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Sunday, 29 January 2012

Novak Djokovic v Rafael Nadal

My original intention was to put together a fairly straightforward report on the Australian Open tennis final, but as events developed and unfolded in Melbourne this morning, my thoughts switched more generally to the quite glorious era currently being enjoyed by the men's game, and where things stand in the aftermath of Djokovic's victory.

I have been following top-level sport avidly since I was a small boy, in other words over three decades, and I can barely recall a time when a branch of sporting endeavour was serving up (please pardon the pun) such consistently engrossing a spectacle as men's tennis has over the past three or four years. 

Although today's final arguably lacked the relentless technical excellence of some of the other encounters involving the Big Three (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic), it more than compensated with its sheer drama, raw emotion and constant fluctuations in fortunes and momentum.

If, like me, you are able to relish sporting competition as an examination and celebration of the human character and spirit, then this was a match to savour. Two athletes testing the very limits of their own endurance and fortitude, as well as that of their opponents.  A contest of wills, as well as physiques and techniques.

After the conclusion of the match, it was also difficult to escape the feeling that we were witnessing another watershed, the moment where Djokovic affirmed his status as the world's foremost player, regardless of what the rankings computer has had to say.

The elevation of Djokovic to this status has been curious to behold, as in the eyes of the wider sporting public he possibly has a less vivid "tennis persona" than Federer or Nadal, and his qualities less immediately conspicuous or easily quantifiable. This is not meant as a criticism, by the way!

The "new" Djokovic is a very imposing proposition, as his talent and natural attributes are allied to a formidable mental and physical resilience, and an indomitable will to prevail.  These latter things were seen to great effect at various junctures in the Australian final. Time and again the pendulum seemed to be swinging away from him, but he was resourceful and confident enough to overcome these troughs.

For reasons which I find hard to pin down, I have not always found it easy to warm to Rafael Nadal in the past. Maybe it had something to do with my "purist's" admiration for Roger Federer.  Today, however, he went up in my estimation enormously, with his never-say-die attitude, and his infectious energy.  Even when he was clearly physically fatigued, the instincts and drive were still clearly there in abundance. People in all walks of life, and not just sporting and tennis enthusiasts, could draw inspiration from Nadal's spirit and attitude.

So where does today's match leave the state of play in the upper portals of men's tennis?   Have we turned another page, and seen the dawning of a new mini-era within this Golden Era, with Djokovic taking the game to places not even visited by Federer and Nadal?  It might be premature to judge, but if this standard is maintained, the commentators and pundits may soon run out of superlatives....




Saturday, 28 January 2012

Porridge (movie)

It has to be said that the success rate of classic British sitcoms being turned into feature films is variable. Many fail to recapture the magic of the television series, and those who were devotees of the series are able quickly to discern essential differences and departures in terms of characters, backdrop and atmosphere. This makes it awkward to objectively judge the film, and purely on its own merits.

One which is not totally flawless, but succeeds better than most, is the cinematic spin-off of Porridge, the acclaimed prison-based British sitcom of the 1970s.  I watched this earlier today, and I made a few observations.

Although made after the television show had come to an end, Porridge manages to appear as a "composite" of the series as a whole, with respect to characters, sub-plots and themes.  It is reasonably plausible to imagine the story being played out within the context of the overall Porridge saga.

Some of the jokes and lines of dialogue are clearly re-cycled or adapted from the scripts for the television programme, but this will only be noticed by devotees of the BBC classic, and will not perturb or irritate the casual viewer at all.  In fairness, there are some fresh and amusing one-liners and gags throughout, even if they feel slightly more stilted on celluloid than perhaps they would have done on TV.

More freshness and interest is provided by the characters unique to this movie, including the prospective escapee Oakes, the surly new inmate Rudge, and the self-satisfied warder Mr Beal. These additions help further to reinforce the notion that this film is a credible entity in its own right, rather than simply a straightforward continuation and extension of the TV series.  There is a different governor, but he is just as hapless and toothless as the one in the original sitcom!

The longer film format allows certain sub-plots to be played out, including the introduction of the rather pathetic looking "officer's club", and the delights of Slade Prison cuisine.

Of course, much of the central appeal of Porridge stems from the interaction between Fletcher, Godber, Mackay and Barrowclough.  The introduction of, and involvement of, more characters in the movie possibly dilutes this, and the inclusion of more scenes outside the prison buildings removes some of the intimacy which was such a compelling feature of the series.

Overall though, these are fairly minor criticisms.  The central plot, of a celebrity football match being employed as cover for an escape attempt, is original, and also of course offers lots of comedic possibilities.  The acting by Ronnie Barker, Fulton Mackay and others is exemplary, and the writing of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais always has an infectious and endearing quality about it.

This movie does not quite possess the grit and unique charm of the television version, but judged as a work on its own it is entertaining and well produced.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Liverpool 2 Manchester City 2

The noises emanating from Anfield in the build-up to Wednesday evening's Carling Cup semi-final second leg indicated that Liverpool were highly motivated for the match.  It was also probably fair to assume that the trophy was accorded higher priority by Liverpool than it was by Manchester City.  This, together with home advantage and a one-goal lead from the first leg, seemed on the surface to give Liverpool a slight but important edge.

Looking at the teams, Liverpool's and City's selections seemed to lack some genuine cutting edge up front, but both possessed ample options on the bench. City went into the game with two holding midfielders, in Barry and De Jong, and only one out-and-out striker. This seemed a little surprising, given the situation in the tie, even allowing for the caution of Roberto Mancini.

Anyway, there was a lively and feisty opening to the proceedings, with lots of midfield jousting.  Liverpool sought to pose some questions early on, and Steven Gerrard's yellow card was symptomatic of their approach. Craig Bellamy was to the fore, but they were lacking the finish, or indeed that final ball.

In the first twenty minutes or so, Manchester City enjoyed some possession, but seldom in areas which constituted a threat to the Liverpool goal.

Liverpool managed to fashion an incisive move around the twenty-four minute mark, but Bellamy was correctly given offside. By this stage, Kenny Dalglish was showing signs of some agitation on the touchline, even though his team was in the ascendancy on the night, and in the tie overall. He clearly realised that the margin between success and failure was still quite meagre.

Sure enough, on thirty-one minutes, Nigel De Jong put City ahead with an absolute beauty of a shot, following some neat build-up work on the left hand side.  Game on, as they say!

That goal seemed to rouse Liverpool from the lethargy into which they had momentarily sunk. As chances were still at a premium, I wondered to myself whether they would introduce Andy Carroll at some point, and go the more direct route. However, this did not occur, and instead the left foot of Stewart Downing began to exert more influence.

When the Liverpool equaliser came, it was by virtue of a contentious penalty award, after Micah Richards was deemed to have handled the ball. It seemed a little harsh, but in fairness Richards did have his hands up, which never helps a defender's cause, and the referee was in very close attendance, enjoying a perfect view of the incident.  Whatever the merits of the award, Steven Gerrard duly converted the spot-kick, and there was some predictable remonstrating with Phil Dowd by the City players after the half-time whistle.

Even though they were behind again on aggregate, City were still very much in this tie, and they made a positive gesture by bringing on Sergio Aguero at the beginning of the second period.

Liverpool maintained their impetus at the start of the second half, and Joe Hart was forced to make several classy saves.  After he superbly denied Martin Skrtel, there was a lovely little moment when Dirk Kuyt gave the goalkeeper a little pat on the gloves, to acknowledge the quality of the save. Proof that chivalry and sportsmanship still exist in the hard-nosed world of professional football!

As the half progressed, more space became available, as Liverpool looked for the clincher, and City strove for a goal of their own. This striving eventually paid off, as the otherwise ineffective Dzeko made it 2-1. 

City's joy was short-lived, however, as not long afterwards Bellamy levelled matters again with a fine goal after a pleasing move.

In trying to force extra-time, City made little headway, and in the end Liverpool were able to hang on relatively comfortably for a 3-2 aggregate triumph.

The auguries for Liverpool were favourable before kick-off, and overall they exhibited more desire, as well as having more incentive, even if they benefited from that controversial penalty decision.  Their joy and relief was reflected in Dalglish's elation at the final whistle.

So a Liverpool versus Cardiff final at Wembley.  The Merseyside team will be strong favourites on paper, but as we all know, football is not played on paper, it is played on grass!



Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Kimi Raikkonen's Valencia Test

Well, both the Lotus team and Kimi Raikkonen have been making positive noises following the conclusion of the former world champion's comeback F1 test in Valencia.

The Finn clocked up some solid mileage, and also began to become acquainted with his new team. Of course, lap times were meaningless, given the machinery at Raikkonen's disposal during the two-day tesing session, and the absence of benchmarks, and we may only start to deduce pointers to the potential of driver and team once the serious pre-season testing commences with the 2012 cars.

Kimi, rarely the most outgoing or effusive of men, seems genuinely enthused and stimulated by the prospect of driving in Formula 1 once again, and needless to say it is a very welcome and heartening sight for fans to see him back where he undoubtedly belongs.

The team too has been saying all the right things, clothed in the usual F1 PR-speak. They will be relishing the chance to work with a truly top-line driver, who can be expected to drive the car to its limits, and by so doing motivate and excite the team personnel.

One of the fascinating things about the 2012 season will be to find out whether Raikkonen is capable of leading what is ostensibly a "higher midfield" team to greater things by allowing his natural talent to "lead from the front". Perhaps in this environment we will also see aspects of Kimi's make-up which have not previously been overly apparent. He is certainly eminently capable of taking a car to places which it does not "belong", but the human and political facets will also be crucial.

I have been following F1 racing for far too long to be unduly swayed or convinced by pronouncements emanating from pre-season tests. The smiles and brave words on windswept and lonely tracks often mean little once serious combat gets under way, and harsh, cold reality makes its presence felt.

All the same, Raikkonen and Lotus seem to be moving in the right direction, ready and eager to face the challenges which lie ahead.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Late For The Sky - Jackson Browne

On internet forums, and in the media generally, it is commonplace for people to be asked to name their "top 10 albums" or their favourite album of all-time.  The centre of gravity of my musical tastes constantly shifts, but for around a decade and a half, pride of place at the top of my list has been occupied by Jackson Browne's 1974 work, "Late For The Sky".





I had been aware of Jackson's music, but mostly through his more glitzy and commercial singles of the 1980s.  It was only when I became a fan of the Eagles that I discovered his classic 1970s material.  The Eagles and Jackson were label-mates, friends and songwriting collaborators in the early Seventies, and I was persuaded therefore to look into the Browne canon.

As soon as I heard "Late For The Sky", it struck a chord, both melodically and lyrically. I actually came to it after hearing three or four of Jackson's other LPs of that era, and it stood out from those efforts in several ways.  The instrumentation and arrangements were more spartan and stripped-down than the previous "For Everyman", with its layered acoustic guitars and keyboards.  On "Late For The Sky", one is aware of greater separation, through which the inspired lyrics are able to project themselves.

In addition to the technical musical differences, the themes and concerns examined in the songs seem more focussed than before, and Jackson is generally less oblique and cryptic in telling his stories. This extra focus adds to the emotional impact of the songs, as they zero in on the hearts and minds of the listener with more clarity, and the album feels more like an overall "experience", certainly compared to its two predecessors.

In its entirety, "Late For The Sky" is the most compelling showcase for Jackson Browne's special capacity to both tug at the heart strings, and stimulate the grey matter.  Some of the subjects explored may have had peculiarly contemporary resonance in 1974, but they have proved to be timeless, and indeed to me the songs are more relevant than ever.

Considering that we are dealing with a classic album, it seems churlish to refer to "filler", but two of the songs, "The Road and The Sky" and "Walking Slow", have to be described as such. I suspect that they were included to offset and ameliorate the effect of the meatier and more profound fare around them. For the purposes of this review, I will therefore disregard these two tracks, and concentrate on the six numbers which form its solid and enduring core.

The opener, and title track, introduces us to the type of backing we can expect throughout the album, Browne's piano and David Lindley's evocative and wonderfully brittle guitar are supported by some subtle, and at times almost inaudible, organ work. The lyrics of this song are the bleakest of all, seemingly concerned with the break-up of a relationship.  Film fans may recall the song being employed to telling effect in the movie "Taxi Driver"

On this work, Jackson seems to have enlisted the help of various people to help out with vocal harmonies, and they are a feature of this album, helping to create quite a gritty effect, consistent with the overall tone.  Jackson himself sings more passionately on these tracks than at virtually any stage of his career.  Whether this was intentional, or just a function of his development as a vocalist, is difficult to say.  The pleading phrasing ideally complements the words.

Track two, "Fountain of Sorrow", is the longest on the LP, and also the most lyrically impenetrable.  To be truthful, I have never fully made my mind up what the metaphors here are alluding to, but this is a beautiful and intelligent piece of work. The instrumentation is even more sparse than on the title track, and Browne's voice captured with greater clarity, supported by some more substantial backing vocals.

Next we come to "Farther On", a song which had a major effect on me almost from the first time I heard it.  Rarely can an instrumental part have been as apposite as David Lindley's weeping lap steel is on this. The song muses, reflects and laments upon the passing of time, and frustrated ambitions and hopes, but also celebrates humanity and its compassion and eternal optimism.

The thoughts and sentiments being expressed here will seem relevant and powerful for people, most probably those in their thirties and forties.  What still seems remarkable, not just about this song but most of those on "Late for The Sky", is that Jackson Browne was writing cohesive statements like this in his mid-twenties.

"The Late Show" is marginally less demanding than the numbers preceding it, but has some very thoughtful lines, accentuated by an appealing, wandering melody. Vaguely  "country rock" in nature, but with more complex lyrics than would be expected from that genre, it touches on many of the themes central to the album.

A song addressing the subject of death, "For A Dancer", stops well short of descending into the maudlin, and is a deceptively simple but incisive piece, curiously hopeful in areas. David Lindley's violin is used effectively but sparingly.

"Before The Deluge" is a song which tackles apocalyptic and utopian anxieties, continuing on from "For Everyman", but it also expands its reach into environmental issues, which were to become a recurring feature of the songwriter's career. Some may consider the lyrics dated, naive and even quite mawkish, but I see them as courageously idealistic.  Lindley's violin is more integral to the melody, and there are some delicate but unobtrusive organ flourishes.

It seems appropriate that this song, with its concentration on social concerns, finishes the album, which itself closed a phase in Jackson Browne's career, the "singer-songwriter" period. From now on, "non-confessional" topics would gradually assume greater importance.

In itself, "Late For The Sky" probably represents some kind of high watermark in the California singer-songwriter "movement".  It may not have been Jackson Browne's best-selling album, but its emotional pull and understated quality shine like a beacon when assessing his discography. 

At every opportunity, I try to encourage people to listen to this album, stressing what a thought-provoking and rewarding listen it remains.....









Monday, 23 January 2012

Persona - Ingmar Bergman

Earlier this evening I watched Persona, a remarkable Ingmar Bergman film from 1966.

The film stars Liv Ullmann as an actress who suffers some form of breakdown, and becomes unable (or unwilling) to speak as a result.  A nurse, played by Bibi Andersson, is detailed to look after and care for her.

The pair eventually decamp to a secluded seaside retreat, which is where the most intriguing sequences in the movie unfold.  The nurse Alma bares her soul to the actress Elisabet, in some gripping scenes. The dialogue here is quite explicit and frank, considering that it was 1966.

As their time together progressed, it seemed that in some respects Alma absorbed aspects of Elisabet's personality, and that some general merging of personalities took place. What happened is open to several interpretations, but Alma was ill-equipped to cope with assuming facets of the actress's persona, including her demons and insecurities.

One of the cleverest parts of the film occurs where Alma recounts some details of Elisbet's personal and family life to her.  First of all, we see an image only of Elisabet's reaction to the revelations, and then the same dialogue is played again, but this time we just see Alma speaking the words.  My guess is that this effect was designed to convey the idea of "transference".

A quite disturbing, complex but nonetheless riveting film, with some trademarks of other Bergman movies, such as solitude, astute use of black and white, a secluded location, and images of rocks, beaches and waves.

I was highly impressed with the performance of the beautiful Bibi Andersson, as the nurse Alma, and Liv Ullmann is never less than fascinating to watch.



Sunday, 22 January 2012

Manchester City 3 Tottenham 2

I must confess that in recent weeks I have been going through another of my "not that interested in football" phases, but today's earlier Premier League kick-off between City and Spurs caught my attention, and I felt encouraged to watch it. Two teams not accustomed in recent times to contending for the title, which have given the higher end of the Premier League a fresh new look.

Beforehand, I felt that this game was crucial to Spurs in particular, and constituted a big barometer of their potential and ambition for this season.

It was a purposeful beginning by Tottenham, confident and positive. Other early impressions of mine - it was a pristine playing surface, and also great to see Ledley King back, and looking good.

Spurs were quite tenacious in the tackle in midfield in those early stages, and their attacks were largely concentrated down both flanks, hinting that they sensed some vulnerability in the City rearguard. Luka Modric began to prompt more and more, and it was a pleasure to see players of finesse and craft, like him and David Silva, on the same pitch.

After the first ten or fifteen minutes City started to assert themselves a touch more.  Around the seventeen minute mark, they should have opened the scoring, but Aguero and Dzeko contrived to get in each other's way in the penalty area.

Tottenham were still pressing, but were not carving out much in the way of clear goalscoring opportunities. Their shooting and delivery were not always of exemplary quality.

It seemed to me throughout this match that Manchester City were the more direct of the two teams, and also the more cautions, negative even, playing deeper, and often relying on long balls to the strikers and counter-attacks.

Admittedly, both sides were lacking cutting edge in that first period, even if Spurs were the more fluent in passing and movement.  Still, they were largely restricted to speculative efforts and free-kicks. City enjoyed less possession, but created the clearer openings.

So, an inconclusive and even pedestrian first half.

Immediately after the break, City began to dictate more, and indeed the game itself was more open, the participants less inhibited and cagey.  On fifty-six minutes, Spurs were carved open by David Silva, and Samir Nasri, hitherto little in evidence, supplied a quality finish.

After that first goal, the cultured left-foot of Silva threatened to run the show, and City gained much impetus.  However, in the event it was a goal of little elegance by Lescott which put them 2-0 up. As the saying goes, they all count!

That second goal should have set the seal on City's command over the game. But Tottenham employed a little "route one" of their own, found City slumbering, and Jermain Defoe finished coolly. Character and resolve from Spurs, and no doubt fury on the part of Roberto Mancini.

After the flurry of goals, the game became noticeably stretched, with the pace at Spurs' disposal posing a threat.  However, it was a touch of real panache by Gareth Bale, chipping over the goalkeeper, which levelled things up.  Bale made the execution of the goal look easy;always indicative of a quality player.

The second half of this match was trademark Premier League fare - frantic, breathless and compelling. It seemed to pass much quicker than the first, which is generally a good sign!  As ever, Scott Parker got through mountains of selfless and unglamorous work, often in a defensive capacity.

After the score went to 2-2, Spurs assumed some kind of control, looking the more compact of the two teams, whereas City were more pragmatic in their approach.

Although the penalty decision looked to be correct, the injury-time penalty was harsh on Spurs, and the scoreline served to flatter City.

What did we learn from this game?  Well, the jury is still out on these two teams.  Tottenham are not certain title-winning material, but equally cannot yet be dismissed.  They matched their opponents in most departments this afternoon. Questions possibly remain about City's tactical approach.

Just how important could that last-gasp penalty be come May 2012?



Friday, 20 January 2012

Abba

Pretty much as with the Beatles, Abba are one of my musical reference points, a group to whom I always gravitate in times of uncertainty and transition, and not just because alphabetically they turn up at the beginning of most music libraries....

In years gone by, Abba were commonly described as a musical guilty pleasure, but were being given credibility by name-checks from some of music's luminaries.  Now, I sense that although Abba have been subsumed once again into mainstream acceptance, the almost forced sense of irony involved with admitting to liking their music has largely disappeared. In the scheme of things, they are positioned where they should always have stood.

When analysing Abba's career progression, it is tempting to divide the timeline into three distinct phases.  The early years (1972-75), the middle period (1976-1979), and the end (1980-82-ish).  Whilst this is a convenient method to use, and does have an element of truth to it, it is also an over-simplistic way of assessing the course of events.

Certainly, the early material has a flavour all of its own, with a noticeable Phil Spector/girl group influence.  Although Benny and Bjorn were still finding their style, and developing, the sense of pop craftsmanship is definitely present, with the understanding of how to structure songs and inject hooks to pull the listener in.  The lyrical gravitas and glossy production were still in the future, though.

For all its quintessential "Eurovision" qualities, "Waterloo" in some respects pointed the way forward, lacking some of the naivete and "syrupyness" of the other Abba songs of that era, and displaying a greater sense of cool and self-assurance. It is telling that this is one of the few of the early efforts which still sounds artistically relatively "heavyweight" alongside their later output.

The year 1975, and to some degree 1976, were ones of transition for the group, as they evolved and the music became more mature and the "bubblegum" elements were gradually discarded.  The song "SOS" is often cited as pivotal in this process, with its mournful-in-places melody and more reflective lyrics. Light and shade were also being increasingly used to great effect, slower passages contrasting with the up-tempo parts.

The following two years arguably represented Abba at their peak, as the most appealing attributes which dominated the three "phases" were all present to an "acceptable" level.  Pop sensibility, studio inventiveness and universal and more adult lyrical concerns coalesced to form a most agreeable and effective mix. The singles of that time, "Dancing Queen", "Money, Money,Money", "The Name of The Game" and "Take of Chance On Me", contain these ingredients.

I still maintain that "Dancing Queen" is one of the crowning achievements in pop,encapsulating all the exhilaration and exuberance of the genre. Perhaps relying on those famed hooks more than any other Abba hit, it also betrays signs of the increasing production and instrumental complexity which was to be a hallmark of Abba's later work.

The euphoria and ebullience of "Dancing Queen" was matched by the sophistication and self-confidence of "Knowing Me, Knowing You", and "The Name of The Game".  The latter track is my favourite Abba single, mainly because of the (relatively) elaborate but compelling structure of the song, with its many twists and turns, and the restrained and tasteful backing track, which allows the song to breathe.  "The Name of the Game" does not try to draw attention to itself, but this is one of its main virtues.  Abba at their absolute zenith.

It could be said that the period of 1978/79 was one of some uncertainty and aimlessness for Abba. It would be harsh to use the phrase "treading water", as the music which they produced was still excellent, and successful commercially. However, after the giddy heights of the then recent past, they seemed to be looking for a direction.

Some of the 1979 songs ("Angel Eyes", "Chiquitita", "Does Your Mother Know")  are somewhat frivolous, lightweight even, when set against what had gone just before, but they still had that essential stamp of Abba quality.  I have always had a soft spot for "Angel Eyes", with its infectious Motown-esque melody and simple but sad lyrics.

The last two to three years of Abba's career were uneven by some definitions, but as is well known, showed the lyrics becoming more personal and introspective, reflecting a natural maturing as well as the members' personal concerns.

The songs were generally less instantly likeable and accessible, but possibly appealed to a different, older audience. When listening to this later work, whilst appreciating the musical nuances and the thoughtful lyrics, it is hard not to shed a tear for a whole era, the loss of innocence and the death of a dream.  Harsh reality supplanting youthful optimism.

The song "One of Us" I think signifies the beginning of the end, with its reflective words and sombre tune.  Even the instrumentation signals a further break with the past. The late-period songs of Abba evoke a feeling of "autumn" more than most other groups in my experience, even the Beatles, who maintained some semblance of their old exuberance even on "Abbey Road".  The contrast between "Take A Chance On Me" and "The Day Before You Came", recorded only four years apart, is pronounced.

For all of the above, my main conception of Abba is the group who in the mid-to-late 70s, and at various stages before and after, took high-quality and entertaining pure pop music to new heights.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Rubens Barrichello

With the news, as expected, that Bruno Senna will fill the one vacant seat at Williams for the 2012 season, another Brazilian driver is contemplating what looks like the end of the one of the most distinguished and eventful of all Formula 1 careers.  With characteristic good grace and class, Rubens Barrichello wished his successor good luck, but where does he himself go from here?

I first came across the name Rubens Barrichello in 1990, when my interest in motorsport was at its height, and I avidly devoured news of the goings-on in the junior formulae.  In winning the intensely competitive GM Lotus Euroseries, the novice exhibited not just a fine turn of speed, but also some of the subtler qualities which separate the potential World Champion from the mass of raw and eager youngsters.

There was more of the same in British Formula 3 the following year, as Rubens engaged in a lively tussle for the title with David Coulthard, eventually emerging triumphant. I seem to recall that he occasionally had some difficulty getting off the starting line, and this made for some entertaining racing, something not always prevalent in Formula 3!

Rubens continued his motor racing education in Formula 3000 in 1992.  He did not meet with the instant success enjoyed in the previous categories, and there must have been the fear, seemingly endemic amongst young drivers, of an imminent career plateau.  However, any worries proved unfounded, as he was signed up by the Jordan F1 team for 1993.

As soon as he entered the highest echelon of the sport, Rubens showed that he belonged there, with his maturity and natural talent. The 1994 season brought conflicting emotions, with points on the board, but also the trauma of a serious crash in practice at Imola, and the death of Ayrton Senna.

The capricious form of the Jordan team dictated that the following two campaigns did not improve markedly on what had gone before, and Rubens must have been delighted with the chance to drive for the new, but well equipped, Stewart team for 1997.  His second place at Monaco was memorable, prompting emotional scenes, including tears from Jackie Stewart himself.

By now, Rubens was regarded within the F1 fraternity as a fast, reliable and technically adept performer, as well as a consummate team-player.  It must have been somewhat galling, therefore,that when the Stewart outfit notched up its first victory, at the Nurburgring in 1999, it was team new-boy Johnny Herbert to whom the cards fell, although the Brazilian hid any disappointment with his usual good humour and grace.

Now came the call from Ferrari, and although he was playing second-fiddle to the great Michael Schumacher, at least Rubens had the theoretical possibility to be a contender for race-wins and podiums at every Grand Prix. His outpouring of emotion and joy on the podium at Hockenheim after his first F1 victory was both moving and engaging, and everyone in the sport was genuinely delighted that he had achieved that richly deserved milestone.

The rest of Barrichello's tenure at Maranello brought more Grand Prix wins, but also controversy and debate concerning his precise role within the team, and his relationship with Schumacher.  Whatever reservations Rubens may have harboured, he got on with his job professionally and assiduously, reinforcing his reputation as a steadfast and conscientious customer, as well as a "good bloke".

After the dizzy heights and tumult of the Ferrari years, the rest of Ruben's career was perhaps destined to be an anti-climax, but a renaissance of sorts occurred in 2009, with the almost fairytale exploits of the Brawn equipe.

The time with Williams has been frustrating, but Rubens usually managed to maintain his dignity and optimism.

His strenuous efforts to remain in F1 at the end of 2011 indicated that his motivation and desire remained intact, but can he adapt those competitive juices to other, less exalted, forms of motorsport? The DTM, Indycars and endurance racing all remain theoretical possibilities.

If this is indeed the end of Rubens Barrichello in F1, it will feel strange without him.  Many fans will not have seen a race without him competing.  In many respects he has set a benchmark for how drivers conduct themselves, overcome adversity and maintain motivation and focus.

Whatever the future holds for Rubens, the best of luck to him.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Tears and Goosebumps

Life is always enriched and intensified by experiencing some transcendental and ethereal piece of art. As I write this, I am listening to "Adagietto", the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler's Symphony no.5.

Brought to the attention of the mainstream by its prominent inclusion in the film "Death In Venice", this is now one of my favourite pieces of music, and to think that I only discovered it at the age of 40....

"Adagietto" is one of those works which, if the listener is not concentrating fully, can float innocently by, just occasionally intruding to remind one of its power and aesthetic charm. However, if the listener immerses himself or herself fully, they can be transported onto another emotional plain.

When listening to the piece, rather than think that I am hearing an orchestra, I think of the sound rather as an amorphous force of nature, with the individual instruments almost indistinguishable.

At the risk of appearing trite and corny, I would like this piece of music to be played at my funeral.

On occasion, "Adagietto" has induced lachrymosity in me, hence the title of this blog post!

For "goosebumps", or indeed a shiver down the spine, the music of Richard Wagner emphatically delivers the goods. I discussed an example of my interaction with Wagner's work in an earlier blog post:

It's Only Music, Or Is It?

The tears precipitated by Mahler's piece may have been due to its poignancy, or perhaps just its pure beauty; I am not totally sure.  Equally, Wagner's fabulous "Siegfried Idyll" may give me the shivers, but I struggle to explain away the precise reason.

Great and potent art, and especially music, penetrates our very being, our innermost psyche and soul, in ways which we cannot hope to properly analyse, and the random and imponderable manifestations of that penetration are part of the mystery and the beauty.

I prefer not to dwell too much on these factors, just relishing the music, revelling in the sensations which it provides, and leaving more high-brow deliberations to the self-appointed experts!









Saturday, 14 January 2012

Donna Summer

Just lately, much of my music listening time has been occupied with acquainting, or reacquainting, myself with some of Donna Summer's disco epics from the 1970s, in particular some of the extended mixes.

I was already familiar with the "single" versions of such tracks as "MacArthur Park", "Hot Stuff" and "I Feel Love", but exploring the 12 inch versions of these and other tracks has been revelatory, to say the least.

Several emotions and thoughts were aroused in my mind whilst listening to these songs. Firstly, the technical quality of the recordings, which were quite advanced for their time. The productions were very lavish and luxuriant, and the occasional use of session musicians from the rock milieu added a different dimension.

It is also noticeable how some of these tracks still sound quite fresh today, and not dated like so much "disco" music of that time. This is probably because they exist and operate "out of time".  The extent to which Donna's work with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte was influential on later dance music, and "dance-pop" is sometimes forgotten.

More than anything though I was touched by how these tracks were emblematic of a whole era, of a time of social uncertainty, and attendant hedonism and escapism. There is a sense of being in a delightful cocoon, insulated from the normal cares of life, and also from time itself.   I guess this is how many clubbers in the 70s must have felt when dancing along to the cuts.

Something else which is very apparent is the hypnotic quality of several of these songs, not just rhythmically but also melodically. The judicious use of synthesizers and other such new innovations, combined with strings and brass, and the normal guitar/bass/drums set-up, produced a very warm and enticing mixture. There is little doubt that the arrangements were done in this way, to affect the listener and dancer in a particular way.

"I Feel Love" certainly has that feel, although it does not have the warmth or charm of most of the others. Ahead of its time, and affecting in its own way, but maybe off on a tangent in our present context.

The awesome "Love to Love You Baby" has things in common with "I Feel Love", but is much less hard-edged, and therefore more seductive and inviting.  If a sexier record has ever been made, I would sure like to hear it!  This is what I was getting at when talking of a hypnotic style, and in the case of "Love to Love You Baby" the full sixteen minute-plus version has to be heard to gain the full impact.  The instrumental passages in particular can transport the listener to a different plane, and become almost transcendent. Oh to have been young and virile, and a regular frequenter of discos, when this song was first released!

Some of the songs may have surreptitiously penetrated the mind and body, but others relied on musical sophistication and the power and potency of Donna's vocal talents.  This is perhaps best exemplified on "Heaven Knows", "Last Dance" and the monumental "MacArthur Park Suite". 

Above all, perhaps, "Last Dance" encapsulates many of the themes which we have examined here.  The lyrics typify the carefree, "let's forget about tomorrow" ethos of much of the best disco music, but they are set against a complex and infectious melody, and an arrangement which perfectly complements these elements.

"MacArthur Park Suite" is a feast for the senses, and possibly the most ambitious and outlandish of all of these works. Deftly employing "light and shade", and cleverly constructed, it comes across like a defiant and extravagent "last hurrah" for a whole era.

Listening to these records has reminded me of a time when music had the power to entertain, amuse and enthrall, but also to inspire and transcend.

Now I just need to seek out some retro disco clubs in my area.....!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Golden Era?

In a recent interview, Fernando Alonso suggested that the 2012 driver line-up will be the strongest in the history of Formula 1, with six world champions on the grid, and other notables such as Massa and Webber also out there.

This claim has also been advanced by some fans and members of the media, but does it stand up to scrutiny?  Whilst statistically the CVs of the class of 2012 will make impressive reading, other factors need to be examined.

Two of the six champions in the field will be Michael Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen.  The German cannot be said to be at his peak, whilst the Finn is returning from an F1 hiatus.  There is also an argument for saying that the statistical accomplishments of drivers in this current era are distorted by the polarisation of resources, and therefore success, amongst two or three teams. Smaller grids also mean that there are fewer also-rans diluting the quality of the grid.

So which other periods in F1 history can claim to have had comparable, or superior, depth of driving talent?  Well, the mid-to-late 1970s, prior to the retirement of James Hunt and Niki Lauda, were very strong in this respect. In addition to Lauda and Hunt, we had Mario Andretti,Carlos Reutemann, Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter, Clay Regazzoni, Patrick Depailler, Carlos Pace, John Watson and others. The racing at this time was fantastically competitive, and the victories were therefore spread around more, meaning that many careers left more of an indelible mark in the minds of fans, rather than in the record books.

Similar claims could be made for the 1960s and early 1970s, the "Jim Clark" and "Jackie Stewart" eras, and of course the issue of safety has also to be taken into account when making an assessment. Careers tend to be longer nowadays, cars are more reliable and there are more events on the calendar.

In truth, it is very difficut to make a direct comparison, because racing has changed out of all recognition over the decades, but I would simply counsel caution over possibly inflated claims made about the quality of the current grid. By any objective standard, it is indeed a formidable line-up, but people would also be well advised to consult the history books in order to acquire some perspective....

Thursday, 12 January 2012

BBC 2012 F1 Commentators Announced

After much feverish speculation and rumour, the BBC has announced its commentary line-up on both television and radio for the 2012 season.

As expected, Ben Edwards is confirmed as the main commentator for the TV coverage.  As I have previously blogged, this appointment meets with my wholehearted approval, based on my experience of Ben's work in the past, in F1 and other areas of motorsport.  I think that "casual" fans, who perhaps are not too familiar with him, will find his commentary style to be both entertaining and informative.

It was crucial, in the interests of continuity and credibility, that the BBC retained the services of the trio of Jake Humphrey, David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan, and their presence in the coverage will give some re-assurance that this is "business as usual", despite the revised rights deal.

The hiring of Gary Anderson as technical analyst is also an intriguing move, and perhaps a sign that the BBC is looking to balance up the easy-going accessibility of the show with some content which appeals to the F1 "anoraks" out there. 

I appreciate that this view may place me in a distinct minority, in the UK at least, but I also warmly welcome James Allen's appointment as the lead commentator for the Radio 5 Live coverage. The tendency of many F1 fans to constantly denigrate James has always slightly mystified me. I have always liked him, and his enthusiasm and knowledge always shines through. Next year, I hope that listeners will approach things with an open mind, and at least give James a chance to prove himself.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

York

Some photographs which I took in York earlier today:





Mark Hughes and QPR

One of the least earth-shaking pieces of recent football news was the decision of Queen's Park Rangers to dispense with the services of Neil Warnock, followed by the swift enlistment of Mark Hughes as his successor.

What was the thinking behind this change at the helm at Loftus Road?

One of the salient factors would have been the realisation that relegation was looking a distinct possibility, and that the position would probably only deteriorate if the status quo was allowed to persist. Making the switch now at least gives the new man the opportunity to assess the playing talent at his disposal, and strengthen the squad during the transfer window.

Why Mark Hughes, or somebody of his ilk?  There is a perception within the game that the Welshman is a "big name", with the cachet to invigorate the club, and to attract "big name" players.  Also, recruiting Hughes fits in with QPR's self-image as a club going places and ascending the footballing pecking order.

It is also true to say that Hughes has ample untapped potential, and can develop in parallel with the club. Whether he will be given sufficient time to realise his potential in West London remains to be seen...

The first task of the new boss looks like being to guide Rangers away from the drop zone between now and May.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Arsenal 1 Leeds United 0

Prior to tonight's FA Cup Third Round tie at the Emirates, I was slightly unclear in my mind whether the match represented an unwelcome hindrance to Leeds, in view of their league woes, or whether it would be a pleasant diversion, permitting the team to operate without the usual pressure, or rather with a different set of pressures to normal.

On paper, the team fielded by Simon Grayson looked comparatively attacking in nature, although this was probably forced on him by the club's daunting injury list. I thought to myself, very optimistically, that this was a bold move, designed to ensure that, one way or another, Leeds would not be encumbered by the prospect of a replay.  Arsenal were not totally at full strength, but still looked formidable, with bounteous options on the bench, including one Thierry Henry.

In the event, the Leeds line-up was not allowed to express itself, because from the outset Arsenal settled into their familiar pattern of retaining possession, and creating elaborate passing movements.  This was not unexpected, but Leeds contained them, and weathered the early "storm", such as it was.  In those early minutes, Leeds displayed little in the way of attacking thrust.

The best effort which Leeds could muster in the first half was a shot over the bar by Luciano Becchio, on 23 minutes. He could probably have done better.

On the whole, however, Leeds defended solidly and quite resolutely in that first period, repelling whatever was thrown at them, although admittedly this was not very much.

In my notes at half-time, I speculated whether Arsene Wenger would make changes at the interval, as Arsenal desired a replay even less than Leeds. Their efforts on goal had been restricted mainly to long range shots and a few tame headers. As it turned out, the pivotal substitutions did not occur until later...

The sight of Henry warming up early in the second half appeared to spur the Gunners on, although Andrei Arshavin continued to be wasteful in front of goal.

"Attritional" may be the best term to describe the Leeds performance immediately  after the break, save for an early surge down the right-hand side.  Arsenal gradually began to pose a more sustained threat, and Leeds were forced back more and more.

Of course, the crucial intervention was made by that man Thierry Henry, brought on just before three-quarters distance, along with Theo Walcott.  The way that these things tend to pan out, it was almost inevitable that the returning legend would get his name on the score-sheet!

As the North London team pressed more , they left a few gaps behind their defence, but Leeds were unable to exploit this, or capitalise.

On balance, Arsenal deserved their victory, for playing the more enterprising football, and having the lion's share of the attempts on goal.  They made all the running, even if they looked laboured at times.

So where does this leave Leeds' season?   Well, they are out of the Cup, which is never a good outcome. On the other hand, there is no replay to clog up their fixture list, and some aspects of this evening's display, such as the resilience and organisation which they showed, might instill some badly needed confidence and morale.  We shall see....



Friday, 6 January 2012

Never Again

On Thursday I blogged on my trip to Manchester:

Manchester

For reasons which not detain us here, my train journey home was considerably delayed.  This meant that I became caught up in the evening rush hour at railway stations in both Bradford and Leeds.

If there was ever an acute illustration of why I am glad to be out of "the rat race", and pursuing fresh avenues in life, this was it.  I was surrounded by stressed and miserable people, and the sense of regimentation and soullessness was overwhelming.

It felt strange to be observing this spectacle as a spectator, rather than as an active participant. I could not help reflecting that some of those people would fall prey to the same issues which befell me two short years ago, but I also found myself hoping that those who felt constrained and stripped of their individuality would find some means of escape.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Manchester

Today was the first day of 2012 when the weather conditions were even remotely conducive to a trip outside my immediate locality, and I selected Manchester.

I have visited Manchester quite regularly during the past eighteen months or so, and I continue to warm to it, in particular the vibrant and pleasing juxtaposition of the old and the new, the modern and the traditional. I hope that these pictures, which I took today, amplify this point:





What the pictures cannot hope to convey is just how cold it was in Manchester today! 

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The White Album - The Beatles

Between the end of 1967 and the early months of 1968, the Beatles underwent some changes, and it can be argued that this period represented a watershed in their career.

They began 1968 by recording the single "Lady Madonna", and then decamped to a spiritual retreat in India.  Meanwhile, plans were being laid for the the formation of the Apple company.

Both during the sojourn in India, and in the immediate aftermath, the band members composed lots of new songs, and many of these found their way onto the eponymous double album more commonly referred to as The White Album.



The recording sessions for this work revealed the first hairline cracks in the Beatles facade, cracks which gradually developed into fissures. However, for me The Beatles is one of the most fascinating, if enigmatic, areas of the group's catalogue.

Many rock historians have interpreted the content and atmosphere of The White Album as a retreat from the psychedelic excesses of the previous two years, a trend also reflected by the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet, and the output of the likes of Bob Dylan, The Byrds and The Band around the same time. Many of the songs have an acoustic, rustic feel to them, and this is also a product of the circumstances under which they were written in India.

In addition to the stripped down nature of some of the numbers, there are also signs of a return to the band's rock n roll roots on "Back in the USSR", "Birthday" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey".  Notwithstanding this general return to a simpler and rootsier sound, the experimental was not totally abandoned, as evidenced by some of the contributions of John Lennon, notably "Revolution 9".

I see The White Album as one of the crucial stepping stones in the transition from "pop" to "serious" rock music. That said, the lyrical content of the tracks on this album varies from the esoteric ("Happiness Is A Warm Gun") to the downright banal ("Rocky Raccoon").  The eclecticism is a large part of the LP's charm, and I think that those who said that a condensed single album would have been a better option are missing the point.  The vignettes and fragments are the glue which hold things together.

Underlying many of the songs is a certain darkness,menace, ennui even; symptomatic perhaps of the tensions within the Beatles, and also of the social and political climate which was prevalent in 1968. Largely absent is the ebullience and levity of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Rarely has an album been as apposite and illustrative of its times as The White Album.  Its tenor seemed to be in tune with the then nascent counter-culture.

The internal group dynamics are also worth discussing.  After Paul McCartney's pre-eminence through most of the 1967 recordings, John Lennon's re-asserts himself as a songwriter on this double album, and his contributions are arguably the most substantial.  The continuing emergence of George Harrison's writing and performing prowess is a also a central feature.

Whilst The Beatles is an "album" in the truest sense of the word, this does not mean that there are not highlights.  "Dear Prudence", with its pastoral and joyous air, is one of the hidden gems in the Beatles' oeuvre, and features Paul McCartney on drums, after Ringo Starr temporarily left the group.

"Martha My Dear", although lyrically less than profound, is wonderfully tuneful, and appears to have influenced the Electric Light Orchestra melodically. 

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was one of Harrison's most substantial efforts to date, although the spine-tingling acoustic "demo" version is superior.

The White Album is not as instantly likeable as the Beatles' previous releases, or even what was to follow, but it is essential to an understanding of the group's artistic progression, and  the musical, social and cultural landscape of 1968.



Monday, 2 January 2012

The Year Ahead

From a blogging point of view, the year ahead presents numerous possibilities.

For a sports afficionado like myself, there is the prospect of the London 2012 Olympics, as well as the European Football Championships, Euro 2012, in Poland and the Ukraine. I dare say that I will be posting the odd article about those two events!  To be honest, I have thus far held quite a cynical and negative view of the London Olympics, but I expect that my enthusiasm will increase as the Games draw nearer.

In addition to the "marquee" events, I will continue to follow the F1 circus and domestic and European football.

I hope also to do the odd bit of travelling during 2012, both within the UK and possibly beyond, so some blog posts on these excursions can be expected....

My cultural activities, in the form of music,literature and cinema, will also provide much blogging material. I have piles of books, purchased over the past two years, gathering dust and awaiting my attention, so I will review these publications from time to time.

Any suggestions for other topics to be covered would be welcomed!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Peter Camenzind - Hermann Hesse

No sooner had I finished the wonderful Narcissus and Goldmund than I set about tackling Peter Camenzind, one of Hesse's earlier efforts.  As with the other Hesse works with which I have made acquaintance, completing it did not take long, as one is drawn inexorably into the ebb and flow of the storyline, as well as the power of the subject matter.

Peter Camenzind deals with what were to become the familiar Hesse themes and concerns such as spirituality, personal discovery and humanity, and therefore lays the groundwork for his later novels. However, this one has some distinctive characteristics of its own, and I found it more straightforward and "stripped down" than some of the others.

The plot concerns the experiences of the eponymous character, from his formative years in his home region, through his education and subsequent intellectual and artistic exploits and endeavours, and on to his return.

The young Camenzind is very much captivated by the beauty of nature, but has a curious relationship with some family members.  During and after his education he finds his interactions with cultivated society largely frustrating and unfulfilling, and instead finds solace and meaning in other circles . 

As the story moves forward, Camenzind comes to appreciate the "one-ness" of humanity and nature, and this appears to be achieved through a series of "re-births", during which he rediscovers the charm and honesty of the simple things in life, which often stand in stark contrast to the superficiality and insincerity which he has encountered on his various travels.

The closing chapters see Camenzind continue his voyage of discovery, and his relationship with a crippled man sees this process enter a new dimension.  He then returns to his home town.

This novel also takes a frank and unusual look at the subject of death, and perhaps aims to challenge some of the established views which were prevalent around the time of its publication.

From my point of view Peter Camenzind, like other Hesse novels, looks at life as an inner struggle, but also as a series of cycles, with a periodic journey back to "mother nature" desirable for nourishment and rejuvenation.  Above all, it celebrates all life for its richness, dignity and beauty.