Friday, September 30, 2005

The Emperor’s Brand New Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat?

Watching No Direction Home on Tuesday and Wednesday this week - Martin Scorcese’s epic but hypnotic documentary about Bob Dylan’s career up to 1966 – was an eye-opener.

I’ve always known (and loved most of) the songs, but known virtually nothing about the man. The picture you get is that Dylan is a rare thing – a genuine enigma.

Virtually everything he says is a quite absurd, profound-sounding epigram that flutters on the edge of meaning something, though you’re not quite sure what. But at the same time he couldn’t be described as pretentious because he’s not pretending and he isn’t bothered about impressing anyone.

Several things struck me while watching the film. The first is that, as a person, nobody’s ever ‘got’ him, ever. Because of a few anthemic songs (Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times They Are A-Changing etc), his love of Woody Guthrie and his sympathy with the civil rights movement, he is held up as the darling of the folkie Left protest scene.

But, no matter how much he is cajoled by the likes of Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, he never turns up to any of the protests.

He is utterly indifferent to politics. Of Pete Seeger’s blacklisting, Dylan says “I guess I heard he was a Communist, I don’t know. I didn’t really know what a Communist was.” One of his contemporaries says “We thought Dylan was hopelessly politically naïve. But with hindsight maybe he was much smarter than we were.”

There’s a lot of footage of his 1966 tour, just after he infamously ‘turned electric’. The folk-loving audience, who’ve paid to see him, boo continuously throughout his set. One guy shouts out “Judas!” But Dylan barely flinches. He just carries on playing even louder with his band.

Dylan does what Dylan does, and if anybody else likes it, good. If not, Dylan does it anyway.

The best bits however, come in footage from various press conferences as he tours the world. He sits there all by himself while journalists ask him ever more ridiculous questions. One chap presses him to explain the spiritual significance of the motorcycle T-shirt he’s sporting on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited. “It’s just a T-shirt I happened to be wearing when they took the photo, man.”

Another drongo asks him: “How many protest singers are there following on from you, in America?”
“136” says Dylan, perfectly deadpan.
“136? Is that, is that an exact figure?” asks the hack, uncertainly.
“Actually, it could be 142.”

Time and again he’s given the opportunity to blow his own trumpet, to declare his own genius, to explain how his lyrics are insights into profound truths about the Human Condition.

But he’s just not interested.

So is it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is there nothing there at all behind the bizarre poetry?

I don’t think you could call honestly it empty.

‘My love, she speaks like silence’ isn't empty, it's Byronic. It could have been Coleridge dreaming about dancing beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea.

He just seems to pull lines like “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” out of the ether, and then be as surprised as everyone else that he’s done so.

The best description I could think of, watching No Direction Home, was idiot savant.

Balking the end half-won...*

It seems that, not content with bringing out a set of stamps to commemorate the Ashes victory, they've gone and made two of them 68p.

Which is how much it costs to send a letter to Australia.

Now I'm the last person to complain about excessive gloating, but I can't shake the uneasy feeling that somehow, someday, we're going to pay for all this....

*....for an instant dole of praise.

From England's Answer by Rudyard Kipling

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Site update

Should you wish, you can now email Think of England posts to friends and enemies.

Click on the wee envelope at the bottom right of each post for the technical wizardry to take effect.

I could murder for a nice cup of Rosie Lee

In the Telegraph today:

Traditional tea drinkers have reached boiling point over the state of the nation's cuppa, saying the standard of preparation is a disgrace and the taste so poor that the resulting brew often has to be thrown away.

A cup of tea in most public places is a "complete rip off", say the majority of over-50s, with the biggest gripes being paper or plastic cups, poor quality tea, tea bags with "silly little strings attached", plastic stirrers, and "awful little cartons of long-life milk".

But while British cafes and tea rooms are rated poorly, France emerges as the country that makes the worst tea in the world. Spain also gets the thumbs down, as does America - which many think has never learned the art of tea-making - the Greek Islands, and Italy.


Valery McConnell, the editor of Yours magazine, which commissioned the survey among 2,000 of its readers, average age 67, said: "The art of making the great British cup of tea has been lost and the tea-loving over-50s have reached boiling point at the downgrading of their favourite beverage.

"The rise of American and continental style coffee chains has also brought with it American and continental-style tea - and we all know how that tastes."

…. On average every person in Britain drinks three cups of tea a day.

It also points out that when taken with milk, as is the preference of 98 per cent of the population, four cups of tea a day provide significant amounts of the recommended levels of nutrients, including calcium, zinc, folic acid, vitamins B2, B1 and B6, manganese and potassium.

Three cups a day? That average must include all those who never drink it, since I know few tea drinkers who don’t have at least six.

When venturing abroad, we all know that a healthy supply of PG Tips should go into the suitcase before even the sun-tan lotion. The Germans are ok at providing ‘Tee mit Milch’, but everyone else is clueless.

In America I’ve experienced two amusingly different reactions. One very nice lady serving the coffees at a conference in Chicago got into a terrible fluster when she found that there was a Briton in the group. “Tea! We need to get you some tea! Oh my God, we haven’t got any tea!” – as if I was genetically incapable of consuming coffee. I hadn’t even asked for tea.

The other reaction that I’ve had in several diners and cafés when requesting tea with milk was an ‘eyes-to-heaven-is this guy for real?-Goddamn Limeys’ look of despair.

As if tea-drinking was an affectation, rather than an addiction.

A truth universally acknowledged, of course, is that nobody else knows how to make a proper cuppa except you.

But what I’ve come to realise about tea is that, unlike most things, which we try to get to taste nice, the ideal cup of tea should taste of nothing. Nada. Zilch. You shouldn’t even notice that you’re drinking it.

It’s just hot, delivers a small quantity of caffeine, breaks up the day into manageable sections, provides an excuse for aimless chatter, allows you to listen to the agreeable sound of a boiling kettle, is something respectable to hold when you’re watching telly, and is a small peace-offering/plea for leniency for builders, electricians, plumbers etc.

That it should taste good is irrelevant.

Indeed, people strive to get it to the right level of neutrality for them. If it’s slightly too bitter, add sugar. Too strong, add more milk. And so on and so on until you can taste absolutely nothing at all, and then you can smack your lips, make that ‘aaaah’ sound, and properly describe it as a ‘nice cup of tea.’

Monday, September 26, 2005

Ashes 2005: Funnies

Funniest moment 1:
As the umpires discussed coming off for bad light on the fourth day of the Final Test, with England wanting to waste time and the Aussies needing all the time they could get, the fans tried to swing the decision. England fans put up umbrellas and peered as if into pitch darkness, while Aussie spectators took off their shirts, squinted into the ‘sun’ and made expansive “phew, too hot!” gestures.

Funniest moment 2:
After the first break for bad light, all the Aussie players returned to the field sporting dark sunglasses.

Funniest moment 3:

Ponting’s foul-mouthed tirade after being run out by sub Gary Pratt.

Funniest moment 4:
Freddie Flintoff’s face on the parade bus, following an all-night drinking session

Most astute crowd chant:
“There’s only one Aussie bowler”. Both a tribute to Shane Warne, and an indictment of the rest of the Australian attack.

Best commentator: Mark Nicholas (Channel 4)
Richie Benaud deserves a mention as he retires from commentary in England, but Mark Nicholas’s smoothie style and penchant for hyperbole came into its own this series. He’ll be missed now that Sky have gobbled up Test cricket.

Best expert: Rod Marsh (BBC Radio)
The archetypal Aussie bloke was an endless source of amusement.

Ashes 2005: God is an Englishman (the moments that swung it)

The key moments that led to England's momentous victory over the seemingly unbeatable Australians.

Before the series: Twenty20 bouncers
‘It’s only a bit of fun’, laughed the Aussies, as England crushed them by a startling 100 runs in the first international Twenty20 game between the two sides. They weren’t laughing so much during their batting innings, when Harmison and Flintoff bombarded them with aggressive short-pitched bowling.

It should have been clear to the Aussies then that these were not the usual Pommie pushovers.

Before the series: Gillespie and Pietersen at Bristol
In Gillespie’s first over in the first one-day game against England, he bowled four leg-side wides and a no-ball to increasing jeers from a baying Bristol crowd. In the next over, he misfielded horribly at fine leg right in front of the noisiest section of that crowd . In that moment, his long and fine international career was effectively over. I was there, and I’ve never seen a professional sportsman so visibly go to pieces.

Eventually he was dropped, and the Aussies great three-man attack became a two man attack. That was enough at Lords, but then when McGrath was injured, even Warne couldn’t make a one-man attack do the job, though he came pretty close.

The other crucial element in that game was Pietersen’s dashing 91 not out to win the match. He earned himself a place in the Test team, and Graham Thorpe retired.

Three great Harmison deliveries
Steve Harmison, previously considered England’s only strike bowler, ended up being the least effective of the four seamers, but he still played a key part in swinging the series England’s way.

On the first morning at Lords he bowled a spell of sustained aggression, the like of which the Aussies had rarely seen before. He hit Langer and Hayden several times, but the most brutal delivery was saved for Ponting, leaving the Aussie captain with blood pouring from his cheekbone. The great Aussie batting order was out for 190 by tea, and only England’s nervous start, and McGrath’s excellence, won the game for Australia

The two other key Harmison balls came at Edgbaston: a slow one to bowl Clarke on the last ball of the penultimate day, leaving Australia with a mountain to climb, and of course the bouncer that Kasprowicz gloved to Jones, mere inches before they reached its impossible peak.

Edgbaston: Stray balls and balls-ups in the hours before the Test
After England won this series-levelling match by 2 runs – the narrowest margin in Ashes history – Channel 4 rushed out a DVD called “The Greatest Ever Test”. The unbearably tense finishes that followed at Old Trafford and Trent Bridge made that title look premature, but now we can see that, in the context of the series, they had it right.

Australia had won the first Test easily, with McGrath wiping out the England batsmen. But warming up on the first morning before the second Test, he stood on a stray cricket ball, damaged his ankle and had to be replaced by Kasprowicz.

Then followed the worst captain’s decision since Hussein inserted Australia in the first game of the previous Ashes series. With his key seam bowler out and a decent batting pitch, only sheer arrogance can have persuaded Ponting to ask England to bat first. They duly did, walloped the remains of the Aussie attack to all parts of the ground, and made 407 in one day.

Edgbaston: Flintoff becomes a national hero
He made 0 and 3 at Lords, later admitting that he was too anxious to play his normal game. Then at Edgbaston ‘Freddie’ imposed himself on the national consciousness with a display, including 141 runs and six wickets, that makes him a dead cert to win the 2005 Sports Personality of the Year.

Three key moments: Flintoff and Simon Jones make 51 for the last wicket in the first innings, including some brutal sixes; Flintoff bowls an unplayable over of swing to remove both Langer and Ponting; and Flintoff creates the image of the series by consoling Lee after Australia agonisingly fail to snatch the unlikely victory.

Hoggard and Giles see England home at Trent Bridge
Every man in the country was a gibbering wreck on the final day of the Fourth Test, as England – or rather, Shane Warne and Brett Lee – made the molehill run chase of 129 look as easy as climbing Everest in a diving suit. Warne looked like getting a wicket with every delivery.

When Geraint Jones holed out to deep mid off with a stupid slog to make it 116 for 7, it became unwatchable torture. But then the two least sung of England’s heroes, Ashley Giles and Matthew Hoggard, held their nerve and calmly knocked off the remaining 14 runs to give England a 2-1 series lead.

Nothing epitomised England’s emphasis on the team over the individual better than the fact that it was these two workhorses who saved the day.

Warne’s drop at the Oval
A dreadful irony, that Shane Warne, who was virtually playing England on his own for much of the series, should be the one to spill a straightforward catch when Pietersen was on 15. KP went on to make 158, the match was saved and England won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years.

The crowd baited the great bowler with chants of “Warney dropped the Ashes”, but then immediately showed their appreciation for him in his last Test on English soil with bursts of “There’s only one Shane Warne” and “We only wish you were English” that left him visibly moved.

Ashes 2005: The Aussie Aftermath

How the Aussies fared

Killed in action

Jason Gillespie (0/10)
His confidence was shattered in the one-dayers. The cowardly Aussie selectors continued to carry him for the first three Tests before replacing him with Shaun Tait. From a deadly weapon to a liability virtually overnight.

Damien Martyn (0/10)
Entered the series in prime form and with an average over fifty. Never once threatened the England bowlers, finished with a series average of 19 and has since been dropped from the Australian squad. Looked lazy and arrogant.

Michael Kasprowicz (2/10)
Hard to believe now that prior to the Ashes he was keeping Brett Lee out of the team. Toothless.

Grievously wounded

Matthew Hayden (3/10)
Saved himself with a scrapping century in the last Test, but only by the skin of his teeth. England had the measure of him all series.

Ricky Ponting (4/10)
Batting was fine, but his credibility as captain took a battering. For a decade or more Australia have only needed a Plan A: batsmen score shed load of runs, Warne and McGrath bowl out opposition. When Plan A failed, Ponting was unable to invent a Plan B. Made to look foolish in the Gary Pratt affair.

Adam Gilchrist (4/10)
The most feared batsman in the world was tamed by Flintoff in probably the most important individual duel in the series. Top score of just 49.

Simon Katich (4/10)
Kept starting well and then blowing opportunities to make a name for himself. Averaged just 27.

John Buchanan (3/10)
The coach’s reputation as an eccentric genius took a hammering. Selectors were dreadful too.

A few cuts and bruises

Michael Clarke (6/10)
Managed a 91 and looked a good player, but was unable to swing the game despite consistent starts.

Justin Langer (7/10)
Finished top of the Aussie averages at 43.77, but only one really long innings.

Glenn McGrath (7/10)
Man of the Match at Lords but after his injury England had the measure of him. Before the series he predicted a 5-0 Aussie whitewash. Ha ha!

Shaun Tait (5/10)
Bowled ok as a novice quickie, but got jeered for clumsy fielding and was under-used by the hapless Ponting.

Glorious in defeat

Brett Lee (8/10)
Bowling was inconsistent but his appetite for the fight was inspiring. Involved in all three of the tight finishes and won the hearts of the English crowd with his gutsy bowling and batting.

Shane Warne (10/10)
The pantomime villain and the man we love to hate, but we’ll miss him. It soon became clear that it was England versus Warne as he took virtually every wicket and smashed sixes with the bat. Singlehandedly made the middle three games, which England dominated, unrealistically close. Should have been captain.

Ashes 2005: The England Heroes

Marcus Trescothick (8/10)
The Aussies thought he was their ‘bunny’, but he was the most consistent batsman from either team.

Andrew Strauss (8/10)
Became a senior player, and the only one to make two centuries.

Michael Vaughan (9/10)
Only one major innings – the 166 at Old Trafford – but captains are uniquely important in cricket, and he outwitted Ponting at every turn. Crucial to the team, whether he scores runs or not.

Ian Bell (5/10)
Two half-centuries, some nice catches, but that was it. Needs to be better in Pakistan.

Kevin Pietersen (9/10)
A great start and a greater finish. Not too much in between and six dropped catches, but who cares? Top scorer (473) and average (52.55) in the series.

Andrew Flintoff (10/10)
Became probably the best cricketer in the world, with one of the smallest egos. Best bowler, best batsman, best sportsman.

Geraint Jones (5/10)
Moments of madness with the bat and some rank incompetence as wicketkeeper, but a few decent knocks and should be persisted with for his partnerships with Flintoff

Ashley Giles (8/10)
Not earth-shattering with the ball, but twice saw England home with his stubborn lower-order batting.

Matthew Hoggard (8/10)
A poor start, but devastating spell at the Oval was crucial. Batting saved the day at Trent Bridge.

Steve Harmison (7/10)
Low-key for the reputed best bowler, but did his bit.

Simon Jones (9/10)
Overnight transformation from weakest link in five-man attack to deadly strike bowler. Injured and missed in the last Test

Paul Collingwood (6/10)
His painstaking second innings at the Oval was one of the most important scores of 10 in cricket history.

Gary Pratt (10/10)
The supersub fielder became a cult figure and gave us all a damn good laugh by running out Ponting.

Duncan Fletcher (10/10)
Never mind a British passport, the coach should be given a knighthood.

The Ashes 2005: Weird science

Statistics from the series

For the first time since the 1978-79 Ashes - a series blighted by Packer defections - Australia failed to muster 400 in any of their innings

At Trent Bridge Australia were made to follow on for the first time in 191 Tests.

Adam Gilchrist, World’s Most Dangerous Batsman™, with a career average of 52.64, finished with a series average of just 22.62.

Damien Martyn, with a career average of 47.96, finished with a series average of just 19.77 – worse than Warne, Lee and McGrath

Simon Jones, considered very much the fifth man in England’s five man bowling attack, discovered an unplayable reverse swing and finished top of the England bowling averages, with 18 wickets at 21.

Andrew Flintoff finished top England wicket-taker with 24, but crucially 18 of these were batsmen in Australia’s top seven.

Shane Warne finished with a superhuman 40 wickets, yet still lost the series. He took the first wicket in an England innings six times, showing both his personal greatness and the paucity of the Australia pace attack.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Mortimer’s Miscellany

On Saturday Mrs TofE and I toddled along to the Redgrave Theatre in Clifton (named after Clifton College alumnus Sir Michael, and surely one of the poshest school theatres in the world), to watch Rumpole-creator John Mortimer deliver his ‘Miscellany’.

It was an old-fashioned ‘entertainment’ in aid of deafblind support charity Sense, and featured the man himself – wheelchair-bound and ancient, but perfectly lucid – along with venerable actresses Joanna David and Rohan McCullough. A motley trio of musicians (cello, Clive Conway on flute, and bizarrely, Jon Lord from Deep Purple on piano) played inoffensively tinklesome interludes, and a very graceful lady provided expansive sign-language interpretation from stage left.

Anyway, Mortimer and the aforementioned venerable actresses gave us a scattergun selection of poetry (Betjeman, Byron, EE Cummings etc – met with suitable audience ‘how-true’ hmmms of approval), excerpts from Rumpole and A Voyage Round My Father (met with appropriate chortles) and other various readings (met with hmms or chortles as required).

But of course the best bits were Mortimer’s lengthy anecdotes from his days as a barrister, many of which were gloriously fruity and some of which may even have been true.

He claimed that the worst sorts of cases were divorce proceedings, because his clients would be forever telephoning him in the middle of the night with complaints like “You’ll never guess what the bastard has done now – stolen the toast rack!” and so forth.

Murderers were much better, because as Mortimer put it, “generally speaking they’d got rid of the one person who was really bugging them, and a sort of tranquillity descended.”

Anyway, he also told this yarn, which is a hoary old chestnut if ever there was one, but he told it better than anyone else I’ve ever heard before. And now you can tell it too, after-dinner or otherwise…

The story goes that Mortimer was representing a lady who was the victim in a sexual assault case. An important part of the thing hinged on what exactly it was that the accused had said to the victim, prior to the alleged assault.

However, when asked to recall it, the lady, being shy and embarrassed, claimed to be quite unable to repeat it in front of a packed courtroom. Eventually, after much sympathetic cajoling, she was persuaded to write it down on a piece of paper, whereupon it would be passed along and read by the jury.

So she writes it down, and of course it is along the lines of “Every act in the history of human sexual congress will pale into insignificance compared to the deeds I would like to perform viz a viz your good self” – though expressed in somewhat cruder language.

So this note is passed to juror number one, who reads it, passes it to number two, who reads it, passes to number three and so on down the line.

Now juror number twelve is a mature gentleman who during these shenanigans has managed to drift off into a deep, peaceful sleep. And next to him, juror number eleven is (naturally) a pneumatic blonde. So after she has read it, she gives him a sharp jab in the ribs and passes the note.

Thus, the whole courts watches in delight as the old duffer is startled awake, takes the note, reads it with evident growing surprise and satisfaction, looks at the blonde, winks, and tucks the paper into his blazer pocket.

After a few minutes stunned silence, the judge asks juror number twelve if he wouldn’t mind proffering the note for the rest of the court’s attention. Whereupon the old duffer replies “It’s a purely private matter, M’Lord.”

(Sadly, the sign-language interpreter didn’t do this story.)

We won the Ashes

Triumphalist review coming soon...