Saturday, June 30, 2012

Film List - why I don't watch in-flight movies (any more)

Whatever happened to Air India? They gave up their transatlantic routes for some reason?

Back in the '90s, when I first started flying to the States a lot, I would almost always use Air India, since they almost invariably offered the cheapest London-New York fare. And their planes - back then - used to recreate the cheesily fun atmosphere of a Friday night down at the neighbourhood Indian restaurant: pretty, dark-eyed stewardesses making coy the new flirtatious, a tasty curry for the inflight meal, and a Bollywood film to watch. (I am convinced they used to have a flock-wallpaper finish on the cabin interior too; but I worry that my memory may be playing tricks on me about that detail.)

This was my first exposure to Bollywood films, and this was how I came to love them. They make ideal inflight entertainment, because one film lasts most of the flight, it swaps genres so frequently that you have little chance to get bored, and narrative coherence is such a low priority that you can doze off for an hour or two without missing anything too important (so it was in the old days, anyway; I fear the Indian film industry is becoming increasingly 'Westernized' in its approach to narrative form).

These days, though, I never watch a film when I fly.

I was reflecting on this for a while a week or so back, in anticipation of my most recent flight to the States, and it occurred to me that these are some of the reasons for my abandoning film-watching on planes:

Seat-back screens
They're just too damn small. Well, even when we had just a handful of screens to watch in the cabin, they weren't all that big; but the fact that there was only one programme being screened tended to draw you in more, gave it the added appeal of being a communal experience. Moreover, I find everyone else's screens around me extremely distracting. (I'll sometimes find myself half-heartedly watching snatches of a film on a neighbour's screen, without being moved to tune into it on my own.)

Too much noise
Is my hearing starting to lose acuity? Or gaining too much acuity in certain frequencies?? Are airline earphones getting worse? Surely planes can't be getting noisier (more lightweight materials in cabin construction??) - but it seems so. I find now that I can barely hear the inflight entertainment soundtracks even with the volume set to maximum, and the background roar of the airflow outside is still too bothersome for me to maintain my concentration.

Middle-aged weariness
I think I always used to sleep quite easily on planes; but now I can hardly keep awake. This is great for feeling reasonably sprightly when I land, but tends to rule out trying to enjoy a full two-hour film during the flight.

Limited choice
Although at first there appears to be a bewilderingly wide choice, in fact few or none of the titles on offer these days have much appeal for me. I'm not a complete snob about action blockbusters, but if I am going to watch one, it will be in a theatre to get the full experience out of the big special effects and so on (or, at the very least, I'll watch on a big TV screen at home, with the volume turned up high). As a rule, though, I am much more drawn to small independent or foreign films; and how many of those do you get on the inflight programmes? (And the sub-titles would be too small to read on those tiny seat-back screens, anyway.) Every once in a while, a quiet drama or an intelligent rom-com will catch my eye in the listing, but... in the more intimate scenes, I find I'm always struggling to hear the dialogue over the background noise in the cabin.

No more 'exclusivity'
Back in the Air India days, I didn't like to spurn the chance to see one of those Bollywood epics because I had no idea how I'd ever be able to see them again. Even with English-language films, back in the '80s and '90s, I'd sometimes find an inflight film that I knew I wouldn't get around to catching in the cinema and which might never appear on TV, and so I'd give it a try. These days, with multi-channel TV and ubiquitous cheap DVDs, you never have that one-and-only-chance-to-see sensation any more. Now, if I do notice an interesting film advertised on an inflight programme, I think to myself, "I'll get that on DVD when I get back to China."

Friday, June 29, 2012

Another Friday pun

There is quite an exodus of foreigners from China at the moment - particularly from Beijing, the hyper-anxious political centre, and particularly amongst the long-term expats who form most of my friends out there. While this is rather sad for me on a personal level, it also engenders a sense that we may be approaching a tipping point in China's modern history, and that is quite exhilarating, though also somewhat alarming.

As I explained to some friends in the States the other day...
"We live in exiting times."

Haiku for the week

Caress of cool air,
Gentle hum a lullaby:
Ceiling fan soothes sleep.

I had almost forgotten how much I love ceiling fans, they really are one of my favourite things: well engineered ones, at least, whose motors are scarcely - perhaps only subliminally - audible... rather than those wobbly, rattly contraptions that threaten at any moment to tear themselves from their mountings... the kind you mostly find in China.

I used the ceiling fan in my bedroom for the first time last night - even though the temperature didn't really warrant it - and enjoyed the best night's sleep I've had in months. I've decided I want to live in a house with ceiling fans, even if it's in some northerly climate where there's no actual need for them to keep things cool.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Surreal China

One of my favourite stories to come out of my bizarre former home in many months...

Chengdu Zoo recently ran a 'drill' to practice procedures for dealing with an escape by one of their big cats... by having someone run around the zoo dressed up in a Tigger costume. This might have been particularly bamboozling to Chinese visitors that day, since they don't know what a Tigger is.

The story was covered by, among others, the UK's Daily Mail, and, of course, ChinaSmack. Check out those links for some more great pictures.

You can guess what this final scene reminded me of...

Monday, June 25, 2012

On the move again...

I'm heading off to the States today. I'll have access to friends' computers from time to time, but I'm not bothering to take my own with me, so - apart from a few "pre-cooked" treats - there won't be much blogging for the next three or four weeks.

Don't worry - I'll be back.

A literary double bon mot

"Intelligence is not making no mistakes, but quickly seeing how to make them good." 

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)

"In my next life I will try to commit more errors."

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fantasy Girlfriends of Yesteryear - The 'Football Team'

It was Richard Briers, as Tom Good in the '70s BBC sitcom The Good Life, who first introduced me to the idea of making lists of the desirable women one might fantasise over. In one episode he revealed that as a boy he had used to compile teams of 11-a-side to compete in 'cricket matches' using the Owzat dice game. I dallied with the idea for a while, sometimes substituting football for cricket (I had a number of card or dice-based games for football, whereas the venerable Owzat set - the game had perhaps ceased being manufactured in the 1970s - strictly speaking belonged to my brother). I can't now remember exactly who was in my lineups (Tom had favoured the Hollywood glamourpusses of his own childhood in the 1940s: I think Hedy Lamarr was mentioned as one of his most formidable bowlers), but it is highly likely that the ladies below would have been among them - all young actresses who appeared frequently on British TV during my childhood in the later '70s and early '80s, and whose exceptional prettiness left an indelible impression on me.

Since that time, thoughts of sport have been inextricably linked in my mind with thoughts of beautiful women; hence the idea for this post emerges out of my recent obsession with the unfolding European Football Championship. I suspect it works the other way for me as well, that I have a Pavlovian reflex to think of sport whenever I see a pretty girl - something that has probably not been helpful to me in attempting to forge romantic relationships.

I've produced a list of twelve lovely ladies here, since cricket traditionally allowed only one substitute, and back in the 1970s football did too (this allowing multiple substitutions, and having most of your squad on the bench to choose from, is a newfangled rule change I still turn my nose up at). I haven't bothered to try to come up with a tactical formation for them (although as a ten-year-old I would have done!).

It was hard to trim my selection down this far. A few strong contenders had to be omitted: Jenny Agutter (who I'd better give a 'Fantasy Girlfriend' post all of her own one day; or my pal The British Cowboy, for one, will never forgive me), Sheila Ruskin (a rather good actress who, unfortunately, became forever tainted in pop-culture-land by having a terribly hammy part in a 1981 Dr Who episode), Francesca Annis (who was Estella in a 1960s BBC serialisation of Great Expectations, and got her kit off [as we Brits like to put it] to play Lady Macbeth for Roman Polanski round about 1970... although I didn't see that until much later!), and Natalie Ogle, a china-doll pretty waif of a girl who got a run of parts in BBC1 Sunday afternoon 'classic serials' in the late '70s, Little Nell and Lydia Bennett (I saw her on stage at the Oxford Playhouse many years later, and she was still rather breathtaking; still is today, it seems!). And, of course, I've already celebrated a number of my other favourite actresses from that era in their own posts in this series: Diana RiggJane Seymour, Jan Francis, Patricia Hodge, Gabrielle Drake, and Felicity Kendal (whose most famous role was as Tom Good's wonderful wife Barbara in that TV show I mentioned at the outset).

But THIS is my....

1970s 'Fantasy Football' Glamour Team

Fiona Fullerton
I first became smitten when she appeared in Angels, an early 1970s BBC drama series about student nurses. I confess to a bit of a weakness for a nurse's uniform! Shortly before that (I was later to discover), she had been the most inappropriately grown-up and embarrasingly fanciable Alice In Wonderland; shortly after, she would go on to a string of forgettable glamour roles, including an appearance as a Bond girl.

Jenny Hanley
This rather lovely actress had a few conventional glamour parts in horror films and such early in her career, but then settled into a regular gig as a presenter on Magpie, an ITV children's magazine programme - which gave me a lot of exposure to her as I was growing up. I adored her voice, as well as everything else about her.

Barbara Kellerman
Possibly the most beautiful woman in this very beautiful team (Jewish girls are another recurring weakness of mine), and probably the tallest too. I first saw her as a nurse (are we seeing a pattern here already?) in a medical soap called General Hospital, but she went on to play dozens of other TV parts during the 1970s.

Lesley-Anne Down
Or I should perhaps say Lady Georgina Worsley, the part that she played in the popular period drama Upstairs, Downstairs. She soon got drawn away to a career in Hollywood, but it was that early role as the Bellamys' flighty niece that enraptured me. I remember there was one episode where she took a rather raunchy part in a silent film, playing a slinky seductress in a Parisian café: beret, long cigarette-holder, and black silk stockings. One of the most memorable erotic images of my young life! Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I couldn't find a picture of that. So, I plumped for one from when she became a nurse during WWI instead.

Emma Samms
Another rising star who, like Lesley-Anne Down and Jane Seymour, was promptly stolen from us by the greedy magnates of American television. I believe she had a long-running part in Dynasty or something, but I never watched any of that junk. I remember her chiefly from the 1979 film Arabian Adventure. (Arabian princess costumes even beat a nurse's uniform in the fetish stakes!)

Lea Brodie
Billed as Lea Dregorn in a few of her earliest appearances (not sure if she got married young, or just decided that her real name was proving a bit of a handicap in showbusiness), she unfortunately didn't have a very long career. She cropped up a few times on TV in shows like Space: 1999, but she's only really remembered for playing an almost-Arab-princess type glamour role in the low-budget action romp Warlords of Atlantis. Best legs I've ever seen!

Caroline Munro
I feel a bit bad about including her as an 'actress' since, despite scores of film roles over the years (mostly in horror films), I've never seen any evidence that she can act at all. She was, however, quite outrageously sexy, possibly the most universally lusted after woman in the UK from the late '60s through to the early '80s. She was best known as the 'face' of Lamb's Navy Rum in a long-running series of calendars and glamour posters. However, she showed admirable resolve in refusing ever to do any nudie stuff - despite being supposedly offered a king's ransom by Hef to appear in Playboy. I think the only true 'starring' role she landed was as space-age swashbuckler Stella Star in the dreadfully cheap-and-cheesy Barbarella/Star Wars ripoff Star Crash (rated at 3.8 out of 10 by IMDB, the lowest score I think I've ever seen on there). This film occasionally strays into so-bad-it's-good territory: Christopher Plummer, slumming it for a paycheck as the Galactic Emperor, has one of the most brilliant lines ever uttered on film - "Imperial Battleship, halt the flow of Time!"

And here she is in motion, in a raunchy little TV ad from the early '70s for a popular brand of mini cigar.

Cherie Lunghi
In contention for an award as the most prolific TV actress of all time, and not only beautiful but always emanating such élan, such coolness, such class. She was notorious for a short while for having (almost subliminally briefly) got her kit off as Guinevere in John Boorman's Excalibur, but I think I remember seeing her first as one of Edward VIII's former girlfriends in an ITV series about the 1936 abdication crisis (making his choice of Wallis Simpson completely unfathomable).

Anne-Louise Lambert
An Australian actress best-known for her bewitching performance in Peter Weir's hauntingly beautiful Picnic At Hanging Rock (which I tend to cite as the most erotic film I've seen - to general derision from people who expect their eroticism to involve actual sex): her character, a 17-year-old schoolgirl called Miranda, is memorably described as "a Botticelli angel". In her mid-twenties she moved to England to develop her career, but the first part she got was as Lucrezia Borgia in The Borgias, a series widely derided as one of the most inept costume dramas the Beeb ever produced. Fortunately, she did continue to get regular work after this, but never achieved the major stardom that had seemed on the cards after Picnic.

Olivia Newton-John
Another pick I feel a little embarrassed about including in a lineup of actresses, since her acting was really pretty horrible. But damn - she looked mighty fine. I knew her mostly through appearances as a singer. I never saw Grease (was irretrievably prejudiced against it by the irritatingness of all the hit singles it spawned, and how long they clogged the upper reaches of the charts that year). However, I did somehow (I can't remember how: this is not a film I would ever have made the slightest effort to see) catch her follow-up, Xanadu, which is quite possibly the silliest film ever made - but she looks smoking hot throughout.

Lynne Frederick
She later became a prime target of tabloid gossip-mongers as the last wife of Peter Sellers, and died before the age of 40 after troubles with alcohol and depression. However, her early career showed a lot of promise, and she happens to have appeared in three films I particularly like: the fabulous children's story The Amazing Mr Blunden, and two unusual sci-fi thrillers, Phase IV and No Blade of Grass.

Lysette Anthony
I had thought she was another of those young beauties who'd deserted our shores in search of big bucks in America, but her IMDB resumé indicates that she's worked consistently in British TV. I'm not sure quite how she impinged on my consciousness, since she's only a little older than me and didn't really get her career going until I'd gone to college (at which point I didn't watch TV much any more). I think I saw her in a TV movie of Ivanhoe in the early '80s.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Recently, on the Barstool...

It's been six weeks or so since I last did a rundown of what's been going on over on the other side...

I'm continuing to be quite busy with music posts (and may become even more so, now that I'm blessed with fast Internet access): I marked my departure from China with an a cappella rendition of poignant farewell song The Parting Glass by The Wailin' Jennys, a folk trio from Canada; we've also had Queen's Japanese love song, Teo Torriatte, Tom Lehrer's classic Bright College Days (actually one of my category tags over on the drinking blog), One Thing On Your Mind, a wonderful Country & Western spoof by Neil Innes on the important topics of sex and football, and another entry in my Favourite Basslines series (featuring John Paul Jones, John Entwistle, Tom Hamilton, Jah Wobble, Jaco Pastorius, and Bakithi Khumalo).

We've also seen a brief celebration of Brazil's national cocktail, the caipirinha, the discovery of a new culinary delight, a renewed call-to-arms against excessive booze prices in Beijing, and an analysis of what's wrong with most bars there (even when they're run by foreigners).

That post with the great Neil Innes song has also become home to an extensive comment thread on the ongoing European Football Championships (sports nuts, please visit).

The other major item of business recently has been A Decade of Change, a series reviewing the transformation in the Beijing bar scene I've witnessed since the early Noughties (Part I, Part II, Part III).

Lots of good things for you to check out there.

Some Friday silliness

What do the films Titanic and The Sixth Sense have in common?

Answer in the first comment below, shortly.

Praise - or blame - for sharing this excellent piece of trivia with me is due to my current host, Little Anthony.

Haiku for the week

Whisper of the rain,
A soothing voice in the night.
What is it saying?

I am getting used to this almost constant rain. I find it very restful, most of the time. But late at night, on the margin between sleeping and waking, the conviction that there is pattern, meaning in the sound can become bothersome.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Vilnius calling

Blog-friend JES, in the last of his regular Friday lucky bag posts of literary and other oddities, included a video of a band called Freaks On Floor (I would have preferred a definite article in there, but what can you do?), a pleasant-sounding indie pop trio from Lithuania.

It's part of a project called Vilnius Temperature, in which young film-maker Saunias Baradinskas seeks to showcase his local music scene. Various bands, mostly of a rather more jazzy or folky feel, and often quite quirkily 'experimental', perform one of their songs - seemingly in one take - in the open air, at various seasons of the year (the resulting video being tagged with the temperature at the time). Baradinskas spoke about the idea at a TedX event in Vilnius last year.

I couldn't help but suspect that JES might have made this selection at least partly to taunt me, since I have revealed on here once or twice that - after conducting some online research - Vilnius is my leading fantasy relocation destination.

The vigorous music scene is one of the things I have most enjoyed in my time in Beijing, and I would hope to have similar opportunities to enjoy plenty of good live gigs wherever I move to next. Vilnius is looking quite promising on that front.

I haven't had time to work through all of the Vilnius Temperature videos yet (over 30 of them on YouTube now), but so far this - by a band called Garbonitas Bosistas - is the performance, and the video, that I think I like best.

However, this, a song called Energy by the rather more commercial Saulės Kliošas, a jazz outfit with an upbeat, R'n'B flavour about them, is a very close second. Their lead singer, Justė Starinskaitė, is really rather stunning. Although, I'm told, by the standards prevailing in the Baltic Republics, she is only averagely beautiful - which could be another reason to move there. Or a reason to keep well away...

I have endeavoured to find out what these band names mean, but Lithuanian-English translation tools online all seem baffled by them (except that Saulės would seem to mean 'sun' or 'sunny'). Is Lithuanian an unusually tricky language? Or do Lithuanian musicians all favour nonsense words for their band names?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Invisible Man

Or perhaps The Inaudible Man?  Or The Irrelevant Man!

I had been starting to worry that something was amiss with my e-mail accounts. Or perhaps (ooh, paranoia!) that I had become the victim of some targeted blocking/interception efforts by the Chinese security services.

But it's probably just a case of falling off people's mental radar when you are no longer a regular physical presence in their lives. I have hardly received a single e-mail from anyone I know in China since I left for England three weeks ago. 

Now, the falling off of spontaneous personal communication, though disappointing, I can understand. People obviously don't see the point in inviting me to parties or sharing gossip when I'm no longer on the scene. Ordinarily, though, I get a fairly continuous dribble of non-personal, 'automatic' correspondence: mass-mailing jokes, links to interesting news items, or notices about job vacancies (from friends, former employers, recruiters, or various networking forums I've been involved with). But in the last three weeks, NOTHING. A lot of these people don't know I'm gone; so, what's up??

And people aren't replying promptly - if at all - when I send e-mails to them, either.

With some of them, I know there's a 'problem': The Man In Black has become one of those people so pathetically addicted to Twitter that he is scarcely aware of any other medium of communication these days; The Choirboy is finding himself from time to time a bit snowed under by the unfamiliar demands of a proper job; and so on.

But, really.... almost no-one is sending me e-mail of their own volition any more, or replying to e-mails that I send to them. What gives?

A further disturbing detail has come to light over the next couple of days: when I Cc or BCc to myself, the copy doesn't go through. Is this just Yahoo Mail being glitchy for a while, or something more sinister??

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I have gone on record (perhaps rashly!) as believing that England have a decent chance in this European Football Championship - the first occasion in my lifetime when I have felt this optimistic about the national team's prospects of lifting a major title. I could be made to look very foolish if we suffer a repeat of our embarrassingly dreadful spell against Sweden at the beginning of the second half.

If, however, we manage not to stuff up against the Ukraine, we'll be into the knockout phase and anything can happen.

To encourage positive thoughts (or have a pre-prepared consolation on hand, if an unthinkable disaster should occur tonight), here's a nice little retrospective of the career of the great Paul Gascoigne - who took us so close to tournament victories in 1990 and 1996.

And here's one of the main reasons for my feeling so positive about our chances of doing well this year: a review of this season's exploits by our explosive young striker Danny Welbeck.

Come on, England!!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Looking at things differently

A month or so back I did a very long and nerdy post about the sinking of the Titanic (having just read Walter Lord's famous account of the disaster, A Night To Remember). I mentioned in passing a childhood recollection of this cartoon by Bill Tidy, one of the mainstays of Punch magazine in the '60s and '70s. As a result of exchanges in the comment thread there, a friend helped me track it down online.

Curiously, the cartoon is not at all as I remembered it. The gag is the same, but the drawing completely different. I wonder whether it is my memory playing tricks on me, or if Bill Tidy was adapting an earlier cartoon.

Bon mot for the week

"You can count how many seeds are in the apple, but not how many apples are in the seed."

Ken Kesey (1935-2001)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

An artist in the Arctic

Cyber-friend Cedra Wood is off on her travels again. Last year the Albuquerque-based artist spent six weeks doing field sketches in Australia. Now she's landed one of a handful of much sought-after residencies on the Arctic Circle 2012 expedition this September.

She could use a little help to meet the expenses of this once-in-a-lifetime journey, so she's launched an online appeal; for a modest pledge of support you can be rewarded with treasures such as a handmade postcard of the ice floes or a DVD of all her photographs from the trip or a larger piece of Arctic-inspired art... Go and check out the possiblities here.

And here's a video in which she explains the project in more detail, in her own... drawings.

You can see more of her art on her blog or her website

Best of luck, Cedra!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Why England have a chance this time

Yes, this is the LONG and mostly rather earnest football post that I need to get off my chest. Non-sports fan should ignore this. 
[But anyone as football-mad as me could drop over to my parallel blog, The Barstool, where I'm hosting an ongoing discussion forum about the current European Championship.]

I really believe England have a decent chance of at least making a respectable impression on this tournament, and perhaps, perhaps... going all the way.

In '96, we had a better team, and, with the help of home advantage, got a good run going and came tantalisingly close to putting out eventual winners Germany in the semi-final. But I don't think our team then was that much better, and outside of the first-choice eleven the squad may have been every bit as thin as our current one. Moreover, there were so many doubts about the form or fitness of key players and the overall balance of the side (would we get the best out of Anderton playing him out wide, would McManaman's showboating ever provide a useful end-product [answer: NO], would Gascoigne perform at all - and stay out of trouble??) that there wasn't really any great confidence in the team's prospects going into the tournament; hopes, yes, there's always hope - but no real expectation of success. Similarly in the '86 and '90 World Cups we sent out decent teams, but, with our miserable record in international football since 1970, we didn't ever seriously think we might be good enough to win the competition.

Nope, this is the first time in my lifetime that I genuinely feel as though we could win. I don't think we have a great chance, we're certainly not anybody's favourite tip for the title, but there is for once a real possibility that we could prevail.

And this is not just wishful thinking, the fond self-delusion of the ever-optimistic fan. I have been ruthlessly realistic - even pessimistic - in my assessment of England's prospects in the past. I have definite reasons for feeling so comparatively bullish about the current tournament.

They are as follows (in no particular order... although there's probably a declining order of magnitude, with the most significant factor coming at the top of the list):

Lampard getting injured
I have nothing against Frank, and I would, on balance, have preferred him to be available to give us more cover in the squad. But this has been one of England's key problems for nearly a decade: Lampard is deemed to be too good, too dangerous a player to be used only as a substitute; so we have repeatedly shoehorned him into the side, even though he manifestly doesn't gel with Steven Gerrard. They're too similar in style of play (both liking to press forward to link with the strikers, both making runs into the box to grab goals themselves, both capable of spreading the play with very accurate long diagonal balls) and, even more so, in their on-pitch persona (both like to be the dominating influence in the midfield, the capo carismatico who sets the pattern of play and inspires those around him). There's usually only room for one such player in the central midfield. 

The foolhardy attempt to accommodate them both has led to playing Gerrard out of position, wide on the right or the left, or in behind a lone striker (a role in which he can be dangerous, but it's not his best position). Tough as it is to do, we really had to make a decision to play just one of them, and relegate the other to the bench. No England manager has had the balls to do that; and Roy Hodgson might not have done, had the decision not been made for him by the hand of Fate. 

I never saw it as such a difficult choice to make, though it would have been difficult to implement in the face of pressure from the public and the media (and from Lampard and his Chelsea teammates, I would imagine). Since his explosive arrival on the international scene in the 2004 Euros, Frank has never really made that much of a contribution to England, has rarely looked anything like as influential as he has been for his club. Gerrard, for me, is a better tackler, a better long passer, and a more galvanizing presence in the team (and he's about as good on finishing too; he just doesn't push into the box quite as much as Frank). But he's never enjoyed the 'space' - either physically or mentally/emotionally - to show the best of his club form when required to play alongside Lampard, even if he was allowed to line up in central midfield. Great player though Lampard is, the England team immediately becomes better without him. It's not about picking the best players, it's about picking the players who work together best as a unit.

A proper balance in midfield
The addiction to playing both Gerrard and Lampard has usually led also to the omission of a holding midfielder. Steve and Frank, though they both have a good workrate and good positional sense and will hustle to try to win the ball back, are neither of them true holding midfielders; they're not content to sit deep the whole time, they don't have the bone-crunching tackles that can intimidate an opposing team, and they're not unselfish enough to concentrate their efforts primarily on winning back possession while delegating most of the creative duties to others. 

Every great team needs an unassuming grafter like that to help his defenders smother opposition attacks and to ensure a good supply of the ball for the more creative midfield players. I think the big key to our near-successes in '86 and '96 (more even than the Beardsley-Lineker and Sheringham-Shearer strike partnerships, though they were also a huge plus) was the pairing of terrier-like Peter Reid with the majestic Glenn Hoddle and of the bludgeoning Paul Ince with the mercurial Paul Gascoigne. And where would Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters have been in 1966 without the ankle-biting Nobby Stiles to keep giving them the ball? The value of the midfield 'hard man' seemed to be forgotten for a while in the '70s and '80s (perhaps because we didn't have any suitable candidates for the role?); and then it may have been discredited rather when it was adopted again in earnest by the miserably inept Graham Taylor in the early '90s (the suspicion was that he was stocking his squad with tenacious journeymen simply because he didn't trust flair players; the likes of Carlton Palmer, unfortunately, were just not formidable enough to fill the boots of Nobby Stiles). 

Now, at last, we've once more got a proper holding midfielder in Scott Parker. I know he's got his detractors, many complain of his lack of flair. No, he may not win any games for us singlehandedly with a moment of creative genius; but we will, mark my words, win many more games with him playing than without him. 

For the first time in ages we've got some decent width in the side too, guys who actually specialise in playing down the flanks rather than displaced central midfielders. Yes, I fret that the likes of Downing and Milner are not really international class and are unlikely to unlock a game for us (though young Oxlade-Chamberlain might), but they give balance and shape to the team, and their solid work ethic will help keep us in matches, help us hang on to a lead (even if it doesn't help us take the lead).

The shadow of Beckham receding
OK, he was gone at the last World Cup, but only just: there was still some speculation till quite late in the day that he might get one last call-up for the tournament, and he was still hanging out with the squad in South Africa. There was still a sense that this was a team that had been built around him, and was having to learn for the first time to do without him. But, frankly, we always had done without him. Becks played most of his best stuff for England in qualifying matches; at the major tournaments he always seemed to be injured, or coming back from injury. And our insistence on playing him when he wasn't fully match-fit hobbled the side. Even if he had been at the peak of his powers for us in '02 and '04 and '06, I'm not sure that having such a dominant mega-star was good for the England team as a whole: too much was allowed to depend on Beckham, other players didn't find the room to stamp their own personality on the team; and we developed an inferiority complex, convincing ourselves that we couldn't possibly win without him

It wasn't nearly as bad as the Keegan era, when the obsession with trying to build a side that suited Mighty Mouse's idiosyncrasies led to the exclusion of several arguably even better players, most notably Glenn Hoddle and Trevor Francis (it was not a coincidence that we failed to qualify for either the World Cup or the Euros in the 1970s). But it was pretty bad. Great player though Beckham was, we achieved nothing during the period of his ascendancy. I feel that the post-Beckham era holds much more promise.

Rooney's suspension
Missing the first two games of this tournament might just possibly be the best thing that could have happened for Wayne, for England, for all of us - better even than Frank Lampard's injury. It's given him more time to recover from any possible niggling knocks and strains of the kind that tend to accumulate towards the season's end, and also from the physical and mental weariness that naturally accompany the end of a long, hard (and this year ultimately unsuccessful) championship campaign. It's allowed - forced - the rest of the team to discover what they are capable of without him. And it's spared him the frustration (confidence-sapping, form-weakening, temper-cranking frustration) of having to play in the opening game or two, when the tactical approach is likely to be more cagey, the nerves rawer, and the team not yet functioning smoothly together... and hence our Wayne would be feeling under more pressure to perform, but not getting much service to enable him to do so. Hopefully, he's now fit and raring to go; and his eagerness to get involved after being kept on the leash for two games could push aside any of the big occasion nerves that may have dogged him in the past.

A blend of youth and experience
Gerrard, Terry, Cole, and Parker might be playing their last tournament for England, certainly their last European Championship. Lescott and Jagielka, finally getting a chance in central defence after years of impressive service for their clubs, are both now 29. There are a few other players who've been gradually establishing themselves in the squad over the last few years and are now in their mid-twenties - Milner, Downing, and Ashley Young (who's a bit older than I'd thought). And Wayne Rooney, who's been around forever, is still not yet 27: he should now be in his prime. Most of the rest of the squad is pretty young. Some might worry that perhaps it's a bit too young and untried (I have my doubts as to whether Phil Jones and Martin Kelly can yet be ready for international football, but they're only along as emergency cover, and with any luck they won't be needed); but, overall, I think there's a better balance in this squad than we've seen for a long time.

A non-embarassing manager
It's long been fashionable to sneer at Roy Hodgson, seemingly just because he's so unassuming, such an apparently nice and down-to-earth bloke. Well, there are persistent quibbles about his record as well: he's never achieved much with a big club, and the majority of his 36-year management career has been outside of the UK. However, he has had notable successes: kick-starting the revival of Inter Milan's fortunes in the '90s, converting Fulham from relegation strugglers into an upper half of the Premiership side, and most recently saving West Brom from the drop. He's also had previous experience of international management (not something that any other candidates for the job could claim) with Switzerland and Finland. It might well be said that the keynote of his CV has been making the best of limited resources - which is exactly the skill set the England manager needs. He's always struck me as articulate and shrewd; and I'm disappointed he didn't get the job 10 years ago.

In fact, I think he's the first England manager in my lifetime who's really inspired confidence in me. We've had far too many clearly unsuitable appointments: impossibly mild-mannered and dithery Ron Greenwood, who seemed incapable of making any tough decisions (he even rotated his goalkeepers, for gawd's sake!), long-ball guru Graham Taylor (an effective lower division manager, all at sea on the international stage), religious loony Glenn Hoddle (a sublime player, but a complete whackjob), all-heart-no-brain Kevin Keegan (possibly the only person to retire from any job ever admitting it was beyond him?), and overpromoted backroom boy Steve McLaren (a decent technical coach, but of limited tactical perspicacity). And even the ones who were up to the job were horribly flawed: Alf Ramsey was allowed to rest on his 1966 laurels for too long; Don Revie rather too readily abandoned national duty for the lure of the petro-dollar; Terry Venables was a stereotypical Cockney spiv whose dodgy business dealings were clearly going to derail his managerial career sooner or later; Sven-Goran Eriksson was dogged by tales of his philandering; and the gruff arrogance (and ultra-conservative tactics) of Fabio Capello alienated just about everyone - press, fans, and players. Even Sir Bobby Robson, our most successful manager of the modern era, wasn't that trusted or admired while he was actually in the job: our 1990 World Cup campaign got off to a very shaky start; he had been pressured by the media into calling up Gascoigne (who he seemed to feel was too unreliable), was pressured (by his players, it was rumoured) into changing his formation mid-tournament, and was widely ridiculed for bringing along the blunt instrument Steve Bull as a never-to-be-used backup for Gary Lineker. It's the legend of our heroic failure in the semi-final against Germany that has retrospectively given rise to such a rosy-tinted assessment of his tenure.

Whatever Roy Hodgson's limitations may be (and every manager has some), I believe he's the best manager we've had in a very long time, and quite possibly the best ever.

An imposing goalkeeper
Frankly, I never felt that Peter Shilton or David Seaman were amongst the world's very best keepers; but they were agile shot-stoppers and they did command respect between the sticks. We have had an agonising wait to find a worthy successor to them. England were never going to be in contention for a trophy when we had to turn to a closing-in-on-retirement and never-quite-good-enough David "Calamity" James to pull on the gloves for us. But Joe Hart is the business. He has been stupendous in the Premiership for the last three years. And he seems to emanate confidence... even when he has made a mistake. I hope I'm not going to jinx him with this praise: he did give cause for anxiety with a couple of jittery moments early on against the French on Monday; and harsher critics have berated him for failing to save Samir Nasri's zinging shot. But I'm still going to come out and say Joe Hart is one of the best keepers I've ever seen play for England. He already bears comparison with Shilton and Seaman, and could go on to prove himself even better than them. I don't think he's yet at the level of of Iker Casillas and Gianluigi Buffon - who are out-of-this-world good - but he has the potential to become so in a few more years. I think he could be vying with Germany's Manuel Neuer for the accolade of the third best keeper in the tournament. A winning team needs a very good goalkeeper as its foundation; and Joe Hart is a very good goalkeeper.

A new star in the making
We might see great things from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ashley Young or Theo Walcott, but my major hope for this tournament is young Danny Welbeck. OK, he's not the unstoppable goal machine that Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen were, even as teenagers; but with his strength and his tireless support play he perhaps offers a broader package of assets to the team overall. And he does score some fabulous goals as well. He looked very, very dangerous for Manchester Utd on occasions last season, and his superb strike in our last friendly against Belgium encourages me to believe that he could do the same for England over the coming fortnight.

I'm not sure that he's yet developed that much of an understanding with Rooney, but it could be, should be a substantial further advantage to have a striking pair from the same club. Another of our problems over the past 8 years has been that we've never been able to find an effective partner for Rooney. If that problem were to be solved, we could start winning things...

Who should we fear?
NO-ONE. That's not to say there aren't formidable teams to overcome, teams who on paper look to have much more flair, and much more strength in depth in their squads than us. But their 'superiority' is not overwhelming: we should respect them, not fear them.

The Irish, Greeks, Swedes, and Czechs are pretty hopeless. Poland and Ukraine wouldn't get anywhere without the home advantage. Denmark and Russia have shown some quality, but not nearly enough to go all the way. Holland and Portugal have shown themselves to be desperately disappointing. France and Italy have a lot of good players, but they haven't had long enough to rebuild their squads, perfect new patterns of play, and, above all, restore confidence after their absolutely dismal showings in the World Cup two years ago. Croatia are the 'wild card' (disgracefully underrated by the bookies!); they're very good, but not as good as us; and they will struggle to qualify out of their group ahead of Spain or Italy.

Spain and Germany are deservedly the tournament favourites. They have built up an aura of invincibility over the past half dozen years. However, they do have some problems, some potential vulnerabilities. 

Spain have lost a number of key players: Marco Senna, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Joan Capdevilla. Their star striker has had one of the most miserable runs of bad form in footballing history (which might not necessarily be laid to rest by a couple of goals against an AWOL Irish defence). And I've often felt that their successes have been achieved despite rather because of Vicente Del Bosque's leadership: he seems to struggle to pick the best lineup from among his overabundance of talented midfielders, to pick his best striker, or to pick a formation that will work well for the people he's picked; and his latest experiment of trying to play without a striker at all just seemed completely bonkers. If he picks a striker from now on, and it's Fernando Torres, and Torres comes back into form - then his reputation could be spectacularly vindicated. But Spain looked very, very ordinary for much of the game against Italy; for all of their pretty football, they made very few scoring chances.

Germany also haven't yet looked as dangerous as they did at the last World Cup: Ozil, Podolski, and Muller all looking quite muted thus far. It's a struggle for them to replace Miroslav Klose, who has been their principal goalscorer for a decade. Mario Gomez seems to be finding his form; but he's under an awful lot of pressure. And there doesn't seem to be much cover in the squad for that position. The Germans are also having to rebuild their central defence. And there's a danger that the squad overall may now be a bit too young: of the current starters, only Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and Podolski are over 26; most of the squad players are under 23.

Spain and Germany are going to be very dangerous opponents (as might Italy, France, and Croatia be); but no-one else in this tournament is. And the Big Two (or the Big Five) are not by any means unbeatable. We have nothing to fear.

We are one of six teams in serious contention this year. And we might just pull it off.

Haiku for the week

Cheering for a team;
Simple thrills, forgotten joy - 
Return to childhood.

Part of the very special (and rather dangerous, for someone as emotionally brittle as me) appeal of watching football on TV is that this is one of my earliest and most potent memories. More than almost anything else, more than a favourite book or film first encountered at that time of my life, more even than a heart-straining visit to my hometown, a game of footie on the box will transport me back to the sensation of being 8 or 10 years old (watching Leeds beating Arsenal in the Centenary FA Cup Final in 1972, Holland faltering against Germany in the World Cup Final in 1974). [But of course, Paul Whitehouse captured this feeling best in a classic Fast Show monologue which I've posted on here before.]

These three weeks glued to the magic and drama of the European Championships are not only physically gruelling, but emotionally a bit of an obstacle course too; these recollections of the peace and comfort of 'home', of the lost and unrecoverable world of childhood innocence, are rather too taunting at a time of such uncertainty and insecurity in my life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Favourite posts from the 1st quarter of 2011

Time for another 'best of' roundup from last year...

Pick of the Archives:
Favourite Posts, January-March 2011

1)  A Sunday poem  -  2nd January 2011
I see in the New Year with an excerpt from Eliot's Four Quartets.

2)  This country is driving me crazy  -  6th January 2011
After 17 months without a holiday, my tolerance of China is severely depleted. Here is just a small representative selection of common Chinese behaviours which can drive a foreign resident in the country MAD.

3)  Subconscious Homesick Blues  -  8th January 2011
Perhaps my favourite post of last year: a celebration of the things I'd started to miss about the land of my birth (England)... and an indirect gripe about how conspicuously absent these pleasures are in China. [This post was also notable for drawing in two of my most entertaining new commenters, Chewing Words (although she didn't stay with us for long, alas) and Cedra (who still looks in once in a while).]

4)  The weekly haiku  -  14th January 2011
Yes, in case you hadn't realised... I am ragingly bi-polar.

5)  The interconnectedness of everything  -  14th January 2011
Some reflections on the unexpected camaraderie of the blogging world (prompted, unfortunately, by a 'cyber-friend' being one of the victims of a very public tragedy).

6)  Nicely put  -  17th January 2011
One of my tedious academic editing jobs is redeemed by introducing me to this magnifcently barbed observation on the expat community in turn-of-the-century Shanghai.

7)  Imaginary conversation  -  18th January 2011
An example of how remarkably obtuse Chinese academics can be in handling sources. I found this hilarious, but I fear the point went over some people's heads.

8)  Everything happens for a reason  -  21st January 2011
Remembering two of the most inadvertently insightful Chinglish errors I have ever encountered...

9)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: The Template  -  22nd January 2011
Taking a break from the usual format of my monthly 'Fantasy Girlfriend' selections, I analyse - in some detail - what I'm looking for in an actual girlfriend.

10)  That really ought not to be a word  -  27th January 2011
For perhaps the first time in years, I discover a new word - and a fascinating concept attached to it, involving the scientific examination of why the Chinese eat so many disgusting foods.

11)  Film List - catching up...  -  29th January 2011
A recent splurge of DVD-watching enables me to offer some pocket reviews of several very fine recent - and, er, not so recent - films.

12)  Year of the Rabbit Rebellion  -  3rd February 2011
I mark the Chinese New Year with an animated 'greetings card' from Taiwan that had just started to become a huge hit on the Chinese Internet - a gruesome little satirical cartoon which predicts/incites an insurrection against the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. It will come one day, I think. [See also this interesting but unfortunate fact about rabbits, and about the Chinese word for rabbit.]

13)  Haiku for the week  -  4th February 2011
Why I hate the Chinese New Year so much...

Probably my longest ever post title, irresistibly fitting to my topic: the chronic verbosity of Chinese academics. [Here's an illustrative example.]

15)  Midweek silliness  -  16th February 2011
A musical video tribute to Star Wars composer John Williams, featuring the splendidly named Salt Lake City a capella group Moosebutter.

16)  My Fantasy Girlfriend: Judge Anderson  -  19th February 2011
Judge Dredd's lissom red-headed sidekick becomes my first cartoon 'Fantasy Girlfriend'.

17)  Disturbing neighbour(s)  -  4th March 2011
An observation from my recent holiday in Malaysia. 
[You could also check out the view from the window of my budget hotel in Kuala Lumpur.]

18)  A travel bon mot  -  7th March 2011
My first 'exotic' holiday in many years inspires this reflection on the appeal of travel.

19)  I am going to try to be a better person  -  9th March 2011
Because a visit to the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China has given me a rather too vivid foretaste of Hell.

20)  The Chinese way of doing things  -  14th March 2011
A good illustration of why it is so frustrating to try to work in China... and why I am so relieved to have got away from the country. [More job frustration here.]

21)  Salt of the Earth  -  21st March 2011
Overheard in a Chinese supermarket, during a spate of panic buying in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

22)  Film Quiz: Taglines  -  26th March 2011
An end-of-the-month quiz and an amusing video of one of the great Hollywood trailer voiceover artists - double happiness! [The answers to the quiz were posted here.]

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The spirit of adventure

Just as I was about to leave Beijing a few weeks ago, a friend of mine forwarded me an e-mail about this grand quixotic adventure. Three young Brazilians - journalist Richard Amante and his mates Edgar and Paulo Scherer - plan to drive a beat-up secondhand Santana all the way from Beijing to London.

They set out from the Olympic Green in Beijing 10 days ago, and are aiming to arrive in London on the 27th July - in time for the Opening Ceremony of the 30th Olympic Games. That means they'll be covering more than 20,000km and traversing at least 25 different countries in just 57 days. That doesn't leave an awful lot of time for sightseeing, much less any mechanical mishaps.

They are, of course, completely MAD. And I wish I was going with them.

You can follow their progress on their Olympic Expedition website.

Best of luck to you, Richard, Edgar, and Paulo!!! 
I hope to see you in London next month.

Unhappy update: Damn, I hope I didn't jinx these boys! I'd been worried when they hadn't updated their blog for a few days at the end of their first week... It turns out they ran into problems trying to get their car across the Chinese border - full sorry details here, a prime example of how maddeningly incompetent and obstructive Chinese bureaucracy can be!

They reluctantly left their car behind in Xinjiang, and are now seeking to continue their journey by whatever alternative modes of transport they can contrive... a bit of hitching, a bit of flying....

I am not in the least surprised by this turn of events, but very, very disappointed for the lads. Way to party-poop, China!!

Happier update: Well, I'm glad to see the lads made it to London on schedule. And they seem to have had a lot of fun along the way, despite that unfortunate early setback.