique showiness that pervades life. There’s a dressiness too about the people – young and old – and film star looks in every queue for every bus. And the ice cream is still the best.

What's that Diana Ross song?
What’s that Diana Ross song?

We waited for a lot of buses – something I never mind doing abroad, as one gets a feel for a city and the people and a sightseeing tour for free too. I’d recommend catching a bus some time towards sunset since, as so often the case anywhere, the slanting sun shows off the city to best advantage.

We waited longest for a bus on the Appian Way, having visited one of Rome’s many catacombs, it’s networks of subterranean burial grounds. Some chambers were decorated with frescoes from the second century AD, an astonishingly early representation of biblical stories in a style that would have appealed to Picasso. An excellent guide made the trip worth the €8, though it’s not for the claustrophobic!

Travelling is what one makes of it and never more so than when travelling through Europe by train. A certain robustness is required to deal with the delays, the proximity of others in couchette cabins and the last minute changes (Milan at 5.30am I could have done without). But you get space for bags, relaxed security and the chance to move about and chat – should you so desire. My first week of long-distance train travelling in 20 years also reminded me of why Mrs Thatcher never travelled by train. Trains go from inner city to inner city – with all that connotes good and bad when you arrive. They’re collective too – a mini-society that helps each other, mediated not by contract, but by a mutual regard for each others’ needs. And trains are reliant on a state built and maintained infrastructure that delivers far more often than not, and appears impervious to private sector models.

Do I recommend it? Well, yes and no. If you’re up to it, six days holiday can be squeezed from three nights in a hotel (with sleeper trains doing their share of meeting accommodation needs) and the costs of tickets offset by the city centre to city centre travelling. But Europe, at 90p for a Euro, is pricey, especially when a dollar can be bought for 70p or less. That said, the great cities of Europe tell us much about who we are, why we think the way we do and about the world as it was laid out by adventurers from the old imperial powers. If Hong Kong felt like visiting the future and the USA like visiting the present, Rome and Paris feel like visiting the past, but not in any negative sense. If the view can be mixed as much as magnificent in these great relics of imperialism, at least we know that we are standing on the shoulders of giants – of art, of administration and of single-minded brutality.

London – Paris – Rome Day One

I travelled to Brussels with Eurostar on its very first day of commercial operation. Back in 1994, it was trying too hard to be an airline, with its language of check-ins and attendants on parade outside every carriage, later to ferry food and drink to your seat. It was a nice way to travel, especially First Class, in which indulged myself as it was still cheaper than the horrible Sabena flights into Brussels’ horrible airport.

But it’s years since I stepped off that EEC gravy train and, now paying my own way, I was in the cheap seats for the first leg of a bit of an adventure. Much has changed in those years and air travel has changed more than most – less expensive, but more of an ordeal, with security, distant airports and no seat space just three of the long list of inconveniences that plague the planes.

Eurostar, to my surprise, still talked of check-ins and such like, but it’s much more like catching a train than a plane. Show your QR code to the barrier and it parts to decant you into a relaxed security zone (shoes on and laptops in bags) and a swift passport control. St Pancras International’s unabashedly 21st century look continues ‘airside’ and the contrast with Heathrow is stark. A short travelator ride to the platform and we’re on with legroom and even space in the overhead storage. Less than two and a half hours later, we were in the centre of Paris – the journey a delight, the clock not yet touching 11.00am. However, things were about to go awry.

We walked down the Rue St Denis, not as seedy as it once was, but still very Paris and not very London – which is the whole point of travel n’est-ce-pas? I had a cheeky beer on the way and soon we had crossed Ile de la Cite and we’re indulging in excellent crepes in the Rue St Andre des Arts, another favourite road. I bought Jesper an eclair and felt a rare pang of regret that the sugar was too much for me, and we moved back to the Seine to follow it to the Musee D’Orsay where the afternoon was to be spent looking at the Davids, Courbets, Manets etc etc etc.

imageExcept it was shut due to unforeseen… Parisness, I suppose. The Orangerie, the Louvre, the Centre George Pompidou were also closed, but they were at least scheduled to be ferme le mardi. We were at a loose end in Paris – how incroyable is that? We went to Starbucks. For the wifi, you understand.

We continued to walk – and Paris is still a great walking city, with views to savour at every turn – and dropped into a bar for omelette and frites. Only having sat down and got things sorted did we realise that there were no frites – Paris was making us sing its tune again.

While Jesper showed more concentration than I expected in reading Julian Barnes History of the world in 10 1/2 chapters at Gare de Lyon, I drank Carrefour beer from those dinky little bottles that you only seem to get in France. After a bit of Baudelaire style people watching, we were on to the train (complet naturellement) and not looking forward to the recent notified 5.39 change in Milan.

But these things happen and some good conversation with a French couple en route to Sienna and some fitful sleep soon passed the hours.

A day at Wimbledon

IMG-20130624-00635At 8.00am, the ground is still damp with overnight dew, but the clouds look thin enough for the midsummer sun to burn them off – if the midsummer sun ever returns to England. The ultra efficient queuing system that so impressed me three years ago is not so, well, unEnglishly efficient this time round and the cold bites as the time drags.

There’s shoe-friendly plastic laid on the grass in the park where the queue assembles – but, inexplicably, not for the first 100 yards or so. There are fewer stewards than I recall and the famous queuing card has not been issued some 40 minutes after arrival. Wimbledon 2013 is making a few unforced errors.

Some things don’t change. The queue is multi-national if not exactly multi-cultural and the absence of English voices allied to the long snaking lines and the security both explicit and implicit, gives the place the feeling of an airport without planes. And somebody really should be selling us coffee – or, if it gets any colder, whisky.

By midday, one reason for the slow pace of everything becomes clear. Just eight security stations with both x-ray and bag search (why both?) decanted into 20 turnstiles, most of which were inevitably idle. That’s not good enough and neither is the fact that the gates opened at 10.30am for an 11.30am start. The £20 entry fee was low in 2010 when I last queued and it’s even better value today, but the experience is much diminished.

To Court 16, where lots of Japanese fans cheer quietly and sigh softly as Ms Doi’s all or nothing game produces errors and winners aplenty. Eventually Ms Soler-Espinoza’s weight of stroke overpowers the tiny Doi and it’s game, set and match. The quality goes up a few notches for Ms Cirstea vs Ms Voegele, but power is still very much the determining factor in women’s tennis – even more obvious up close than on television. Ms Cirstea shows that the rankings seldom lie and goes through in straight sets.

Come 3.30pm, old hands Xavier Malisse and Fernando Verdasco pitch up in front of a standing room only crowd. They’ve been round the block these two, and the warm-up is somewhat desultory – no need for mindgames here. At 29 and 32 respectively, they don’t look like they’ve the condition to play 35 sets of singles in a fortnight, but they give a splendid display of topspin and slice, ball and racquet in perfect harmony, before Verdasco’s greater skills triumph. His shiny black hair will represent Spain in Round Two, even if its favourite son is already back home.

Wimbledon was not as slick as I recall from previous years, but its plenty slick enough to warrant a visit – even if you’re a local. Especially if you’re a local.

MotoGP: Eulogy to Marc Marquez by Phil Sawyer


Well - he's probably too young for champagne
Well – he’s probably too young for champagne

Blimey, that didn’t take long.

On Sunday, at the tender age of twenty, at the Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, Marc Marquez took the chequered flag to become the youngest winner of the premier motorcycling class since Freddie Spencer in Belgium way back in 1982.

However, this wasn’t a victory built on the thrilling, wheel to wheel, audacious style with which the young rider made his name on his way to world championships in the 125cc and Moto2 classes. This was a chilling dissection of a race win, a victory based on a forensic study of the rider in front of him, fellow Repsol Honda garage member Dani Pedrosa, before making the decisive move with nine laps to go. Although some of that audacity remains. The telling blow was made in the sweeping set of curves that mirror the Maggotts-Becketts-Chapel sequence of Silverstone, a sequence that observers had reliably observed would be one of the least likely passing points on the circuit.

The BBC commentator Steve Parrish had been speculating during the race whether the young man’s stamina would hold up over the demands of a long race on a challenging new circuit. The question was whether Marquez had made his move too early. In truth, once that pass had been made the victory never seemed seriously in doubt. In the aftermath of the race, it was Pedrosa complaining of his arms struggling to meet the rigours of the duel.

This is a result that will have been particularly galling for Pedrosa. Following the retirement from the class of Casey Stoner from the Repsol garage, Pedrosa may have reasonably expected a period of dominance on tracks like Austin that could have been purpose built for the Honda while the young blood beds in. That expectation has been blown apart. This result will have sent a shiver through all of the pack, but none more so than Pedrosa.

That’s enough of the objective analysis of the victory. Here’s the personal bit. Marquez is simply phenomenal. It’s rare that a rider emerges that, from an early point, you simply watch, thunderstruck, and think to yourself ‘He’s going to be a GP champion’. Estoril, 2010, was the moment. The 125 race was red flagged part way through due to rain. On the sighting lap for the reduced sprint, Marquez fell and had to return to the pits. Starting from the back of the grid, in nine laps he carved through the field in majestic style to take the chequered flag and the top of the podium. I can still remember shaking my head in disbelief and thinking this guy is going to be huge. Three years later, he has taken his first MotoGP victory in only his second race.

This was not the most exciting race in the world, certainly not as exciting as the commentators would have had you believe. However, it was probably the most important we’ve witnessed since Lorenzo took his first premier class win at Estoril (that circuit again) in 2008.

The victory leaves Marquez joint top of the standings, alongside Jorge Lorenzo, runaway victor in Qatar, a race enlivened by Valentino Rossi’s charge through the placings to take second. However, I don’t think it’s Vale that will be most exercising Lorenzo’s thoughts right now. Marquez has announced his arrival in emphatic style.

Footnotes: Cal Crutchlow continued his strong start to the season, following a fifth at Qatar, with a fourth in Austin. Not bad for a rider new to the circuit on a satellite Yamaha bike over a rival, Rossi, who had the benefit of both a factory ride and also pre-season testing on the track. Lorenzo has made clear his admiration for Cal. That’s all the endorsement you need.

Footnote Two: On the back straight at the Circuit of the Americas, riders hit almost 340 kph. That’s around 200 miles per hour. Just imagine that for a second. 200 miles per hour. On two wheels. Imagine how that must feel on a body largely unprotected by chassis. Imagine how that must feel with the forces of gravity and wind resistance threatening to rip you from your machine at a moment’s notice. With the formidable forces of braking for corners from those kind of speeds thrown into the mix. The back straight at Austin requires an acceleration from first gear up to sixth and then back down to first. That, there, is human courage writ large. It’s why I love the sport.

That Petrol Emotion – Motor Racing at the BBC

hawthorneAs much as I despise the BBC’s touchy-feely, human interest-led, interactive approach to sport in which everything seems to be a 1980s Top of the Pops party with the heirs of Peter Powell presenting the shows in such a way that the sport is incidental to the promotion of an audience experience as inclusive as possible aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator whose imagined finger is poised on the remote and with a mind wandering to the Jeremy Kyle Show unless an angle can be found that reveals the journey traversed by the sport personality, their pain, their disappointments and their imminent redemption (“How does it feel?”), I loved The Rock and Roll Years. The clarity, the crispness, the sheer bloody confidence to add nothing at all but a music soundtrack to ropy old pictures, made it one of my favourite programmes ever.  Francis Welch had the bleedin’ obvious and bloody genius idea to do that with the BBC’s motor racing archive  – and That Petrol Emotion is the result.

Few sports look better in the old days – football looks too slow, athletes, with one or two exceptions, look like ordinary blokes and you can’t even see the ball half the time in the cricket. But motor racing? Oh motor racing was so much more beautiful, so much more thrilling, so much more alive (even with the Grim Reaper’s finger continually tapping on the windshield) in the old days.

There’s doomed Mike Hawthorn in his bow-tie winning a World Championship and unexpectedly so shy in interview; the nonpareil Fangio, fat and bald but with ice in his veins; the impossibly handsome Stirling Moss chatting to a devilish Colin Chapman; and Jimmy Clark, on his farm tractor, the quiet everyman who might just have been the best of them all. Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart do their turns of course, and there’s a sight or two of the likes of Denny Hulme and Jackie Oliver with James Hunt’s glinting eye and fierce will to come. I haven’t seen Jochen Rindt or Ronnie Peterson yet, but I’ll get upset again when I do.

And the cars! From the curves of the science-fiction machines of the 50s to the sleek lines of the rear-engined 60s F1 missiles to the first experiments with the aerodynamicists’ crazy looking bolted-on wings, every last one of them is a vision – pretty much devoid of sponsors’ logos and identifiably a car. The circuits are also clearly roads or purpose built tracks that look like roads  – kerbs, lamp posts and walls boast a couple of straw bales as protection for a car hitting them at nearly 200mph. Camera positions at the likes of Monaco and Spa are different, so we see unexpected perspectives on old favourites. Fire is an ever-present hazard, but mechanics still smoke in the pits while they ready jerry cans of fuel for the cars.

There’s no omniscient voice to explain, judge or apologise for any of this – just the men (always men) who did so at the time. Raymond Baxter is outrageously posh and paternal, but he knows his stuff (he was a fighter pilot so he knew all about facing down death day after day and a decent rally driver, so he knows the skills required to keep a car on an icy road with the foot down hard). Other raffish middle-aged products of decent public schools and Oxbridge happily describe cars as being like girlfriends, stereotype Italians in a way that would make Paolo Di Canio blush and give the overarching impression that the British are the natural leaders of the world. It’s not so much offensive at this distance as sweetly quaint.

There’s no smart-arsery in cutaways to Jimmy Carr or Miranda Hart to give an ironic glaze and capture the twenty-something demographic, just a willingness to let these grainy, glorious, foolish pictures speak for themselves. It’s not on the i-player because of bloody rights issues of course, but there are clips on the website here and you can still catch some episodes on BBC Four. And you should. You really should.

2013 MotoGP Season Preview – Phil Sawyer

CC looking to get the most out of his ccs
CC looking to get the most out of his ccs

The Tooting Trumpet is delighted to welcome Phil Sawyer to the blog. Here is his piece previewing the 2013 MotoGP season – let’s hope there’s more to come. 

So here we are. At the start of the 2013 MotoGP season. And rare would be the MotoGP fan who isn’t feeling a spine tingling frisson of excitement at the prospect.

2012 was a curious fish of a year. Seasoned followers were anticipating another season of Casey Stoner dominance. Not necessarily with much excitement. But then came Stoner’s unexpected announcement, mid season, of his decision to retire from the class. After that, and compounded by an ankle injury, the fire seemed to go from his belly. Dani Pedrosa produced a late surge that led to six top of the podium finishes in the last eight races, but Mister Consistency Jorge Lorenzo held his nerve and did what needed to be done in racking up the points to take the title without ever quickening the pulse in the manner of previous showings.

This season, however? Already the pulse is quickened. Lets start with the obvious. Valentino Rossi. The Doctor, the GOAT, back on the Yahama M1 that, in his own words, he looked into the eyes of back in Welkom in 2004 and which whispered to him, ‘I love you’. It takes a strong spirit to let go of that kind of love and go in search of a new challenge, although some would question whether he saw his love flirting with the new kid on the block, Lorenzo, and realised her eyes were no longer for him alone. Does it take a stronger spirit to admit, after two failed years at Ducati, that things weren’t working and to return in the hope of rekindling that romance? The jury is probably divided on that one (Stoner, certainly, has strong opinions, and not complimentary ones, about Vale’s decision to return to Yamaha). For what it’s worth, I think it took a fair swallowing of pride on Vale’s part to admit defeat and return to Yamaha. And what motorcycling fan in the world can fail to think the world is a slightly better place to see Rossi once more at the sharp end of things on the timing screen.

Of course, things have moved on in the Yamaha garage in the meantime. Yamaha Managing Director Lin Jarvis has made it clear that, while both riders will be given equal footing, double world champion Lorenzo will be treated as developmental lead, and that he is now seen as the most likely to add to Yamaha’s titles. Pronouncements from all parties so far have been excruciatingly cordial. Which would lead the seasoned MotoGP follower to conclude that it won’t take much for tensions on both sides of the garage to rise, especially given that early season testing suggests that there’s not much in it timings’ wise. With none of the pitwall radio communications that so blight Formula One regarding team instructions available in MotoGP, it should only take a couple of wheel to wheel incidents to awaken old tensions.

Away from the Yamaha garage, Dani Pedrosa’s performances in the latter half on the 2012 season on the Repsol Honda have led a number of MotoGP commentators to suggest that 2013 could be Pedrosa’s year. So often betrayed by a fragile, brittle body that seems to suffer more than most from the crashes one can only expect when racing two wheels at such high speeds, if Pedrosa can stay on his bike many are predicting that this could finally be the year he transfers so many years of promise into a championship win. Pre-season testing times have only added to this view. However, there’s an elephant in the room, in the shape of the (very young) man who has stepped into Stoner’s seat.

Marc Marquez has produced perhaps the greatest buzz in MotoGP since Rossi’s early days, eclipsing even Lorenzo’s step up into the top class. World Championships at 125 and Moto2 class, but more than that it was the nature of these triumphs. A racer whose sheer audacity of move and breathtaking ability to carve through a field is unparalleled in many a year, his style not only draws comparison with Rossi but also with the occasionally headstrong but always exciting, and still sadly missed, Marco Simoncelli. A product of the Repsol Honda garage, his progression to premier class of the sport feels natural and deserved. Again, timings have suggested he does not feel overawed by mixing it with the big boys, and I’d be very surprised if podiums did not beckon in 2013.

Elsewhere, Andrea Dovizioso’s early showing has suggested that maybe Stoner wasn’t the only one who could ride that damn Ducati, and Alvaro Bautista on the Gresini Honda has shown promising pace. However I’ve saved, from the English bike fan’s point of view, the best until last. Cal Crutchlow has gone from strength to strength. On a satellite bike, he has taken the Tech 3 Yamaha and thrust it right in the middle of the factory riders. Building on a couple of podium finishes last season, he has, perhaps, benefited from the knowledge (and subsequent support) that becoming undisputed team leader has afforded him. Surprising many in his first two years with the pace he dragged out of the Tech 3 (and outperforming last year his former Tech 3 team mate, the factory team favoured, but subsequently dropped, Ben Spies), in pre-season this year his pace has been extraordinary, culminating in topping the timing screens in the final test, above all the factory riders (form that he continued into the first free practice of the Qatar Grand Prix, second and under 71 thousandths of a second behind Lorenzo in first).

As someone who remembers standing at the Mountain at Cadwell Park, watching Crutchlow power his flame spitting Rizla Suzuki around the circuit in British Superbikes not that many years ago, his progression has been quite extraordinary. And so, despite my love for Rossi, Lorenzo, Pedrosa and the young kid on the block Marquez, I know who’ll have me cheering on his every move during the forthcoming 2013 season. Staying on his bike while pushing hard, a problem that has blighted his first two seasons in MotoGP, will be the largest obstacle for Cal to hurdle. I just hope I haven’t jinxed him.

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – La Course en Tete

EddyThe man who was so often The Leader of the Pack (La Course en Tete) was Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist in history and, it must be said, an astonishingly beautiful human being. Joel Santoni’s film tells us that and much else, but leaves the enigma of the man as impenetrable as ever.

Starting with the pain of defeat – much the greatest pain shown on Merckx’s notoriously impassive face over the next two hours – in the controversial 1973 World Championship (causing a rift with Freddy Maertens that has never really healed), the film traces the contrasts of joy and pain in Merckx’s life on the road and at home. There’s the joy of family life with Claudine and kids and the pain of crashes on the track and road; there’s the joy of reflection on victories and the pain of the muscles being brought back to life by his loyal soigneur; there’s the pain of doping allegations (ever so briefly raised and dropped) and the joy of the jerseys and trophies accumulated by the man who could bear pain better than any other.

It’s in the details that the film excels. Bikes are perfect triangles of thinnest steel tubing, obviously designed on graph paper with a ruler and pencil. Team jerseys are of lightweight wool, with sponsor’s names etched in such continental calligraphy. Riders are free of helmets and sunglasses, their sacrifices on climbs and in sprints lain bare before our eyes. Crowds crowd the riders, on the roads and at the finishes. Everyone wants a piece of Merckx, many literally swiping his hat and anything else as he is consumed by an adoring public and jealous Italians.

We learn little of Merckx the man. That he hated losing is hardly a revelation nor that he obsessed over his bikes, fetishising the components, fiddling with saddle heights and cassettes, watching mechanics like a hawk, partly to make sure they did their jobs with the same single-mindedness as he did his and partly (one suspects) in envy for their shelter from the public and their long hours in the sole company of bicycles.

Of the rider, there’s ample evidence for his nickname, “The Cannibal”. He pushes big gears up mountains riding tempo until there is nobody left on his wheel and then rides tempo to the finish to win with a momentary smile. His style is reminiscent of Jan Ullrich in his glory days. At other times, he looks ugly on the bike, out of the saddle and over the handlebars, fighting against the gradient – like Cadel Evans trying to suck a wheel. In time trials, he attacks the course, showing it no respect, dismissing it from under his wheels – like Fabian Cancellara at his best. We see Merckx winning sprints, but there’s no evidence of a real jump, more the relentless ability to go faster than anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.

As ever when a camera is pointed at the Giro or the Tour, there are breathtaking landscapes through which the cyclists ride and some fantastic shots of the kind of medieval towns through which the Giro passes every year. The best shots have the more terrible beauty of the mountains, especially descents in rain, even full storms, in which Merckx shows that he may have gone uphill like Ullrich, but he descends like Pantani – Merckx was a bike handler nonpareil.

There’s a lot wrong with the film – the music is ill-judged and intrusive and the cuts from massage to the day’s climb are too cliched – but it is a remarkable chronicle of a remarkable man at a time when cycling, with its grands tours and monuments, was undeniably foreign, untouched by the familiarity that comes with global sponsors, live television and cheap air travel. The footage is but forty years or so old and Merckx himself isn’t yet 70, but one is looking in on a world gone forever. It is to M. Santoni’s credit that he brings so much of that world to the screen.

You can see La Course en Tete by clicking here.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – Pour un Maillot Jaune

Pour_un_maillot_jaune_VHs_coverWith the discourse of sport on television so settled – linear narrative, repeats of key moments, a focus on stars, endless expert analysis, real-time on-screen information graphics – and the few attempts to step outside such confines usually producing something that might just get a 2.2 at a mid-range film school, Pour un Maillot Jaune stands as not merely the best documentary about cycling, but the best documentary about sport. It is an astonishing piece of work that improves on every viewing – from my first sighting of it on Channel Four in the mid-80s to its DVD giveaway with a Cycle Sport subscription in the 90s, to its posting on youtube in 2009.

Filmed (and the film is so obvious the slippery brown stuff and not even video, never mind digital recording – at times, you can almost hear it clicking through the camera) in black and white and colour, with music, noises and silence as its soundtrack, the 1965 Tour is captured in a series of short sequences, packed with detail. Here’s a puffed-up local maire, cutting the ribbon to start a stage, milking his moment in the limelight while the riders lean on their bikes, bored. There’s a priest blessing the peloton in a scene, like so many others, that is so very, very French. And here’s a Johnny Hallyday wannabe entertaining the locals late at night with the town en fete after the arrival of the Tour.

These colour scenes are so densely populated and come at the viewer at such a pace, that the film grows into a mosaic of images, each complete in and of itself, but also forming a synthetic whole. One feels inside the chaos of the Tour, carried away in its carnivalesque caravan, catching a cough as Gitane smoke curls on the breeze.

As if that wasn’t enough, the film also captures the lot of the men on the road. On motorbikes, photographers balance precariously to get their shots while others drift off to sleep, heads resting on the backs of their drivers. Under a fierce sun, an official leaps from his car to immerse himself in the cool, cool water of a roadside canal, before racing back behind his huge 60s steering wheel as the peloton cruises past. Journalists interview riders and babble into mics for the benefit of radio listeners – noise everywhere.

The riders are almost incidental in this circus, but not quite. They tick over on the flat roads along the seaside near Cannes, suffer on what looks like an ascent of the Galibier, stop to fill bidons at village square fountains and fall from the top of a mountain pass to the valley at terrifying speeds. Unhelmeted, gaunt and with haircuts that Elvis would recognise from his days as a GI, they look more like James Dean style film stars than sportsmen. None are identified, but it’s easy to spot the likes of Tom Simpson, Raymond Poulidor and race winner, Felice Gimondi and those timeless team jerseys – Peugeot, Pelforth, Kas, Mercier, Ford and Molteni.

Ultimately, the real stars of the show are director Claude Lelouch and editor Claude Barrois. Lelouch finds unique angles to reveal the terrible beauty of the Tour. He contrasts the speed of the race with the heavy, heated air of high summer in rural France. He portrays the intimacy of the relationship of rider and soigneur. He shows us the great physical pain of a rider on the limit and the greater mental pain of the rider past the limit and in the broom wagon.

More than any other sport, cycling has the character of performance art, a rolling exhibition in praise of man’s capacity to tame his environment and the environment’s capacity to hit back. Pour un Maillot Jaune shows more of the Tour in 30 minutes than you will see in three weeks this summer – despite television’s superb coverage. It really is that good.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage

RRIt’s sat on my shelf for over a decade. Unlike the back copies of Procycling and Cycle Sport in the loft and under the bed, it didn’t grow so distant so quickly, as chronicles of the near past so often do. It had no photos of fallen heroes, no photos of those heroes not yet fallen, no photos of those who may be heroes yet (Boardman, Obree and Lemond and…). But I hadn’t read it, hadn’t wanted to break the spell woven by the voices of David Duffield and Phil Liggett (“IT’S ROCHE!”), hadn’t wanted to know what I merely believed. After reading David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins last weekend, the time had come to pick up its precursor.

For a while, it’s rather an ordinary, almost apologetic, read. Kimmage wants to emulate his father and win bike races – he soon does, and joins three other Irishmen, giants of 80s cycling Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly and fellow domestique Martin Earley on the continental pro circuit. There’s some laddish banter, some old bastard managers with hearts of gold (and plenty without) and some minor successes. The only unusual aspect of this rise to the middle is the author, a spiky young man, quick to judge (but usually right) with a gift for observation and recording that marked a talent for writing that had much more potential than his talent for bike racing. (Though he was no loser on the bike – he did his job and he did it well)

Then suddenly, the curtain is drawn and we’re ushered into the murky enclaves of professional cycling. It’s a looking glass world in which those not taking a “charge” are the immoral ones, letting down their mates. There’s the vicious weeding out of the “weak” of body and mind by the managers’, by the fan’s, by the sport’s insatiable desire to win. And there’s the brutality of the races: long miles in the cold, up and down mountains, day after day in which the losers are not those placed behind the winner, but those who get off – it’s as close to gladiatorial combat as is legal, and, boy, did we love it for that. People, as they do, learn to cope – the riders ran for the shelter of the pro cyclists’ little helper.

Kimmage didn’t want that. He remained as true as he could to his romantic image of what cycling could be. He weakened as far as the strong stuff three times in the narrative, but not to win – to survive. Even as clean as he was, hs story is an unedifying tale of needles in bums, suppositories up bums and of dodging the Keystone Kops of the doping controls. Don’t put your daughter (or son) in a stage Mrs Worthington.

Eventually he has had enough of the whole thing and swaps sitting behind the handlebars for sitting behind a computer – and, to his genuine surprise, discovers that he’s a better writer than rider. The diary pieces after stages of the Tour and the Giro are vivid portraits of life on the road, made all the more powerful by being headed by that day’s stage winner and maillot jaune – men never referred to in each day’s account. They might as well have been on another planet – often they were.

23 years after its first publication, the book has little to reveal to the cycling fan who has had eyes to see – cycling’s stars have often been treated like Chuck Connors in Branded. Through those 23 long years, Kimmage (like David Walsh) has been ostracised for “spitting in the soup”, speaking truth to power and challenge the alliances of sponsors, cyclists, managers, doctors and administrators who needed the show to go on, despite all that they knew. He lost friendships and found himself sued by his heroes for talking about a hit of amphetamine on the road, the setting up of a few criteriums and the occasional oiling of inter-team alliances with money – all stuff every cycling fan knew about and largely accepted. I know I did.

Now a journalist, he and Walsh began to find out about stuff stronger than that taken at most nightclubs in Europe. Hormone supplements are only hinted at in Rough Ride, but the genie was already out of bottle. EPO was allowing the riders to fly ever closer to the sun and to fall ever further if they got it wrong, as the blood thickened and the heart just couldn’t pump it. Kimmage’s book was a warning to the future and it was largely ignored by those with the power to do anything about it. And we know where that story ended last month.

Today David Walsh has revealed that he will live with Team Sky this season – the troll no longer under the bridge, but at the heart of cycling’s Number One team. His insider’s tale will be quite different from Kimmage’s – but did there have to be so many casualties laid out on the road between them? The UCI may have to answer that question very soon – and I hope Paul Kimmage is among the inquisitors.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

Seven Deadly Sins My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh

The author, standing, with Pierre Ballester, Emma O'Reilly and Betsy Andreu in the boat.
The author, standing, with Pierre Ballester, Emma O’Reilly and Betsy Andreu in the boat.

From the moment David Walsh watched Lance Armstrong riding the Tour de France 1999 prologue and thought (no, not thought, knew) something wasn’t right, his life became consumed with an Ahabish obsession to slay the biggest fish in cycling’s, perhaps even sport’s, waters. Seven Deadly Sins is his account of how he played his part in Lance’s eventual evisceration and of why he so doggedly pursued the man who had cut him away from his innocent love of professional cycling – a sport the external terrible beauty of which hid an internal terrible horror.

In the early 80s, Walsh was smitten by the sport and its stars – especially fellow Irishmen, the sprinter-turned-Classics-hardman Sean Kelly, the softly spoken Dubliner Stephen Roche and the kid trying to make it, Paul Kimmage. He was soon travelling with the circus, reporting Le Tour and other big races for the Sunday Times and getting his first glimpse of cycling’s unseen world, with the rattle of the pill box in the back pocket, the contempt with which those that rode on “bread and water” were held by the “committed” and cancerous effect of doping on the souls of those that did not dope (and thus lost) and those that did dope (and thus lied). The love faded and the journalist’s instinct for a story took over. David Walsh was no longer in the cycling game, he was in the doping game and he was going to tell that story, come hell or high water. From 1999, it was not about the bike.

The book captures much of the loneliness of the life Walsh chose. Who wanted this journalist to spit in the soup? Not the cyclists, the vast majority of whom knew what was required, and did what was required, without breaking the omerta. Not his fellow journalists, most of whom were as besotted as Walsh had been before the scales fell from his eyes – anyway, their jobs depended on access to riders and such access could be denied. And not the administrators either, whose monuments tottered on piles of used syringes, too plentiful to deal with – take one too many of those riders’ little helpers away and the whole lot might come crashing down.

Walsh’s moral compass never faltered and he began to find allies, find men and women who would talk, each disgusted in their own way about how cycling had been hollowed out by cynics and charlatans. Men and women as spiky and fearless as Walsh, found a confessor and scribe in the Irishman, a man who would listen and believe and, unlike so many others, act. In turn, Walsh got support from his editor over years when readers’ letters stacked up telling him that the punters didn’t want to know.

And there was good reason for so many who suspected (and the few that knew) to keep their heads down. There wasn’t just the carrot of money, glory and glamour for those who went along with the spectacle, but the stick of banishment for those who associated with “the troll” Walsh. Journalists were sued (Walsh and colleague Pierre Ballester’s book LA Confidentiel is not available in the UK for fear of libel), whistleblowers like Christophe Bassons were forced out of the peloton and many veiled and unveiled threats were issued by men with the power to make good on them.

Slowly Walsh found more like Kimmage – those who had been on the inside and knew what went on behind the closed doors of anonymous hotels at races and training camps. Honest men like Italian coach Sandro Donati led him to Professor Francesco Conconi, a man very interested in the impact of blood composition on athletic performance, and on further to Conconi’s protege, Michele Ferrari, Lance Armstrong’s long-time adviser, and doctor to many successful cyclists – and believer in EPO’s danger being equivalent to that of orange juice. Walsh’s contempt for the medics with their “training programmes”, their lists with the code names, is greater than that he bears towards the cyclists – except Lance.

If contempt runs through the book as the grotesque freakshow’s scale grows and grows, there’s love too. Donati is praised, but that is as nothing compared to Walsh’s platonic love of two women – Betsy Andreu and Emma Reilly. Betsy, wife of ex-Armstrong team-mate and friend Frankie Andreu, was fired by a zealous sense of right and wrong as it affected her and her husband. She would not stand for Frankie doing drugs and she would not lie for Lance – she told Walsh that Lance had admitted to using PEDs in hospital during his cancer treatment. She also lent Walsh some of her indomitable spirit just when he needed it. Emma Reilly was Lance’s soigneur and confidante – she was on the inside and happy to tell anyone who would listen and sod the consequences. (Both women clearly liked Lance – a man who could be monstrous, especially when threatened, but who could be charming, decent and good company in a world where the testosterone didn’t just come in hypodermics).

The feeling that something wasn’t right in 1999 had grown into a case against Lance that resided in that space that eats at the soul of the journalist – strong enough to convince any reasonable editor, but not strong enough to stand up in a court. Walsh’s evidence had been compiled over years, but still Lance could, and did, say that he had never failed a test (at least not one he couldn’t make disappear). And for all the rickety worthlessness of so many of the drug protocols, plenty did fail tests – that, and the fact that Lance only really rode to win on five days of the year, made me believe in the Armstrong cult for too long. Roll in the despicable bullying of those who suggested that cycling’s Emperor had no clothes and it becomes easy to see how this big lie lasted so long and why it took a state-backed agency and Floyd Landis’ ethical crisis and flatly damning confession, to provide the smoking gun and see the seven jerseys lowered at long last.

Seven Deadly Sins shows signs of being a somewhat hurried in its publishing (it really should have an index) and there are occasional stylistic ticks that grate a little – I just can’t abide the one sentence paragraph – but what it loses in polish, it more than compensates in its fiery righteousness. Walsh had the energy of a lover scorned – cycling had done that to him – and he had his small coterie of believers which took on the characteristics of a terrorist cell, plotting and planning to explode truths in a sprawling landscape of deceit. I’ve written of my own feelings about Armstrong here, and, 400+ pages later, little has changed on that score. But I have a newly revived respect for those that dare to stand up for their beliefs, for those that won’t be browbeaten nor warned off, for those who refuse the easy option in full knowledge that the harder option will be very hard indeed. And, not for the first time and not for the last, I am reminded that – even in these media saturated days (perhaps because of these media saturated days) – the best place to hide is in the full glare of the spotlight.

(This review will also be published at Made Good. Thanks to Michael Beattie for the gift of the book).

Sport, decency and Lance Armstrong

LA JUIs it possible to divorce the man (or woman) from the work? In the arts, does it diminish the work of Amedeo Modigliani, of Phil Spector, of Alfred Hitchcock to know that these men were, shall we say, dysfunctional? What links the creator with their work – specifically with the public’s reception of their work –  has long been a subject that has fascinated me and remains one of the Ph.Ds I’ll never write.

There’s a parallel in sport of course – any field of endeavour will throw up idols with feet of clay – but what will the fans, will the sport, will I, accept? The torrent of “wise after the event” pieces on Lance Armstrong has provoked me to consider questions I’d rather avoid.

I loved cycling, really, really loved it. The terrible beauty of the lands to be conquered , the history honoured in words and images, the vast canvases of the sport’s monuments – Grands Tours, Classics and the pursuit of the Rainbow Jersey. And it was not (as I heard claimed earlier this week) peopled by men who had turned their bodies into machines, the better to engine their bikes to the finish line. Cycling, like cricket, could go hours with little of note and then an attack, a section of pavé, a turn of a corner into the face of the Mur de Huy, and ten seconds of lapsed concentration could cost a day’s race, a month’s Tour, a year’s preparation. The mind, and an iron will, counted more than the physical powers of these superhuman sportsmen.

But I knew there was something wrong, something that was of an order of wrongness that placed cycling beyond what I tolerated elsewhere. It wasn’t just the physical impact of the drugs – like fans of many sports, I’d accepted “in competition” tragedies like Tommy Simpson’s horrific demise on  the brutal Ventoux and Fabio Casartelli’s accident as part of the game, mourned though The Fallen are) – increasingly, insistently, the mental impact of cycling’s deceitful culture was worrying me. The death of Jose Maria Jimenez shook me and then, just a few weeks later, the appalling fate of my hero for so long, Marco Pantani, cut me to the quick. It was no surprise, a few years later, to  read that another hero was gone – mad Frank Vandenbroucke, whose victory in the 1999 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was the most sensational in all those years of watching Eurosport in the company of David Duffield and Sean Kelly.

And every July, there was Le Tour, the centrepiece of every summer with its shimmering sunlight, its swaying sunflowers and its shootouts in the mountain stages. My fascination with it had started in about 1984 with Lucho Herrera and the Cafe de Colombia boys attack, attack, attack in the mountains and gone through, undiminished, into the Armstrong era. I read Cycle Sport and Procycling every month and eschewed the highlights programmes – I was hardcore and watched from Depart to Fin, if Eurosport allowed.

And I believed in Lance Armstrong. I’d seen him win the Rainbow Jersey at 21 in appalling conditions in Oslo; I’d read the cancer book; I knew about his weighing of his food, his recces of the key stages; his sole focus on Le Tour to the exclusion of the classics. The question was not, “How could this man win Le Tour?”, it was “How could this man not win Le Tour?” And there was the competitor too: the winner’s ability to see the moment and take it (“The Look”); the fierce pride in performance (the charge back from sprawling on the tarmac to win the stage into Luz Ardiden); and the bike handling (the detour through the field after Beloki’s crash). Sure there were the doubters – journalists with stories to sell, competitors with names to make, and, much harder to ignore, Number Two in my list of cycling heroes, Greg Lemond, who did not believe at all.

But I did believe – even after I gave up my emotional investment in cycling (and my financial investment in the magazine subscriptions) when Tyler Hamilton was caught (another in the list of heroes). It was probably only a couple of years ago that I was able to say out loud that I did not believe in Lance – it just couldn’t be that the only unjuiced cyclist in those youtube clips of a decade or so ago was the man who kept winning could it? No it couldn’t.

Now the truth I was late to accept is admitted, I have more troubling, more general thoughts to consider. I’ve always accepted that sports’ stars are different to the rest of us – on so many parameters, they have to be at the end of the bell curve. Sitting out there on the edge of the distribution is not a recipe for an easygoing personality, for the kind of person who makes a great boss or perfect company over a pint, but when does the understanding stop and the condemnation begin? If I can shrug my shoulders at Lance Armstrong’s drug abuse – though I feel an undiminished anger on behalf of every sportsman or sportswoman robbed of victory by cheats – I can’t shrug away the bullying, the vindictiveness, the hypocrisy. I know that living a lie eats at the soul, but Armstrong’s bullying of journalists, ex-colleagues and competitors was of an order beyond what even that torment can forgive. The apologies and the court cases will follow and truth and reconciliation is the only way to deal with such pain for those involved, but what of me, what of us cheering on the heroes, buying the merchandise, making sport what it is?

Can we accept that Armstrong’s bullying is just part of the game and that his victims should, as the empty phrase has it, “man up”? If we say No, what does that mean for free speech, for media regulation, for the PR that creates and destroys the heroes and villains in turn? I’ve been ridiculed for saying that I would not have wanted Sir Alex Ferguson as manager of Everton as I find his bullying unacceptable – and I would say the same about Jose Mourinho. And what of someone I would have wanted at Everton: Brian Clough? His treatment of Justin Fashanu was monstrous. The list could go on and on and on.

Sport sorts winners from losers and we demand that everything be done in service of victory (most of us, but not all, adding a caveat of “within the rules” and some of us adding “within the spirit of the game too”). The scope for bullies to use the ruthlessness we demand in execution of their skills for ends much more destructive is vast and judgments about such behaviour will always be subjective and tinged with a self-righteousness that grates. Post-Lance, I shall feel more comfortable occupying the high moral ground – and I suspect I shan’t be alone in that. Being a decent loser isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – The Conformist

Twenty-odd years ago, there was still an art house cinema in Wardour Street, then a hive of post-production studios and film production offices. Intrigued by the poster (right) and with not much else to do having had a late breakfast at Maison Bertaux, bought my month’s coffee at Angelucci’s  and chatted to the staff in Ally Capellino whilst wondering if I could afford another one of her rough tweed jackets, I paid £2.50 or so and went in, possibly the only punter at the afternoon show.

What I saw was astonishing. As if the plot wasn’t riveting enough – half-hearted misfit fascist half-heartedly joins secret police, half-heartedly marries a nymphomaniac then half-heartedly pursues his mission target’s icy wife before assassination and a shattering denouement in the ruins of post-Mussolini Rome. The film was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Having had a mother working in a cinema and being a regular visitor to The Scala, The Lumiere and The Renoir, I’d seen a lot of films and on proper big screens too. I’d seen Heaven’s Gate, Comrades and Days of Heaven and god knows how many other aesthetically ravishing movies. But I didn’t think photography was art – not like the stuff Cezanne, Picasso and Rothko did – it was a technique, a craft, an adjunct to the story that was told in the acting or the writing. The Conformist rather exploded that prejudice.

Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro sustain art, real art, frame after frame through two hours – at the fourth time of watching, I still feel the urge to freeze the film just to look at the image before me. An obvious allegory for the repressive fascist society they portray, Bertolucci crowds scene after scene with straight lines, dividing the images, corralling human beings into artificial, arbitrary divisions. Light is separated by blinds, filtered through the lead criss-crossing high windows and slashed by tall thin trees. And what light! There is no warmth in the flat late afternoon watery winter rays, no illumination from chandeliers bouncing off the floors of faux classical marble halls and no light at all for the blind fascist propaganda broadcaster.

In a towering performance, Jean-Louis Trintignant’s pinched, unsmiling features give away nothing and, in so doing, give away everything. He is magnificently amoral in his confessional, done to please his wife to be (a turn from Stafania Sandrelli in which her physical beauty is slowly undermined and finally destroyed by her poverty of imagination) and he is so weak, so weak. It is cinema’s greatest portrayal of moral cowardice – a state of mind that must be as big a challenge as can face an actor. What stops us hating Trintignant’s character completely is the glimpse offered of the man he could be, as he cackhandedly attempts to seduce Dominique Sanda, the bored, bisexual wife of his anti-fascist target. Mme Sanda is reminiscent in looks, dress and sexual power of the young Lee Miller and about as hard to take one’s eyes off.

With art deco fashions and objects everywhere and the Hotel (now Musee) d’Orsay looking as austere and grand as ever it has, Paris  and Rome have never been served as well by cameras. With clear memories of the locations in my mind’s eye, their contemporary connection with the slow burn towards war is sharper than ever and more than a little chilling as Europe again fractures, crying out for moral courage in its leaders.

The Conformist, made in 1970 but looking like it could have been made yesterday, is a film like no other – teak hard and uncompromising in its plot, unimproveable in its performances and stunning, just stunning to behold.

Going to Sea in a Sieve The Autobiography by Danny Baker – Review

Nobody’s going to argue with that Dan!

If you can conjure a working class, smart and savvy Bertie Wooster, then you can conjure Danny Baker. Sure it’s hard to do (perhaps only the man himself can really pull it off) but his autobiography makes the task much easier. As ever with The Candyman, the mosaic of anecdotes, jokes and “rib-tickling plays on words” leaves little for us other than to sit back and raise a chuckle, a skeptical eyebrow and (occasionally) one’s entire self up to applaud the sheer brio of the man.

His idyllic inner-city childhood, stacked as high as a 70s Fine Fare’s baked beans display with dangers, poor role models and the exhilaration of innocence treasured then swiftly foregone, overflows with details of dreadful delights. Here our man describing his best friend’s Maltese father – “Smoking roll-ups the circumference of an ant’s leg, he would throw his arms wide and jabber at us kids about urgent world events as though he had stumbled across us playing chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg”. There’s classic Baker right there – the Wodehousean simile, the perfectly chosen verb jabber, and the startling geographical and cultural shift from a Bermondsey estate to the lee of the Eiffel Tower.  How he’ll hate the Ph.D theses that will, if they haven’t already, cite his work.

Baker’s father dominates these early years (and later years too, if less insistently). Something of a whirlwind that could blow good or ill, he was a docker, a ducker and diver and a dream to be on the right side of. There’s plenty of the self-sufficiency of working class life built on mores forged in the war(s) resulting in the shared (though never codified in religion, law or (especially) regulations) mysterious sense of right and wrong. Petty fraud, backhanders and bunce oiled the wheels of an economy that everyone had an interest in preserving – except the growing ranks of those for whom order was as strong a drug as disorder was for the likes of Baker (père et fils) and plenty more on “the estate”. Fans of our man’s radio work will be familiar with some of the stories, but how could anyone tire of the antics of the Bakers’ dog, who would surely have been a more natural TV personality than even its loving master. For all the joy bouncing out of the text, there’s some darkness too – regrets about incidents at school in which he was associated, if not complicit, and (later) impatience with the bone-headed nihilism of a punk rock audience.

As you could do in the 70s, Baker simply walked out of school before sitting any exams, in order to seek his fortune by (essentially) being Danny Baker. Already having mastered the art of knowing enough to know when to reveal that one is knowing and when to withhold such information (extremely useful for a working class lad mixing it with middle class girls and gays), he inherits a job in the hippest of record shops whose customers include those who would be described these days as ITK and stars (and superstars) of the explosion of British musical talent between Woodstock and Westwood (Vivienne). Surrounded (and trusted) by a gay subculture, he learned the invaluable lesson of running multiple personalities for different situations, and how intensely attractive it was to girls in the 70s (and in the 80s too, believe me) to hint at a little gayness in one’s own make-up, despite its total absence. He effected a tour-de-force in becoming “David Essex’s brother” as a time when such a connection was a very hard currency in the dating market.

From there, it’s on to music fanzine, Sniffin’ Glue and the NME where his smart-arsery fitted, even if his disenchantment with punk and instant dismissal of worthy intellectualism didn’t. I read NME cover to cover about that time and can still recall treatise like Paul Morley’s on The Police but I also loved the silly stories (many simply made up by Baker to amuse himself and the other writers) and the dazzling captions and headlines (at over thirty years distance, “Are Trends Eclectic?”  above a review of Tubeway Army’s first hit has the stamp of Baker all over it and is still brilliant). There are tales of being on the road with Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Darts and Sham 69 and (of course) the famous encounter with Michael Jackson before, just as London Weekend Television hoves into view with wheelbarrows of cash for you guessed it, being Danny Baker, the book finishes. There’s one allusion to “the next book”, so we’ll have to wait for the telly, the radio and the football, of which there is almost nothing in this volume, but we’ll probably wait in vain for the chemo – which is how it should be.

With expectations high (how I would love to have Baker’s knowledge of popular culture, his command of language and fearless self-assurance in the value of a working class upbringing – in fact, I do have all that, just not to that extent) – Going to Sea in a Sieve is just a tinge disappointing. Sure it’s full of laugh lines and wit, but there’s little really new for Baker’s hordes of devotees. His father is portrayed in glorious technicolor, but many other characters who would surely benefit from the Baker treatment, are somewhat skated over, cast too quickly as walk-ons in the biopic. It’s not the man’s style to stick the knife in and I wasn’t expecting an Angeresque “Bermondsey Babylon”, but I’d happily have read a slab of 532 pages, if we could have had double the word count on Nick Kent, Kosmo Vinyl and dozens more who come and go so quickly on and off the page.

No doubt some will be irritated by the writer’s disregard for the hypocrisy of typically English self-effacement (though he does reveal more insecurities than I expected) and others will bridle, flinging the book down with a “Well, it’s all right for you to say that” indignation at his attitude to the acquisition and disposal of money, but, as became evident when he announced his cancer, Baker is, whether he likes it or not, a national treasure.

I’ll be buying Volume II the moment it’s published.

No more tears?

No more tears

The day of Diana’s funeral, with my baby son in a pushchair, I walked through deserted streets to my local police station to enquire about marking up my newly acquired racing bike. The cops were crowded round a television and suggested that I might do the same thing. I walked home through the eerie quiet – and didn’t.

Since that week, an unbounded vicarious emotional reaction to individual successes and failures has become not just commonplace, but expected. Usually, I would “So what?” this away, with a nod to the heirs of Lynda Lee Potter wondering again if there can be an easier way to make a living than Glendaing. But The Olympics has brought this discourse into sport, previously a brutally meritocratic haven from the cheap manipulations of the likes of prime-time TV talent shows.

Granted, the pathos was always there to some extent – although the most obvious example (Bob Champion’s and Aldaniti’s Grand National success in 1981) was played as a sports story with an added human interest dimension – at least until the biopic. Extraordinary tales of sporting heroism: Bert Trauttmann’s Cup Final broken neck; Niki Lauda’s return from the last rites to contest the 1976 World Drivers Championship; Sir Steve Redgrave’s health issues – all were sports stories first and foremost. Consequently, they, and countless other sports stories, provoked a sports fan’s response – wonder, joy, admiration – but not lip wobbles, not Toy Story / ET style lumps in throats, not tears.

Prior to the Games, the BBC was milking the human interest angles for all they were worth. Tom Daley and Victoria Pendleton are fine athletes with charisma to burn, but that doesn’t mean that “their” documentaries couldn’t focus on a bereavement and the fallout from a workplace love affair – difficult, but hardly unique events in lives.

The films helped turn these athletes’ Games into something more like National Velvet than Olympia. On their own terms – engaging a wider audience than just sports fans, enhancing the “viewer experience”, building the athletes’ images – the approach taken in these two instances (and their may be more I missed) has been wildly successful, a key element in the “Greatest Games” narrative drowning out all countervailing views.

Two inevitable consequences flow from this paradigm shift in mainstream British sports broadcasting  – the roots of which lie in Sky’s hoovering up of live and exclusive   rights as much as in Dianaification bleeding through all public discourse.

The first is the expectation that sport must be sold through emotional backstories of overcoming individual challenges. Expect researchers to be out there now finding rags to riches tales; illnesses overcome and tragic relatives for FIFA World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016. Sporting excellence – more than ever the result of arcane science and behind closed doors grind – will now never be deemed enough for the general (ie non-subscription channel paying) viewer again.

The second consequence is that the remarkably heroic, genuinely extraordinary backstory –  the standout of the outstanding – has its currency devalued. How many knew of Mo Farah’s bullying at school, his slow, slow rise through the ranks, his bold decision to go into purdah in order to train with the very best? And, amidst all the faux outrage about not singing anthems and tears, tears and more tears in victory and defeat, who heard his steel sharp response to the question about representing Somalia at London 2012? “Look mate. This is my country”.

Those six words – for all the greatness of other performances, the heroism of other competitors, the authenticity of other reactions – pierce the Hollywoodisation of sport and, like Mo’s response on the back straight when a second kick was required for double gold, shows that sport can still do what it always has done – savagely cut the crap. It’s how I like my sport, but I fear I shall soon be in as small a minority as I was the day I failed to be tearful at Diana’s funeral.