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

Published November 3, 2013 by tootingtrumpet
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.

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London – Paris – Rome Day One

Published October 30, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

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.

Spartacus Vengeance – the final report card.

Published April 4, 2012 by tootingtrumpet

Gannicus' bid to stop the slaughter.

Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) – Showed cunning, mettle and cojones in defining the charismatic leader and, when needed, showed he still had the heart to exact an up close and personal revenge on Glaber for all his moral high-minded morality. McIntyre could never match Andy Whitfield’s tour-de-force in Blood and Sand, but he didn’t need to for a role in which he was like a street magician with all the drama coming in the reactions of those near him. 

Gaius Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker) – Hubris overcame him – as we always knew it would – but not before he had shown a searingly ruthless streak previously more spoken of than relied upon. Had a small part (arf, arf) in a signature Spartacus scene that saw off the annoying Seppia, to everyone’s relief.

Crixus (Manu Bennett) – Having driven the plot in the first five episodes, the mighty Gaul took a backseat in the second half of the series, but was still compelling whenever on camera. The range of demands placed on Manu Bennett’s acting over the three series has been extraordinary and it is to his enormous credit that Crixus was always Crixus – and we loved him for it. 

Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) – So it turned out that she was bonkers after all. Not before Lucy Lawless had made us think something different about Lucretia every time she was hove into view never fully present, but never fully absent either. No wonder even a fellow schemer like Illythia could not see through to her true intentions and her unyielding commitment to Batiatus.

Illythia (Viva Bianca) – Raged against everyone and everything and suffered – deliciously – before even her nose for self-survival let her down. Never lost the murderous streak that ran through her like Spartacus’ sword ran through her husband, but was matched when Lucretia’s one big lie trumped her many small deceits.  

Oenamaus (Peter Mensah) – With very little screen time and few words of dialogue, Peter Mensah made us love Oenamaus more than ever, as he slowly recognised Gannicus’ remorse and forgave a man exacting a greater punishment on himself than even Doctore’s weapons could inflict. He fell for his brothers – and leaves a huge gap come Series Four.   

Ashur (Nick Tarabay) – The biggest disappointment of Vengeance, Ashur – the sharpest brain of them all – was blinded by lust and ambition and walked to his death with barely a whimper. I would love to have seen Ashur as double agent, playing one side against the other, the amoral pivot between Spartacus’ dreams of freedom and Glaber’s fascistic worship of Rome. What a missed opportunity from a writing team that got so much right. 

Mira (Katrina Law) – As gladiatorial as any gladiator, but as fragile as Blood and Sand’s Spartacus was in his conversations with Varro, Mira stood equal to any of Spartacus’ lieutenants before she caught the blade intended for her lover / leader. Her overstepping of her place in her attempt on the life of Illythia was exactly what one would expect of her – and her pain at the price she paid, showed her to be the female equivalent of Blood and Sand’s Crixus. Alas, she will never grow into Vengeance’s Crixus and Katrina Law’s brilliantly realised warrior-princess can develop no more.

Agron (Dan Feuerriegel) – Wobbled and wavered, but stayed true to Spartacus and Nasir despite the pull of his countrymen from East of the Rhine. Brilliant in the close quarter fighting, when Agron stood shoulder to shoulder with Crixus, Gannicus and Spartacus ready to go down the mountain, he was their equal – an impressive feat of acting on Dan Feuerriegel’s part, for a character given far less screen time than the others over the three series.

Gannicus (Dustin Clare) – Brilliantly portrayed by Dustin Clare as the world-weary ambidextrous fighting genius whose love of Oenamaus trumped even his love of himself. His commitment to the cause was seldom evidenced in words, but all in the sideways glances, the growing understanding of Spartacus’ cause and his need to confirm his identity as a gladiator and not a usurper in order to face another day. His kidnapping of Illythia and the carnage strewn to achieve it was a brilliant piece of film-making.

Overall report – Vengeance’s extraordinary mid-season torching of the arena may have led to expectations being set just too high for episodes 6-10 – and ambition’s debt was paid with a slight letdown over Vengeance’s second half. We’ll miss Lucretia, Glaber and, especially, Ashur and Illithyia, but we can look forward to more from Spartacus, Agron and, especially, Gannicus and Crixus, as Caesar himself lets slip the dogs of war and cries havoc in Series Four.

My half-term report card is here.

What do you want? Blood?

Published December 7, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

A still from Nosferatu (not Isabelle Adjani)

Yes, that’s exactly what’s wanted at this time of year, when the roads are busy, people are partying and, well, there are just too many other things to do. But there’s never been a better time to log on to the National Blood Service and do something that’s as amazing as they claim, as well as very easy – so please give blood.

I had been giving blood on and off for about five years – since I started riding a motorcycle (medics call us organ donors, such is the accident rate) – when I signed up to the British Bone Marrow Register. I’d read a bit about it, as you do when you’re looking at the leaflets waiting your turn to be called from the waiting room in the blood donor centre, but I didn’t think I’d ever be called upon to actually do it! Because bone marrow donation needs a pretty exact match – a very close DNA signature or something like that – and lots of people on the register never get called. (More often, the donor is a family member of the recipient, but plenty of those matches aren’t close enough).

Twelve months or so later, I was called. After another blood sample (Nurse – “It’s just a little prick.” Me – “There’s no need to be rude!”) was analysed and the match with the unknown recipient confirmed, I had a two hour interview with a doctor going through the process and making me aware of lots of risks so I could sign the consent form with full knowledge – the risks sound scary, but it’s a medical procedure so they always do. I decided to use the stem cell harvest method since I’m a coward and the sucking out of bone marrow from my back sounded painful! Finally, I had a check-up to show that the heart, lungs etc were all working fine and, praise be, they were.

A week or two later, a nurse visited me at home and injected me with drugs that promoted the production of stem cells – those little building blocks open the door to miraculous medical treatments that scientists are only just beginning to explore. After another blood sample was tested to see if I had enough stem cells coursing through my veins for the harvest, I was called to hospital and spent the morning with two lovely nurses talking about football, Trinidad’s carnival and how children drive you mad. I was four hours hooked up to the apheresis machine as my blood left one arm, had the stem cells spun out of it, and returned to my other arm. Did it hurt? For two hours, my observation notes read – comfortable, asleep, asleep, asleep…. comfortable – so what do you think?

I felt no ill effects at all, but had to do a couple more hours of the machine the next day to fill the bag sufficiently with stem cells. I had taken two mornings off work and was riding the bike the next day.

Four years later, I was contacted again – not for stem cells, but for white blood cells required by the person who already had my blood in them, as their body worked against their disease. That was just another gentle couple of hours on the machine.

My story of donating stem cells is as typical as any I suppose. There is a cost in terms of time, but not much, and it’s made as convenient as possible by the National Blood Service. There’s no real pain, though you do have to be prepared to have a lot of needles stuck into you – but they sting for a second or two, if at all. And some people ache a bit (I didn’t) but it’s nothing compared with the aches one gets even with a heavy cold. So it’s not quite true to say that, like one candle being lit from the flame of another, there is no cost to the donor, but it’s minimal when one thinks of the weapons one has placed in the hands of doctors in their fight against man’s most bitter enemy – cancer. I don’t know who got my stem cells nor if they’re alive or dead now, but I can imagine what it must have felt like when they and their family heard there was a match and treatment could begin. And I don’t mind saying that I feel good that I played a part in that.

So can you.

Highbury Revisited

Published March 20, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

Now

It hit me like a blow to the solar plexus, so how does it feel to Arsenal fans?

I had not been back to Highbury since the absurdly beautiful Arsenal Stadium was converted into residential flats and very nice they are too. Walking into the pleasant urban square that once was that expanse of greenest green, I looked up and around and saw myself on the North Bank as Adrian Heath scored a 120th minute goal to send us to Wembley in 1984 – and there, standing next to me, was my now dead father, as excited and proud as ever I saw him. I barely registered his birthday last week, but Goodison and other grounds trigger his involuntary memory like madeleines did for Proust.

Then

I pointed out to my son where I sat to watch Everton being torn apart, as they seldom were in those days, by Perry Groves (of all people) in the Littlewoods Cup Semi-Final 1988 and where I had stood to watch my first match at Highbury in 1981 (Brian McDermott the scorer and our nemesis as Reading manager in the FA Cup 29 years on). I showed him where I sat to watch my last match (in 2003) at the old stadium, much my favourite football ground, when we had lost again. I spared him the detail of Anders Limpar’s extraordinary performance in 1991, laying on four tap-ins for Ian Wright as five goals were scored in the first 26 minutes and we lost again. Nor did he get the story of the 1-0 defeat on 31 March 1991, after which I cycled straight into the aftermath of the Poll Tax Riots, which had happened five miles away but might as well have happened five thousand miles away in those pre-mobile phone, pre-internet days.

Twenty-five years ago, I lived opposite the turnstiles for the North Bank, so I would pop-in at three-quarter time (if I wasn’t in the pub) and have a look in at The Library. Saturdays were fun, with the smell of fried onions and burgers wafting in from about 11.00am; but night games were the best, the rush for the 7.30pm start enhancing the crowd’s anticipation and the lights bright bright, even in the middle of London’s urban intensity. One evening, police were everywhere and helicopters whirred overhead. I checked ceefax and there was no fixture, so I went outside to ask the nearest constable about the siege conditions. “FA Youth Cup – Millwall innit”. I left the Londoners to their private battling.

Once I ducked in to see the reserves play on a Wednesday afternoon and my eye was taken by a few players of whom you may have heard – Tony Adams was a shouty teenager, already playing for the first team often and probably captaining the stiffs; poor old David Rocastle was waif-thin, but could pass and move like the player he became. I think John Lukic might have been in goal and I recall Paul Davis playing too, probably on the way back from injury and maybe mad Paul Merson was in the XI – what would he be worth today?

With all that swirling about in my mind, I took my boy into the marble halls and there was the window at which I queued for a ticket for one match or another back in the 80s. Herbert Chapman’s bust is still there and so is the unmistakable feel of big-time football. It’s wonderful that you can still go in.

You can buy a flat in Highbury Square for £1/2M  – and I would, if I could. These memories, of course, are, as the advert has it, priceless – and I’m so, so pleased to have them.

 

2018 World Cup Final – Britain expects

Published January 1, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

From March 2007

Dateline 21 July 2018

2018 World Cup Final – Britain Expects

As FIFA’s 80, 000 guests prepare for the trip to the MacDonald’s Wembley MegaDome for the most anticipated match in British football since 1966, it pays to look back 12 years or so to see how Team Britain have progressed to this World Cup Final showdown against hot favourites China.

With England’s shock elimination from the 2008 Greater EU Championships after the 0-4 home defeat by Estonia, current Hartlepools manager Steve McClaren resigned his post and David Dein (yes, that same David Dein who’s been in the papers so much recently) re-structured the British game in anticipation of the 2012 Olympics (subsequently cancelled due to its carbon emissions impact).

Out went England, Scotland and Wales and in came Team Britain under Director of Football Arsene Wenger and Coach Sir Alex Ferguson. Domestic football is still feeling the ramifications of that development, as Martin O’Neill’s Celtic continue their dominance of the Sky Sports British Premiership with the Liverpool Lions their only real challengers under the leadership of player-manager Wayne Rooney.

Team Britain qualified so smoothly for the 2010 World Cup under the Wenger – Ferguson dream team, but, as everyone knows, it was all to go horribly wrong in the semi-final, with penalties once more the Achilles heel. How ironic it was to see David Beckham convert the winning score in the shoot-out for Team USA – some still claim that moment to be the launch pad of his successful run for President Schwarzenegger’s old job as Governor of California.

After the touchline fisticuffs between Wenger and Ferguson that horrible night in Mandelaville, it was clear that a new start was needed. Just when it seemed the British FA had lured Phil Scolari at last, the deal was called off over image rights, and England appointed Manchester United manager Sam Allardyce to the post. Failing to gain British citizenship for Ivan Campo from Prime Minister David Cameron, he resigned leaving the BFA in turmoil.

But it was then that the saviours of British football rode into town. Dave “Harry” Bassett wasn’t a popular choice as Director of Football, nor did his Coach, Vinnie Jones, inspire much confidence, but their up-and-at them style, with technical area shouter Phil Thompson employed solely to bellow “Get stuck in to these bast****” every 30 seconds, has carried all before it and shown just what can be achieved with patriotism, old-fashioned common sense and a liberal interpretation of the new drug laws. Purists still quibble over their insistence on playing 5-5-0 and waiting for a set play to commit anyone forward; others dislike their requirement to be over 6ft 3in to be considered for the team, but few argue with their results.

Tomorrow destiny awaits – will skipper, veteran centre-half Peter Crouch, winning his 250th cap, lift the Roman Abramovich Trophy following in the footsteps of Bobby Moore and the 2014 winning skipper, Emmanuel Eboue? If you can’t afford the £100 fee for Sky’s exclusive World Cup Final package, log on to guardianunlimited.co.uk/sport for Rob Smyth’s Minute-by-Minute report.

 

Also Ran

Published January 1, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

From March 2007

It was Alan Partridge who suggested that post-match showers were intended to remove “the stench of defeat” from the vanquished. Many readers will have spent last Friday with the carbolic, as their carefully crafted efforts hit the spike with the force of a Johnny Metgod special. But as the noted thinker Dale Winton reminds us, you’ve got to be in it to win it.

Who joins those of us outside charmed circle in the Also Rans’ bar?

Horse Racing’s Also Rans are usually to be found inhabiting the inside of a Kit-e-Kat tin, but not the big, black, beautiful Crisp who defined sporting gallantry as he led for every stride but the last one in the 1973 Grand National. Richard Pitman puts it wonderfully well herehttp://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/horse_racing/grand_national_2003/2889541.stm and none who witnessed it will ever forget it.

1996 and Newcastle are looking like they will actually hang on, actually win something, actually do it… then –

“When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds… I’ve kept really quiet, but I’ll tell you something: he went down in my estimation when he said that – we have not resorted to that. But I’ll tell ya – you can tell him now if you’re watching it – we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and… and I tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them – love it.!”

Everyone has seen it a million times on youtube, so you can run the visuals in mind’s media player along with the pauses, the catch in the voice and the raucous laughter wafting over the Pennines. A rare example of a live performance every bit as funny when reduced to the written word – even Bill Hicks couldn’t pull that off.

Although one should never consider the Premiership as a competition separate to its previous life as the Football League Division One (a set of four words perhaps lost forever – the shame), Liverpool’s Also Ranness must be a concern for their new American owners, who possibly believed that a Champions League Winner might actually have won a Championship to qualify. They’ll soon find out that Also Ran status is no bar to entry to the most lucrative competition in Europe.

To the majority of Brits, Pou-Pou is a cheap laugh in Eurotrash (yeah, like there’s any other kind), but to the cycling cognoscenti, Pou-Pou means Raymond Poulidor, a man who finished on the Tour de France podium eight times, without ever hauling his saddle-sored, leathery bottom on to the highest step. He did console himself with the love of all France, which was rather more love than arch-rival (and five times Tour winner) Jacques Anquetil received. He had to make do with the love of his daughter-in-law and step-daughter, with both of whom he fathered children.