Tag Archives: man

Manchester United can beat Barcelona at Wembley: And it would just be the beginning


The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.

It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.

And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.

United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.

Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.

For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.

Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.

With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.

Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.

It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 3: Bargain DVDs – Trainspotting and The Wrestler


The big day is upon us. The masculine apocalypse is now. The horsemen will round the corner towards Westminster Abbey any moment, dragging their cargo of the merry middle class and nostalgic Eton boy politicians, right into our living rooms. Oh my god it’s not long until we get to see Kate’s dress!

Shoot me now. I am apprehensive, a little scared even, because I may have been advocating alternatives to the big day but I know I’m fighting an entity so vast that it will inevitably stray into my line of sight at some point. I won’t be able to flee the hordes living and breathing the ceremony like it was their own. It wouldn’t even do any good to flee abroad, if anything they’re more marriage mad than the most devout British Royalist. So I definitely cannot outrun this and in addition I have another problem. I can’t hide from it either, because I’ve already consumed the alternatives in order to point them out to all of you. Blokes, guys and lads everywhere, I hope you appreciate my sacrifice.

We’ve reached the final alternative step and its one I like to think of as the emergency measure. Thor at the cinema requires venturing out and United on iPlayer requires dangerous proximity to internet coverage, but these two films on DVD, available on the bargain shelves of any local high street, merely need a TV. I know, believe me I know, the wedding is on all the channels.  But if you have an even more serious aversion to confetti and vows than me, just pull the aerial out and stick these two very manly films in to play, one after another.

Firstly then a film I’ve been meaning to see for a long while, the Scottish breakthrough piece for Danny Boyle, Trainspotting. Despite all the hype, from critics and friends alike, I really didn’t know what to expect from this exactly. I knew there was drug taking, in all likelihood sex, and an awful lot of accented foul language. I knew it starred an emaciated Ewan McGregor. I knew it would have both fun and filth. I knew Boyle’s playful style would scrawl a signature in every scene. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so hilarious and true to life as it was.

Much of the humour comes from the characters of McGregor’s Mark Renton’s “so called mates”. Johnny Lee Miller, now starring fifteen years on in Boyle’s critically acclaimed Frankenstein opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the theatre, plays a Sean Connery obsessed, seemingly streetwise fellow crack addict. His assessments of Connery’s performances as James Bond and his astonishing grasp of box office data, were particularly surreal for a fellow Bond fan like me, as he helped friends to inject heroin. He turns out to be far less clued up than he pretends to be though. Then there’s Spud, a guy who is very plainly clueless from the start, who lands up throwing his shit all over his girlfriend’s family at breakfast. Don’t ask how. Slapstick perhaps, but I laughed for several minutes.

There’s also Tommy, a guy McGregor’s surprisingly appealing narration informs us has the fault of being honest and not addicted to any banned substance. I assume the visceral poetry of Renton’s narration is so attractive because it is transplanted largely untouched from Irvine Walsh’s novel, which is infamous for its use of Scottish dialect. A scene where Tommy and Spud discuss the pitfalls of their respective women at a club, and the girlfriends do likewise about the boys in the toilets, presumably also has its roots in the book. But it’s wonderfully adapted by Boyle, with subtitles not quite necessary because of the noise and very capable comic acting depicting the darkly funny give and take realities of relationships.

Finally there’s a young Kelly Macdonald, who has since appeared in No Country For Old Men, in her first film. Renton catches sight of her in a club as she’s leaving, with his sex drive rapidly returning as he attempts to give up his habit. He follows her outside, as his narration tells us he’s fallen in love, and tries it on with her. She confidently shoots him down, only to snog his face off in the taxi and subsequently shag him rampantly in her room. In the morning Renton discovers she’s a schoolgirl, and the people he presumes to be flatmates are her parents. It’s the sort of cheeky scene present throughout the film but it centres on deeper, more disturbing truths about youths trapped in a certain limited form of existence.

Renton is undoubtedly trapped by his addiction and his school girl lover is trapped by her age, a desire to break free and be independent. We all know what it’s like to feel trapped; it’s a very human feeling, despite our supposed freedom. Whether you’re a nurse at a crowded hospital running a gauntlet of noses going off like shotguns of snot, a doctor watching patients with crash dummy heads and vacant eyes or one of thousands of the unemployed youths in this country retreading the same old paths, the same old trenches of memory through the earth, with no concept of a future. We can all get that feeling, and recognise it in others.

Ay na donne get all political pal? Keep it light! Ay?

Ah yes I forgot a character. Robert Carlyle plays Begbie, a moustachioed Scott whose job description reads thus: “playing pool and drinking at the bar, until a minor action by another customer causes him to lose his rag and beat everyone shitless”. Begbie’s probably trapped too, but to be honest his character never seemed much more than smashing entertainment. Literally.

The thing about Renton is that he thinks he’s beaten the rest of us buggers trapped in the game of life, chasing after fat televisions and fancy cars. He thinks that by choosing drugs he’s chosen nothingness and some sort of purer, pleasure filled existence. But like every revolutionary he comes to realise he is as trapped by the system as those embracing it. He needs money for his hits, friends for his sanity. Or maybe not friends, as you’ll see if you watch the film.

Trainspotting is a damn good ride through the monotony of modern existence, with eccentric but hilarious and extremely likeable tour guides. It’s more than your average tourist experience because at times it really gets you to think. And as an exploration of drug culture, Boyle’s direction is suitably dirty, bizarre and haunting, but also responsible and not over the top. You’ll flinch at some of the filth, the needles and most of all McGregor screaming his lungs out at a hallucination of a baby. Trainspotting is not simply a mash-up of visual clichés about getting high though, perhaps because it has such a strong grounding in character.

And so we come to The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky. Now Darren, as I like to call him, is someone I have a love/hate relationship with. First came the love, as I fell head over heels for the sensuality of Black Swan (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/black-swan/) and then came the hate, when I followed this up with his earlier much praised work, Requiem for a Dream (https://mrtsblog.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/an-open-letter-to-darren-aronofsky/).

One of the reasons I found Trainspotting so refreshing was that whilst it dealt with drugs and it had its strange and psychedelic scenes of intoxication; it did not become the pretentious exercise in filmmaking that was Requiem for a Dream. I will probably be slated for saying it, and it may merely have been the context in which I first saw it (see link), but I really didn’t like that film. I did not see the point to it. Trainspotting seemed to say something far truer about addiction, despite its tongue often being firmly in cheek.

I only bring this up because it all meant that I didn’t know what I was going to get from The Wrestler; dazzling Darren or dopey Darren. The critical buzz around Mickey Rourke’s resurrected corpse meant not a jot, because some of them hated Black Swan and some of them loved Requiem.

I would not go as far as the five star quotes plastered over the cover. I would not call it the “ultimate man film” as FHM did. But it’s undoubtedly a film about a man and ageing, whereas Trainspotting, with hindsight, was a film for boys. Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is someone trapped by his past, the legacy of his prime, and the mistakes he made during that ripe period of life.

Perhaps Rourke put in such a praiseworthy performance because he could really inhabit his character. He has been there, more or less. Rather than playing a caricature or a gun toting gangster, Rourke is simply a person here; a human being in decline, or as he says in one moving speech “a broken down piece of meat”. At first I didn’t see what all the fuss about his performance was, but then after a few emotional scenes with a potential lover and ageing stripper (Marisa Tomei) and particularly some heartbreaking confrontations with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), Rourke brings Randy to life.

There’s always the danger of melodramatic sentimentality, but the film manages to avoid it, primarily because of the masculine restraint of Rourke’s portrayal. Aside from some brutal wrestling scenes and one careless fuck, this is rather pedestrian territory for Darren after the frenzied, frenetic highs of Requiem and the disorientating dash for beautiful perfection in Black Swan. The Wrestler certainly didn’t grab me and it didn’t inspire the extremes of emotion that Darren’s two other efforts did. It has sporting parallels with Black Swan but lacks the wow factor of that film.

I don’t think there’s necessarily anything that wrong with The Wrestler. In some ways it is refreshing to see a film that shows so many sides of a man’s ordinary life, making his escape from that routine via his passion all the more meaningful. There’s no doubt that performing as a wrestler requires a certain level of very manly commitment to the drama. This film will offset any feminine activities like dusting icing sugar on cupcakes or fashioning paper chains with ease. But it’s so realistic, so dreary and so grim, that this antidote might lead to a dangerous and depressing overdose.

If you watch these back to back, watch Trainspotting last. It’s fun as well as not for the faint hearted. Either film is preferable to pointless precessions though, I’m sure you’ll agree. Never mind God Save the Queen, God save male souls everywhere and best of luck!

Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

I Saw The Devil


It will be a day of unforgettable celebration. The nation will rejoice in a night of endless partying and universal happiness, or so they’d have you believe. The flags and the bunting will sway proudly in the sunshine in the streets, on the most iconic landmarks and the grandest stately homes. All our troubles will be forgotten, swept under the carpet, out of sight and out of mind. Everything will be the best of British; sweet, comforting and clockwork. As the fizz flows and the glasses chink, polite patriotism will give way to unparalleled scenes of euphoria. Derelict dance moves will stumble drunkenly from graves and tombs long since sealed. Like it or not, success or failure, it will be a date etched on the face of history.

Friday the 29th of April: Wills and Kate shall finally tie the knot. I wouldn’t say I fall into the “like it” or the “not” category. Instead I’d jump in with what I sense to be the quiet, grunting majority; the “don’t give a shit” group. Most of these people will be happy to use the Royal Wedding as an excuse to get “frightfully merry” but I’m not even fussed about that. I’ll just be glad when they bugger off on honeymoon and everyone calms down.

The long awaited date also happens to herald the release of Korean revenge thriller I Saw The Devil. It will hit selected cinemas as the happy couple say their vows and head rapidly to DVD and Blu-Ray for the 9th of May, when I assume they’ll still be relaxing on a lavish honeymoon. I have a feeling that honeymooners in general, not just those benefiting from pure and perfect blood, will steer clear of this one though. That’s unless they are devoted fans of Korean filmmaking or lashings and lashings of gore, or prefer a particularly sick and dirty tinge to the consummation of their holy joining. 

I Saw The Devil is the tale of a serial killer and one specific family he devastates. It begins with a beautiful young girl trapped in her broken down car in the snow. Sounds predictable right? Well I Saw The Devil will continually take seemingly generic set ups like this and make them raw, real and surprising. The refreshing thing about this opening scene was the phone conversation between the girl and her fiancé, who will become the film’s “hero”.

I can never really relate to characters and protagonists like him. He is a slick and successful high flyer with a super cool job (a secret agent in this case). He is so busy and absorbed in his immensely interesting and important work, that he has little time for the woman he is with; a woman he is lucky enough to love and have this love reciprocated. I’m a man with time on my hands, with ordinary clothes and standard prospects, for whom love is usually a one way street. Add into the mix a ruthless ability to kill and a purposeful crusade for revenge and this is the sort of man I fantasise about being; not one I can readily empathise with.

And yet as I Saw The Devil embarks on an unlimited chase through as many deadly sins as possible, prompting comparisons with such notorious projects as Antichrist and endless cuts on the editing room floor, it keeps the moral implications of its action in focus. It’s not simply your typical revenge thriller but a thoughtful one that questions the nature of revenge. Our secret agent swiftly catches the killer of his beloved, only for him to decide that a monster deserves a monstrous death. Butchering him would cause the beast no real distress, so a tracking device is popped in his mouth and the hunter becomes the hunted.

The ethics of this are clearly dubious and as the killer rampages the Korean James Bond wishes he’d ended it when he had the chance at times. But despite my inability to relate to characters of his ilk, the audience sees the twisted emotional logic behind every move he makes. True justice and true revenge is necessarily brutal when confronted with such soulless savagery.

This is a beautiful film as well as a shocking, horrifying and thrilling one. In its opening chapter alone there are numerous stills that would warrant a frame and a prominent place on a wall. The score does a wonderful job of evoking grief, fear, anger and terror. Prior to watching I Saw The Devil, I had heard about a controversial rape scene during which the victim begins to “enjoy” things. This led to even more debate and conflict over its age rating and release than the countless bloody violence. In terms of morality it is the most questionable scene in the movie, but it did not spoil it.

The film could have done with being a little shorter but I was never bored. Things reach a suitably dramatic climax and the whole thing is well paced. But for me a scene from the film’s opening is the most memorable. It’s just as the girl’s body is being discovered and the forensic teams, hounded by the press, swoop on a spot in some marshes to bag and remove her decapitated head. Flash bulbs erupt and officers shout and the head is knocked from the hands of the forensic team. It rolls shamefully in the dirt. The grieving father and fiancé look on aghast.

 It may be over the top but this scene captured something real about the growing phenomenon of the serial killer. In many ways such barbaric deeds are now common place news and the only way to keep the true horror of it all in focus is to focus on the families and friends. Those who really feel the pain. I Saw The Devil is a gripping illustration of what emotional pain can do to a human being. Life never ends with a fluffy wedding dress or a cup of a tea.

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

Bond’s first lady Judi to return


Judi Dench has confirmed to reporters at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, where she bagged an award, that Daniel Craig’s James Bond will be getting his number one girl back in the forthcoming adventure. She confirmed her involvement after the film was officially announced earlier this month. Pressed for any inside news at all about the production, the chief of MI6 remained characteristically secretive. All she would say was how excited she was to be working with Daniel Craig again, and Sam Mendes, who has directed her in theatre.

This will be Dench’s seventh Bond film as his severe, disapproving boss, M. Prior to her appointment for Pierce Brosnan’s 1995 debut, Goldeneye, M had always been a man. Producers, writers and directors all grappled with the idea of M as a woman. Perhaps ultimately the decision was made because no man could live up to the figure of Bernard Lee, who simply became the embodiment of Fleming’s creation of M in the first eleven Bond movies.

Since her first moments on screen, reprimanding Bond’s bravado and warning she’ll only use the 00 section sparingly, Dench appears to have justified the filmmaker’s decision and won over fans. Producer Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Cubby, said of Dench’s casting:

“Our instinct was if we were going to cast M as a woman, we needed to find an actress who could be totally believable and not cartoonish. Our fear was that it would be laughable and the big thing was to get someone of the calibre of Judi Dench to play the role. And because M is the only authoritative figure in Bond’s life, the casting of a woman as M gave the relationship a whole new dimension.”

Dench’s opening scene with Brosnan in Goldeneye left the audience in no doubt that a female M was not laughable, at least in itself. The script was wise not to gloss over the fact as if nothing had happened, with Bond’s teasing lines humorously, but brutally knocked back by M: “If you think for one moment I don’t have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong”. She also tells Bond he’s a “relic of the Cold War”.

Director Martin Campbell was aware of the pros of having Dench as M. He was told by studio head John Calley prior to Goldeneye, after floating the prospect of a female M, that “You need a star! You need someone with incredible screen presence, how about Judi Dench?” Campbell was so impressed with her performance in his first film that there was no question of dropping her, despite the complete reboot of the franchise, when he helmed Daniel Craig’s first outing Casino Royale in 2006. Costume designer for that film, Lindy Hemming, hailed Dench as a “brilliant piece of casting” and reveals in The Art of Bond by Laurent Bouzereau, that they made M’s costume “a bit more sexy” for Craig’s first film. Bond changes with the times and by this stage, not only was it modern for women to be in positions of power, but it was the norm for them to be expressive and natural in these roles.

What more can be done with Dench’s character though? Even Daniel Craig is slowly outgrowing the franchise, so surely Dench cannot stay in the role indefinitely? This could even be her last film. Glowing comments about her performances as M, like those above, make it difficult to consider replacing her though. Would M become a man again, played by an actor of similar clout? In The World is Not Enough, Pierce Brosnan, according to director Michael Apted, repeatedly asked for M’s role to be “beefed up” to give him more screen time with Judi. This led to the ambitious plot of M being kidnapped by terrorist Renard, played by Robert Carlyle. If M were to leave, she’d need a suitably huge story.

Bond needs a proper adventure and challenge anyway, after the gap between the disappointing Quantum of Solace and the as yet untitled, Bond 23, due to start filming later this year for a 2012 release. Casino Royale made it clear the best stories come when built upon Fleming’s original tales in a modern context. One tantalising, but difficult to execute, story never realised by filmmakers is a brainwashed Bond attempting to assassinate M. This comes from Fleming’s final Bond book, The Man with The Golden Gun, and was never used in the drastically altered film of the same name. This set-piece in the novel is the highlight of an otherwise disappointing final bow for the literary 007. It would need revamping, rooted as it is in the Cold War era of Soviet mind tricks, but you get the feeling a gritty, deluded Bond storyline would suit Daniel Craig’s hungrier acting abilities down to the ground if properly set-up. It could also be fantastic and bold on film. But the problem for the franchise would be how could Bond continue as 007 after being demoralised and duped into trying to kill his own boss?

Whatever the script writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan come up with, the trend has been more and more M in recent years. I look forward to some frosty and prickly dialogue in Bond 23.

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.

First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too.  It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.

 I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.

I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.

The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.

Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.

If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.

From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.

Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.

The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.

The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other.  What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality?  Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.

I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.

These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.