Friday, 30 July 2010

Cracking portrait of a complex star

Maradona: the Hand of God by Jimmy Burns

One thing that this book most certainly is, is several cuts above standard sporting biographies. During my time as a sports writer, I had countless books sent to me to review – and many ended up in a personal library. That, a few years ago, was whittled down to just the very best – and as such, there's little more than one shelf (and that includes an awful lot of Manchester City stuff that is there because – well, because it's Manchester City.

But Jimmy Burns's book, which has been reissued with a chapter to bring it up-to-date (well, up to before this year's World Cup finals in South Africa) is not only excellently well written, it also avoids the syndrome of wanting to be all things to all readers, thus eschewing anything and everything that might be remotely controversial.

Many years ago, 400m hurdles star Sally Gunnell told me how frustrating it is to see a biography treated in such a manner – she'd wanted to say a number of things about drugs in sport and testing, but the publishers of Running Tall had simply run scared.

Fortunately, Burns has not written this book for any publisher's stereotype of a lobotomised sports fan.

What is there to say about Maradona? One of the most sublimely gifted players that the world has ever seen. Dip into YouTube and there are plenty of clips to see – not least, that extraordinary second goal he scored for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup Finals, leaving half the team rooted to the spot, the ball seemingly glued to his feet.

But the the thing with Maradona is that while he's rightly lauded for such sweet skills, he's equally remembered as a controversial figure, as epitomised by the first goal in that same match – the infamous 'Hand of God', when he handled the ball into the net.

Not that that was remotely the only controversy that has involved the man born in a shanty town near Buenos Aries. During his time with Napoli in Italy's Serie A, he became very friendly with – or at least was prepared to enjoy the hospitality of – the Camorra, that region's equivalent of the Mafia.

And links with assorted Argentinian regimes have seem him apparently ready to ignore human rights abuses in his own country, with a naive politics that seems largely to be based on a similarly naive nationalism.

But for most footballers, such matters would hardly merit any attention. However, Diego Armando Maradona's life has long been inextricably bound up with his country's – a symbol to be used and exploited by assorted political and business interests. And even religious ones, since it's hard to imagine why the Pope would otherwise grant an audience to someone who was rather blatantly 'living in sin' – never mind some of his other off-field activities, including sex (not with the aforementioned partner) and drugs.

And drugs are indeed another one of the aspects of Maradona's fall from grace – both his suspension for taking cocaine to his being thrown out of the 1994 US World Cup after failing a drugs test.

Burns details all this and more. But while he is perfectly happy to be critical when required – and there are more than a few times when it is fully justified – he's also deeply sympathetic to an individual who never seems to have grown up, and indeed, possibly never really had the chance to do so. Maradona is reminiscent, in so many ways, of Paul Gasgoigne.

Maradona is a complex mingling of "victim, knight, defiant rebel, foul-mouthed aggressor", as Burns describes him.

But as his reappearance at a World Cup showed earlier this summer, he remains utterly fascinating and with a sense of the mercurial about him too.

A rum read

The Rum Diary by Hunter S Thompson

Blame Johnny Depp. I had never read any Hunter S Thompson previously, but after noting that Depp has several films coming up for release this year, and one of them is a film version of The Rum Diary, I hunted a bit.

I read about Thompson a little and 'gonzo'; and I read that Depp was a friend who had arranged much of Thompson's funeral, complete with its cannon to shoot his ashes in the air.

My curiosity was suitably piqued.

Paul Kemp is a journalist who moves from New York to Puerto Rico in the late 1950s, to work on The Daily News.

But on arriving in San Juan, Kemp finds that the publication is on the verge of folding, and he is drawn into the alcoholic and violent world of the itinerant journalists whose livelihoods appear to be clinging by a thread.

This is a really fast-paced novel. Yes, it's violent and full of a sort of machismo that isn't particularly to like – but then again, I doubt that was Thompson's aim – but it has an exhilarating, raw, piratical quality that pulls you in and through. This is about life outside the confines of convention – not limited by the sort of games that Kemp sees and dislikes.

But even though Thompson was only 22 when he wrote the novel, it's also about aging and the fear of that – of getting to a point where all you want is to 'settle down'; where you're past wanting to take risks and reap their rewards or dangers.

The film is going to be interesting.

So blame Johnny.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

A very quirky take on personal liberation

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles's one novel, first published in 1943, is nothing if not quirky.

Christina Goering is a well-to-do spinster of independent means. From an odd childhood, where she was obsessed with religious ideas of sin and salvation, she has grown to a lonely middle age – until she asks a new acquaintance, Miss Gamelon, to come and live with her.

They're joined, shortly afterwards, by Arnold – and even, fleetingly, by his father – before Miss Goering moves them all from her large, respectable home, to a shabbier one on a small island near New York.

Frieda Copperfield is another respectable, middle-class woman. Married to a man she adores but is stifled by, we meet her properly as they approach Panama on a holiday. Insisting he would be bored by staying in a good hotel (which would also cost money they didn't need to spend) her husband has selected a rather seedier place.

But as it turns out, Mrs Coperfield finds the seedier world very much to her liking, when she meets and falls in love with a prostitute, Pacifica, and decides to stay with her at a brothel.

Lauded by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote as a woefully under-appreciated talent, Bowles's tale is a little dated – but that's an illustration of how far women have come in the time since she wrote it.

What remains extraordinary is the degree to which Bowles portrays the respective liberations of her two main characters in sexual terms. Whilst there are no explicit descriptions of sex, the book is shot through with it, and both women – like their creator – are clearly bisexual.

For Bowles, it seems that sexual exploration is vital in terms of throwing off the limitations of convention; in other words, that what is viewed in a society as conventional sexual behaviour is a major aspect of controlling people in general.

I discovered Two Serious Ladies after reading a brief review of a re-release in the Guardian's weekend arts section – it was a spot that started a run on book purchases. Quirky, with a certain kind of camp and, in places, bitchily funny, it is certainly a fascinating read.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Changing relationships in a changing world

So much has changed, so fast, in the last 20 or 30 years, that sometimes we can find that approaching situations that would have been unheard of then requires a rethinking of how we do just that.

In the 21st century, for instance, communication has changed beyond recognition if we think back just 30 years.

But it's not just getting accustomed to new technologies – and learning to remember millions of passwords and pin numbers and codes – but also to learning to deal with the impact of new technologies on our relationships and even our work.

For instance, there seems to be a world where people who post on social networking sites – Facebook in particular springs to mind here – plaster private information all over the place and then appear shocked when their employer finds out.

Now the internet can offer a wonderful opportunity to be anonymous and even to explore issues that you might not so easily be able to in the 'real world'; even to pour out problems that you can't talk to anyone about face to face. But it's a little naive to believe that posting stories about how much you drank at the weekend and what a shit your boss is, under a recognisable identity, and not thinking that it just might come back to haunt you.

Then you get the culture of taproom lawyers, all of whom seem to think that they can shrill 'libel!' if you say something that they don't like – without realising that you cannot (in UK law at least) libel someone who is only known in the cyber environment as 'Bugs Bunny's Jockstrap'.

But rather more seriously, there's the question of internet relationships, for which our day-to-day etiquette seems inadequate on occasion.

You could start simply from the question of what constitutes friendship online, when you are mostly unlikely to meet the person technology is allowing you to interact with and often where you don't even know their real name.

However, perhaps one of the most difficult issues that all this raises is how we deal with the death of online friends and acquaintances.

Today, the UK news included a story of how the country's oldest Tweeter, Ivy Bean, had died, aged 104. Ivy had over 56,000 followers and some of the messages there today express the impact her death has had on people who never met her, yet followed her tweets.

But it hit me personally when, almost a fortnight ago, one of the contributors on a forum I hang around on died suddenly. Gem wasn't old: she'd recovered from a serious illness earlier in the year, but then a car accident managed what the illness had not.

It struck me that, were it not for a good friend of hers, there would have been nobody to notify people in the online communities of which she was a valuable part.

The thing that really came home to me, though, was how you mourn such friends. There are no obvious conventions. It's unlikely that most internet friends and acquaintances get invited by relatives to a funeral. Even if that were possible, the internet has meant that our online friends can call home somewhere half away around the globe from where we live.

It was the forum owner who came up with what I ultimately felt was the best way to mark her passing – raise a glass to her: an online wake. I think, from the little I knew her, that she would have approved of that so much more than people feeling miserable.

But I am left with the feeling that we need to be aware of this new, connected world that we live in. Staff at Ivy Bean's care home made sure that her followers knew what had happened. A friend of Gem made sure we at least knew what had happened. Perhaps we all need to consider ensuring that someone will tell our cyber friends when anything happens to us.

Because regardless of the nature of our online relationships, they are relationships, in a rapidly changing world when the very nature of our relationships is changing.

Monday, 26 July 2010

A comedy of manners?

It was perhaps the ideal situation in which to have such a discussion: after all, Paris is hardly a city that is dismissive of philosophy or intellectual endeavour.

Indeed, I’m always rather envious when I see newsstands there advertising a philosophy magazine – you’d just never see such a thing in London. And there has long been a culture of distrust of anything that might be described as intellectualism in the UK – to the point that I’ve actually seen people describe themselves as being ‘proud to be thick’.

Indeed, cultural dumbing down has increased in recent years, led by a ghettoising of intelligent TV, which has been replaced with increasing amounts of tat on the main channels, aimed at viewing figures only. The process has hardly helped by such things as a dramatic decline in independent bookshops where you can easily find anything other than the latest potboiler or thriller.

There’s been a concomitant rise in gossip rags and ‘reality’ TV, which modern day freak shows often raise stupidity to great heights (Jade Goody’s appearance on Big Brother, subsequent ‘celebrity’ career and eventual 'martyrdom' were a prime example), and the 24-hour nature of news media does nothing for quality reporting, but instead brings with it ever shriller, more sensationalistic and shallower coverage of events.

But let’s put that aside for the time being. The Other Half and I were taking a break in the French capital, largely because we had free Eurostar tickets that needed using. And sitting over dinner one night – and during a subsequent drink at our favourite café – the subject came up of French charm.

More than once I have been … well, charmed by the attitude of French men.

To recall just two specific occasions: one involved a cab driver in Perpignan opening the car door for me and wishing me a “bon voyage” with a certain j'ne sais quoi.

On another, in our favourite little bistro, it was a young man (who was dining with his girlfriend), leaning over to ask me (at the next table) if I would mind if he lit up between courses. Responding that I would have no problem, I took his lead and pulled out a fag myself, for him to lean across and light it.


British men, in my experience, wouldn’t know what charm was if it got up and smacked them across the chops.

I noted that such behaviour is part of a game. The Other Half concurred, but added the point that one article he’d read, by a woman who had lived in France for some time, suggested that it’s a game that men expect women to play and, if they don’t, they’re annoyed. He then added that that expectation probably worked both ways.

But the question is, what is the alternative?

The last gender politics of the last 30 years, in many ways, altered the way men and women interact. There are now so many ‘rules’ about how you should talk to colleagues of the opposite sex, for instance, that people frequently find themselves walking on eggshells, not knowing what they can say or not.

Can you flirt? Can you open a door for someone without them taking offence? Can you call a woman ‘love’ – even if that’s a perfectly normal colloquialism (for men and women) where you come from? Can you pay a compliment without being seen as a sexist? Can you look at someone, thinking about something other than your next meeting of cricket statistics, without upsetting them? And so on.

I do, quite seriously, know of an organisation that tried to tell its employees that they should not use ‘dear’ at any point, lest it be offensive. A friend, who was being instructed in these matters, asked how they were to address letters in future: ‘Oi! Sir/Madam’ perhaps?

The same meeting also saw staff told not to mention teapots – apparently this could be seen as homophobic, because 'I'm a little teapot, short and stout' suggests campness. My friend, who is gay – and very camp when in the mood and after a couple of glasses of wine (he does one half of a wonderful Julian and Sandy routine from the old radio comedy, Round the Horne) – couldn't stop laughing. Which really is about the level on which it should be treated.

The language of interaction between men and women has been radically altered. But what has replaced it?

In the UK at least, we seem to have reached a sort of postmodernism, where men increasingly just tell women to like it or lump it. Full circle, in some ways, but without the previous manners.

Like stories of people being told that they cannot use words such as 'manhole' because it's apparently sexist or schools where the children cannot sing 'Baa baa black sheep' because it's apparently racist, such things – whether real or populist myth – cause resentment.

And it is really rather odd to find oneself in situations where you're complimented by someone on the one hand, and then find them falling over themselves on the other to apologise for daring to say something that you mind find highly offensive.

A few months ago, we had a little spat on a forum that I help to moderate (UK-based and with a sizable membership, including women, and children of 13 and over). The main subject of the forum is a sport, but on the general board, there had been a topic going on for some time about a particular actress/model.

The pictures that had been posted stayed this side of respectable and I let it go. But then a woman posted on the thread asking whether it was acceptable content, given that children – including her 13-year-old daughter – looked at the forum.

The response she brought down on her head was extraordinary. Amongst other things, she was told that she should just ban her daughter from viewing the forum. There was a snideness to the villification that she was subjected to.

At this point, I stepped in, locked the thread and administered a bit of a verbal slapping. It still wasn’t the nature of the thread itself that I perceived to be the problem, but of the responses to this woman's entirely reasonable question. And indeed, as a male moderator later commented on our mods’ board, it’s also a bit freaky anyway watching grown men openly salivate over women considerably younger than they are. There were certainly individuals who reacted negatively to having the issue even raised, who really should have known better.

Similarly, I’ve seen reactions to the issue of how women are judged on their appearances to a degree that men are not dismissed with a sort of shrug, along the lines of: ‘it’s always happened – get used to it’. And again, this has been from people that I certainly didn’t expect to hold such a view.

Now obviously cyberspace gives people the feeling that they have a licence to say rather more than they might otherwise.

But it seems to me that, if this is what has emerged partly from attempting to tightly censor the exchanges/negotiations between men and women, then I’d rather have that game that they play on the Continent.

Not least because it is essentially a game of manners.

Now admittedly and in general, the British don’t have the same sort of formal idea of manners that other countries do. In France and Germany, for instance, manners are a part of the language in a way that they are not here.

There is, for example, no expectation in the UK that, when you walk into a shop, you start your transaction with: ‘Good day Sir/Madam’. But that’s what ‘Bonjour Madame/Monsieur’ means, and using it in France will instantly see your efforts appreciated more even than a simple ‘bonjour’.

Such ideas of manners might seem rather quaint to some people, but manners are one of those things that grease the wheels of our daily lives – and it’s also a matter of respect for those that you interact with.

Perhaps that’s what’s lacking in that postmodern attitude to women – in the UK at least?

Indeed, to take that further, a German friend of mine, who happens (if possible) to be even less of a prude than I am, once commented that one thing that shocked him about Britain was how men would stand around in a pub discussing their female conquests in great detail.

He considered it totally lacking in respect – and noted that, if anyone had done that in his old circle in Germany, everyone else would have shunned them.

In many ways, what I’ll describe as Anglo-Saxon feminism – which like many other aspects of ‘political correctness’ was born on US campuses – sought to level the field for women: to get rid of negative attitudes and behaviour. But you don’t do that by censoring language alone.

And in a nation that has a shortage of charm to start with, it seems to have had, at this stage, a negative effect. Having removed a form of interaction, what we seem to have now is a new language of laddishness (and young women can be every bit as bad) that is, in part at least, a rebellion against the repression and illiberalism of the language censors.

In the case of younger women, it’s also a situation of being wary of what you wish for: you cannot liberate people and then get upset when, in their liberated state, they don’t do precisely what you want.

Another interesting point is the way in which women are represented in the media and have been represented for the last 30 or so years.

It might seem unexpected to note that in mainstream cinema (Hollywood at least), there has been a diminishing in the presence and variety of women on screen, just as there have been pushes for the sort of non-sexist language and interaction that I've discussed here.

Where once it was perfectly normal for a female star to 'open a movie', it happens less now. In an era that we might think of as having been more overtly sexist, some of the biggest female stars were hardly examples of ideals of feminine beauty at the time: Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford are excellent examples of this. And their careers didn't stop at 35-40 either, with pressure to have plastic surgery to keep them looking something they were not. They looked their age – and they still had careers.

Whether some people like it or not, human beings are sexual. And sexual beings need ways to navigate around their sexual lives. To attempt to pretend that men do not look at women and think sexually is unrealistic at best and plain dotty at worst. Indeed, it's on a par with all the myths that still remain about women's sexuality – that they do not respond to visual stimulus, for instance. There's a prudery at play here – and perhaps this is why it's not so obvious on the Continent as it is in the UK, where are attitudes toward sex in general are still largely governed by an unholy alliance of puritanism and prurience.

When you attempt to repress and censor, people rebel. When you add in a culture of rampant consumerism, with Anglo-Saxon sex becoming more commercialised all the time, perhaps it's little surprise at how things have developed.

For me, I think I’d rather like the charm game.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A taste of the south

It's not the obvious souvenir to bring back from a break in Paris, but an hour's wait at Gord de Nord for the Eurostar last week had offered the opportunity for a bit of last-minute shopping and, together with a bottle or perfume, I couldn't resist a book about Provencal cooking.

Lovely to look at and full of mouth-watering ideas (some of which I was already familiar with), it proved a calming read on the journey home from civilisation (which is basically how I always feel on returning from the Continent).

That was Tuesday – and it was followed by three extremely busy days as we turned around a publication and got it out, on time, on Friday. Okay – we always knew that we would, but the timetable still meant that it was a lot of actual work in a short time. I think I designed/set seven pages on Thursday alone.

So finally to Saturday, and time to sit down with the new cookery book as I contemplated the weekend's food.

So many great ideas made it a difficult choice. In the end, my weekend menu saw me poach a bit of salmon on Saturday, served with new potatoes, sautéed baby courgette and freshly made aioli (which is becoming a weekly habit). This was not from any recipe, but I'm always aware that, unless I cook some, The Other Half is unlikely to ensure that he has at least one portion of oily fish a week.

For Sunday, however, it was a dish from the new book: chicken, sautéed in a Provençale style.

Depending on how many you're cooking for: take some chicken pieces (I used four thighs for the two of us), pat them dry and season. Heat some olive oil in a large sauté pan and fry the chicken until golden on the skin side; turn and get it cooked on the flesh side too. Remove to a plate.

Pop in a sliced onion and cook for a minute or two.

Add a good glug (100ml or so) or white or rosé wine. Deglaze.

Add some skinned, deseeded and chopped tomatoes, some black olives, a good squeeze of tomato purée and a bouquet garni – ideally including oregano or marjoram, but I hadn't got any, so used flat leaf parsley, basil, thyme and bay. Cook for a few minutes and then pop the chicken pieces back in. Cover and simmer until the meat is really tender (the book said 10 minutes – 20 was hardly over the top).

Not bad at all. Tasty and pretty healthy too.

In the meantime, I was a little surprised to read Christopher Hirst's A bitter taste in the mouth? The myth of British gastronomy in the Independent.

He makes some valid points, but can he really have forgotten (or perhaps he's not old enough to have experienced) what food was like in the UK back in the 1970s, say?

In terms of my weekend fodder, I no longer have to go to a supermarket and be surrounded by whole aisles of 'potato snacks', while struggling to find one decent loaf of bread of a tomato that has taste – I can use one of the markets that he mentions: something that has only been available to me in the last six years.

I don't have to use it – it's a choice. Because the presence of such a market hasn't removed choice, but added to it.

Hirst is right – to an extent – to pour some cold water on the sort of claims that the food at such markets is as good as it gets anywhere, but he forgets that this is, to a very large extent, a new and developing world of British foodyism. And while it's difficult to argue that any British artisan baker is as good as their French counterparts, for instance, British cheeses – but mostly not the ones found in supermarkets, wrapped in plastic – are high up there with the best.

Friday, 9 July 2010

That's me, sweating like a pig

There I was, sitting in the garden, under a steaming sun, with sweat absolutely pouring out of me. And it struck me: "Ladies do not sweat: they glow or at worst, perspire".

I was doubtless glowing, but evidently not from anything as ladylike as 'perspiring'. No, this was sweat.

That was a quote of my mother's. She seemed to have an obsession about how 'ladies' behaved; about ideas of what constituted 'ladylike' behaviour. I say "seemed", because I'm too old now to be subjected to it any more – if indeed she still maintains the obsession.

My mother was always obsessed with such appearances. She was – again, I'm not subjected to it any more, so she may have changed – but she was a dreadful snob. And it wasn't a snobbery based on any achievements – real or otherwise – but purely on her own sense of her station in life.

Her father had started off as an office boy, but had worked himself up to be the boss of a steel company. Her mother had been a teacher. But her mother was a snob too and she inherited that sense of class: once they'd risen to something that they could perceive to be middle class, then they were going to prove just how middle class they really were.

When I went to Fairfield – the only child from my town, that year, to go to that school – one of the first things she asked me about a new friend was what her father did for a living. He was an ambulance driver. That drew forth a warning about my responsibility to my father to have appropriate acquaintances.

She never seemed to have seen the irony of such comments – that my father came from a tiny backwater in Cornwall, the son of a roadmender and a barmaid, who'd had to have elocution lessons so that any congregation outside of the south west could understand him. He was exactly the sort of person that she now considered as inappropriate as a parent of a friend.

You'd have thought that, if she was so concerned about class and her social station, she'd have got herself hitched to a Church of England vicar with the ambition and opportunity to gain a bishopric. Instead of which, she pinned her hopes on a rebellious Methodist, who could never keep the church hierarchy happy, and whose financial dealings left us perennially short of cash.

Not that my mother's comments about my new schoolfriend was the only time that I can remember her on such a theme. She once famously informed my sister and I that we could not behave as 'normal' children did, since as the minister's daughters, we were looked to by other children and their parents to set an example.

Which, now I think about it, is close to vomit-inducing. I concluded, a rather long time ago, that we were as much accessories to my father's work as we were children.

If my father himself didn't have the same class snobbery, he certainly viewed his family as subservient to his work – his 'calling', once should say. And very much in the accessory mold – what we said and did reflected on him, he made quite sure we knew.

I got into huge trouble once, when he carted me off to some church to give my 'testimony' – a little speech about how I'd accepted Christ into my life etc etc. I was in my early to mid teens, I suppose. My parents had apparently been delighted when I'd been 'born again' at pretty much the last of a lengthy series of evangelical rallies in the area. But his delight was nothing when my little oration contained – completely unconsciously – words that apparently showed him in a bad light as a preacher. I was on the receiving end of a remarkably un-Christian tongue lashing over that little episode.

Sometimes, looking back, I think it was like being brought up in the 1920s or '30s. It certainly bore little relation to the 1960s and '70s. That and then the cotton wool.

It's rather amusing to think how – eventually at least – it was all to no avail. Ultimately, they lost.

Anyway, decent weather is forecast for the coming weekend. So I shall enjoy sitting outside, nose in a book. And having a damned good sweat again.