Sunday, 25 November 2012

2012 Brazilian Grand Prix Review

A wonderful season of Formula 1 competition deserved a gripping, tense and eventful finale, and that is what we saw at Interlagos today.  It was an "old fashioned" championship decider too, with a "race within a race" determining the destination of the title honours, whilst others contested the Grand Prix win itself.

Despite the effects of the first-lap incident, it would be stretching things to say that Sebastian Vettel made a spectacular comeback;he did not lose that much time, and was helped by the general mayhem and attrition ahead of him and around him in those early stages. Sensibly, once he established himself back in the points-scoring positions, he did not attempt any unnecessary heroics.  This would have been foolhardy in the tricky conditions.  Good sense and measured and prudent overtaking moves did the job of ensuring that he kept within the requisite points margin to Fernando Alonso.

Of the race itself, McLaren continued their late-season surge, and it was heartening to see a lively battle between their two drivers, which Jenson Button confessed to having enjoyed. His victory may be overlooked in the maelstrom of hype surrounding Vettel and Alonso, but at least his rollercoaster season ended on a high note. He had the opportunity to show off his renowned guile and finesse in changeable conditions, but also gave, and asked, no quarter when matters became wheel-to-wheel.  Yes, he was helped by the Hamilton/Hulkenberg contretemps, but it must also be borne in mind that Jenson lost out greatly during the earlier pace-car period, when he and Hulkenberg looked well set.

Lewis Hamilton again raced with the clarity of vision and panache of someone who has had a burden removed from his shoulders.  He can leave McLaren with his head held high, and look to the challenges awaiting him at Mercedes.

Although he made a couple of important errors when under pressure, Nico Hulkenberg once again made a huge impression, exhibiting that unfussy but highly effective driving style.  After earlier relinquishing the lead to Hamilton with a half-spin, he then lost control at Turn 1, and took the Englishman out of the race.  Hulkenberg had earlier complained of gear-change difficulties, and I wonder whether these problems contributed to the incidents?  Whatever the case, he could hardly complain when subjected to a drive-through penalty.

I thought that Alonso did everything that he realistically could.  The McLarens were just that little bit out of reach, and Hulkenberg's intervention was not completely unexpected. The Spaniard was ably and admirably supported by Felipe Massa, who delivered the kind of performance which makes him so valued in the current Ferrari set-up.

Mention should also be made of a couple of other drivers.  Kamui Kobayashi raced purposefully and tenaciously all afternoon, in the knowledge that he was possibly fighting for his Formula 1 future.  It was good to see him show such spirit, and I earnestly hope that we have not seen the last of him in a Grand Prix car.  The latter sentiments would apply to Heikki Kovalainen.

The final race in the F1 career of the great Michael Schumacher passed with comparatively little fanfare, because of the title showdown, but after an unpromising beginning to the race, it was nice to see the seven-times champion achieve a creditable points finish.  After Michael had seemingly let Vettel through in the closing stages, it was significant that they exchanged gestures of mutual affection and respect immediately after the race.  Symbolic of a torch being fully passed at last?

So what of the merits of Sebastian Vettel's third consecutive championship?  It is fair to say that Red Bull only attained any form of all-round superiority towards the end of the season, and even then the margin involved was not sizeable. At some races during 2012, the German had to show real nous and resolve to salvage points from unpromising situations, and at times the car's deficit in straightline speed was a handicap. Due to these factors, and also simply because he won more races than anybody else, Vettel is a worthy champion.

In fairness, Fernando Alonso would also have been a deserving world champion this year, performing wonders to remain in contention, and extracting every ounce of performance from the car, whilst the Ferrari team laboured constantly to boost the strength of the package, and to give him the tools to compete on something like an equal footing with Red Bull and McLaren.

Of 2012 in general, I think that it will be remembered as a superbly competitive and entertaining season of Formula 1 racing.  2013 will have a real task to surpass it.....

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Jackson Browne/Saturate Before Using - Jackson Browne - album review

Some artists' debut albums are tentative, uncertain or patchy efforts, betraying only partially developed talents, albeit with strong hints of promise for the future.  Others display a genuine self-confidence, intelligence and sense of purpose.  One album which on balance belongs in the latter category is Jackson Browne's self-titled 1972 debut effort, unofficially dubbed "Saturate Before Using" on account of its sleeve design.

For me, there are a few reasons why this record is so cohesive, unified and impressive.  Although this was his first album as such, Browne had undergone a solid and varied grounding on the music scene, when one considers his relatively tender years.  His songs had already received plaudits, and even been covered, by some luminaries, and he had forged links and friendships with several of these figures.

In some ways, the topics explored in the songs on this album are as diverse as almost any subsequent Browne record.  The LP tends to be labelled in some quarters as exemplifying post-hippie angst, but I find this label to be overly simplistic.

Although lyrically "Saturate Before Using" is more varied than it is often given credit for, sonically and atmosphere-wise some common threads run through much of it. The words "haunting" and "mellow" may spring to mind for many, but in all honesty neither really suffices in describing the feeling I get when I listen to these songs.  They conjure up a kind of eeriness, like staring over a barren landscape as the sun sets and the temperature drops...

For all the enigmatic nature of much of the album, it also contains some of Browne's best-known numbers, including "Jamaica Say You Will", "Doctor My Eyes" and "Rock Me On The Water", all of which have been covered by other artists.  "Jamaica Say You Will" in particular is an absolute gem, a song of utter simplicity and charm, but combining this with real emotional pull.

Jackson Browne's singing still has an innocent and even tentative quality about it on this record, and it is true that his vocal confidence and phrasing improved as the 1970s progressed.  However, here the restrained delivery is in keeping with the tone of the compositions, the arrangements and the overall mood.

Jackson's qualities as a "storyteller" are very much in evidence here too, on tracks such as "Something Fine", "From Silver Lake" and "Looking Into You".  Other compositions do peer into darker corners of the human condition, giving us a real taste of the evocative and intelligent lyrics which were to become a hallmark of his career.

The instrumental backing is, for the most part, markedly less ostentatious than on the artist's other works, and it is worth noting that David Lindley had not yet entered the picture at this point.  The textures offered by   his contributions only began to take effect on 1973's For Everyman.  For all this, there is still some very pleasing piano and acoustic guitar work throughout.

On this album, Jackson Browne did not just announce himself as a promising talent for the future; he was unveiled as an important and eloquent voice in rock music.  In some respects it can be justifiably described as very much "of its time", but it still holds up very credibly today.

Monday, 19 November 2012

2012 United States Grand Prix

An eventful and dramatic inaugural race in Austin, and one which will have pleased the neutrals, ensuring that the world drivers' championship will be decided at the finale in Interlagos.

First of all, I must say that I am quite impressed by the Circuit of The Americas as a venue.  The track layout is interesting, having attracted widespread praise and approval from the drivers, and appears to promote close racing and overtaking.  A bumper crowd was on hand to witness this race too.  As far as American Formula 1 venues go, we have had several false dawns, but Austin just may have found the solution which the sport has been craving. Only time will tell on this.

Lewis Hamilton very much went racing today, prepared to take the fight to the mighty Red Bulls, having split them in qualifying.  McLaren's formidable pace was confirmed by the performance of Jenson Button, once he had extricated himself from the seething midfield pack.

Hamilton's victory will also have pleased Fernando Alonso, as it made the Spaniard's task in Brazil seem slightly less daunting.  Alonso's cause was also aided by a rare mechanical failure for Mark Webber, and also it must be said by Ferrari's decision to "strategically" incur a grid penalty for Felipe Massa's car.  Notwithstanding these factors, it still reflects wonderfully on Alonso that he is still in there pitching for the title. Given the performance deficit in comparison to Red Bull, one can hardly blame Ferrari for exploring every available avenue, or begrudge them the occasional slice of good fortune.  One senses that Alonso's priority in Austin was simply to keep the struggle going for next weekend.

So, what of the prospects for Interlagos?  It goes without saying that Vettel is the strong favourite, but it will only take one mistake or unforeseen incident for Alonso to snatch an unlikely world championship.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Guns of Navarone

There are certain films, particularly war movies, which were staple viewing for people of my generation, who grew up in the 70s and 80s.  It is always intriguing to gauge how much my attitude towards these films has altered with the passage of time, and with the shifting sands of my own outlook and attitudes.  One such movie is The Guns Of Navarone.  I recently watched it, for the first time in quite a while.

Firstly, I had forgotten just how lengthy the film is!  Much scope is allowed for the preliminaries and preparation, the tortuous build-up and the operation itself.  I have not read Alistair MacLean's novel, on which the movie is based, but the running time may reflect a desire on the part of the film-makers to do full justice to the book.  It also permits some concentration on the "human" aspects of the story.

I have always had a penchant for the kind of war movies which look at the more "niche" areas of conflict, and the less publicised theatres of war, and those which concentrate on special or clandestine operations, rather than the grandiose ones featuring mighty clashes of arms.  A healthy dose of political intrigue, and room for plot twists and improvisation, are also very appealing.  The Guns of Navarone combines elements of this, and also those of the "blockbuster", with its all-star cast and the sheer opulence of some of the visuals. This duality works well.

There are cliches aplenty throughout, although in fairness this picture probably invented quite a few of them!  I found a few bits of the story a touch implausible, mainly the intricate ways in which the commando unit continue to evade capture by the Germans, but this is likely just the pedant in me making itself felt. These relatively mild reservations are counter-balanced by the cold reality which occasionally afflicts the raiding party.

Of the acting performances, Gregory Peck brings authority, gravitas and depth to his role.  By contrast, I found David Niven a touch overwrought and unconvincing here.  The real revelation for me is Anthony Quinn, both brooding and humane.

Even when subjected to my more exacting latter-day criteria, The Guns of Navarone still stands up reasonably well.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum - Heinrich Boll

My interest in German history, and particularly the turbulent period of the late 60s and 70s, led me to this celebrated novel, first published in 1974.

The book tells the tale of a young woman who becomes entangled with a political radical/outlaw, and her subsequent treatment at the hands of the police and the press, culminating in her killing a newspaper reporter. It very much taps into 1970s paranoia and unease about terrorism and political radicalism, and the attendant media and public hysteria surrounding the subjects.

I also sensed that Boll was delivering a commentary on the dark side, or the flip-side if you will, of Germany's post-war "economic miracle", with much mention of tax evasion, corruption, avarice and so forth.

This novel is notably short in length, with no superfluous padding. The translation from German to English leads to the (very) occasional minor anomaly, but this did not impair my enjoyment in any way.  To add to the mystique, the story is told from a "first person plural" point of view.

I have watched the film adaptation on a few occasions.  The novel handsomely gives substance and background to things which the movie could only imply.

The central thrust for me is an expose of the excesses of state and media, and the collusion between these two institutions, which are meant to be representative of a "free" society.  In their frantic attempts to service this relationship, an innocent person is ground between the two. .

As the story progresses, we become ever more acutely aware of a trail of distress, ruin and mistrust among all those connected to Katharina Blum and the case, much of it stemming from the desire of media and state to appeal to people's base instincts and prejudices.  Those in positions of power and influence are seen to take advantage of the weaknesses in human nature.

Much is made of the hypocrisy of the newspapers in invoking "freedom of the press" in justifying their methods.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum seems both ahead of its time, and prescient, and the issues which it tackles have never been more relevant than they are today.....

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Revolver - The Beatles - album review

Of all the albums recorded by The Beatles, perhaps none more epitomised the Swinging Sixties than Revolver, released in 1966.  Embodying some of the sunny optimism of the time, but also exuding a sophistication and a keener affinity with counter-cultural concerns.

This record was made when The Beatles were still a touring band, before their retreat into a more reclusive and studio-bound existence. Although some of the tracks on Revolver are very much studio creations, others very much inhabit guitar-band territory, with added "attitude" and occasionally tinged with a nascent psychedelia.  One can discern the influence of 1966-era Beatles guitar-orientated material in the New Wave groups of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and even in later indie bands.

Having said that Revolver exudes the vibrancy of its era, it is also worth noting that the scope of its lyrical concerns was very broad, encompassing more social commentary than before, and containing many references to emergent underground culture. The Beatles were by no means unique in exploring virgin subject matter, but the sheer variety of the topics on Revolver is remarkable. Death, taxes, loneliness, consciousness, war and mind-altering substances - they are all there.

It is often said that the complementary strengths and approaches of Lennon and McCartney were some of the ingredients which made the Beatles special.  However on Revolver such simplistic pigeon-holing is not really applicable, as both men are in creative and restless form.  It cannot be smugly declared that one songwriter's contributions are edgy and subversive, whilst the other's are more conservative.  The fact that both rise to the occasion, and push themselves, helps give the album additional depth and sweep.

The record's closing track, "Tomorrow Never Knows" doesn't so much close the book on one era, as open a door and peer into an exciting but unpredictable future.  I would argue that the song has been excessively acclaimed in purely musical terms, but symbolically, and as a statement of intent, its effect was startling, probably more so on their peers and the "in crowd" than on Joe Public.

The continued blossoming of George Harrison added another dimension.  His often contradictory concerns were being projected with greater clarity, as exemplified by "Taxman" and "Love You To", and this greatly augmented the group's eclecticism and mystique.  This was the stage at which George truly advanced from being a mere guitar player to something much more integral.

Many of the songs on Revolver are pervaded by a peculiar, almost sleepy and indolent, ambience, which sets it apart from the warm crispness of Rubber Soul and the flawless perfectionism of "Sgt Pepper". Production techniques may have played a part, but there could have been other contributory factors.

There were sign-posts for the future, with unconventional instrumentation and studio experimentation, but The Beatles never lost sight of the fundamental importance of good songwriting and craftsmanship, and these sensibilities are on full display on tracks such as "Got To Get You Into My Life", "For No One" and "Here, There and Everywhere".

Listening to the record, I am also reminded of the apparent effortlessness with which this album was turned out. On other Beatles albums, for all their undoubted quality and charm, one can sense how hard they were trying.  On Revolver, very little feels "forced" or calculating.  It was as if creativity and ideas were flowing naturally from the musicians, with no need for gimmicks or pretension.

Revolver represents a peak of sorts.  Other artists would have sensed that they had nothing further to say, but time would amply demonstrate that The Beatles were in many respects only just beginning....

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Stasiland - Anna Funder

In recent times I have developed something of a fascination with the history and politics of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), although there is surprisingly, and frustratingly, little material readily available in English (unless I have not been searching hard enough...)

One of the most affecting documents which I have come across is the book Stasiland, by Anna Funder. In this book, Funder speaks to a number of people, both ordinary citizens and servants of the state machinery, about life in the DDR, focussing mainly on the activities of the Stasi, the notorious state security service, and other elements of the apparatus.

Stasiland is very gritty, and Funder manages to convey the grime and gloom of the DDR era, as well as the lingering legacy of those days.  It possibly helps that she is/was something of an outsider, and therefore able to see the wood from the trees, peering through the complacency, nostalgia and illusions, and being less inured to the drip-drip of indoctrination, and what became perceived "norms". Perhaps this all enabled her to recognise more acutely some of the absurdities and anomalies of the DDR system, in comparison to those who became jaded and resigned to its existence.

The whole book feels like a prolonged glimpse back into a dark tunnel from which all concerned have emerged with varying degrees of pain and regret.

Some of the case studies examined here are extremely moving, poignant and humbling.  In cataloguing events, and coaxing recollections from the protagonists, the author captures some of the darkness, desperation, paranoia, claustrophobia, fear and courage. The one which hit me hardest was the story of the woman who attempted to escape to the West when she was around sixteen years of age.

As well as powerfully relating the stories of various individuals, Stasiland also serves as an abbreviated and condensed history of East Germany. At various stages, aspects of the DDR saga are told, helping to place these stories in some kind of context. The passages on the momentous events of 1989/90 I found particularly enlightening.

Overall, one detects a profound relief that the old regime has disappeared, but also a kind of ennui and emptiness, as if nothing has really taken its place,  a state of flux. Freedom, but also sterility and confusion. It  must be borne in mind that this book was published in 2003, so things may have moved on slightly since then.

The book paints a more complex, nuanced picture of the DDR than is often portrayed in the mainstream media, and it delves beneath the lazy cliches and stereotypes.

There are stories of courage and principle, of how some people even out-witted the system, and played on the fears, insecurities and paranoia of some of those within it. Perhaps the machinery was not quite as monolithic as has often been assumed, and there were kinks which could be exploited. By the same token, not everyone had the savoir-faire, leverage or contacts to confront the system.

The book also carries with it the mixed feelings which were harboured by some at that time about the disappearance of the Wall.  The certainties and "security" instilled by the socialist system were recognised and even missed in many quarters. It would be interesting to know to what extent this ambivalence persists to this day.

Stasiland does not just strive to discredit and demonize the old structures, but gives ample scope for the expounding of misgivings about the Western ways. These sentiments are not just from the mouths of philosophers, but from those of genuine, sensible citizens.  This side of the story is dealt with very maturely and sensibly. One quotation which really sticks in my mind was an observation about the number of types of ketchup available in the West!

Reading this book, I found myself jumping between sadness, anger and awe. Much of it is scarcely a joyful read, but in places it is quite inspiring, seeing how ordinary people seek to maintain and protect their dignity and their families and friends in the face of a callous foe.  It also serves as a valuable snapshot of a fascinating stage in history.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

We should have known better than to write off this season's championship chase. Just as some observers were starting to revert to the old "boring and predictable F1" meme, a race occurs which provides a thrilling "race within a race" between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, as well as several other sub-plots.

It seemed prior to the race that Alonso had been let off the hook by the penalty incurred by Vettel, but we had not fully bargained for the events which unfolded. No doubt some of the conspiracy theorists in the general sporting media will be sharpening their pencils, metaphorically speaking...

McLaren appeared a little bemused this weekend about their overall competitiveness, but even so the retirement of Lewis Hamilton from the race will have come as a shattering disappointment.  Hamilton's comments following the race would indicate that he is looking forward to his future with Mercedes rather than dwelling on current frustrations, and his despair will have been tempered by these thoughts.

The cards initially appeared to be falling for Vettel, but his enforced change of front wing made his task more formidable. His display, although admittedly aided by the dramas afflicting others, will hopefully have dispelled some of the wilder aspersions being voiced about his credentials.

All of this almost served to overshadow Kimi Raikkonen's much-deserved returned to the Formula 1 winners' circle. Ironically, this victory came after a series of races during which the Lotus team looked to be becalmed and subdued, and in some respects going backwards.  The Finn looked as inscrutable and impassive as ever on the podium, but today's events will have given him immense satisfaction, even though his championship chances for 2012 are now mathematically over.

Two races to go, and the championship race is still very much on the boil.  Logic would indicate that Vettel should still be favoured, having the better all-round technical package, and the law of averages should preclude him suffering the same misfortunes as he did in Abu Dhabi.  However, F1 rarely conforms to these assumptions....