Saturday, January 30, 2016

Oxford banana skin avoided, Banana Tree enjoyed

Sometimes it can be better to travel than to arrive. 

Not today. 

Dressed as I was for a hike up the north face of the Eiger, the Cross Country train to Oxford was crowded, hot and claustrophobic. The bus trip along Cowley Road to the Kassam Stadium was tortuous and slow. Same after the match and so we missed our direct train home, the bonus being a pit stop at the awesome Birmingham New Street station. Truly jaw dropping to have transformed a space that was once, and so recently, so ugly.

None of that matters though. Hooking up with a couple of pals, me and Louis had a delicious Indo-Chinese lunch at the Banana Tree, another of these well executed mini-chains themed restaurants that burst out of London at a fair old rate, and a mooch around Oxford. Bustling, prosperous and steeped in history we enjoyed our amble. We laughed as we crawled along Cowley Road, the student strip, where David Cameron once lived and we spotted a bar called The Bullingdon, though not one called the Roasted Hog. 

And the match was great. We've hailed far too many false dawns over the last few years, but this was a high, because the expectations were so low.

The full house of Cup Giant Killing Cliche Bingo was lit up. Ex manager Michael Appleton in Oxford's dugout, alongside him Rovers legend Derek Fazackerley, low morale at Rovers, the loss of Jordan Rhodes, a team full of new faces. What could possibly go right?
To be fair, it all did. Of the new faces Tony Watt will be pleased with a debut goal. Simeon Jackson was a handful for the home defence all afternoon. But for me Elliot Ward stood out as the strongest starter. Solid, commanding and intelligent. All the attributes we lack in abundance.

It's always an added pleasure to watch football in a full stadium. Full in the sense that all three stands were fully occupied, odd in that one end isn't finished ("shall we build a stand for you?").

Another of the official 92 notched up, reinstating Oxford makes it ground number 69 and the 142nd stadium I've watched football on. Hoping for Shrewsbury or Peterborough away in the next round.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hinterland - Nordic Noir Welsh style

I haven't found the time to lose myself in Nordic noir, though I have little doubt that I'd like it. The closest I've got has been the raw and aching melancholy of Hinterland, the Welsh contribution to this particular televisual challenge.

The bilingual BBC Wales version appeared on iPlayer last week and I have just binge watched the second series over the weekend. As has been widely reported, the series is shot in both the Welsh and English languages. Even though we don't learn too much of the professional career story of the central character of detective Tom Mathias, played by Richard Harrington, in this hybrid version he doesn't speak any Welsh but his colleagues do when he's not around and to members of the public. I'd have felt let down if it had all been English.

The light, the tone, and the landscape make it an unforgettable and distinctive visual spectacle, like absolutely nothing else on British TV. The understated brooding intensity of the characters hint at new layers of mystery and the bitter hurt of a hard life. The particular pain of Mathias as he battles demons and unbearable pressure make it a sometimes unsettling viewing experience, but his flaws are far outweighed by his powerful moral instincts and the sometimes extraordinary lengths he goes to in order to champion the bullied, the excluded and the victims.

Every character reveals more of themselves as the episodes roll on. The detectives Elis and Owens with their recent losses, community ties and hints at minor complications of growing up in the community you serve and protect offer more as we go on. And it is a drama about how police people proceed with life, not a police procedural drama. I don't think I've seen anyone being arrested, just questioned. Using the scarce time to get to the point of the drama, the conflict, the clash and the pressure points.

There are deficiencies. Anytime the police go to interview someone in a murder case, if the relative, neighbour, or witness, carries on insolently doing their work, they've usually got something to hide. It's something I first noticed in Broadchurch, but partly due to the prevalence of dirty industrial trades it's even more in your face in the harsh demanding terrain of west Wales.

Is there a more unhelpful chief of police than CS Prosser, the most senior copper in Aberystwyth? Embedded almost certainly corruptly in his community he offers no insights, just warnings. Everything is conditional, but what does he actually do except stare out of a window and narrow his eyes?

There's also a recurring character in the second series called Euan Thomas, who I have completely forgotten about. He was in the first episode, but I can't recall him. That can't be right. It's possibly a symptom of the tightness, the closeness of the whole enterprise that it is hung together by a master plan, it will come together again. But while this may stand the test of time and make for an impressive body of work to be consumed in one weekend, I'm going back more than a year and I'm too old and busy to retain detail.

But that's not vital, not really. This is an ambitious production made for the people of forgotten rural Wales. And it is the people and their stories who provide the living backdrop to Hinterland that make it so unique and special. Blokes struggling to keep a bus company going, boatbuilders, farmers, mechanics. Often working amidst struggle and grime with broken down machinery, cracked Windows and peeling paint. These are the people who are often invisible from literature and television, but here they are presented in a way that understands them, without patronising or by passing comment.

This is a brave and demanding piece of television that promises more and hints at a journey to a place you aren't really sure you want to go to.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Leavers pies and that losing feeling, a flat Saturday at Rovers

We have our rituals at the football. Sometimes they are thrown off course by delays on the way, our favourite parking spot is full, people we speak to at the front before the game aren't there, or Leavers of Bolton Road run out of pies.

It was the pies that disrupted my match day flow on Saturday. Possibly because Brighton have the kind of following that seeks out tips from fanzines and websites about local culture and flavours of the match day experience. Or maybe it was just cold. 

We have a new match day ritual now though. Groaning and booing at the final whistle. Not an angry, splenetic anti-Steve Kean boo, not a we-was-robbed boo, just a moribund and depressed woeful cry kind of boo. There was nothing to cheer on Saturday, it was awful. And cold.

There is no optimism, no feeling being transmitted back from the players that there is a plan that will come together. Nothing. None of the new faces shone. The fear to turn an opponent in midfield is palpable. The backwards option always preferred to taking a risk. It's not a lack of effort either, just a lack of belief and a team seemingly bereft of any quality to win a game in the Championship. And bizarrely the player I suspected would get man of the match did. The much mocked Chris Brown. Not because he was any good, he fell on his backside a lot. He challenged for balls, but he's not a footballer at this level, God bless him. 

Rhodes on the other hand has been found out. He holds no fear for opposition defenders. The others fit into four categories - they are good enough in a poor performing team (Hanley and Steele), they aren't as good as they seem to think they are (Akpan, Marshall), are of League One quality (Spurr, Kilgallon, Brown) or they've just fallen apart (Conway and Rhodes). It's too early to judge the new signings and debutants.

On the radio after the game I thought Lambert seemed confused rather than angry or deluded. His next couple of weeks are going to be crucial, but we need to restore that winning ritual pretty quickly. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The reading pile 2016

This is the current reading pile. A fair old mix of politics, sociology, power, football and religion. Apart from the Tintin collection, I've not looked at many graphics novels, but the Walking Dead has become a ripe old obsession. 

Two of the pile are library books which are due back - the book on the English which I needed for a chapter I was writing for a forthcoming collection. The other is Stephen Dorrill's incredibly detailed history of British fascism, which has been fascinating and rich in direct accounts.

I've got slightly more than a passing interest in three of the books here. My friend Richard Pennystan has produced a deeply personal account of his relationship with God. As an Anglican vicar he also has a few things to say about "hollow religion" which I enjoyed discussing with him at the launch. James Bentley has written about Bury's 1984-1985 team in the Forgotten Fifteen and I was proud to be asked to contribute some observations. I've read Peter Mandelson's The Third Man before, but this is a copy he gave me and signed. Now that we're working together at Manchester Metropolitan University it's good to be familiar with his stories and experiences and to have that to hand.

Tucked in there is the bumper edition of Monocle, the world's greatest magazine. Still setting the pace.

I'll let you know how I get on with these and hope to finish them all, but as ever I've got distracted by a late entrant, this time it's Free Agent by Jeremy Duns.


Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie's Life on Mars in Lars von Trier's Breaking The Waves



It is almost 20 years since I sat, tears streaming down my cheeks towards the end of one of the most raw, devastating and emotionally draining films I've ever seen. Then, at a crucial crux in the film's harrowing conclusion came this. Life on Mars by David Bowie, written in 1971. Genius.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Rain stops play in Wales - not an entirely wasted day

It was meant to be ground number 69 out of the current 92 on my quest to visit every ground. It would have been the 142nd stadium in which I'd watched competitive senior footbal

But it rained in Newport. It rained and rained and rained. And then it rained so much that with just 45 minutes to go before kick off (picture above from the Lancs Telegraph). We didn't even get chance to look around at the ground, its aesthetics, the layout of the stadium. No, we weren't able to do any of that as it was just chucking it down. Don't even know if we'll get refund on the tickets. There is no chance of getting down for the re-arranged date, unless it gets kicked along the road until the next available Saturday.

But to be reflective for a moment, it wasn't an entirely wasted day. I spent the day with my Rovers supporting sons. I wrote about the importance of this in this piece for Sabotage Times here. We played cards on the train, we had lunch in their favourite chicken shop and I caught up with a couple of pals on the train down there who I hadn't seen for a while.  But it was a lot of money and a lot of time to spend for a Nando's. We thought about doing something else with our day in Newport, but opted to jump on the first train home instead and enjoy an evening at home with the other people we love.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Rovers at Bolton, hopeless, clueless and ripe for a shakedown

Help me out here. Bolton Wanderers must be the unluckiest team in the division. Bust, bottom of the league, manager up to his neck in a sordid scandal, two days after getting thrashed 4-0 by Rotherham where the fans turned on the team, they have to face Paul Lambert's resurgent Rovers, who were spared a testing Boxing Day clash against Middlesbrough because of the weather, and were therefore fresher and injury free.

Why then have I just seen that excuse for a performance at Bolton just now?

I heard reports that Blackburn Rovers were pretty hopeless at Reading, but this was as bad as I've seen them this season.

It wasn't just the defeat, and it wasn't for lack of effort, it was the sheer incompetence that was so frustrating. Watching from a high position behind the goal the movement and positioning and passing was just dreadful. Jason Steele in goal punting a long kick straight at Bolton's centre backs while Rhodes and Koita lingered thirty yards away. Koita was hopeless, Akpan all over the place, Henley lightweight, Olsson missing, Marshall just lacking in basic footballing awareness. Worse though, never have I seen Jordan Rhodes so out of sorts. If the usual transfer window circus sees big money being offered for him in January, then snap their hands off. They won't have a riot on their hands, not on this showing.

Even when we were winning a few games Paul Lambert wasn't getting carried away. He said there was work to be done. Now we know quite how much. Forget the play-offs, there's a rebuilding job to be done here.