Saturday, 29 January 2011

OPEN: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

This is one of the most unexpected reading pleasures I have ever had. Agassi is not at all who you think he is. On court he seemed to me to express little emotion – very little of that curled fist punching stuff – but he is revealed here as passionate, intelligent, without self-pity, occasionally dishonest, stubborn, fragile, sometimes sentimental in that old American way, romantic, generous and loyal. This is quite a trick to pull off, to make yourself attractive, to make yourself a hero without appearing vain.

The book combines its themes - the private and the public, the tennis playing and the tennis-hating, friendships and rivalries – in a perfect weave, the anecdotes sliding effortlessly into one another. To be corny: like a tennis match the book is made up of points which add up to games, which turn into sets. It undulates forwards towards happiness.

I defy anyone to read this without spending a couple of hours on YouTube afterwards, watching Agassi’s short pigeon-toed strides about a tennis court, perhaps reflecting that we didn’t really know who we were watching first time round.

I’d better warn you, too, that if you have lachrymose tendencies they are likely to be brought to the fore.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Why World War II Was Fought

"The great war of 1939-1945 was fought to decide whether national socialist Germany was to dominate the world or not."

This is the first sentence of M. R. D. Foot's 'SOE in France', and what a terrific sentence it is. Its simplicity is deceptive. I would think that quite a lot of thought went into it. It is, first and foremost, utterly comprehensible. There is no obfuscation. Secondly, it is authoritative. As a piece of rhetoric it assures us that what is to follow will not be ambivalent or ambiguous unless the facts render it so. Thirdly, it relegates all other reasons for war to a rightful place below this principal one. Fourthly, the phrase "the great war of 1939-1945" resonates with the chime of history; this might be Xenophon or Herodotus. And finally it has about it a kind of fearlessness that is enormously attractive, as if to say I am not an idiot and you are not an idiot but that does not mean to say we should avoid the obvious. "Avoid the obvious at your peril," my father used to say to me, and he was quite right.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Just in case you have neglected to look at the simply brilliant 'Four Paintings' website. These pictures are all at the Courtauld Institute. Although all four chapters are exemplary, the Manet and the Pissarro are particularly so, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


LIFE by Keith Richards
THE BLUE ANGEL by Francine Prose
JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare
OPEN by Andre Agassi
NIGHT AND DAY by Robert B. Parker
SPLIT IMAGE by Robert B. Parker
THE GERMAN MUJAHID by Boualem Sansal
BOB DYLAN by Greil Marcus
THE WRECKING LIGHT by Robin Robertson
OF MUTABILITY by Jo Shapcott
THE COLLABORATOR by Gerald Seymour
MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE by Francine Prose
LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel
A DEVON MAN: JACK BOLES by Victoria Fishburn
A SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes
MY FORMER HEART by Cressida Connolly
THE AFFAIR by Lee Child
THE FEAR INDEX by Robert Harris
GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves
JERUSALEM (play) by Jez Butterworth
INTO THE SILENCE: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
TONIO KROGER (short story) by Thomas Mann
LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
PAINTED LADIES by Robert B. Parker
JOURNEY'S END (play) by R.C. Sheriff

Rolling in the Deep by Adele

My fave platter of the moment. I prefer this to the promo video. I'd like to see (and hear) her in a properly grungy setting. I like the impurity of her voice.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

BLUE ANGEL by Francine Prose

I have never come upon a piece of literary criticism that addressed the likeability of the author. Or do I mean the narrative voice? As with Jane Austen, there is a sense, reading this book, of being very much in cahoots with the author. Prose is authoritative (you feel in safe hands), witty and compassionate, but like Austen she does not suffer fools gladly. This is a campus novel with a horribly well-realised monster at its heart, and a thoroughly believable innocent as its victim.

But "don't assume the soul is the writer's" is one of the messages of the book. Demons can make great art. The monster in this book devours the world around her. She is a writer, a novelist. Everything is grist to her mill.

A funny, horrifying, seditious, clever book. I knew by about page 15 that I would regret finishing it. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Finchley U15B (White Finches) 10 - 7 Tring B

Sunday 16 January 2011

More mud. A hard fought game against a heavy powerful Tring side whose close play suited the conditions.

The first half was pretty even with the forwards of both sides dominating possession and play. The break came after a speculative kick out by the Tring fly half bounced vicously to land in their player's hands for him to score under the posts, which was then converted. But heads didn't drop and the quality of the play continued, firstly a great break by Yiannis and Ed Nice on one side, followed by Matthew on the other and then a rumbling drive up the middle in the last minute lead to Matthew's attempt being held up on the line.

The Finchley pressure continued in the second half and then brought results. The backs played with more confidence and the ball began to be pushed wide; good runs by Robert, Connor and Cal firstly and then Ed Nice came into the line on a great angle to cut through their defence from 25m out to score, 5-7. Finchley went straight back into the attack and a further series of drives allowed Chris to break away from the back of the maul to drive and stretch over the line. Two 'first scores' for Chris and Ed, well done and first of many!

Match report by Andrew Stone

Ear Wax

One late Autumn afternoon some twenty or thirty years ago, I was sitting in a wood pannelled room on the top floor of St Mary's Paddington, waiting for an appointment at which I was going to have my ears syringed and the wax removed. I think it was late Autumn because the sunshine was very bright: beams poured in and the dust floated. I was reading the Evening Standard. Across from my bench, on the other side of the room frosted glass partitions, above dark wooden panels, sectioned off the consulting rooms. I had knocked, a nurse had come, taken my name and asked me to wait.

I don't remember what was in the news. I was quite alone up there. After a while I was aware that someone had entered the room and was moving, albeit rather slowly, towards the consulting room door. It was a man frail, slight. i returned to my paper. The man knocked at the door. Presently a nurse came.

"I have an appointment with Dr So-and-so, at two o'clock". the nurse hopped off and came back a moment later.

"Can I take the name , please"

"Hume," he said.

I looked up.

"Right, just a moment please," said the nurse and disappeared again.

It wasn't 'Hume' at all. It was 'Home'. Alec Douglas Home. The nurse had absolutely no idea that she was dealing with a former Prime Minister, and the former Prime Minister did not seem in the least put out.

It is impossible to imagine such a thing in France, say, or America, or indeed anywhere else for that matter. You certainly cannot imagine Tony Blair turning up in Paddington for an ear wax in quite this way. But John Major? Just maybe...

Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo

To the Almeida for this. It is a real blast. That old narrative chestnut that sees a stranger shake up a happy family is as delicious as ever, the family in this case, however, not being remotely happy. Death, incest, robbery at gun point, casual sex, harassment, racial stereotyping, pornography... The play is full of mortal (and moral) shakings; moreover, it is very very funny. Funniest of all is the character Max, played quite brilliantly by David Wilson Barnes. He is monstrous. Viciously cynical, lacking in all magnanimity, he does however tend to tell the truth. And perhaps herein lies the chief intellectual conceit of the play: the truth-teller is the monster. Sometimes it is better to lie. This is certainly the view of the psychotherapist and chief female protagonist, Suzanna, played with the right mix of vulnerability and steel by Anna Madeley. In between the lies and the cruel truths love lies bleeding. Thoroughly enjoyable!

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Obama's Tucson Speech

" expand our moral imagination..." This is well worth watching all the way through. The ovations can be irritating, but Obama's words are not.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


This is the altogether rather wonderful 'Coldstones Cut' a public sculpture by an old friend, Andrew Sabin. It is in Nidderdale, north of Harrogate, and abuts the (still working) Hanson Limestone quarry. I like quarries myself, but many don't, thinking they scar the earth and so on. What I think Andrew's sculpture does is to reunite the quarry with the landscape. The shape of the 'Cut' brings to mind at once all those diagrams of the female reproductive organs in our children's biology text books. Of course the number of connotations thereby attaching is great but rather than enumerate I'll let you do the work yourselves. I mean, it could be seen as a symbol of the fertility of the earth or of quarrymen or of industrialists, etc etc.. Conception, birth, dum de dum, and so on and so forth. The important thing is that it is rich in its suggestion of connection. It is also beautiful, even as it echoes the forms it looks over, ameliorating them, healing the scarred earth. It lends dignity to the undertaking. Isn't it great when modern art is beautiful without being merely decorative?

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Ashes

Is it that we are reverting to type, we privately-educated johnnies, now we are rejecting football as vulgar beyond redemption? Even rugby is slipping inexorably down towards the common. This leaves cricket as the home of the yeoman, that figure to which we all aspire: decent, upright, able to hold his beer, a man who works as seriously as he plays. I think actually the truth is that what we like is the idea of The Team, the Band of Brothers, the Company. There has not been this sense surrounding an English football team since the Bobby Robson days (whatever you think of Gary Lineker, that look he gave the manager concerning Gazza after the booking in the semi-final indicated that there was concern for one another, at the very least).

It is teams (and teams are always good teams) that win, and England have not been winning their rugby matches. The possibly false dawn of the Australia match did start people muttering about a new era. And of course all you England fans very badly want Johnson to do well because he is the very model of the team man, and lead a victorious England side.

The spoilt surliness of footballers and the absence of talent in rugby players do not make for good teams. Of course, initial failure may actually contribute to eventual success, and that is what all of us continually hope for in rugby, but triumph in the end rests upon good spirit and great talent. Great teams are made up of great players.

Although Australia were weak, the manner of their defeat (which was an utter thrashing - the only time, ever, that an England team has won three matches in an overseas series by more than an innings) suggested the very high quality of their opposition. Alastair Cook has become a great player. It is ungainsayable. Trott is quite obviously there for the duration, Pietersen still sprinkles the magic, Collingwood and Prior are full yeomen, Bell the elegant and now ruthless swot, Tremlett has exactly the right kind of name (and perhaps mien) for an England fast bowler, Jimmy Anderson has a swagger now (and scans beautifully), and Swann is a chucklesome amalgam of them all. Above all, Strauss now has the air of a man who knows exactly what his job entails and how to do it. And following Atherton's interview with Flowers, Nasser Hussain voiced pretty much exactly what I had thought: that when Flowers speaks, you listen. He went on to say that Flowers was both modern and "old school" and that he treats the members of the team as "men" (what an old-fashioned notion, and what a comforting and good one, that sounds).

As the series has gone on I have become more and more fascinated by it. It seems to me that this is indeed a great team, a greater team than Vaughan's 2005 heroes because more ruthless, harder edged while at the same time demonstrating fairly obviously a sense that they know they are all tremendously fortunate to be doing the best job in the world.

Do the sprinkler! And a tear for the last of Collingwood, gawd bless him.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Captain Beefheart Story

Captain Beefheart died just before Christmas. This is a story told by David Hepworth on the BBC Old Grey Whistle Test anthology.

In the Sixties the Captain had a job selling hoovers door to door in southern California. One day he knocked on a door and it was opened by a man he recognized as no less a figure than the great Aldous Huxley. The Captain paused for a moment, in a kind of awe, and then pointed down at his sample hoover and said "Sir, this machine sucks!"

As a special added bonus here is the Captain's 'Abba Zabba'

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Tolstoy in Russia

Tolstoy's reputation in Russia is not as high as it is in the rest of the world. Apparently, the Russian Orthodox Church believes that Tolstoy was in some way responsible for the victory of communism. Lenin was an admirer, apparently. And Hitler's favourite composer was Wagner. Do you see what I'm getting at here? There's an interesting article on Tolstoy's current rep in Russia in The New York Times, here.

I have yet to learn whether it was Nabokov or Faulkner who, when asked what three novels an aspiring novelist should read, answered "Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina and Anna Karenina".

Sunday, 2 January 2011

LIFE by Keith Richards

He may have been a choirboy but ageing Stones fans know that there’ll always be a moment in a Stones show when they can get that much needed second pee in. Younger ones in the know make a rush for the bar: Keef’s going to sing.
So far as I am concerned the Stones are rock and roll. There is nothing beyond them. Is there anything in popular music dirtier, more low down than Tumbling Dice? Sex and drugs and rock and roll.
This book might have been called that, though perhaps you could substitute ‘Mick’ for ‘sex’ (not that there isn’t plenty of that – Keef doesn’t subscribe to conventional bourgeois notions of sexual monogamy). I enjoyed almost all of it, though I think we might have been spared details about Keef’s dogs or his recipe for bangers and mash. The curious thing, given that it is an autobiography, is that its subject doesn’t come out all that well. Not being able to decide which it is cooler to be, Richards likes to be both victim and victor. This is particularly the case in his dealings with Mick Jagger. One would very much like to hear Jagger’s side of some of these stories. Coming out from years of heroin-dependency Richards seems astonished that Jagger should be reluctant to relinquish control of the band; the reader wants to stop the chattering flow of the book (cleverly done by co-author James Fox) and say, Whoa! Keith? Really?
In truth, despite the press stories, most of the references to Jagger are complimentary. Richards knows that Mick’s talents equal his own. Again a curious dichotomy applies: while Richards is generous to, in awe of, honored ny, fellow musicians and heroes, at the same time there is a dictatorial streak that I fancy he rather admires in himself. He is the leader of his local Scout pack (with a jersey festooned with badges); and later in life when underlings fail to do what they are asked, his wrath is immediate and occasionally violent (one DJ is put to the floor and kneeled on when he doesn’t stop playing Stones songs while Keith is in his disco – KR seems to think this completely justified behaviour). In other words, you wouldn’t want to cross him. To cross him you’d have to be Mick Jagger. These are two big egos.
The best bits in the book are the bits about writing, playing and recording the music. Which is as it should be. The difference between Jagger and Richards is that Keith doesn’t think being the Rolling Stones is “an act” and Mick does. Keith thinks its about the music. Of course, they’re both right.