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....


Leeds United 0 Blackpool 5

I must admit that after Leeds' recent slight wobble in League form, I was mildly apprehensive about tonight's match at Elland Road, but even I could not have envisaged how it would turn out.

Goalkeeping errors played their part, clearly, but this appears to be part of a wider crisis of confidence which is threatening to envelope the team, not too long after things seemed relatively optimistic.

Leeds now face tricky away fixtures at Leicester and Burnley in the next few weeks, and it is to be hoped that Simon Grayson is able to find a way to stop the rot before then. There is a real danger that the season could begin to stagnate for Leeds, or worse....

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Queen - In Concert

During the latter portion of their career, Queen had a reputation as being one of the most exciting and accomplished live bands around. But to what extent what this true, and how did they develop and progress during that period? 

There is plenty of evidence around on which to base our judgements, in the form of concert footage and sound recordings, and recollections from those who were there in person. Some of my own opinions on this subject may not necessarily correspond with those of the majority of Queen fans!

From what I have seen, heard and read, Queen truly started to blossom as a live band around 1977. Prior to that, they appeared slightly hesitant and restrained. However, in '77 the band began to flourish, learning how to project themselves and their music, and how to develop a rapport with the audience. Anybody who has seen footage of the Earls Court concerts of this period will know what I mean. From then on, Queen seemed to possess a whole new aura of cohesion and dynamism.

This new focus and efficiency was honed in the "white heat" of the gruelling and challenging American tours of the time. As Queen's appeal broadened, they had to develop new skills in order to impress new, more discerning and demanding audiences. Much of the enhanced energy was refracted through the person of Freddie Mercury, whose powers of showmanship developed markedly around this time.

As the 1970s drew to a close, Queen continued to thrive, and it seemed like a good time to release a live album. Live Killers, recorded on the 1979 European tour and released later that year, is an adequate document, but perhaps does not fully capture the excitement of Queen's performances of that era.  Whilst there are some fine moments, the intensity and quality does seem a touch uneven, possibly reflecting the stage of the tour at which the recordings were made, and the effects of an arduous schedule.

When I first heard Live Killers, I was very enthusiastic, but as the years have passed, and as more concert material from the 1977-82 period has surfaced, its lustre has diminished.  The "acoustic" section of the album, and the performances of Now I'm Here and Keep Yourself Alive are superb, but in other parts the group sounds slightly listless, almost as if they were going through the motions.

My own view is that Queen peaked as a live act in 1981/82. It is true that the set list was less interesting and diverse than in previous years, but several strands came together to make the band a formidable force in the early 1980s. Freddie's voice had reached new heights of power, flexibility and versatility. Years of touring had schooled them in the art of performance and showmanship, instilling a tightness and vigour.  By now they were more acutely aware of what worked, and what didn't. The diverse musical influences of the band members also added to this appealing mixture.

Fortunately, there is plenty of visual and audio evidence of just how powerful Queen were live around that time. The footage from Montreal 1981 and Milton Keynes 1982, for example. The latter especially could be shown to aspiring bands as a tutorial on how to "work a crowd". I myself was fortunate enough to witness the 1982 version of Queen, at Elland Road in Leeds. As a youngster, I was absolutely transfixed.

Is it significant that as Queen's live shows reached new heights of excellence, their albums became less ambitious, and arguably less substantial?  Some of this may be coincidence, but the albums in the late 70s and early 80s had a more "stripped down" feel, and the songs being recorded were therefore easier to reproduce on stage than some of the elaborate earlier efforts. Also, the move towards a less complex sound may have enabled Queen to imbue their older songs with a new energy and immediacy in the concert setting. Another factor may have been that as Queen expended less time and emotional energy on the studio, more was left over to devote to honing their stagecraft...

Following the dizzy heights of the early 1980s, Queen's powers began to wane, the triumphant Live Aid appearance notwithstanding . Several things may have contributed to this. A fall-off in energy levels was perhaps inevitable. The band members became involved in side projects, and this may have prompted a reduction in focus. Indeed, it is known that there were major tensions within the group around 1984/85. Added to all this was a noticeable decline in Freddie's overall vocal powers on stage.

I know that many Queen fans assert that 1986 was the zenith of their touring career, but this is not something that I readily concur with. Admittedly, a lot of this comes down to personal taste.  However, I think that some people are swayed by sentiment in this case, and confuse what the tour represented with the substance of the performances. The venues were larger than any which Queen had previously played in Europe, but the recordings which I have heard reveal a slightly soulless sound, with some of the intimacy and technical punch of previous tours sacrificed for sheer spectacle and scale.  Having said all this, Queen's shows were still emotionally affecting, and the 1986 tour certainly scored high on the "goosebumps" scale!

It is fascinating to speculate how matters would have evolved later in the 1980s, but alas we will never know....

All fans will have their own views on when Queen were at their best as a live band.  My own ideal situation, for what it's worth, would have been the 1982 version of the band playing the 1977 set-list at Wembley Stadium.  That would have covered all the bases!