Friday, 30 May 2014

Little Feat - the first album - review

It is common to assert that Little Feat's best work centred around the period 1972-74, but their 1971 debut album was a substantial record, featuring, albeit in embryonic or prototype form, some of the hallmarks which would dominate their future endeavours.
On the surface, Little Feat seems a conventional effort, not as experimental, esoteric or eclectic as the group's subsequent recordings, but closer scrutiny reveals a distinct character, if enclosed within a relatively uniform veneer. The background of the musicians (some of whom had inhabited the Zappa/Beefheart arena) blends with the blues rock/country rock backbone to create something endearingly idiosyncratic, refreshing and entertaining.
The sound on this record is more streamlined and ascetic than the later Little Feat releases, and this is partly determined by the line-up of the band at the time, which was a comparatively straightforward four-piece (guitar,piano,bass,drums). The exotica of the later more "funky" style is largely absent here, and this less ambitious foundation is anchored by the proficient piano work of Bill Payne and a solid rhythm section. Lowell George's slide guitar is to the fore on several tracks. The group's acknowledged virtuosity is thereby more concentrated and less diffuse.
It is fair to say that some of the compositions on this album edge more towards the "conservative", in musical terms, but this should not mislead us as to its level of melodic invention, and the quality of the lyrics. Several of the more "mellow" numbers, such as "Brides of Jesus", "Takin' My Time" and "I've Been The One", can almost seem to drift by unnoticed, and real attention is required to appreciate their charms and depths. In that sense, this is a record to really listen to, rather than simply permit its vibes to seep into one's sub-conscious.

The lyrical content and general atmosphere are very varied, from the light-hearted ("Crack In Your Door", "Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie") to the vaguely surreal ("Strawberry Flats", "Hamburger Midnight") , to the poignant ("Truck Stop Girl") to the ethereal.

I'm not sure whether it was intentional, but the running order places two very meaty and energetic rockers up front. This may have been a way of emphasising that for all the diversity of styles and genres, Little Feat remained in essence a bluesy, rootsy rock n roll band. "Snakes With Everything", with its marvellous intro, is an ideal opener, and I can imagine that the members of the Black Crowes may have come across it at some point in their youth!

If there is any one feature of Little Feat which lingers in the psyche it is Bill Payne's superb piano playing, a foretaste of the artistry which would form a large part of the bedrock of the band's appeal and unique pull. His contributions here are almost exclusively on acoustic piano, in contrast to the more varied diet of keyboards (organ, electric piano, synths etc) which featured on the later albums. There is an agility and sprightliness about these parts, and it is a tribute to Payne's abilities that they almost overshadow the presence and guitar/vocal prowess of Lowell George.

If not as infectious, libidinous and irresistibly rhythmic as Little Feat's later releases, their debut LP betrays many of the characteristics which made them so special, and which continue to make them so cherished and fondly remembered. If people do nothing else, they should try at some point in their lives to check out "Crack In Your Door" - hilarious lyrics, beautiful guitar and piano work, and an overall effect which will make one both smile and marvel. An overlooked gem on an album which can justifiably fit the same description....

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Jaws

I was a little too young to get caught up in the original hysteria of 1975, but Steven Spielberg's Jaws remains an entertaining if slightly disturbing viewing experience.
 
 
One thing which I am reminded of when watching the DVD is the distinctive "aesthetic" of this movie. The light is baleful and gloomy. Whether this was intentional or not, it does accentuate the darkness and menace which pervades the movie. It is unsettling to watch, with little of the levity to be found in other works of this director. 
 
Another feature which stands out is the quintessentially mid-1970s look and feel, when one considers the fashions, hairstyles and overall cultural ambience. In this respect, Jaws is perhaps less "timeless" than some other Spielberg pictures.
 
I have not read Peter Benchley's book, on which the film is based, but it seems to me that the police chief Brody , played so ably by Roy Scheider, has some parallels with the Roy Neary character from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. A conscientious, believable "everyman", who has to juggle his onerous professional responsibilities with those of being a husband and father. In making the Brody/Neary comparisons, of course, it is ironic that Richard Dreyfuss turns up here too, as the likeable oceanographer Hooper.
 
As well as depicting the havoc wrought by the dreaded shark, and the efforts to tackle it, this film also poses the odd moral or philosophical question, particularly those of commerce v safety, science v well-meaning amateurism, and bureaucracy v common sense. The world has changed in the past four decades, but these issues were very pertinent in the climate which prevailed in the mid-Seventies.
 
The chilling "shark attack" scenes are superbly inventive and well executed, with a perfect building-up of tension and suspense, and numerous minor"false alarm" scenarios to maintain the trepidation and anxiety. What is not seen on the screen, and merely implied, is as important and as potent as what is overtly displayed. The underwater shots are also presented with great finesse and impact, and who can forget the infamous "leg" shot....?
 
One of the more pleasing aspects of Jaws is the dialogue and rapport between Scheider and Dreyfuss. The latter is especially impressive and engaging in the scenes where he displays growing exasperation in his attempts to convince the local mayor of the gravity of the situation! The clash of cultures between the scientist and the grizzled Quint (magnificently portrayed by Robert Shaw) is great value too.
 
On my most recent viewing, my predominant sentiments revolved around the helplessness of man in the face of this unbridled force of nature. In the end, courage and ingenuity won the day, rather than technology or material plenty.
 
Jaws retains its capacity to enthral and disconcert........
 
 
 
 

Friday, 23 May 2014

Chariots Of Fire

A movie which I feel is somewhat forgotten nowadays is Chariots Of Fire, which recounts the exploits of two British athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. To be honest, I had largely forgotten it myself until recently, when I dug out my DVD, and gave it another watch.
 
 
The stamp of quality is established in the early scene in which some of the athletes are seen running on a beach. It remains as beautiful and powerful a set of images now as it was over three decades ago, conveying the effort but also the nobility and purity of sport before the advent of professionalism and cynicism. 
 
It is significant, not to say poignant, that this film was released in the early 1980s, just as athletics, and Olympic sport in general, was at the dawn of its transformation to a more commercial, less innocent state. In stressing these "Corinthian" values however, it must also be emphasised that Chariots Of Fire explores these issues cleverly, and in a subtle manner. This is best exemplified by the scene where Abrahams is summoned to dinner with a couple of the "elders" of Cambridge University. He is taken to task for employing a "professional" coach, and for adopting a too single-minded and uncompromising approach. Abrahams' superb rejoinder was to tell his critics that he still adhered to admirable principles of honour and fairness, whilst also striving for absolute excellence. So, even in the 1920s, the dynamic of "traditional" and "modern" was not so clear-cut. It seems to me that the ethos expounded by Harold Abrahams is timeless and pretty hard to fault...

In general, I think that the sub-texts are dealt with in a subtle and adroit way. Eric Liddell's religious inclinations, and their impact on his running, are to a large degree couched in terms of universal human aspirations and concerns. Similarly, the conception of Abrahams as something of an outsider, in part because of his Jewish background, is addressed frankly but deftly, illustrating the social climate and prejudices of those times, and also how the sprinter channelled his frustrations and resentment into proving himself on the track. Some of the most revealing, if less ostentatious, scenes in the picture are the ones where the two athletes attempt to explain their motivations and mind-set to friends and relatives...

The acting is of a high order, but none of those in the major roles stands out to the extent of stealing the show;they are generally of equal ability. This may be one of the hidden secrets of the movie's appeal, allowing the script and the "situation" to stand largely by themselves. To my mind, Ben Cross has never received sufficient credit for his measured performance as Harold Abrahams. It must be added that the presence of Ian Holm and John Gielgud provides some gravitas and depth.

Chariots Of Fire is very English, but there is an unspoken feeling of the contradictions and tensions which had begun to pervade Englishness (and Britishness), in particular the increasing independence of thought of youth, and its reluctance to unquestioningly embrace the values and attitudes which had hitherto predominated - this was not long after World War One, remember. In some ways, it is surprising that this angle is not pushed more openly, although it is discernible just beneath the surface.

Much has been made of the odd liberty which was taken with historical fact, but let's face it, which "biopic" or similar project does not bend the real story to some extent?  It is refreshing to watch a film whose strength is in the writing, the acting and the story, and which does not rely on special effects or pushy moralizing. The memorable music of Vangelis complements the images perfectly, being both dignified and timeless.

To the 21st century audience, the action sequences may seen dated, but it can be argued I think that this film invented many of the clich├ęs which have since become so commonplace! The slow-motion stuff does encapsulate vividly the strain, agony and drama of Olympic competition. Also, those types of shots are used sparingly.

Chariots Of Fire is that comparatively rare phenomenon, a "feel-good" movie which has an underlying thread of quality, and which also has some profound things to say....

 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

History Lessons

One news item which caught my eye yesterday concerned plans to broaden the scope of the History A-level examination courses, here in the UK. It is being proposed that a greater diversity of topics will be included in the new course, being put forward by one of the exam boards, including an increased emphasis on pre-colonial events in Africa and Asia.

From my own perspective, this can only be a good thing, although I would go further and suggest that some of these additional topics should be included in the syllabus at an earlier stage of secondary education. I studied history in my early years at high school, but found the diet of medieval and Early Modern British history very stodgy and bland. This lack of sparkle and variety prompted me to discard history from the list of subjects which I engaged in at the "business end" of my time in school. Perhaps if I had been taught about Genghis Khan or the Ottoman Empire when I was thirteen or fourteen years old I might have been sufficiently enthused to maintain my interest in history as an academic pursuit.

In a wider sense, anything which encourages young people to broaden their horizons, to become more conscious and inquisitive about other cultures, and become less insular and "Anglocentric" should be welcomed.

Early World Cup Memories

With the football World Cup rapidly approaching, I am trying to summon up some enthusiasm for the tournament. Even the current flurry of squad announcements has not totally succeeded in this regard, and my next resort may be to watch some old footage. Of course, wallowing in nostalgia may also aid the process...
 
I was a mere toddler when the much-mythologized 1970 World Cup took place, so the 1974 version is the first one which I can vaguely remember, although clear recollections are cloudy and elusive. By 1978 I was a fully paid-up football fanatic, and so Argentina 78 was a big deal, although I was oblivious to some of the manifold unsavoury aspects of that tournament, and the fact that in strict footballing terms, it was quite mediocre.
 
Because of the time difference between South America and Europe, many of the games were televised live late in the evening here, and satellite technology was thankfully still a touch rough and ready, so the picture quality was not always pristine, and the commentary came through in that gloriously evocative "telephone line" flavour. Digital technology soon arrived and ruined everything....
 
My chief recollections of the 1978 edition are falling asleep shortly after the start of the epic Argentina v France match, and being told the next morning by my brother of the numerous dramas which had unfolded. Another incident which lingers in the mind is the France v Hungary encounter, where a clash of kits resulted in the French players donning the shirts of a local club team.  In another match, a pitch-side microphone picked up a piercing cry of pain from one of the Italy players who had been heavily fouled - I think it was Renato Zaccarelli. Of course, any summary of 1978 would not be complete without mention of Archie Gemmill's slalomesque exploits against the Netherlands, or indeed of the two remarkable long-range goals scored by Arie Haan, or the "plaster-cast" gamesmanship immediately before kick-off in the final...
 
A central part of World Cup culture in those days was the Panini sticker album. Agonisingly, my older brother collected all the stickers in 1978 except one.  I recall that the missing player was one of the Scotland squad;it might have been someone like Bruce Rioch or Don Masson...
 
In 1982, I was at secondary school, and I vividly recall the customary rush home after lessons to catch the beginning of the afternoon game. It was faintly surreal to see England involved, after their absence in the previous two World Cups, and many must have found this disorienting. The preponderance of bubble perms and excessively tight shorts could not disguise our abject mediocrity, despite a misleading opening win against France. We duly ran out of steam and ideas in the second phase games. Unbeaten, yes, but that was really meaningless.
 
Spain 1982 was a curate's egg, featuring some excellent football alongside some less appetizing aspects. The Brazil team of that year entranced everyone with its panache and flair, and I was one of many who struggled to come to terms with their exit at the hands of Italy. Even then, I failed to grasp the idea that a team needed to defend as well as attack in order to prevail against the better opposition. It was only with the benefit of time and discernment that I was able to recognise the overall quality of that Italian team, and the fact that they were very worthy winners.
 
People generally tend to wax lyrical, and make inflated claims, about "cultural" events which occurred just as their consciousness of those types of events was dawning. 1978 and 1982, I can see now, were nowhere near as good as 1974. Indeed, I think there is a strong argument for saying that 1974 was the best World Cup, in terms of the strength in depth of the teams involved, and the overall quality and tactical interest of the football on display. 1970 and 1986 were both lavishly entertaining, but the altitude and heat distorted matters, leading to tired defences and innumerable mistakes. 1974 was "proper" football, physically robust but enterprising.

I just hope that the 2014 competition approaches the glories of the past.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Liddell Hart's History Of The Second World War

There are literally thousands of books available which provide an overview of the 1939-45 conflict, catering for many perspectives and tastes. Of those which major primarily on the purely military/strategic aspects, Basil Liddell Hart's "History Of The Second World War", first published in 1970, stands out, both for its level of detail and erudition and its absence of equivocation and bias.
 

 
Until recently, I had not read this book in its entirety for several years, and there is a greater quantity of discussion about grand strategy, and the "behind closed doors" elements, than I had recalled. Works of this depth travel comfortably beyond the wishy-washy generalisations seen elsewhere. Liddell Hart quotes extensively from diaries and official records, and from his own post-war interviews with some German commanders.
 
A lengthy pre-amble sets the scene. It is dispiriting, but worthwhile, to be reminded of the appeasement policies practised by Britain in the 1930s, and of the missed opportunities to stifle and confront Hitler's expansionist sorties, particularly those circa 1938.
 
In his accounts of the early campaigns of the war, the author emphasizes how comparatively fine the margins were between German success and their being repulsed by the Allies, in France in 1940 for example. He appears to adopt the line that the German victory in the West was not a foregone conclusion, dispelling a few common assumptions about that campaign, and highlighting, as he does elsewhere, how the impetus for the Wehrmacht's tactics emanated chiefly from certain of their field commanders, not from the high command itself.
 
As one of the early prophets, and advocates, of the new fast-moving armoured warfare, Liddell Hart is therefore ideally placed to judge how these ideas impacted on the course of events in the early stages of the conflict, and how those who failed to take heed of the new realities paid a heavy price for their blinkeredness. In expressing his exasperation at the failings of Allied strategy, he is not simply saying "I told you so", but does back up his assertions with reasoned analysis, whilst also allowing that the deficiencies sometimes resulted from political neglect and misjudgement, or economic factors.
 
Some of the arguments employed here about strategic and diplomatic matters are ones which appear to be unfashionable today, but I see that as a distinct strength!  These viewpoints are arrived at by reasoning and knowledge, whereas I get the feeling that many 21st century commentaries on World War Two are bland, watered down or populist over-simplifications, designed not to tax people's pre-conceptions too much.
 
The relating of the feverish diplomatic activity both prior to and during the "Operation Torch" landings in North Africa in 1942 is a fine example of how detail and comprehensiveness can give a more representative overview than the "bullet-point" tactics used in many versions. My impression, rightly or wrongly is that the British Mediterranean strategy in the 1942-43 period is given a qualified thumbs-up, even if fault is found with its later implementation. The dreaded word "sideshow" is not to be found that frequently in these chapters!
 
Liddell Hart's views on the Eastern Front are fascinating, including his view that the "backwardness" of the USSR in those days helped to save it from total collapse and defeat in the first phases of the German invasion. To my mind, he does not adhere as much as some observers to the notion that the Russian front was the only "real front" in the war.
 
There is a balanced, humane and realistic assessment of the merits, or otherwise, of the various Allied strategic bombing initiatives.  The blind alleys are highlighted, but equally the later innovations, breakthroughs and effects are acknowledged. The missed opportunities to end the war more swiftly on the Western Front are subjected to a lengthy dissection and lamentation.

The flaws and pitfalls in the "unconditional surrender" demands put forward by Allied leaders in both Europe and Asia are examined. Did this stipulation unnecessarily prolong the war, by bolstering both civilian and military morale, and defiance, amongst the surviving Axis powers?
 
On the subject of the atomic bomb, and the possible motivations for employing it, much emphasis is placed on the anxiety in Washington about forestalling increased Soviet influence in the Far East. The author persuasively argues that Japan was probably already finished before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Did the bomb merely hasten the inevitable surrender by a very short time?
 
It may seem to the casual observer that the closing chapters on the chronology of the war itself are a little truncated, but on reflection this is probably just symptomatic of how quickly Germany and Japan collapsed. Also, most of the fighting in the Pacific did not lend itself to the mobile and fluid warfare about which the author specialized.
 
Those looking for a comprehensive social and political history of the war should probably look elsewhere. The "humanitarian" aspects of the conflict are rarely touched on in detail here, although Liddell Hart refers at times to the moral dimension, and the wider struggle for civilization.  If you want to read in-depth about those broader considerations, there are plenty of books which cater for those things handsomely....
 
Above all, what emerge to me are the author's clarity of thought, his disdain for inertia, and the power of his ideas. This is a lengthy work, but also one which can be devoured quite swiftly, such is its authoritativeness, and resultant capacity to maintain the interest.

 

 
 

 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Operation Mincemeat - Ben Macintyre

I have become a touch wary of stories about World War Two espionage and subterfuge, as grandiose and excessive claims are often made for the value or import of certain missions or initiatives. However, "Operation Mincemeat", instigated by British Naval Intelligence in 1943, to support the impending landings in Sicily, possesses elements which make it stand out from the crowd. Ben Macintyre's book on the subject therefore became essential reading.
 
In short, "Operation Mincemeat" was a deception scheme arranged by British intelligence, as a means of keeping the German High Command guessing about Allied intentions in the Mediterranean region, in the wake of the conquest of North Africa. To facilitate this, an ingenious and elaborate, if somewhat macabre, operation was mounted, whereby a human corpse was washed up on the Spanish coast, bearing various "fake" and "planted" letters and documents, in the hope that said items would find their way into German hands, and impact upon the Reich's military decisions in accordance with Allied wishes.
 
 

I had previously been aware of this episode, but the book fleshes out the matter considerably, and delivers a penetrating insight into several aspects of the war . The ambiguous and complicated Spanish role, the intricacies of espionage, the various chains of command, overlapping responsibilities and the sometimes petty rivalries and jealousies which constantly threatened to hinder projects of massive importance.
 
Approximately halfway through "Operation Mincemeat", my judgement was still reserved, as I had a feeling of dread about the conclusions which might be reached. There is a natural tendency amongst authors to make outlandish claims for the success or achievement of the enterprise which they are championing or seeking to bring to a wider audience. I am glad to say that in this case my fears proved to be groundless, as Macintyre is realistic, balanced and honest in his assessments of how much "Mincemeat" ultimately accomplished, acknowledging that other factors contributed to Allied success, and that this was just part of a larger overall deception programme.

This is emphatically NOT one of those ".....Who Fooled Hitler" jobs which have begun to populate the bookshelves and broadcast schedules in recent times. Macintyre's approach is much more nuanced and honest. He does not pretend that everything went swimmingly from beginning to end from the Allied viewpoint.
 
The Axis commitment of troops to North Africa in late 1942, and the consequent number of prisoners taken by the Allies in Tunisia, had arguably left Sicily exposed just as much as any decision by the German High Command to divert resources to Greece and Sardinia later on. The author correctly observes that the "Mincemeat" information merely helped to solidify attitudes and prejudices already harboured by Hitler and some of his colleagues. At the absolute minimum, and on balance of evidence, the plan positively benefited the Allies in the Mediterranean, albeit temporarily, as the twin forces of the terrain of mainland Italy, and the astute defensive tactics deployed by their opponents, soon meant much frustration further north.
 
The writing style is not particularly "scholarly", and some may find the tone a little shallow and "populist" in places. I thought that the author tried a little too hard at times to make every character or key player conform to stereotypes or caricatures of loveable eccentricity on the British side or clownish venality elsewhere. Having said that, it is never less than entertaining and absorbing, and several intriguing sub-plots are kept bubbling.
 
It is interesting to note the implication that anti-Nazi elements in German intelligence may have knowingly and deliberately misrepresented the meaning and/or contents of the "Mincemeat" documents, in order to frustrate or deceive their superiors. To be honest, I was expecting to be told that Wilhelm Canaris played a more direct role in the affair, given some of his well-documented activities, but seemingly he did not.
 
If you are interested in espionage or history, or just like a jolly good read, this book is recommended. I breezed through it quickly - always a good sign!
 

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds

Following my recent visit to the National Football Museum (described here), I thought it worthwhile to provide my thoughts on another, very different, museum, in the north of England. This is the Royal Armouries in Leeds, which I have visited many times.
 
Housed in an impressive building in the canal area on the edge of the city centre, the Royal Armouries is described as the UK's national museum of arms and armour. It contains a huge variety of artefacts and exhibits, emanating from all corners of the globe, and almost all periods of human civilization. Multi-media and interactive elements co-exist with passive items. On my most visit, I spent time watching a video about the Battle of Marston Moor!
 
The emphasis is on arms and armour, but this does not mean that we are dealing with an exclusively "military" museum. There are sections covering hunting, self-defence, heraldry, tournaments and so forth. Perhaps the most striking articles on display are the suits of armour, from many parts of Europe, and the elaborate and ornate uniforms and weapons contained in the "Oriental" area, especially the Japanese ones.
 
In terms of presentation, I think that the tone is set just about right. There is obviously no attempt to glorify war or weapons, but instead a concerted effort to educate the visitor in the development of these implements, and an undercurrent of hope that mankind has progressed, and will continue to do so. Any "message" is not ostentatiously pressed, and I never get the impression that I am being preached to.
 
From a personal point of view, I almost feel that the post-World War Two exhibits are a little incongruous or out-of-place, when set against the rare and fascinating things from the earlier epochs. The heart of the museum for me is represented by the period from the early Modern period to the early twentieth century. The items from those times somehow have the capacity to both enthral and also to induce more sober and uneasy sentiments.
 
During the week, the museum is often visited by school parties, but one never feels that it is overly crowded, or that one's opportunity to appreciate its treasures is impaired.  If time is taken, this will be a rewarding and enjoyable day out.
 
 
 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Sink The Bismarck (movie)

War films were, not unnaturally, a staple of the output of the British movie industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Of these, one of the most affecting for me is Sink The Bismarck!, released in 1960, and starring Kenneth More. It tells the tale of the Royal Navy's campaign to sink the infamous German battleship. More plays the role of Captain Shepard, chief of operations at the Admiralty, who is tasked with co-ordinating the effort to find and eliminate the dangerous vessel.
 
 

British war pictures of this period tended to be distinctly "patriotic" in nature.  Sink The Bismarck! for me differs in largely suppressing these impulses, concentrating instead on the human aspects. It manages to encapsulate the terror of modern war, and Britain's still precarious position circa 1941.

Much of the movie is located in the subterranean operations room at the Admiralty, thus engendering a feeling of claustrophobia and tension. The sunlight of London is only seen at the beginning and the end of the picture. The menace instilled by, and embodied in, the Bismarck is palpable. This is also one of those films which just had to be made in black and white, as the monochrome accentuates the starkness of the scenario, and the austerity of wartime England.

There are some action sequences at sea, but these are largely subordinated to a portrayal of the dangers and cruelty of battle in the North Atlantic, and indeed war in general. Here this is generally undertaken succinctly and unostentatiously.

The film is held together by the fine performance of Kenneth More. The Shepard character is taciturn and disciplinarian, but also highly conscientious and capable. We see his more human side, when his son, a Navy pilot, briefly goes missing in action.

I feel that several topics are presented and highlighted by Sink The Bismarck!. Firstly, the apparent helplessness of individual human beings, whatever their level of experience, diligence and ability, in the face of a determined and well-equipped enemy, and in the face of superior technology. The tension between conventional scruples and the utter ruthlessness that is sadly sometimes required in desperate situations. The coolness and clarity of judgement required to deal with onerous responsibilities, and to make difficult, often fatal, decisions when resources are finite and stretched.

The depiction of the British naval command here is admirable, and largely eschews popular stereotypes. They were by and large able, stoical and humane people, often let down by the folly or neglect of their political masters, or by caprices outside their own control. Happily, this movie does
not resort to the tired and simplistic "lions led by donkeys" line....

One slightly jarring note is struck by the somewhat corny dialogue between the German fleet commander and his immediate subordinate, although it does not spoil the overall effect.

The ending is not sugar-coated or triumphalist, but low-key and quite matter-of-fact. In keeping with the underlying tone of the movie, in fact....

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Ayrton Senna

In the summer of 1983, I was slowly becoming obsessed with Formula 1 racing, having had my imagination well and truly captured by the exploits of Gilles Villeneuve a couple of years before. I vividly recall reading the various motor sport magazines around that time, and learning about a remarkable young Brazilian, who in those days raced under the name Ayrton Senna da Silva. Soon enough this precocious talent found his way to Grand Prix racing, and we now found ourselves commemorating the twentieth anniversary of his tragic accident at Imola.

Only yesterday I was speaking with a female friend, who told me that she had no great interest in Formula 1 as such, but had been utterly captivated by Senna's charisma, and remains so to this day. Untold millions around the globe were affected in a similar way. Senna possessed that intangible magic which transcended his own field of endeavour, an accolade which goes to the very few. It can be persuasively argued that he played a massive role in transforming F1 into the slick multinational media spectacle that we see today.  He broadened the appeal of the sport.

Not unnaturally, Senna's tenure with the McLaren team tends to be highlighted, but I find his period with Lotus, from 1985 to 1987, equally compelling. The legendary outfit was in a slow decline, but Senna's mixture of raw ability, work ethic and competitive spirit kept them in the hunt. His tally of pole positions from those seasons, even when up against McLaren, Williams, Ferrari et al, speaks for itself. Senna was competitive almost everywhere, at least in '85 and '86, and his fearsome commitment and dedication were already clearly evident. Both in and out of the car, he took the "science" and "art" of Grand Prix racing to a new level, even above that practised by such modern greats as Stewart, Lauda and Prost, who had been cited as innovators and modernisers.

In common with most of the truly great drivers, Senna had what almost amounted to a "sixth sense", by way of his mechanical sensitivity. The most startling example of this which I have personally seen was captured in a British television documentary covering the 1993 season. At one race, Senna returned to the pits, unhappy with the performance of his car, and insisted that there was a minor problem with the engine, this seemingly having not been highlighted by telemetry and so forth. After much debate, the engine was dismantled, and sure enough a small but significant fault was discovered....