Wednesday, 27 August 2014

the spy who loved another spy

Woo hoo, I am going on holiday. I have finished a decent draft of this year's Christmas show; I have done a draftier draft of Bond episode 2 for Tall Tales on 24 Sept; I have watched the rains, the rains, the endless gloomy rains of August.

I have also learnt that, in his later life, Lord Salisbury took to riding a tricycle for his health. He beavered around the grounds Hatfield House in a purple velvet poncho. A footman would jump off the back of his tricycle to push him up hills and remount for the downhills. This, and there will be plenty more to follow, I guess, from The War That Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan.

For the Dazzle sequel, I went back into the twenties, and reminded myself that I'd downplayed the craziness, if anything. My new favourite is Gerald Tyrwhitt, Lord Berners. He wrote a very hard-to-get-hold-of book called The Girls of Radcliff Hall, satirising his homosexual circle through the medium of a boarding school parody with what might be the greatest title in all literature. The Telegraph obituary says:

... "distinguished" is not quite the right word for Berners. Distinguished men do not normally drive around their estate wearing a pig's-head mask to frighten the locals.

Nor do they place advertisements in The Times announcing that they wish to dispose of two elephants - and, when rung up by a diary column, pretend to be their own manservant and explain that one of the elephants has been sold to Harold Nicolson (who took the joke badly).

Enough for now. I'm out of here.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

archbishops

I read Death Comes to the Archbishop and The Table of Less Valued Knights last week. They are very different, excellent books.

Some excellent sportswriting in Grantland this week. Brian Phillips takes on the hideous Ray Rice mess (Rice and his wife walked into an elevator; he dragged her out, seemingly unconscious; she apologised for causing trouble; he got a tiny little wrist slap from the league authorities). Phillips - well, you should read the whole thing for the sensitive way it tries to understand the knots people have got themselves into over this. It's an exercise in genuine empathy: Internet comments defending Rice and the NFL are — well, many of them are genuinely and chillingly misogynistic, but I think more of them are primarily concerned with protecting football from mainstream cultural norms: Don’t take this away too. Men who post smug explanations of league suspension policy may be secret domestic-violence enthusiasts, but more likely they’re simply trying to keep any trace of sensitivity from softening their cartoon war game. What they’re talking about isn’t precisely what they’re talking about. They don’t support the problem; they just don’t want to think about it. They refuse to be collaterally enlightened.

That last sentence is brilliant.

Michael Weinreb, in a very different piece which has its core a similar attempt to get at just what it is we love about sports, even when so much of it is easy to criticise, writes: at heart, the reason we prefer college football to the pros is that we are sentimental nostalgists, wishing we could retreat back to the time when we felt like maybe we had the potential to be great, too. He's totally convincing, and he knows it has to change because it's built on a system of (racial) peonage.

Back to Elizabeth Gilbert - being a fan is loving something more than it deserves. That's such an excellent insight.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

tabs

I know almost precisely nothing about Eat, Pray, Love and the description of it doesn't appeal. I listened to Mike Pesca interview Elizabeth Gilbert, its author, last week. I really, really liked her (and her new novel does sound up my street, she will be delighted to learn). She was wise and gracious about being a one-hit wonder, whatever the hell that means, and fandom (loving something more than it objectively deserves). It's here.

Some French dude wrote a book in ten minutes and can't stop selling copies. I also really like him. Sample quote: “It is no effort,” he smiles, his blue eyes flashing. “Words come out of me like water from a tap. I write largely on my mobile phone as I move about and queue in the supermarket. I’ve written on chewing gum wrappers and even on my shirt.” 

I think Alexa Meade's photos of people who look like paintings are fun. I don't know whether they are a bit hokey when you see them for real, and I am not sure I want one, and the web is no place to make judgements, but I am, to no purpose, a fan.

Monday, 4 August 2014

peter o'toole

I didn't know that Peter O'Toole loved cricket so much. He played with Omar Sharif while filming Lawrence of Arabia and, aged 50, qualified as a coach so he could teach his new son properly. He coached kids at Cricklewood and Brondesbury Cricket Clubs.

I already liked him.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

the game's afoot


It might be, anyway. We'll see. I'm having a meeting about the game, and if it's afoot, it will be so afoot I probably won't even have time to tell you.

I also, probably, and this will be really annoying, won't have time to write Episode 2 of my thrilling new Bond adventure before September's Tall Tales. We did Episode 1 last night and I thought it went well, in my biased way. In my less biased way, I loved the rest of the dudes in the show. I've started saying dudes a lot. I'm not sure why.

I knew nothing about online/real world harassment in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. I do now.

Who was Cliff Young? He was an Australian potato farmer[2] and athlete from Beech Forest, Victoria, best known for his unexpected win of the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in 1983 at 61 years of age. Also, says Wikipedia, In 1997 at age 76, he made an attempt to beat Ron Grant's around Australia record and completed 6,520 kilometres of the 16,000-kilometre run, but he had to pull out because his only crew member became ill. In 2000 he achieved a world age record in a six-day race in Victoria, and Young was a vegetarian from 1973 until his death. He lived in the family home with his mother and brother Sid. Young had remained single throughout his life, but after the 1983 race, at 62 years of age, he married 23-year-old Mary Howell, 39 years his junior.

Primary producers get exploited. We all know that. The romantic stories are about farmers, like Cliff Young. It's much less hard to feel pity for sportsmen and artists, and I'm not asking for it because my life is brilliant. However, I've read some great stuff recently, and re-read, about paying comedy writers and about Amazon vs Hachette and how neither is the author's friend, whatever they pretend.

Sports. I'll tease you in with Cheerleaders, because that's always interesting. Clue: they're totally exploited. Then I'll say that the owners of US basketball franchises have done a brilliant job of negotiating salary caps. A racist owner forced to sell his bad team still made a huge fortune while star players are congratulated for taking voluntary pay cuts in order to make teams stronger. Then I'll say that colleges make hundreds of millions out of sports while paying a pittance (scholarship) to top players who aren't allowed to sell their labour on a free market. These players are then lowballed when they get into professional football, basketball or whatever. If you're one of the footballers playing running back, your best five years are played, basically, for tiny fraction of what you're worth You might get one decent contract after that but you're already well on the downside of your career.

Monday, 21 July 2014

oops

Sorry, it's been a while. I know, because I have access to snooping tools barely less powerful than the NSA's, that there are not three million of you waiting avidly to hear whatever I come up with next, but I I have been providing an even worse service than usual, I realise.

I'm busy, is the obvious reason. I'm getting the first episode of a new radio thing ready for Tall Tales next week, which means a lot of writing, crossing fingers in the usual way that somehow, miraculously, this time I will have learned to plan something so that it doesn't need at least two radical rewrites, re-read, realise that the miracle hasn't happened, and so on. And also plan a musical I'm writing in the next couple of months, hopefully in such a careful way that I don't need at least two radical rewrites.

And also, at the same time, I am slowly working out the best way to rebuild slash redesign this blog, and maybe Listen & Often, which doesn't need it, exactly, because it was designed by someone who knows what they're doing, but I might try to put them on the same overall platform, along with my website (I worry that I might be boring you by now) and what might very possibly become a new podcast that I've been working on with Marie.

Also, therefore, I've been learning podcasting. I didn't have to learn podcasting for Listen & Often because Toby did all the work. It turns out that if I have to be relied on to do all the work, things take longer.

So, that's where I am. I have an annoying list of open tabs waiting to be turned into posts, so it's me who's suffering, really.

(If you want to audience at next week's Tall Tales, please email talltalesnight@gmail.com so we know you're coming.)

Monday, 7 July 2014

how the rich young live now

On Saturday night, I went to a restaurant on Saturday which had a large private room which was holding an evidently very posh eighteenth birthday party. Of the hundreds of eighteen year olds (the eighteenth birthday parties I went to were in people's gardens) a huge proportion spent a lot of the evening outside smoking.

When I was eighteen a lot of my friends smoked. Ten years ago, it seemed that many fewer people that age did. These things go in waves, blah, blah, blah. But what I wondered about, in addition, was this: is smoking for rich eighteen year olds a sign of conspicuous consumption? It's so much more expensive than it used to be that I can hardly imagine how even my comfortably off eighteen year old friends would easily have afforded it. Is this a thing like fat is a sign of wealth when there is no food?

(Interestingly, while eighteen year olds are conventionally supposed to look amazing by virtue of being eighteen, these eighteen year olds looked an absolute shower.)

(If I wanted to be able to afford to send an eighteen year old child of mine to a massive party like this, I would set up an chain of tattoo removing salons. Literally every fashion looks ridiculous twelve years on. I'm really looking forward to this one.)

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Clearing tabs

The least graceful thing in public life is rich, white, Christian, western men trying to pretend they are victims or underdogs. See also Amazon.

Fancy dress, fascism, gay men, Churchill. (Philip Hoare is brilliant.)

Why Britain can't do the wire. Excellent, especially on writers, but I would also say that it's easier-slash-more locative to go for niches in America because the niches contain so many more people. I do think UK telly culture is not as bold as it should be. But I would.

What is the really important thing about Bitcoin? It's the way it moves information. That's how it will change the world, says Virgin, which is a very odd-feeling source for one of the most interesting things I've read about Bitcoin.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

David Sedaris is the bombYou can tell where my territory ends and the rest of England begins. It’s like going from the rose arbor in Sissinghurst to Fukushima after the tsunami. The difference is staggering

Luis Suarez biting some guy who's spent an hour kicking him: biting a guy in football is definitely different to kicking him or elbowing him in the head, even though the latter are objectively more likely to cause lasting damage. Partly it's that there's no excuse and so it's incredibly easy to judge, and judging things, as Rebekah Brooks knows, is hard.

(By the way, do you know how many criminal defendants get privately paid barristers? A vanishingly small number. Proof is hard when you have lots of highly paid lawyers (not better lawyers, necessarily, but lawyers with all the time they need to make their case). It's what financial criminals depend on.)

Anyway, Suarez should get a ban, but I've seen worse things on sports fields not get punished just because the players could pretend they were part of the game. To be fair, sometimes it has been Suarez doing them. You should still read Brian Phillips on him. And this is good too, from Colin McGowan: Surely, we’re smart enough to enjoy Su├írez — to like him, in a way — and to also know he’s a spectacular jackass. 

I'm very busy at the moment.

A book about monsters appearing on mediaeval maps? What's not to like?

Friday, 13 June 2014

nothing to see here

Great links from the Slate Political Gabfest last week. The first was to a New York Times story about Xiao Jianhua. He was the head of the Peking student union when the Tienanmen Square protest took place. He started off a bit pro protest. Then he decided things were getting too anti state and he took the other tack. Did it pay off? Well, that's for you to judge. To help you:

In the quarter-century since, he became the prototype of the politically connected financier. He has assiduously courted the party elite, including the family of its current president, Xi Jinping, becoming something of a banker for the ruling class and a billionaire in his own right.

Now 42 years old, Mr. Xiao controls a sprawling business empire with interests largely in state-dominated industries, including banking, insurance, coal, cement, property and even rare-earth minerals, and largely managed by his holding company, the Tomorrow Group.

The second was to Leonardo da Vinci's job application to the Duke of Milan, which says he'd be a good employee because he can (nine different points) make bridges quickly for troops, destroy walls, cast cannons, etc. Then (one point) he can do peacetime architecture. Then, just as a by the way: I can carry out sculpture in marble, bronze, or clay, and also I can do in painting whatever may be done, as well as any other, be he who he may.


Everything is Broken, which was a link from [someone else] is about internet security and why there isn't any. (Clue: people in charge of it are just these guys, like you are. You know how you are just some guy who wants to get home to the kids or finish work in time to watch Game of Thrones and sometimes cocks up? So is everyone else! Even the Melvyn Braggs of this world are just doing their best to get by. This will be my theme when someone asks me to write a commencement speech.)

Friday, 6 June 2014

blonde angel

I had never heard of Luciano Re Cecconi till he was the answer to a quiz question the other day. His nickname was the blonde angel and this is a line from his Wikibiog:

Re Cecconi played for the Italian under-23 side, and was on the roster of the national squad at the 1974 World Cup. He was shot dead in 1977, after pretending to rob a friend's jewelry shop as a practical joke.

Andrew Gilligan at the Telegraph has been funny about the awful Lutfur Rahman's reelection as mayor of Tower Hamlets. The Panorama expose of Rahman was great, which I know even though I didn't watch it because a friend of mine paraphrased it for me in a way that only took a few hours longer than my watching it would have done. Rahman's team intimidated voters and misused funds on campaigning, and also:

Some polling stations were moved to new, unfamiliar, and harder-to-reach locations. One, in the not very pro-Rahman territory of Canary Wharf, was placed on a traffic island, at the bottom of a ramp, in the middle of a busy four-lane road!

If you are anything like me, you got to the end of this thinking, 'stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying beware of the leopard.'

In general, books aren't best read in synopsis. On the other hand, I cannot too highly recommend the synopsis of The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie. It was turned into a Marple a few years ago, but believe me, the synopsis provides no spoilers for the Marple version. Seriously, treat yourself.

But if you are too busy and just want some highlights:

Hiram Fish, a collector of first edition books … Unaware she did not write the letters, he wants to blackmail her. On a whim, she pays, and promises more money the next day … The Koh-i-Noor diamond had been stolen from the Tower of London (and replaced by a paste copy) some years earlier, by a French thief named King Victor … he gives the real memoirs (which have no embarrassing anecdotes) to Jimmy McGrath to deliver to the publishers, to earn his one thousand pounds …  presents himself as the missing Prince Nicholas, who had spread the rumours of his own death in the Congo and through coincidence was led into this adventure ...

In fact, the more I read these notes, the more I can't believe this wasn't written by Wodehouse. Everything about it seems like Wodehouse.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

a surprising fact

Question: how rich do you reckon Vladimir Putin is? Think about it for a moment. The answer at the end of this post.

Do you know who wrote the Russian national anthem? I assume you presume it was Roger Doucet, the beloved tenor who belted out Oh Canada before Montreal Canadiens ice hockey matches in the nineties. You're right. On the other hand, there was a long time when the song had no lyrics, because the lyrics were a bit Staliny.

Roger was going to sing the anthems at the ice hockey world cup in 1996 and he wasn't having that. He dug out the old words, got a Russian prof at the university to 'fix them up' and sang away. The diplomats were nervous. Nothing much happened. Next year, the lyrics, almost word for word, were readopted.

Just in case you have forgotten, Flower of Scotland was written in 1967 by The Corries.

And I saw Inside Llewyn Davis the other day. It's set in 1961. It featured a song from my all-time top 5 favourite album, Singing the Fishing, a radio documentary with songs about the East Coast herring fleets. The song was written by Ewan MacColl, although it couldn't sound more trad. I assumed that it wasn't released until well after 1961, but it was actually first broadcast in 1960. Llewyn Davis probably heard it on iPlayer.

The Answer: I don't know. But people periodically say he's the richest man in the world, at anything form $40bn-$70bn. And other people say that there is no evidence he controls all that oil company stock that the main source, who is just some guy in Moscow, says he controls. Putin himself says he's the richest man in the world because, 'I collect emotions, I am wealthy in that the people of Russia have twice entrusted me with the leadership of a great nation such as Russia -- I believe that is my greatest wealth.'

He sounds like a nice guy. (He isn't one.)

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Dance, man mountain, dance



Gosh, time flies. My much anticipated Bond novel is finished and publishers around the world are dreaming it might land on their desks.

I have voted. I think I am allowed to post this hilarious benefits fraud story, which I am sure most of you saw anyway, without you thinking I voted for UKIP or any Daily Mail-style party. It's hard to know what to like most about the woman who claimed she was agoraphobic and then posted pictures online of her globetrotting. For no obvious reason, it might be that she got her comeuppance in Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court. Or that she's written 'three racy novels, including Last Tango in Buenos Ares.' At some point, when someone is this much of a comedy villain, you just have to say, 'You should be in jail, but hats off.'

Should America pay reparations for slavery? Don't answer until you have read Ta Nehisi Coates on the subject, is my advice, because loads of other people will have and you don't want to sound glib. Also, because it's amazing. (While you're at it, since it's about pricing the unpriceable: Tim Harford on Gary Becker - the economist who priced everything but not because he thought everything had a price.)

I don't want to read Last Tango in Buenos Ares. I do want to read Drachenfels. I didn't realise Kim Newman wrote a load of Warhammer books. Someone I respect (but I can't remember who it was) said this one was, surprisingly, excellent. The reviews on Amazon are raves. I'm going to find out for myself. (Kim Newman's website made me feel pretty lazy, I can tell you.)

That video at the top? It's the Fearsome Foursome: Rosey Grier, Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones. They were probably the scariest defensive line ever to play American football. Merlin Olsen, the one with no rhythm, went on to star in Little House on the Prairie.


Thursday, 8 May 2014

Walter R Walsh gunned down the Brady gang, among other gangsters, when he was working for the FBI. He trained marksmen in World War II, shot a Japanese sniper with a single pistol shot at 80 yards, captained American shooting teams in his eighties, still not wearing glasses, and died recently at the age of 107. His NYT obit (thank you Marie Phillips) is great, and ends like this: Three weeks after Mr. Walsh’s 100th birthday, a grandson, Sgt. Nicholas R. Walsh, a reconnaissance team leader with Charlie Company, First Platoon of the First Marine Division, was killed by sniper fire in Fallujah, Iraq.

My friend Ian Leslie's book Curious is launched today, I think. He's really good and I am one of a billion people who wish he'd stop looking after his daughter and start writing Marbury again. I loved this piece about the Mona Lisa.

Performance Enhancing Drugs are not stigmatised in Hollywood even though they provide the same competitive advantages for actors that they provide for sportsmen. Fairly obvious reasons - sports is about truth, drama is not - but it's fun and lets me link again, just in case you didn't read it, to this Grantland article on Luis Suarez. Non-football fans, believe me, the writing is good enough for you to enjoy the first bit, and the last quarter is brilliant.

What do bankers think of bankers? Barclays has ditched large chunks of its investment arm and its shares have immediately gone up 3.5% (I know it is much more complicated than this. Tangent: a great long article on the scandal of managed funds with huge numbers of lobbyists reducing the value of pension funds which should have been invested gently into trackers.)

The Irish Times reviewed The Dazzle last weekend. It's a lovely review and I am grateful, although the timing is definitely eccentric. I now imagine Claire Looby sitting with an unbelievably massive pile of books, gritting her teeth and going, 'I'm bloody well going to get through them all. I am.'