Saturday, 31 December 2011

Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl

Well, it has been announced that Ivan Lendl will be the new full-time coach for Andy Murray.

This is intriguing news, to say the least, and the decision to work with Lendl could prove to be very shrewd.  Lendl the player was always renowned and respected for his resilience, mental toughness and competitive spirit.  Critics of Murray would argue that he has been found wanting in some of these areas in the past. If Lendl can instill some of his qualities in the Scotsman, he will have been a success.

There is a well-worn cliche to the effect that great players do not necessarily make great coaches, and Lendl's conventional coaching experience is hardly extensive.  However, in many of the areas where Murray arguably needs to reduce the gap to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Lendl's input could prove invaluable.

The new Murray-Lendl partnership will be fascinating to behold.

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari

Following some recent comments by the Ferrari president Luca Di Montezemolo, the prospect of the Italian team seeking to recruit Sebastian Vettel has resurfaced. The inference from the recent stories is that any such move would be made for the 2014 season. The reports, and the timescales cited, raise several questions and issues.

First and foremost, would Vettel necessarily want to leave Red Bull at all?  He is very much the "blue eyed boy" in that team, given the best of everything, an integral part of a well-oiled machine.  That set-up is second to none in current F1, with strong and clear technical and strategic leadership. The German was "brought up", in F1 terms, within the Red Bull framework.

On the other hand, in two years' time, will Vettel be ready for a change, and a new challenge?  By then, he may have one or two additional world titles under his belt, and there are no guarantees in modern F1 that a team will retain its supremacy for long, and this will be accentuated by the upcoming changes to the engine regulations.

In the past, it was often assumed that the "logical" step or ambition for any driver was to join Ferrari, but I am not entirely sure whether this mode of thinking still applies.  Much of the romance associated with Ferrari faded some years ago, and the drivers of today employ hard-nosed and rational criteria when laying out their career paths. Even the outwardly happy-go-lucky Vettel is unlikely to be swayed by the perceived mystique of the Ferrari team.

The other factor which needs to be taken into account here is the presence, or otherwise, of Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari driving strength.  It is hard to imagine the two co-existing amicably in the same team for any length of time, even allowing for Vettel's seemingly placid and tolerant nature.  Also, suggestions that the Spaniard will "mentor" Vettel before handing over the reins hardly appear credible or plausible.

If, by seeking to hire Vettel, Ferrari are hoping to replicate the glory days of Michael Schumacher, then surely part of the recipe for success, stability and harmony would entail the designation of one of the drivers as a clear number two. 

From a neutral standpoint, the prospect of Alonso and Vettel in the same team is guaranteed to quicken the pulse, but I cannot see it happening.  Vettel may not have any major objections to the scenario, but he may conclude that the "known quantity" of Red Bull is preferable. The financial muscle of Red Bull could also be brought to bear in precluding Vettel's departure.

It will be fascinating, during the forthcoming season, to see whether any "Vettel to Ferrari" theories acquire greater credence....

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Nick Drake

I spent some time with my older brother over Christmas, and the discussion got around to how our respective musical tastes began to diverge as our teenaged years progressed, and we drifted into adulthood. I chuckled when I reflected how I would deride my brother's preferences, but also admitted that I had eventually grown to like and respect much of the music to which he had listened, albeit over two decades later!

One of the artists falling into the above category was Nick Drake.  I distinctly recall my brother coming home, clutching those vinyl albums. I did not pay any great attention to the music, and rather arrogantly dismissed it as part of an introspective phase on my brother's part, or an attempt to appear "hip" with his friends. There is a temptation at that age to question the motives of siblings, rejecting any notion that something may actually interest them for purely intrinsic or aesthetic reasons.

Well, two decades passed, and I did finally "find" Nick Drake, via a more circuitous route than my brother had taken.  In my twenties and thirties I listened to lots of folk-rock and country-rock, and this led me on to singer-songwriters (Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Gene Clark), and then on to the British exponents of that genre, prominent among them being Drake.

On revisiting the three original studio albums, one thing which struck me is the "pastoral" feel, and also the ease with which one can be carried along by the deceptively complex melodies, and having to re-trace one's steps in order to fully take in the lyrics.  The foremost emotion which came to me, though, was "why haven't I been listening to this stuff for the past twenty-odd years?"

The album which appeals to me most overall is Five Leaves Left, with its relatively sparse but subtle arrangements, and varied lyrical themes. Acoustic guitar forms the bedrock of most of the songs here, but other instrumentation is tastefully added to provide texture and depth.  The nuances and charm of the songs and melodies are gradually revealed with repeated listening.  There is also an almost otherworldly, ethereal feel to some of the tracks, particularly "River Man","Day Is Done" and "Thoughts of Mary Jane".

Lyrically, Five Leaves Left comes across as a mixture of the observational and the introspective, and the listener feels like he or she is being transported to a particular place and time, and also a distinct stage in the songwriter's life. While some of the compositions on this album may initially come across as quite bleak, closer scrutiny uncovers some joy, wonder, awe and optimism.

The Drake album which I suspect divides opinion most clearly, and is also the most troublesome to analyse, is 1970's Bryter Layter.  More experimental and inpenetrable than the debut, with a discernible jazz-like feel in places, the songs alternate between the dreamy and the melancholy. Oddly, there are a couple of instrumental tracks.  I know that the arrangements on this album can have a polarizing effect, but I find it fascinating to hear these lyrics shrouded in such an unusual, even incongruous, sonic mist.

Pink Moon, the final studio album, is possibly the least melodically diverse of the three, and features none of the augmentation by strings and woodwind instruments.  This absence of such embellishments can make the album sound bleak, but also intimate. Drake's distinctive guitar work is projected more keenly, and the sense of intimacy is enhanced by the gritty sound of it, as well as the vocals.  Pink Moon has a much more seamless and spontaneous vibe to it than the other material, reflecting the manner and circumstances in which it was recorded.  None of the songs particularly stand out - the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, there we have it, a small but impressive and varied body of work.  Stylistically, Five Leaves Left stands betwixt the other two LPs, but I sense that there was no calculated career path.  The individual albums simply reflect the time and place being inhabited by Nick Drake when they were written and recorded. This is often the case with "singer songwriters".

For those who admire sensitive and literate music, Nick Drake's work is a must.  I just hope that other people don't, like me, take twenty years or more to fully embrace it!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011


Around the New Year period, many people embark on often short-lived fitness programmes, or long for a "detox", either as a way of ameliorating the excesses of the festive season, or in order to fulfil a New Year's resolution.

With this in mind, I just thought that I would share details of a "scheme" which I have stumbled across in the closing months of the year. I have always been a keen advocate of brisk walking as a sound foundation for fitness. Recently, I discovered that there was an ideal ten-metre "circuit" in my home, running from the front window to the hallway.  Spending one hour walking briskly back and forth in that area, I can cover over three kilometres.

So, rather than venturing out in inclement weather to get some exercise, we can utilise our humble abodes, and exercise in a comfortable and controlled environment.

Allied to the exercise detailed above, I have cut out unhealthy snacks from my diet, and starting having smaller portions at meal-times. The results have been very encouraging.  I have lost a stone in weight in the past few months, and because of the walking, my body is much more toned and honed than before.

I appreciate that these methods may not work for everyone, but it may be worth a try!

New Year, New Hopes, New Plans?

Well, 2012 is rapidly approaching.

 I imagine that most people will offer the time-honoured platitude "where has this year gone?" when looking back on the twelve months just gone.  By contrast, rather than flying by, for me this year has appeared strangely elongated and stretched. Recently I was perusing my 2011 diary, looking back on events, and was astonished to discover that some things had in actuality occurred only four or five months ago, when in my mind's eye they belonged almost to another age. Is it realistic to interpret this perception of time dragging as symptomatic of a fuller, richer and more fulfilling life?

In some cultures it is customary at this juncture for people to make New Year's resolutions.  This time around my stated intention for the year ahead is to show more "resolution".  It is not really a case of starting anew with a blank sheet of paper.  The paper is replete with assorted and random jottings, and the task is to rearrange these into a coherent whole.

Aside from all of our grandiose plans, schemes and pipe-dreams, there are some things which we can all aspire to in the year to come. We can try to be true to ourselves, and think, behave and act with compassion, moderation and humility....

Here's hoping and wishing that everyone has a peaceful, happy and fulfilling 2012.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Bruno Senna to Williams?

One snippet of Formula 1 gossip which escaped my attention in the pre-Christmas frenzy was the report that Bruno Senna visited the Williams team's factory at Grove, with a view to discussing possibilities for the 2012 season.

It had been generally assumed in F1 circles that Adrian Sutil was the firm favourite for the second seat in Sir Frank's team, having been linked with the drive towards the end of the 2011 season. However, the situation now seems a good deal more fluid, with Senna's overtures, and renewed efforts by Rubens Barrichello to maintain his presence in Grand Prix racing.

Looking at all this from a purely driving perspective, the range of options would appear, from the Williams perspective, to be quite enviable, but in reality they are less than inspiring.

Senna has relative youth and enthusiasm, and did show flashes of promise in his 2011 outings, but lacks experience.  Barrichello represents continuity, unparalleled experience and a proven track record.  There have been doubts about his motivation, but maybe the widespread presumption that his F1 days are over has stung him into renewed vigour?  Sutil would, on the surface, seem to combine some of the elements presented by both of the the other two candidates. Solid experience, unrealised and untapped potential, and something still to prove.

Not to be forgotten in all of this is the presence of Pastor Maldonado in the team.  Maldonado's performances have not been totally convincing, and part of Willliams' thinking on the second driver must surely reflect this.  This would presumably count against Senna.

Of course, all this analysis has so far disregarded the issue of sponsorship.  Reports suggest that the three candidates all have access to funds of some description. The ultimate choice of driver may tell us much about the state of the Williams team's finances, and whether their "racers" ethos still remains intact....

Monday, 26 December 2011

Boxing Day Football

For a Leeds United fan, the outcome of today's fixtures has scarcely been enjoyable to behold.  Not only did Leeds slump to defeat at Derby, but most of the Premier League results went in favour of a certain outfit which bases itself at Old Trafford.

If I am being honest, I did not expect Leeds to pull up any trees at Pride Park, but the general trend of results, belief and morale appears to be emphatically in the wrong direction as we approach the turn of the year. We are now hearing the first genuinely widespread murmurings of discontent with Simon Grayson himself. It goes without saying that the matches against Barnsley and Burnley, before the FA Cup hiatus, could be crucial on several levels.

By all accounts this was a lacklustre display from Leeds, and it is open to question whether some reshuffling of playing personnel during January will have any discernible impact in reversing the position. Although the Championship table indicates that the team is still within striking distance of the play-offs, we are moving in the wrong direction, when we should be building a base-camp for an attempt on the summit!

As if the woes of Leeds were not enough, it seems that the clubs in the Premier League top echelon are determined to ensure that Manchester United have the psychological advantage of leading the pack as we enter 2012. Chelsea's stuttering form persists, and Liverpool and Newcastle have lost touch.  Manchester City had the kind of result at West Brom which could prove to be very costly come May.

The state of play looks favourable for Tottenham, from a purely arithmetical point of view, but do they, or their supporters, truly believe?  Games in hand are all very well, and nice to have, but they also create a new, different type of pressure.

I hope that my pessimism about the position in the top two divisions proves to be misplaced!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Narcissus and Goldmund - Hermann Hesse - book review

My journey through the works of Hermann Hesse continues apace, and next on the list was Narcissus and Goldmund, which in many ways has been the most affecting and thought-provoking for me.

The work tells the story of two young males who attended a monastery.  Narcissus quickly rises to become a quasi-tutor, and the young Goldmund becomes, in effect, a protege of his. Once Goldmund experiences the pleasures of the flesh, he doubts whether it his vocation to be a monk, and the astute and perceptive Narcissus helps his younger friend to achieve an awakening.  Goldmund consequently takes his leave of the monastery.

The novel, as with other Hesse books, explores the Dionysian/Apollonian dynamic of "the thinker versus the artist" or "intellect against nature", but here ample attention is also paid to the idea of travelling "back to mother", of rediscovering the innocent and dreamlike path first embarked on during childhood.  Goldmund, with the assistance of Narcissus, comes to recognise his mother's qualities and influence, and that these had been distorted and misrepresented by his father, hence the steering of the youthful Goldmund in a monastic direction.

After his awakening, and his departure from the monastery, Goldmund sets out on a journey through the countryside, relishing the favours of women and savouring and feasting on other things to which the senses respond.  As this stage of the story unfolds, we are made aware that the "maternal" dimension of existence, although more varied, colourful, vibrant and intense, is also less secure, certain, logical and predictable.

Much of the imagery employed to convey this idea of the "mother" ideal, and also of Goldmund's delving into the torment of "the artist" is projected through the females who he encounters on his travels.  Female wiles, and in one sequence the act of childbirth, are used to illustrate the extremes of pleasure and anguish which, it seems, are revealed by similar physical manifestations.

As Goldmund moves from place to place, he finds that people are not exclusively welcoming to his wayward and itinerant lifestyle, as they are attached to a sense of roots and attachments. This makes him aware of the transient nature of things, and partly explains his urge to apply his artistic urges to create works of art which will be other than ephemeral.  Brushes with death, and witnessing the ravages of the plague, intensified these thoughts.

I interpreted this part of the tale, rightly or wrongly, as another "awakening" on Goldmund's part. He sought more of a goal, and sense of purpose, a focus for his endeavours. The subjects of his artistic efforts also yield much symbolism, with a compulsion to create figures depicting the Madonna and Narcissus. This may have indicated a growing realisation that he was beginning to combine the sensual and the practical.

Goldmund is eventually reunited with Narcissus, and both before and after this event further insight dawns on him.  My take on this was that he began to appreciate that life is a constant cycle of suffering and pain, alleviated by pleasure.  This pleasure or joy soon ebbs, and the agony returns. The cycle can be transcended by tangible realization of thoughts, images and dreams, combining elements of the "artist" and the "thinker".  Narcissus opines that in reaching this state, Goldmund has truly found himself.

After returning to the monastery with Narcissus to partake in further artistic work. Goldmund becomes restless again, after the completion of a project diminishes his sense of purpose. There follows a potent conclusion to the story. Goldmund seeks again to satiate his wanderlust, but finds that his charms are no longer as seductive, and his senses not as aroused.  Stricken by illness, and bereft of the drive to apply his thoughts and dreams artistically, Goldmund lacks the will to survive and exist which previously drove him on.  The conflict is at an end. He is ready to return to Mother....

During the final chapter, we discover that the outcome of Goldmund's meandering journey has prompted Narcissus to question his own approach to life.

Narcissus and Goldmund I found quite inspiring.  Another message which I took from it was that all our lives are a constant battle for peace and contentment, but factors, often stemming from childhood, cause us to approach this struggle in different ways.  However, we all constantly require re-balancing, re-nourishment and replenishment.  Being true to ourselves at the outset of the journey may be the most natural, honest and effective way to find some meaning....

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Allman Brothers Band

For the past fifteen years or so, I have been much taken by North American music of a more rootsy nature, the musical sub-genre which appeared in the late 60s, and continued to flourish for part of the following decade. Into this category I placed the late-period Byrds, The Band, Little Feat, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others.

One outfit which had escaped my closer attention was The Allman Brothers Band. Because they were habitually categorized as "Southern Rock", I lazily assumed that they were of the same ilk as Lynyrd Skynyrd and its imitators. Only much later was I resoundingly disabused of this notion...

When I refer to "The Allman Brothers Band" here I am speaking specifically about the period in which Duane Allman was part of the group, prior to his tragic death in 1971. To all intents and purposes, this encompasses the first three studio albums, plus the masterly Live At Fillmore East.

In the early 1970s, there was a surfeit of groups offering a "stew" of various forms of American roots music (Little Feat, Stephen Stills' Manassas to name but two), but the Allman Brothers Band were ahead of the game in several departments. By employing two drummers, they instilled a funkiness and rhythmic depth to their sound, which set them apart from their contemporaries for a while.

The sheer breadth and scope of their influences is also sometimes overlooked.  Although the blues and country appeared to predominate, especially on the first two studio albums, if one listens closely it is easy to detect traces of jazz, Latin and even gospel. Sometimes one or more style was superimposed on top of others within the same song, to startling effect. "Whipping Post" is arguably a case in point.

Another strength of the Allman Brothers Band was the tendency for lengthy and outlandish jams to co-exist happily with more accessible and catchy material.  There were perhaps signs on the studio cuts on Eat A Peach of a shift towards more concise musical statements, but many of the trademarks remained, notably the contrasting guitar sounds of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts.  This, along with the keyboards of Gregg Allman, gave the group's music a texture lacking in that of most of their peers.

Although the original "classic" line-up was in place for a comparatively brief period, its legacy remains formidable.  The track "Stand Back", from Eat A Peach, encapsulates in three-and-a-quarter minutes all that was instantly infectious and compelling about the band, while the various live renditions of "Whipping Post" showcase their penchant for improvisation and extemporisation.

In their sphere, the Allman Brothers Band were unusual in offering a heady brew of gritty immediacy, technical virtuosity and often ethereal soundscapes. They are an essential reference point for anyone tracing the development of rock music in the early Seventies.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Classical Music

It is often a matter of regret to us that we dismiss, and even ridicule, early in our lives some things which, in retrospect, could have been of value and benefit to our lives. Such an approach is sometimes based on ignorance, and at other times born of peer pressure or plain cowardice or lack of backbone.

In my teens, I had a music teacher at school who always strove to enthuse his pupils with his own love for classical music. His tutelage had some effect on me, and the music began to enter my consciousness, in particular the work of Zoltan Kodaly and Jean Sibelius.

In any sane world, classical music would from then on have become part and parcel of my leisure time, enriching my life. But, of course, in adolescence we are subject to forces which often preclude such cultural departures, including the fear of mockery and the clamour to conform and belong. So, classical music was shoved into the background of my life, as I ran with the crowd.

It was only around two years ago that I truly rediscovered classical music, and then almost by accident. A thread on an internet forum prompted me to revisit some of the music from those school music classes. This renewed curiosity opened up a whole new vista of entertainment, cultural stimuli and spirituality. The music "spoke" to me to such an extent that I felt a genuine tinge of disappointment that my quality of life could have benefited had I not so summarily banished it all those years previously.

The particular sub-types of classical music which I have been drawn to are those which have a real emotional pull and resonance, and which have the capacity to stir the soul.   So Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt and my old friend Sibelius tend to be favoured, and even the operas of Puccini are also beginning to make their presence felt.

With my "re-conversion" to the glories of classical music, I could perhaps have been forgiven for seeing some rock and pop music in a different light, belittling it as somehow hollow or superficial. However, my regard for my favourite rock artists has barely altered.  After all has been said and done, music is music, and much of it has the power to delight and stimulate, no matter when it was written or originally performed. I have simply become conscious once more of the ability of some classical music to accomplish this role.

Oddly enough, as my tastes in classical have tilted towards Romantic and post-Romantic composers, it is the music of the eras preceding these movements which I have had trouble getting worked up about!  After listening to Mahler, Wagner et al, even some of the works of Mozart, Bach and Haydn have appeared slightly "fluffy" and lightweight to me!

Sunday, 18 December 2011


Well, it's that time of the year again, and normally sane and rational people are running around like headless chickens, buying presents for people who they secretly (or even openly) dislike, and working themselves into a frenzy over arrangements for "the big day".

For the second Christmas running, I am able to take a more detached view of the festive season, because of my personal circumstances. It is often asserted that Christmas is "for the children", and it is true that the older I get, and having little in the way of paternal instinct, the less sense the Yuletide period makes. It is not the commercialisation which makes me recoil, but the looming realisation that it may be one mass exercise in masochism.

As a friend of mine recently observed, much of the jollity is forced and insincere.  People indulge in excess because they are told that this is expected, as if some "invisible hand" is directing events. We are all swept along by peer pressure and social pressure, and few individuals have the nerve or the courage to "opt out".

We are told that Christmas is a time for family and friends to get together and enjoy themselves. My response would be that we can arrange that in the middle of June if we wish, minus the aggravation and stress. Increasingly, Christmas Day is just like any other day for me, except that everything is closed!

So, the festive period brings out the worst in many people, causes incalculable stress and misery, and also distorts our economic and social activity. Apart from all that, it is wonderful....

Roll on 2 January 2012......

Friday, 16 December 2011

Formula 1 News Round-Up

So, as we approach the end of 2011, F1 news is coming thick and fast, as the driver line-ups for next season firm up and some teams reorganise themselves.

We have learned that Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne will make up the Toro Rosso driving strength for 2012.  At first glance, this might appear harsh on the previous incumbents, Buemi and Alguersuari, but we need to remind ourselves that STR exists to a large extent as a "feeder" team to the main Red Bull outfit.  If drivers are unable to demonstrate that they are potentially the new Sebastian Vettel, then they are unlikely to keep their rides for long.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, it is still good to see young talent being given a chance.   KRV5NNY3UDU3

Also recently confirmed was the appointment of Luis Perez-Sala as team principal at HRT.  I always liked Perez-Sala during his F1 driving days, but he will have his work cut out to move HRT forward, and the record of former drivers as team bosses has not always been a happy one.  Good luck to him, anyway.

The latest announcement on driver line-ups has emanated from Force India, and their confirmation of Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg for their race seats.  Di Resta certainly deserves more opportunities, and Hulkenberg is also a worthy choice. All of this presumably makes it even more likely that Adrian Sutil will make his way to Williams.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Ant and The Grasshopper

Among my favourite sitcom episodes is one from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, entitled The Ant and The Grasshopper. This portrays, in some comedic style, the contrasting lifestyles of Bob Ferris and Terry Collier; the career-minded and industrious approach of the former, and the life of leisure and relative indolence pursued by the latter.

The title of the episode is taken from one of Aesop's better know fables, which looks at similar, if not identical, themes.

In a more modern social context, the dichotomy is often expressed as that between rigid careerism and downshifting, and also as the desire for a greater work-life balance.

As somebody who has experienced both sides of this particular coin, I often feel that it is seen in simplistic,black-and-white terms, when in reality there are a million shades of grey in between. Generalisations and idealistic views abound, and most of these are often swiftly dispelled not long after people imagine that they have "crossed the line".

Downshifting, and its variants, are not necessarily the idyllic and carefree existence which those still embedded in the rat race think them to be. A salaried or 9 to 5 job has in-built motivatory factors, imbuing one with a sense of purpose, targets to aim for, and some semblance of structure and continuity. Those who embark on alternative courses may come to yearn for some of these things.

It is oft remarked that one of the drawbacks of living a regimented life is the tendency to experience "ruts", brought on by drab and repititive routines. However, downshifters can also fall prey to such difficulties, as a life without a sense of purpose and direction can become soulless, notwithstanding its apparent flexibility and other benefits.

So what is the answer?  Well, one thing to bear in mind is that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Pursuing both paths to extremes can represent a fool's paradise, and it is easy to be seduced by the platitudes of others. Self-awareness, being alive to warning signals, and a readiness to embrace changes, are all of benefit, but of course are not possessed by everyone.

It is tempting to reach the conclusion that each philosophy can learn from the other, in the search for a more balanced and fulfilling life. Combining the practicalities of "the treadmill" with room for hopes and dreams, or marrying a sense of excitement to some roots and foundations would perhaps be a more realistic scenario.  The very lucky amongst us achieve at some point a feeling of equilibrium, where the ideal becomes reality in one organic whole. The rest of us have to be content with reining in fanciful ambitions or notions, and coming to terms with the necessity for pragmatism and compromise.

If I have learned anything from my own experiences on both sides of "the fence", it is that mental complacency is the main enemy, and that this can lead to stagnation and disillusionment.  It sounds trite, I know, but variety is the spice of life, and this applies particularly to interaction with other human beings. We just keep on learning, often from our mistakes and traumas, and try to train our minds to recognise when the rot is setting in, and act accordingly.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

BBC 2012 F1 coverage

There has been much speculation about the composition of the BBC's commentary and punditry team for its F1 coverage in 2012, following the defection of several high-profile figures to Sky.

Today, however, there were media reports which should give some reassurance to real F1 enthusiasts. It seems that Ben Edwards is being lined up to be the main commentator alongside David Coulthard for next season.

My main memory of Ben is of his partnership with John Watson on Eurosport's commentary team in the mid-1990s, and I gained a favourable impression.  As a racing driver himself, he knew what he was talking about, but also had the ability to communicate his knowledge in a friendly, natural style. It remains to be seen, of course, whether he can establish the same chemistry with DC as he had with Wattie.

Although the loss of Martin Brundle and Ted Kravitz is a blow, it is encouraging that Jake Humphrey will stay as main presenter. I must admit that I was sceptical when Jake was first appointed, but I have been forced to eat humble pie and admit that he has done a first-rate job.  From a purely personal point of view I hope also that the delightful Lee McKenzie plays an enhanced role in the coverage!

I am often critical of some aspects of the BBC, and in particular the licence fee system, but I wish them well in their efforts to maintain the high standards of their Formula 1 coverage.  The portents thus far are good.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Overlord - Max Hastings

This book had been quietly gathering dust on my shelf since I purchased it some months ago, but feeling that I had neglected military history in my recent reading activities, decided to give it my undivided attention. Essentially, this is an account of the D-Day landings in June 1944, and the subsequent campaign in North West France.

Hastings adopts a clever and novel approach, in combining straight historical chronicling with some poignant and insightful quotes and recollections from the men who were on the ground, placing their experiences in the context of the overall operation.

Some of the most hard-hitting content concerns not the invasion itself and its aftermath, but rather the build-up and preparations for Overlord.  The author details the disagreements about overall strategy between the Allies, and also within the services themselves.  The passages addressing the reluctance of the British and US air forces to embrace Overlord, and to switch their resources accordingly, are particularly startling.  I had been aware previously that the RAF took some persuading to transfer the emphasis of strategic bombing, but Overlord offers new analysis.

Reading this book, it is sobering to reflect on how many of the disputes were not resolved until shortly before the landings, and also how much of the acrimony lingered afterwards.  Belying the displays of unity offered up for public (and enemy) consumption, it appears that there was plenty of discord and rancour behind the scenes!

I was also greatly moved and impressed by the chapters which covered the actual landings, and the hardships and travails endured by the troops. I almost felt like I had been transported to the Normandy beaches of June 1944, and was observing events as a spectator.  When an author can elicit this kind of feeling in the reader, he or she must be doing a good job...

The book goes on to dissect some of the deficiencies of both armies, in terms of men and material. Where possible, Hastings moves beyond patrotic and ideological considerations to offer an objective and candid assessment of  fighting vigour and technology.  Some attention is also given to the conduct of the various commanders, and how their relations with their peers and subordinates were affected by the vicissitudes of the campaign.

It was refreshing to find a commentator from either Britain or the United States who is willing to discuss so openly and frankly some of the failings of the Allied operations, and to acknowledge that the main reasons for their ultimate victory in Normandy were their superiority in overall firepower and the scale of their material resources.

There may be more detailed or technically comprehensive accounts of this particular stage of World War 2 out there, but as a one-stop, accessible and well written example, Overlord will be difficult to surpass.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Dreamboat Annie - Heart - album review

For most people the mention of the North American rock group Heart conjures up images of 80s big hair, slickly produced power-ballads, and extravagant promotional videos.

Indeed, until a couple of years ago that was also my conception of Heart. I was aware of their previous "incarnation" in the 1970s, but had not taken the trouble to explore that period of their career in any major depth.

When I heard Dreamboat Annie, their 1976 debut album, I was completely taken aback by its level of quality and invention. At the time, Ann and Nancy Wilson were hailed as the "female Led Zeppelin", but there is much more to them than that.

Dreamboat Annie could be justly described as a concept album of sorts, with common threads being provided by the vibe and mood (and delicate instrumentation) of the acoustic numbers and the three versions of the title track which span the song list.

The overall feel is one of "light and shade", with the subtler and quieter acoustic moments interspersed with rockier, grittier sections.  That said, my abiding feeling about the album is that it is a series of "mood pieces" rather than a straight-ahead rock album. 

In terms of influences, yes there are echoes of Zeppelin in there, but also nods to Californian rock, particularly Neil Young, and even psychedelic bands such as Jefferson Airplane.

The album opens with "Magic Man", which would be categorised as mainstream rock, but is tuneful and immaculately crafted, in keeping with the rest of Dreamboat Annie. Indeed, it is the imaginative arrangements and production which make this such an unusual album.

Next, we are treated to a first taste of the title track, and perhaps the first indication of the purity of Ann Wilson's voice, which is a hallmark throughout.

"Crazy On You" is one of the standout tracks, with its distinctive acoustic guitar introduction, and its deceptively complex tune.  The song is also a showcase for Ann Wilson's vocal versatility and range, as she alternates between delicacy in the verses and more power in the choruses.  There is also pleasing interplay between acoustic and electric guitars, another feature of this whole LP.

The fourth track, "Soul Of The Sea", is perhaps the most affecting of the mood-pieces. Nautical references and atmospheres are another thread in some of the songs. The middle-section contains the most overtly Led Zeppelin-esque sequence on the entire album, reminiscent of the folky songs on Zep's third and fourth albums.  Ann's vocal phrasing is also strikingly similar to that of Robert Plant, but this is not necessarily a criticism!  The carefully layered backing tracks on this song are beautifully done, and never cloy.

On we move to "Dreamboat Annie" itself.  The group employs some unusual (for rock music) instruments on this cut, including banjo, and what sounds to me like a glockenspiel. Just another instance of a diverse palette being used to enrich the sonic landscape, and one of the virtues of this album as a whole.

"White Lightning and Wine" is another of the heavier items on Dreamboat Annie, although it has a more rootsy guitar sound than the others. In different circumstances this could have been a "meat and potatoes" track, but the talent and personality of Ann Wilson elevate it above the merely ordinary.

Perhaps the prettiest of all the tracks is "(Love Me Like Music) I'll Be Your Song", which has a lovely tune, and beautifully soothing vocals and harmonies.  Once again, the finesse of the backing track, and the understated production, work superbly.

By contrast, "Sing Child" possesses the most outlandish guitar effects on the album, and a strikingly effective flute part.  Of all the songs, this contains the most deviations and stylistic shifts, and is a good counterpoint to the many gentler moments.  Yet another indication of the care lavished on the production.

"How Deep It Goes" features more intricate acoustic picking, and crystalline vocals.  This is a song which exemplifies the vaguely ethereal and dreamy ambience of the whole album, with some unexpected melodic turns, and hooks.

And so we finish with the Reprise of "Dreamboat Annie".   Again, a variation from the other two versions, with a slightly different tempo, and more piano-intensive. The classically tinged parts are almost baroque in flavour.

There we have it, then, for my money one of the most under-rated albums of its era.  Even more impressive when one realises that it was their debut effort. I would recommend it to pop/rock music-lovers across the board. It is one of those records which, once listened to properly, commands instant admiration and respect.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Peter Gethin

The sad news was announced today of the death of Peter Gethin, Formula 1 driver of the early 1970s, at the age of 71.

Peter was of course best known for his victory in the extraordinary 1971 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, possibly the most exhilarating race in F1 history.  He led home a howling pack of cars driven by Ronnie Peterson and Francois Cevert, amongst others, in what was for many years thereafter the fastest race in the history of the World Championship.

As he crossed the finishing line that day at Monza, mere feet ahead of the pack, Peter had the presence of mind to raise his arm in triumph, just in case there was any doubt about the result in those days prior to the advent of full electronic timing!

The rest of his F1 career could not hope to match the giddy heights of Monza, but he did win a couple of non-championship events, including memorably beating the F1 stars in his F5000 Chevron in the 1973 Race of Champions.

In addition to his F1 exploits, Peter had success in F5000 in both Europe and the Antipodes, as well as in Can-Am racing.

Following his retirement from driving, he remained involved in the sport, becoming involved in team management, including with the Toleman Formula 1 team in 1984.  This meant that he had to deal with a certain Ayrton Senna da Silva.  A contractual dispute meant that the Brazilian was prevented from competing at Monza that year, and there is some famous footage of Peter and Ayrton debating matters in the paddock.

Condolences go to Peter's family and friends.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Steppenwolf - Hermann Hesse

I am gradually working my way through some of Hermann Hesse's most celebrated works.  Having been inspired by Siddhartha, and immersed in The Glass Bead Game, I next turned my attention to Steppenwolf:

In fairness, Steppenwolf seems to have been subject to a myriad of interpretations down the years, and Hesse himself commented that the book had been very much misunderstood by many people. At the risk of being accused of misunderstanding the many messages myself, I have attempted to dissect some of the themes which are touched on or probed.

Through the main character, Harry Haller, the novel takes a look at to what degree some people have split personalities (in Haller's case between "man" and "wolf"), but also the notion that we have multi-layered personalities.

Within the context of all this, we also delve into the conflicts and tensions between individualism and bourgeois existence, and see how a solitary and single-minded approach to life and culture can often become a blind alley, where resentment and bitterness might fester and thrive.

As Haller continues on his journey, he meets people who introduce him to frivolity and decadence. Touching on the issue of multi-layered personalities once more, it is hinted that we should value some levity as an emollient. Alien worlds are much more welcoming and accommodating than we might have imagined. Other people are fascinated by the strengths of the loner or the thinker, and they themselves may yearn to fill in some of the gaps in their own development.  There is no shame in these "compromises", as greater rewards may lie ahead...

One strand which I picked up, rightly or wrongly, during the period when Haller links up with Hermine and the saxophonist Pablo, is an assertion that the sensual, and the pleasures of the flesh, are just as worthy and valid as the intellectual.  Sensuality is a form of an expression, and a mode of living, just as "conventional" culture is.

This part of the novel was the most fascinating for me, as it began to steer the story discernibly in the direction of transcendence, a much favoured subject of Hesse.  The question began to form in my mind - "well, we've learned to welcome more joviality and hedonism into our lives, but where does this take us?".  There is a recognition that even those individuals who cultivate advanced tastes for both the individual and the sensual will be little appreciated, and that shallowness and mediocrity will still hold sway.  But will there still be some form of escape, or release, for the inquisitive and the curious?

Grandiose though the ending of Steppenwolf is, many matters are left wholly or partly unresolved for me.  There are references to immortality and eternity, and the almost obligatory allusion to a return to a child-like state, which is presumably in part what endeared this work to the post World War 2 "counterculture".

During the Masked Ball scene, intoxication appears to be put forward as a kind of release from the constant striving, suffering, indiscretions and effort of life, but even this is not sufficient for Harry Haller.

The subsequent hallucinatory scenes offer additional clues, and build on the premise of a multi-layered human being. The killing of Hermine by Haller (the Steppenwolf) provides persuasive hints that the animalistic side of him was still lurking, the irony being that she prevailed upon him to end her life in exchange for tutoring him in the ways of her social milieu.

So is life for most of us a never-ending struggle, characterised by our constant shuffling of the various pieces of our multi-faceted personality, and not finalised by even death itself?

Another thought which increasingly weighed on my mind as I progressed through Steppenwolf  was that rather than simply taking life too seriously, some of us fail to take some aspects of life, and our "souls", seriously enough. A balancing is desirable.

Even allowing for the outwardly downbeat ending, some optimistic notes are still struck towards the end of the story. We all have it within our power to change, but our "souls" need to be unlocked, and this may entail the assistance of others.

Not as linear as Siddhartha, or as enriching as The Glass Bead Game, Steppenwolf is nevertheless a work which will continue to provoke much thought and reflection among many people.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Martian Chronicles - Ray Bradbury

Not so long ago I completed reading Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, and posted my thoughts on this blog:

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Suitably enthused, I then moved on to another of Bradbury's most noteworthy works, The Martian Chronicles:

The Martian Chronicles is a fictional account of Earth's repeated attempts to colonize Mars, presented as a series of short strories, and examines the effects and ramifications of these events over a number of years.

Many themes are explored throughout this book, often pertaining to the dichotomy between Man's idealism surrounding his journey to Mars, and the intolerance, corruption and arrogance which he also brings with him.

Another message which comes through is that the inhabitants of Earth could learn from the civilizations on other planets, and that they ignore such lessons at their peril. Some human weaknesses could be our downfall in exploring space, including greed, sentimentality and hubris.

In The Martian Chronicles, people have widely differing agendas when approaching colonization of Mars.  Some see Mars as a potential refuge for lovers of liberty, tolerance and peace, while others wish to fashion the Red Planet for their own less benign and selfless motives.

The work looks at the methods employed by the Martians to address the influx of Earth men, from the subtleties of "telepathy" to less benevolent measures as the depredations intensify.  Some uncomfortable and probing questions are posed about what lengths a people should go to in defending their own "territory" and habitat.

Some of the philosophical strands in this book really resonated with me, particularly the desire of some of the Mars colonists to live a simple existence, for its own sake, and not to be in hock to some "end" or spurious "common good".  But at the same time, the question lingers, how far should we be permitted to go in order to secure and preserve our own liberty and richness of life?

Possibly the most fascinating chapters of The Martian Chronicles appear towards its conclusion, when issues of racial persecution, war and human relationships are very prominent. Those who suffer racial discrimination on Earth travel to Mars with hope, but may end up facing the same types of oppressors on their new home.

Many of those who boarded the rockets espoused some ideals about freedom, but acted just as unethically and immorally, and with as much avarice, on Mars as they had done on Earth.  There is an attendant danger that the colonized area becomes as authoritarian and over-regulated as the mother planet. Peaceful co-existence was desired, but on terms set by the former Earth dwellers....

When a major war erupted on Earth, many of the colonists return from whence they came. For all their determination to construct a new life, the pull of historic ties, tribalism and vested interests proves stronger, and they are drawn back to support something which they profess to abhor.

After the exodus back to war-ravaged Earth, the few people left on Mars try desperately to establish contact with each other, but in this context the journey proves more seductive than the cold reality upon arrival. The craving for human interaction proves to be delusive, with the inference that we are best left to reach our own equilibrium, and form relationships "organically". This struck a chord with me, I must admit!

The final chapter is more hopeful, with a group of humans finally severing all ties with Earth, and looking towards the future.

The Martian Chronicles was at times a demanding read, as there is comparatively little in the way of exposition, and intense concentration may be needed to get the most out of it, and interpret all of the imagery.  However, if one persists there is plenty at which to wonder, and with which to exercise the mind.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Kimi Raikkonen

So, the 2007 World champion has announced that he is returning to Formula 1 competition with the Renault/Lotus team, after a two year absence from the premier class of motorsport.  My first reaction was surprise that Raikkonen had only been out of F1 for two seasons. It felt like longer than that!

Whilst it is excellent news that a driver of Kimi's talent will be back on the grid, this news does throw up some interesting talking points, both about the Finn and others.

Whilst Raikkonen is making all the correct noises, about rediscovering his hunger for F1 and so on, he faces a different situation to that which existed when he embarked on his Grand Prix sabbatical. In 2009, he was still in a reasonably competitive car, and with a team with bounteous resources. That will not necessarily be the case in 2012. The record of ex World Champions returning to F1 in "middling" cars or teams is equivocal at best.

On the surface, Kimi would seem to have advantages over previous high-profile F1 returnees.  Firstly, he is still remarkably young for someone who has achieved so much, and who has competed in so many Grands Prix. Theoretically, this should help him both physically and psychologically. In addition, during his two year absence from the pinnacle he has continued competing, more or less full-time in rallying, whilst also dabbling with NASCAR.  His competitive juices have therefore been kept well and truly active.

Despite the plus points mentioned above, there is always the nagging fear that in today's ever-changing, intense and complex F1 environment, Kimi will fail to get up to speed.  On balance, I don't expect this to happen, primarily because he is such a naturally fast driver, in the Mika Hakkinen mould, and can therefore drive around many problems.

It will be fascinating to witness to what degree the thinking on the choice of the other Lotus driver for 2012 is influenced, sub-consciously or otherwise, by the arrival of Raikkonen. Given that the choice of Kimi represents a risk, albeit a relatively small one, will there be a temptation to "play safe" in the selection of the occupant of the other seat?

For the time being anyway, let's disregard any misgivings and celebrate the return of "The Iceman",  whose inclusion adds yet more spice to what promises to be an intriguing 2012 season.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (movie)

Last night, I had the good fortune to watch The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the 1965 film adaptation of John le Carre's novel, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

The opening sequences of the movie accurately set the scene.  Bleak, gloomy and austere, capturing the atmosphere surrounding the seedy world of espionage. It was a masterstroke to make this film in black and white. Monochrome is invariably more evocative than colour.

The plot of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is quite elaborate, and the movie does a fine job of striking a balance between overt explication and leaving some aspects to be worked out by the viewer.

Richard Burton delivers a fine performance as the brooding, careworn and cynical Alec Leamas. The quality of the acting throughout is quite exceptional. Particularly worthy of praise is the contribution of Oskar Werner as Fiedler.

Other films in the "spy thriller" genre may have sought to glamorise espionage, but The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is quite unflinching in its depiction as a sleazy, ruthless and unforgiving world.  The court room scene towards the scene is particularly stark and compelling.

Overall, this is a well-constructed and riveting film, and well worth checking out. It may persuade me to devote some attention to John le Carre's novels.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Brazilian Grand Prix 2011

So, the 2011 Formula season has reached its end. Not the most riveting race to sign off with, but there are plenty of side issues and subtexts which are worthy of discussion.  In some ways, it is unfortunate that the threatened rain did not materialise in Interlagos, as this would have spiced things up slightly!

Whether Mark Webber could have won if  Sebastian Vettel's gearbox maladies had not intervened is a matter of conjecture, but the form from practice and the early laps of the race itself would seem to indicate that the German would have notched up another victory.  The nature of the Interlagos circuit worked in his favour, making the problems manageable.

Even though the win in Brazil was fortunate, it was some compensation for the frustrations and setbacks endured by Webber throughout 2011. It still seems mildly extraordinary that he won only the single race in the whole season.

The race ended up being a bit anti-climactic for McLaren, not quite living up to the pre-race hopes and expectations. Jenson Button's late surge on to the podium appeared to vindicate his strategy, but only belatedly.  Second place in the championship was reward for Button's consistency and intelligent driving during the season.

Lewis Hamilton's gearbox failure, coming after the euphoria of Abu Dhabi, was symptomatic of his roller-coaster year.  Hamilton was in quite philosophical mood after the race, the inference being that he will put 2011 down to "experience" and do his best to come back stronger (and luckier) next year.

One of the major talking points of the race was the coming-together between Michael Schumacher and Bruno Senna. It did seem that Senna moved over slightly , but by the same token it was an optimistic, and far from straightforward, move by the seven-times champion.  I am no expert, but I think that allowances have to be made for the nature of the track layout at that point, which may have contributed to the Renault driver's line. It seems that I was not alone in considering the penalty imposed on Senna quite harsh...

In what may turn out to be his F1 swansong, Rubens Barrichello did not quite have the race that he was looking for on his home turf. However, he did at least exhibit some spirit after difficulties early on.

Of course, Williams are being linked with a move for Adrian Sutil, and some eyebrows may have been raised when Sutil was very impressive in Brazi, battling tenaciously and finally finishing sixth. A job application in all but name?  To be fair, Force India as a team were pretty much on form all weekend. The performance cannot have done his Williams prospects any harm, at the very least.

The chances of Kimi Raikkonen joining Williams for 2012 have faded, so it is looking increasingly like it may be a Sutil/Maldonado pairing at Grove next season.  Hardly inspiring you might say, and the pressure would be on Sutil to step up to the plate and genuinely begin to fulfill his undoubted potential.

On another Williams-related note, it seems that Patrick Head will be withdrawing from major involvement in the F1 project. Following the case of Ron Dennis, this is another sign of the changing of the guard in Formula 1 generally, with new faces taking over from those who have been so prominent in the past two or three decades.

Just to finish, a word about the Interlagos circuit itself.  Watching the television coverage yesterday, I was reminded what a superb track it is, certainly one of the best on the calendar. It remains a breath of fresh air in this homogenized age, with its anti-clockwise direction, elevation changes and quirky mixture of corners.

So, 2011 is over.   Roll on 2012!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Gary Speed

Sunday dawned sunny but chilly and blustery.  I was preparing to follow an afternoon of quality sporting action, and logged on to the BBC sport website, only to be confronted with the news of Gary Speed's death, which was then just breaking.

At first, the news was difficult to absorb, and I found it hard to believe it was actually true.  But then further details began to emerge.

Gary Speed was admired and respected across the board in football, and this transcended club loyalties. He was one of those men who every coach or player would like to have in their team. For a time, he held the Premier League appearance record, and this is testimony to how he looked after himself physically, his good disciplinary record, and the fact that at his various clubs he was one of the first names on the team-sheet for every game.

He first emerged as a youngster at Leeds, coming to greater prominence during the 1992 championship-winning season, being an integral part of a famous midfield, alongside Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty. Gary provided that Leeds team with youthful energy, vitality and dynamism. His aerial prowess became much-feared, and his versatility was invaluable. Even as Leeds' fortunes declined in the years after 1992, Gary Speed still gave his all.

He served with distinction for his other clubs.  From being the youngster at Leeds, he gradually turned into a kind of "elder statesman" figure, no doubt passing on his knowledge and experience to his younger colleagues.

Gary Speed's managerial career promised to be as successful and rewarding as his playing days, and hopes were high for his stewardship of a young and promising Welsh team. But it was not to be....

If young footballers can aspire to the professionalism, attitude and conduct epitomised by Gary Speed, then their careers will have a firm foundation.

Above all, though, our thoughts must be with Gary's family and friends at this time.

Rest In Peace, Gary.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Leeds United 1 Barnsley 2

So once again with Leeds it is one step forward, two steps back, as Barnsley secure their first victory at Elland Road for twenty one years.

I must confess that I didn't follow this afternoon's game particularly closely, being otherwise engaged, but it seems to me that Leeds must start to improve their form at home, and achieve some semblance of consistency in front of their own supporters. It is very unlikely that they will be able to rely all season on surprise or fortuitous away results. In addition, Leeds' goal difference is markedly inferior to the teams around them.

The Championship is habitually described as "ultra-competitive", which is another way of saying that it is largely mediocre, with few teams able to put together a convincing sequence of results.  One or two teams usually emerge as a cut above the rest, and Southampton and West Ham seem poised to fulfill the role this season.  The rest will be fighting for the play-off positions.

Despite how inconsistent and erratic Leeds seem, they are still in the play-off spots, partially by dint of the shortcomings of their competitors. It would be churlish to criticise the team if it reaches the play-offs, but it would also be nice if they could do it purely on their own merits, and not be seen to be benefitting from others' failings.

Goodness knows what will happen at Nottingham Forest on Tuesday evening!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Old School Doctor Who

Just recently, I was fortunate enough to watch what is I suppose regarded as one of the classic episodes of Doctor Who, namely Genesis of The Daleks, from 1975.

I must confess that Doctor Who has not really exercised my consciousness since the early 1980s, and for me, like many people of my generation, Tom Baker was the Doctor par excellence.

The storyline of Genesis of The Daleks was impressive, complex and fluctuating, and its vagaries and subtleties would probably have escaped me at the tender age I was when I first watched Doctor Who! Viewing this episode now, though, I can appreciate how well the story was constructed, with the suspense being steadily built, and occasionally decreased. The writers and producers definitely understood how to hold and maintain the attention of the viewers.

Even allowing for my generational bias, I still think that Tom Baker was a mightily impressive Doctor. As an actor, he projected some gravitas, whilst imbuing the character with a "Pied Piper" type of persona which has always been important. Again, some of these nuances were not absorbed when I was an impressionable child, and the sense of wonder over-rode most other considerations. But one of the strengths of Doctor Who in those days was that it worked on several levels, providing escapism for the young, and containing more weighty fare for the grown-ups.

Another strand which emerged during my recent viewing, but which I had not noticed much during my formative years, was the tendency for moral themes and dilemmas to be explored in the programme, usually revolving around the good/evil, or right/wrong paradigm. Whilst watching the show as a child in the Seventies,  I had very little sense of being "preached" to, but admittedly would not have recognised the tell-tale signs at that age anyway. Perhaps I am too cynical and judgemental these days, detecting agendas and reading things into essentially innocent dialogue.

The settings for Genesis of The Daleks are bleak, dark, and ominous and give off a sense of foreboding. That is how I remember most of the episodes of that era. The sun rarely shone! The locations were often enclosed, claustrophobic and dimly lit. The aesthetic was less gaudy and ostentatious than the versions of  Doctor Who which both preceded and followed it. Sober colours, designs and costumes were the order of the day, and that was something which appealed to me then, and still does now....

One thing which has not altered in the past three and a half decades is the capacity of Davros and the Daleks to disturb and instill fear. Indeed, they seem more chilling now because the innocence of childhood tends to mask the true gravity and meaning of some of their words and deeds.

The special effects in Doctor Who have been much mocked down the years, and Genesis of The Daleks was something of a curate's egg in this regard. The Davros creation, in terms of make-up and voice, was exceptional for its time, and was even more convincing than I had remembered it. However, I wonder whether this effort exhausted much of the budget, as the other effects were less spectacular and authentic.  All part of the charm of the programme, I guess!

The fight or "struggle" scenes in Doctor Who at that time never seemed over-burdened with realism. Indeed, the exaggerated grimaces of the characters remain one of the clearest memories of my childhood...

In general, the quality of acting was of a good standard, even if the dialogue could occasionally appear stodgy, prolonged and repititive.

Doctor Who may have lacked the budget of many of its American counterpart programmes, but it had a certain power, coloured by British ingenuity and humour. The unusual, not to say unique, basic premise of the programme also helps explain its appeal.

Following this, I might even be persuaded to start watching the "modern" Doctor Who....

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Burnley 1 Leeds United 2

After watching this Npower Champonship match on television, I feel some pangs of sympathy for Burnley and their supporters.

I thought that Leeds were very ordinary for the majority of the game at Turf Moor, but admittedly took those two chances when they were presented.

My reading of it was that Leeds started quite purposefully, but soon Burnley began to look the more organised and cohesive team. Leeds kept trying, but struggled to carve out meaningful goalscoring opportunities.

One of the undoubted plusses from my point of view was the assured performance of our new goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, although I thought he might have done marginally better for the Burnley goal. A couple of his saves later proved to be absolutely crucial.  Regrettably, the defence in front of him looked much less reliable and solid.

Up until Leeds' late purple patch, Burnley had probably looked more threatening, and more likely to score in the second period.  What was heartening was that once Robert Snodgrass scored, Leeds kept pressing in order to capitalise.

What conclusions should we draw from this result?   Well, hopefully Simon Grayson and his players will realise that they were slightly fortunate, and that they will not be able to play like this and win on a regular basis.

In a funny way, this could be a turning point, the nature of the performance and result giving a boost to morale and even confidence. Nobody should be under any illusions, however, that there is much work still to be done.

On a lighter note, I thought that when he scored his second goal, Snodgrass might have slightly mis-hit the ball. If he had made a more perfect contact, the ball might not have ended up in the net!  On such fine margins are things decided....

The Great Escape

I recently viewed The Great Escape yet again. Rather than just write a dry "review" for this blog, I decided to examine a few of the neglected aspects of the film, as well as address a few myths, and generally make a few random observations.

One of the interesting subtexts in The Great Escape is the rapport which develops between individual British and American captives, in spite of the glaring clash of cultures.  The major instances of this are the tie-ups involving Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Ives, and then Hendley (James Garner) and Blythe.

The Hendley-Blythe collaboration was fascinating for several reasons. They seemed an unlikely duo, the streetwise, taciturn American and the rather eccentric Englishman, but the affection was genuine. Not really a case of opposites attracting, but more the recognition of essentially human qualities. Hendley sensed the vulnerability of Blythe, whose eyesight was deteriorating.

By agreeing to act as Blythe's escort during and after the escape, Hendley almost certainly saw his own chances of eventual freedom diminish. This brings us on to a perenially contentious subject, namely the role of the American characters in the movie. The screenwriters did push the prominence of the Americans in their adaptation of the story, but this does not tell us the whole story.

A frequent charge is that the Americans were portrayed as the most heroic and smart of the Allied POWs. There is some foundation to this, but equally I would assert that they were far from one-dimensional characters.  Hendley in particular shows much compassion, humanity and shrewdness in his dealings with others. This is an interesting counterpoint to his role as "the scrounger", during which he sometimes had to resort to less wholesome methods. However, on balance we can allow that on this occasion the ends justified the means!

It is tempting to draw the conclusion that Steve McQueen was the "action hero", and that the British and Commonwealth officers were the brains of the operation. That is an over-simplification. At times he showed genuine clarity of thought, while the British appeared to become mired in detail and bureaucracy.

How do we interpret the scene during which the US officers hold a ceremony to celebrate the Fourth of July?  One could choose to see it as a subtle dig at British imperialism, but I prefer to view the sequence as signifying the ability of the prisoners to acknowledge the past, but at the same time to recognise that they were now united in facing a common foe.

In assessing the contribution of the McQueen and Garner characters, it should also be recalled that the only escapees who were ultimately successful were non-American, and Hilts and Hendley, although surviving, were returned to captivity in the camp.

It is also probably true to say that the Americans expressed the most misgivings and cynicism about the whole enterprise, whereas the others appeared to be in thrall to Bartlett in particular. Towards the close of the film, the dissent in the ranks makes itself felt more, as the human cost begins to sink in, and much of the bravado and idealism dissolves.

When assessing The Great Escape, Bartlett (Big X) comes across as one of the less appealing characters, and one who I suspect divides opinion. The more I watch the film, the more I see him as vain and manipulative, even narcissistic. He was capable of persuading his men to do things which they might normally deem to be inadvisable.  At the same time, I can appreciate that he was the catalyst and the motivator,  and the one who made things happen.

Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald) initially sought to advise caution, and to act as a voice of reason and moderation, and to curb some of Big X's excesses. However, even his authority seemed to be over-ridden by the forceful personality of Bartlett. A more ideal formula may have been the zeal and vigour of the escape group leadership, tempered by cooler heads and the more detached approach of the likes of Ramsey.

It also seems to me that the MacDonald character (played by Gordon Jackson) is one of the weak links, although nominally seen as important. He displays sychophancy towards Bartlett at times, but Bartlett seems to have less than total confidence in him. Was excessive loyalty shown to some of the operatives, when their roles could have been more effectively performed by men from outside the "clique"?

One of the characters who shows some individuality and ploughs his own furrow is Sedgwick, the Australian. Mocked by his fellow prisoners for insisting on taking a suitcase with him on the escape, and constantly harrassed over deadlines, he displayed greater savvy and assurance than the others once it was every man for himself. As something of a loner and individualist myself, I could emphathise with Sedgwick's approach!

A part of the film which increasingly grates with me is the characterisation of the Gestapo men in the movie. They feel unduly "cartoonish", as if they were intended to be caricatures, derived straight from War Comics Central Casting. This, however, is quite a minor criticism in the overall scheme of things.

Over the years, much has been made about the supposed "rapport" between the Luftwaffe men staffing the camp and the Allied POWs. There may have been some level of understanding and common ground as "flyers", but it may have been over-emphasised. There was certainly a battle of wills, and if anything the Germans may have shown too much trust and leniency at the outset, and under-estimated the determination and resolve of the prisoners. The commandant and guards found it difficult to deal with the insubordination, defiance and sarcasm which they encountered.  Ironically, in seeking to distance themselves from, and ignore the advice of, the Gestapo and the SS, the camp authorities partly contributed to their own downfall. They allowed Bartlett to integrate with the others, rather than housing him separately.

One of the strengths of The Great Escape is its depth, certainly in comparison to most other mainstream war films. No doubt before long I will be writing a follow-up to this article, with more observations!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Band

It is rare for a group to make definitive musical statements with its first two albums, let alone produce two works which have such a profound effect on the musical landscape. However, this was achieved by The Band, the Canadian-American combo which until then had been best known as Bob Dylan's some-time backing band.

Music From Big Pink and The Band, released in 1968 and 1969 respectively, were instrumental (if you'll pardon the pun) in rock music's shift in a more rootsy direction, and away from the extravagance of the psychedelic and heavy music which had begun to dominate. Much of the rock aristrocracy, including Eric Clapton and George Harrison, was inspired by The Band, not only because of their sound, but because of the sense of community which their music seemed to encapsulate.

I was initially resistant to The Band, probably because they were praised by rock critics whose taste and judgement I did not always trust. However, interest in other exponents of "roots" rock eventually led me to purchase those first two albums, and I became a fan for life.

One of the first things which is immediately noticeable when listening to Music from Big Pink is an exuberance and impishness, which suggests that the musicians were having great fun recording these songs! 

In an era when individual virtuosity and showmanship were becoming ever more important, The Band were at pains to ensure where possible that efforts were subsumed into concise and organic song structures, while still allowing space for the individual contributions to breathe. This was possible because of the even distribution of talent within the group. The soulful vocals of Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, and the keyboard wizardry of Garth Hudson were central to the group's appeal, but were never permitted to dominate or marginalise other elements.

Another remarkable thing about The Band is how they combined and mixed various musical influences into their own unique style. Many of their songs contained elements of blues,R&B,country, and folk, but few of the tracks in their catalogue can be pigeon-holed as typifying any particular genre.

Of the two, I probably marginally prefer Music From Big Pink because of its greater spontaneity, but I know that many fans treat the two LPs as in effect one double-album. The "brown album" exudes more polish. Robbie Robertson, in particular, appears to have gone through a remarkably fertile period of songwriting productivity.

When examining two albums of such sustained and consistent quality, it is difficult, and even churlish, to pick out highlights.  However, Manuel's vocal on "Tears of Rage" never fails to send a shiver down the spine, and the tuneful opening bars of "Across The Great Divide" exemplify everything that was great about The Band. The versions of the "Basement Tapes" songs on the first album are pretty much definitive.

And the lyrical content of these songs also differed from those of the majority of The Band's contemporaries, delving as they did into historical themes, and featuring some offbeat humour. It was as if they were instinctively rebelling against some of the more outlandish pretensions then prevalent on the rock scene.

The rustic and rootsy flavour of the material was also enhanced by the distinctive, and sometimes intentionally ragged, vocal interplay between Helm, Manuel and Rick Danko.  When other artists were aiming for more and more pristine multi-tracked harmonies, The Band allowed the diverse talents of their singers to shine through. In addition, they were not scared of employing unusual instruments for a rock setting, and the members themselves sometimes switched between instruments.  The Band were a "band" in the truest sense of the word....

Perhaps inevitably, The Band were not quite able to maintain the stunning standard of their first two albums on subsequent works. Although their craftsmanship and talent remained intact, reproducing the magic of 1968/69 proved elusive.

The Band's place in rock history was assured by their work at the close of the 1960s.  This was not just because of the quality and charm of the music, but because they caused a generation of musicians to take stock, and consider whether things could be done differently.

Music From Big Pink and The Band have stood the test of time, and sound as fresh and as ebullient as they must have done over four decades ago.

Listen to the keyboard-drenched introduction to "We Can Talk", and you'll see what I mean....

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2011.

A most peculiar thing happened to me today.  Around mid-afternoon, I was watching TV, and a racing driver by the name of Lewis Hamilton appeared on my screen, and he was smiling, and even laughing....

It is probably too early to say definitively that the "old" Lewis is back, but his joy and relief following this victory were palpable.  He didn't have to do much in the way of wheel-to-wheel racing to achieve today's win, and his cause was assisted by Sebastian Vettel's early departure, but his drive had some genuine authority about it.

Historically, McLaren always keep pushing until the very end of a Formula 1 season, regardless of whether the championship is still at stake. Hamilton and Jenson Button are reaping the dividends of this ethos. Jenson was affected by KERS maladies today, which makes his podium position all the more creditable.

For once, Red Bull seemed fallible, and in addition to Vettel's problems,  Mark Webber's own car seemed slightly out of sorts, but he showed his customary tenacity to try to achieve the best possible result.

As for Ferrari, well Felipe Massa drove a solid race up until his late spin. Although this did not make much difference to the final outcome, it will hardly endear him to the team.  Alonso showed real application in his valiant pursuit of Hamilton, and second place was almost certainly the best the car was capable of on the day.

One way or another, Williams had a pretty eventful race. Pastor Maldonado incurred the wrath of the stewards on a couple of occasions, and he needs to be careful that he does not acquire a reputation for being an awkward customer.

The performance, at least in the early part of the race, of Rubens Barrichello, will have raised a few eyebrows, and will no doubt prompt much debate. Granted, he was on the back row of the grid, and this indignity may have fired him up, but his drive may also be analysed in the context of recent speculation concerning the Williams team's likely 2012 line-up....

The Abu Dhabi track seems to inspire mixed reactions, but it is hard to deny that it is visually stunning, and personally I quite like its layout. It seems likely to be a fixture on the calendar, in the medium term at least.

And so on to Interlagos, for the 2011 season finale. It is fitting that the campaign ends at a traditional F1 circuit, with a great atmosphere. Will McLaren continue their late season surge?  Of course, second place in the drivers' table is still very much up for grabs, so it should be a lively contest!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Steve Prefontaine

Every so often, in every walk of life, a person comes along who stands apart from the rest, not necessarily by virtue of their ability, but because of their approach, their attitude and their affect on those around them. Such a person was Steve Prefontaine, the American distance runner of the 1970s.

When I first began following track and field closely, in the 1980s, I remember hearing the name Steve Prefontaine, and seeing him mentioned in books, but at the time did not fully grasp his importance and influence, particularly to people in the US. I was aware that he had narrowly missed out on a medal in the 1972 Olympics, but little beyond that.

My interest in Prefontaine was truly awakened a couple of years ago, when I saw the excellent movie, Without Limits, which is a biopic about the man himself.  Whether the film is a fully accurate portrayal I will leave to those with more detailed knowledge to judge.

The most memorable feature of Without Limits is arguably the performance of Donald Sutherland as Bill Bowerman, Prefontaine's coach. However, aspects of the runner's personality and spirit are also examined, including how these traits impacted on others.

One of the striking things about Prefontaine seems to have been his idealism, and this was particularly evident in his front-running style.  The manner of victory appeared to matter as much as victory itself, and "Pre", as he was known, may have seen running as much as an exploration of his own boundaries as a competition against other athletes.

This philosophy, and his scepticism towards authority and officialdom, are the things which fascinated me about Prefontaine. Sometimes we need to look beyond arbitrary goals, and embark on our journey of discovery, finding things out for ourselves. This often brings us into conflict with those who cling to convention. This all strikes a chord with me, following recent events in my own life.

Coaches and others may have attempted to persuade the man from Oregon to follow a more pragmatic course, but they were only partially successful. This non-comformist and rebellious streak, and his early death, appear to be the principal reasons for the Prefontaine legend.

Prefontaine's ethos was perfectly illustrated in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 metres final, when he transformed an initially pedestrian race into a no holds barred run for home, extending and testing a field of the utmost quality. Even though he lost the race, he made the race a genuine contest, and did not simply "run with the crowd".

We can only speculate on what he could have achieved in Montreal '76, had he lived. As it happens, the 5000 metres final in those Olympics was an epic affair, but we can reasonably assume that it would have been a different kind of race had the American been present.

Steve Prefontaine may not have won any Olympic medals, but what he stood for, and left behind, are arguably much more precious....

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Silver Dream Racer

Just lately my interest in motorcycle sport of all kinds has been rekindled, and in seeking out material I stumbled across Silver Dream Racer, the 1980 film starring David Essex.

The movie tells the story of an impecunious racer (Essex), who suddenly inherits a gleaming prototype bike from his late brother, and races it in the British Grand Prix.

Approaching the film with an open mind, I was not expecting a masterpiece. To be frank, it was not as interesting as I was expecting. The plot was predictable, and outlandish and over-the-top characters (including one played by Beau Bridges) could not compensate for this. In addition, the script and dialogue represented a classic case of "trying too hard".

In fairness, some of the racing sequences are reasonably convincing and authentic, with the glaring exception of the close-ups of the actors in helmets, super-imposed against a racing background. These shots looked like they could have been filmed in the 1950s...

On the plus side, the theme song is quite nice....

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Le Mans 1970-79 - Quentin Spurring

Just a note to recommend this book, which is subtitled "The Official History of the World's Greatest Motor Race".  Here is a photograph of me holding my copy:

Although there is lavish photographic content, this is not just a "coffee table" work. There is admirable concentration on the technical aspects of the racing.

The 1970s are often seen as something of a "lost" decade for Le Mans, and for sportscar racing in general, coming as they did between the classic Ford-Ferrari-Porsche era and the prosperity of Group C. However, as Quentin Spurring capably documents, there was plenty to enthuse about, and some of the most tense racing in the history of the event.

Rather than simply provide a basic review of each race, the author also separately examines the fortunes of various teams and classes at each race, putting developments into their historical context. The level of detail is impressive, and will add to the knowledge of any sportscar racing fan.

As the race organisers sought to respond to global economic conditions and motorsport politics, the regulations seemed to be in a constant state of flux at this time, but this is just adds to the fascination. Even when manufacturer interest fluctuated, the race always seemed to reinvent itself.

Le Mans 1970-79 is an excellent and enlightening read....

Monday, 7 November 2011

How Much Would F1 Miss Ferrari?

Well, it seems that the Ferrari President has made another one of his occasional pronouncements on the direction of the sport, with many interpreting his words as a threat to withdraw should changes not be made to the regulations.

Ferrari have hastily downplayed some of his remarks, but it seems sensible to assume that Luca di Montezemolo's words are another shot across the bows of the rule-makers and other stakeholders in Formula 1, seeking to nudge them further. in the direction of change.

Even if this is, as seems likely, just another bout of sabre-rattling, what would the repercussions be if Ferrari were indeed to drop out of F1 competition? 

My intial interest in racing was sparked by the exploits of Gilles Villeneuve in the early 1980s, and back then Ferrari were definitely special. The history, the absence of overt sponsorship on the cars and the scarlet colour scheme all contributed to this. However, there was also a sense that they were fallible, and human, and that the team was run at least partly on emotion. This all set them apart from the very businesslike and entrepreneurial British outfits.

At some point in the 1990s, Ferrari realised that they would have to change in order to remain competitive. It was at this point that much of the mystique began to fade, ironically as they entered probably the most successful phase in their history.  Many were also alienated by efforts to play on the team's importance and heritage in order to influence some events.

It would be foolish to deny that losing Ferrari would be a severe setback, but I would see such an event in somewhat different terms than if it had occurred in, say, the early 1990s.  Nowadays, I would regard it as the loss of a competitive, well-funded team, albeit one with a proud tradition. The balance has shifted in the ensuing two decades.

The attitude of younger F1 enthusiasts would also be interesting to gauge. Growing up with the Schumacher era at Maranello, do they see Ferrari as quite so indispensable, in sentimental, and even, commercial, terms?  Perhaps the Italian-based team mildly over-estimates its modern-day importance? The world has changed, and Ferrari with it....

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Leicester City 0 Leeds United 1

After the recent trials and tribulations, this was a very welcome result for Leeds.

By all accounts, it was a tight, hard-fought match, and it is remarkable what a psychological effect winning such a contest can sometimes have on a team. Almost as importantly, there were no goalkeeping dramas!

The Championship league table is also looking a good deal healthier from a Leeds perspective this evening.  There is a renewed sense that we are looking upwards with a view to challenging the play-off places, rather than beginning to glance nervously over our shoulders.

Coming up next, Leeds have what on paper look like two less demanding fixtures, against Burnley and Barnsley, but we know from bitter experience that any hint of complacency in this division is swiftly punished. Rarely has the old adage "taking each game as it comes" seemed more appropriate.

The Third Man - movie review

I am currently on another of my periodic campaigns to watch some of those films which, for one reason or another, have passed me by over the years. Until yesterday, one such movie was The Third Man, the 1949 Carol Reed thriller, with a screenplay by Graham Greene. I wasn't previously aware that Greene's screenplay actually preceded the publication of his novella of the same name.

The film is set in post-World War Two Vienna, and centres on a trip to the city made by an American author, Holly Martins, played by Joseph Cotten. He is seeking to renew acquaintance with his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Upon arriving in Vienna, Martins is informed of Lime's death. The remainder of the story addresses Martins' inquiries, revelations concerning Lime's involvement in racketeering, and the revelation that his death had been "faked", culminating in his actual demise in the exciting final scene in Vienna's subterranean sewers.

In the early scenes of the film, much effort is made to project the atmosphere of post-war Vienna. Cosmopolitan, edgy, uncertain, oppressive. The black and white helps to project the austere, gloomy times. One has to wonder if The Third Man would have had the same power if it had been produced in later years in colour. Very few of the scenes take place in daylight, adding to the ominous and insidious feel. Excellent use is also made of the architecture and landmarks of Vienna to generate powerful imagery and metaphors.

As we meet some of the characters, there is a growing sense of a people numbed by war and its aftermath, but still coping. Mistrust and fear seem to be the dominant emotions, with people constantly unsure whether they are being manipulated or exploited. Loyalties and personal morality are tested to their limits, as everyone concentrates on survival.

Probably the most memorable scene in the film is the one where Harry Lime reappears, having previously been presumed dead. The enigmatic expression on Orson Welles' face is the thing which makes it so potent. Welles has comparatively little screen-time, but his charisma dominates the closing stages of The Third Man.

When watching the movie, I pondered whether Harry Lime was a product of the times. He was unscrupulous and cynical, but at the same time insecure. All of these qualities are on display during the iconic scene on the Ferris wheel.

Mention should also be made of the performances of Alida Valli, Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee. Valli is particularly impressive as Anna Schimdt, the subject of much agonising by both Martins and Lime.

In the final analysis, I think that as well as being a superb film noir, The Third Man is all about loyalty and morality, and the examination of these things in extreme circumstances. I am very glad that I made the effort to watch it!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Retail Therapy?

Earlier this week I visited a large shopping centre, and although it was a far from pleasant experience in itself, it was instructive from one perspective at least.

Over the past eighteen months or so, I have become further and further removed from what is often termed "consumer culture". For possibly the first time since the process began I truly felt detached from this environment, and was able to observe it as an outsider.

As soon as I entered the shopping centre, I encountered an unfamiliar sensation, which I still find difficult to accurately put into words. It was not panic or claustrophobia, but more a feeling of "I don't belong here". Later, and after some thought, I interpreted it as a sign that I had perhaps completed a journey of sorts. This all dovetailed with an increased capacity to resist impulse purchases!

My mind has been much exercised with those forces which eat away at us, giving us the illusion of happiness and prosperity, but which have the effect of leading us further away from self-knowledge and mindfulness.

It is probably true to say that many people turn to consumerism as a means of insulating themselves from the realities of life. But does this just dodge the issue, and create a different kind of emptiness and alienation?  A touch of "retail therapy" now and then is relatively harmless, but for many it almost becomes the raison de etre.

All people are unique, find themselves in different scenarios and have differing tolerances. In my case, shallow acquistiveness simply occupied time and resources which could have been better employed rediscovering the important and wholesome things in life. I was not feeling fulfilled, but simply hollow.

There is no "on-off" switch which removes us from the materialistic to the cerebral or spiritual. For many people, the changes begin via signals and warnings conveyed by the body and mind. Even then, it can take courage and soul-searching for the transformation to be meaningful and sincere.

After this week's experience, I am confident that I have made the transition....