Hooked to the silver screen # 2 – 50 years of 007

Please note that for anyone intending to watch ‘Skyfall’, there are some serious spoilers herein…….

Being a fan of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies is one thing, but being a compulsive James Bond watcher is an obsession on a whole different level.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film – ‘Dr No’ – and this year’s Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’ is the 25th film to be  based on the Bond character, though the last of Ian Fleming’s original Bond stories was published in 1966 and the last movie to have any vague connection with the Fleming era was 1983’s ‘Octopussy’. 

Leaving aside the 1967  spoof version of ‘Casino Royale’, 007 has been portrayed by 6 different actors and despite huge variations in style and quality, most of the Bond movies have done seriously good business at the Box Office.

Everyone has their favourite James Bond and to some extent which Bond you favour seems to revolve around your age-group.  For old gits like me, the only Bond worthy of his ‘double-oh prefix’ is the original Bond, Sean Connery; everyone else is strictly second best compared to the SNP’s biggest fan.  Younger folk may prefer Roger Moore and his elevating eyebrows or Pierce Brosnan’s urbane charmer, whilst the Princess is a big fan of the current incumbent, Daniel Craig.

Still, whichever Bond leaves you shaken not stirred, it’s almost impossible not to notice the massive shift between the worlds inhabited by Sean Connery’s Bond and Daniel Craig’s latest version.

To prime myself for ‘Skyfall’, I ventured down into the LTSN Vaults to locate and view (for the first time in at least 20 years)  a copy of 1962’s ‘Dr No’, the original template for all that has followed since.  The story concerns your average megalomaniac, the eponymous Doc of the title,  half German & half Chinese, who is messing with radioactivity and radio waves on a small island just off the Jamaican coast.  His aim is to destabilise American rockets launching from Cape Canaveral but he soon finds himself under the scrutiny of the local British MI6 station.  Once he eliminates them, Bond is soon on the plane to Kingston.

When we first encounter Bond, it is in some high-stakes gambling club in London.  He is wearing a tuxedo,  smoking cigarettes from a  silver case and flirting across the chemin-de-fer  table with a striking brunette.  All the flunkies at the club treat him with the utmost deference and as he is summoned for a briefing with ‘M’,  the brunette can barely conceal her frustration –  Bond’s  status as a sophisticated denizen of London’s night-life is clearly established.

Sean Connery

On his way in to see ‘M’ he flirts again, this time with Miss Moneypenny, but it’s all business with Bernard Lee’s ‘M’, looking the epitome of the overworked civil servant and barely able to conceal his irritation with Bond’s maverick lifestyle.  As if to emphasise this, he calls in the ‘Armourer’ and forces Bond to swap his favoured (but  effete)  Beretta pistol for a brutal but businesslike Walther PPK – and is not fooled by Bond’s sleight of hand as he attempts to leave with the Beretta as well.

Once in Jamaica, Bond looks hot and bothered but still manages to repel no less than 3 attempts to kill him before he shrugs off his Savile Row threads for some funky beachwear and heads out to Crab Key to deal with the Bad Doctor.

Here the movie shows its age, especially in the way it deals with the character of Quarrel, a local fisherman who Bond pays to take him out to Crab Key.  Played by John Kitzmiller, the Quarrel of the ‘Dr No‘ movie is the worst kind of black stereotype.  He is  not particularly bright,  he’s rather superstitious and is also overfond of rum.  He rolls his eyes, refers to Bond as ‘Cap’n’ (might just as well have been ‘Massa’) and meets a grisly end when he is incinerated by a flame-thrower.   In the book, by contrast,  Quarrel has been Bond’s friend for several years, having trained him to swim long distances underwater and deal with potentially hostile sea creatures in the pages of ‘Live & Let Die’ – a novel which preceded ‘Dr No’ whereas the ‘Live & Let Die’ movie wouldn’t appear until 1973.  Ian Fleming may not have been the most enlightened of English colonialists, but he would surely have recoiled at the crude stereotype of Quarrel in this movie.

The best-remembered scene from ‘Dr No’ is undoubtedly the point where Bond encounters the shell-hunting Honeychile Rider, who emerges from the sea like a Teutonic goddess in a white bikini.   As Honeychile’s name might suggest,  in the novel she has strong links to Jamaica’s past and far from being the blonde bombshell of the movie, was in all probability partially Jamaican (creole).  Even so, it was the Swiss-German Andress who went down in movie folklore; the irony being that her English accent was so heavily Germanic that her lines were over-dubbed by another actress.

Ursula & Sean

So much for ‘Dr No’; the rest of the movie follows a predictable course.  After Quarrel’s death, Bond & Honeychile are captured and taken to Dr No’s elegant underground complex with hot & cold running everything and all mod cons.  The Doctor and Bond do some verbal jousting after which Bond is beaten up and locked up whilst the evil Doc prepares to destabilise another US rocket.  The technology of the ‘control room’ is quite hilarious – rather like something Gerry Anderson might have cooked up for ‘Thunderbirds’;  lots of big dials and goldfish bowl helmets.  In the end, of course, Bond escapes, frees Honey, destroys the control room and kills Dr No, escaping just before the whole complex goes up like a two-bob (nuclear) rocket.  The two survivors float off across the Caribbean with no fear of fall-out and consummate their relationship in the bottom of a sailing dinghy.  For 1962, it was probably pretty revolutionary stuff.

So what do we learn about the world through James Bond’s steely blue eyes?    We learn that it’s cool to travel the world (which not many Brits did in 1962)  and to be a British secret agent at the end of the colonial era.  We learn that women, like cigarettes and alcohol, are a resource to be consumed.   We learn that native Jamaicans,  if handled properly, will show you the utmost deference that is the Master’s due.  We learn that having a taste for obscure cocktails and knowing a little about wine is an instant sign of sophistication.  We learn that even the mighty USA has to play second fiddle when 007 is in town.  We learn that showing emotion is a weakness and that there comes a point where the talking has to stop and brutal force must have its day.  Bond sails through the corridors of Whitehall and the plantation club culture of pre-independence Jamaica like a man who is utterly certain of his place and the place of his country in the scheme of things.  He is one of the good guys and the bad guys like Dr No are just out there waiting for him to take them down.

Jump forward 50 years to ‘Skyfall’ , the latest Bond adventure to take to the big screen.  As has become customary with recent Bond films, everything kicks off  with a spectacular set piece. Daniel Craig’s 007 is in Istanbul, attempting to track down a computer disk  – carelessly mislaid by ‘M’ – which contains the names of every Western agent working under cover in any one of the world’s hotspots.  Bond arrives just too late to prevent the wholesale slaughter of a roomful of friendly agents and the theft of the disk.   He is then  driven by Naomie Harris at high speed through the narrow streets of the old city, before continuing the chase by motorbike across the roof tops of the Grand Bazaar and ultimately on the roof of a passenger train.  Finally, Harris, in contact with ‘M’ by radio, unwittingly shoots Bond and the villain escapes.

Daniel Craig;Judi Dench

Craig, Dench and Aston Martin in the background – old technology

Just this 10 minute sequence is worthy of a little closer attention, showing, as it does, that things have changed greatly for 007 since that Pan American jet from Miami touched down in Kingston back at the start of ‘Dr No’.  For one thing, Craig’s Bond is never in control in the way that Connery usually was –  he is playing catch-up from the very beginning.

As for technology, this is something that Bond movies have always embraced,   both in terms of the way they were shot and in terms of plot devices – cameras follow the speeding motorbikes, swooping across the roof of the Grand Bazaar in a series of breathtaking tracking shots – the Connery-era movies look very static by comparison.  Within the plot,  Dr No’s radio beams and Goldfinger’s lasers have now become ‘Skyfall’s ‘ hard drives and GPS trackers and suchlike.  Perhaps the only surprise about ‘Skyfall’ is that it isn’t in 3D, though that will presumably come.

skyfall istanbul rooftops

‘Skyfall’ – the opening chase sequence across the Istanbul rooftops

The next thing is that Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is the driver of a souped-up Land Rover that hurtles through the Istanbul streets in pursuit of the bad guys. Despite a fairly obvious joke about her driving when she shaves a corner a bit too closely, Harris is about as far from her 1962 counterpart as it’s possible to get. Not only does she drive at high speed through crowded streets and use firearms, perhaps most tellingly of all, she is black.  Wonder what Quarrel would have made of that?  It’s pretty much for certain that Connery’s Bond wouldn’t have coped with it at all; in his world, women were either maternal or seductresses and black women were usually maids or housekeepers.

Poor James.  he has had to adapt his dinosaur ways to a vastly different world – even at work, things are changing;  the reassuringly gruff and headmasterly  Bernard Lee has long since been replaced by Judi Dench – a woman as ‘M’! What is the world coming to?  And ‘Q’, the armourer/quartermaster – initially played as an old buffer by the genial Desmond Llewellyn, who then handed over to the noticeably more eccentric John Cleese –  is now a mere youth (Ben Whishaw) who barely looks old enough to shave and seems to deal more easily with computers than he does with human beings.

Skyfall Q

Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ – definitely new technology

The issue for Bond as he recuperates from his Istanbul outing in some anonymous eastern beach resort (rather like Jason Bourne in Goa at the start of ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ ) is of course ‘M’.  She is the mother figure for whom he harbours both love and hate – something that she reciprocates.  Bond catches a TV news report giving details of an explosion at MI6 HQ and knows that he must return to rescue ‘M’ from another of her former protegés,  Silva (Javier Bardem), who is the real villain of the piece.  He has started to publish names of some of the agents from the missing hard drive on the internet (with fatal results for them)  in an attempt to discredit ‘M’ who betrayed him to the Chinese years beforehand.  He also stages the explosion which kills a number of MI6 employees.

Bond returns to find things in a chaotic state with ‘M’ under growing pressure to step down and the subject of parliamentary enquiries.   She even addresses the Parliamentary Select Committee with a few mouthfuls of Churchillian rhetoric – “Ask yourself; ‘How safe do I feel?'”  Bond, meanwhile, is subjected to a series of physical and mental tests to determine whether or not he is fit enough to resume active service and fails most of them but is cleared by Mummy ‘M’ to take up the 007 mantle yet again.

skyfall craig bardem

Craig and Bardem get up close & personal in ‘Skyfall’

Connery’s Bond would have found this battered, flawed, post-modernist 007 a very difficult pill to swallow.  The certainties of 60’s ‘realpolitik’ when we knew who the good guys were and who the baddies were have all disappeared for Daniel Craig’s Bond.  Silva is a maverick villain who has sprung from the very service that Bond represents, rather than being some doctrinaire Commie from  the Soviet or the Chinese bloc.  Also, the confrontational scene between Bond & Silva where Silva comes on to 007 would have reduced Connery’s Bond to apoplexy.  Craig just takes it in his stride – and maybe, just maybe it isn’t his first time….

With  Judi Dench’s ‘M’ fatally injured in ‘Skyfall’s’ climactic shoot-out and his Aston Martin similarly blown to smithereens, it might be tempting to see Bond as a relic for whom time has finally run out, yet at the movie’s end, 007 is up on the roof again, brooding over London’s skyline like some crabby guardian angel.

Skyfall

Moneypenny – who has given up field work after her Istanbul experiences – comes up to retrieve Bond and take him down for his appointment with Ralph Fiennes, the new ‘M’, who promptly asks whether 007 is ready to go back to work.  The franchise must go on…..

Hooked to the silver screen – back to Middle Earth

Having spent many years of late hardly visiting the cinema at all,  I have recently gone through a positive orgy of movie-watching.  Some might conclude from this that I have rediscovered my movie mojo and have finally tired of watching stuff on DVD or via scabby internet downloads.

However, there is another more plausible explanation and that involves the enduring appeal of a number of movie ‘franchises’, all of which – spookily –  seem to have invaded local multiplexes just in time for Christmas.   Who would have thunk it?   And, like a moth drawn to a flame, I have ventured out into the city to catch up with the latest exploits of two very different heroes – one standing about 3 foot 6 inches tall, with curly hair and furry feet, the other a gaunt and haunted relic of a United Kingdom that has long since disappeared.  I have also managed to catch up with ‘The Guardian’s  Movie of the Year, but that’s another story…..

Let’s start with hobbits.  Peter Jackson’s ongoing exploits with characters made famous by the late J.R.R. Tolkien have now brought him to ‘The Hobbit’, the slight and whimsical children’s tale that serves as a precursor to the more adult concerns of the ensuing ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Many people wondered how Jackson would cope with  ‘The Hobbit’, a slim volume detailing the adventures of Bilbo Baggins in earlier, simpler days  when ‘quests’ were just ‘adventures’ and a magic ring was nothing more than a device for concealing oneself from prying eyes.

The answer is that he has seemingly re-invented it as another movie trilogy, the first part of which – ‘An Unexpected Journey’ – has just opened in cinemas worldwide.  The second part – ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ – will follow next December and the final part – ‘There and back again’  – in the summer of 2014.

‘An Unexpected Journey’ has been released in 3D; a flavour whose month seems to have been going on for a couple of years now.  Having begun with ‘Avatar’, my enthusiasm for 3D has decreased exponentially. To be quite candid, I have yet to see a movie that is seriously enhanced by its use.  IMAX screens are a different kettle of widescreen fish, however and having recently seen and been duly gobsmacked by  ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ at my local IMAX,  I was quick to book the entire household in to see ‘An Unexpected Journey’  at the same venue.  Some types of movie are definitely improved by being viewed on these giant screens and Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies certainly fit that bill.

Bilbo & Gandalf

Bilbo and Gandalf  at Bag End

But that wasn’t the full story by any means;  the cunning local  IMAX entrepreneurs hit on a pre – ‘Hobbit’   stratagem that probably qualifies everyone in this house for some kind of psychiatric evaluation.  They emailed me to say that they were screening all 3 of Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies on their big screen and in their extended versions in the week prior to the arrival of ‘An Unexpected Journey’.  We were like putty in their hands and booked ourselves in immediately for a ‘Hobbit-athon’ of truly epic proportions.  Thus, on successive nights we spent 3.5 hours,  then 4 hours and finally 4.5 hours journeying to and from The Shire in company with the Fellowship.  A kind of fellowship emerged in the theatre as well; we would see the same couple of dozen faces each night and there would be vague, amused nods of semi-recognition – the acknowledgement of one obsessive for another.  Of course, the movies in their elongated versions looked magnificent on the giant screen and we were well & truly primed for Saturday night and the main event.

So, let me say first of all that I really enjoyed ‘ An Unexpected Journey’, though not without certain caveats.  First and foremost, it should be said that 3D is totally unnecessary for this film.  I could have watched it in standard format and been just as happy.  The film has many positives; Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis and Hugo Weaving all return to great effect – in fact the scenes with Serkis’ Gollum and Martin Freeman’s Bilbo are probably the strongest in the entire film.  The film, like its predecessors, is beautifully dressed and the photography again makes the best of the New Zealand locations.

Gollum

Andy Serkis returns as Gollum – as bipolar as ever….

Of the new elements, Martin Freeman makes a splendid ‘young’ Bilbo Baggins, through whose eyes we experience these new Middle Earth adventures.   However, Peter Jackson and his writers struggle – as anybody would – to familiarise us with no less than 13 dwarves, whose effect for much of the film’s length is purely comedic in nature. Richard Armitage’s Thorin would probably be the exception here – he cuts a most undwarvish figure for most of the movie.  Otherwise, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner stand out from the crowd, but the others, frankly. seem to be there only to make up the numbers.

Apart from the orcs of the ‘Goblin City’, the travelling party have a new and powerful enemy in Azog the Orc, who is big and evil but more like a character from ‘Shrek’ when compared to the Uruk-Hai.  Sorry, just nowhere near as scary as Saruman’s Uruks.

Azog

Azog the Orc attacks – but he’s no Uruk-Hai….

The source material for ‘An Unexpected Journey’  does offer some real dilemmas – the encounter with the 3 trolls would be typical – where the tone  fluctuates between the whimsical comedy of the original text and the far more serious ‘back story’ of  Sauron and the  truly evil elements of Middle Earth.  Jackson’s three trolls are like giant caricatures of the Warwickshire farm labourers Tolkien would probably have encountered as a child whilst living at Sarehole Mill, to the extent that they rejoice in names like Tom,  Bert and Bill.   Having ‘petrified’  the trolls with sunlight, Gandalf then confides that something evil must be happening to drive trolls down from the mountains.  Similarly, the Goblin King, as voiced by Barry Humphries, is somehow a far less threatening character than the Moria orcs or Uruk-Hai of the ‘Rings’ movies.   In fact, the whole ‘Goblin City’ with its chase scenes along  elevated walkways  is more like something from a computer game than  the equivalent scenes from the novel.

So, not all of ‘An Unexpected Journey’ works and there are some fundamental reasons behind that.  In expanding the story of ‘The Hobbit’ to a trilogy of circa 3-hour movies, Peter Jackson now faces a challenge that is the complete antithesis of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – there, he had to make some tough choices about what to leave out; so, no ‘Scouring of the Shire’, no Tom Bombadil etc. etc.  Here he must inflate the available material to fill the screen time and cover aspects of  Middle Earth’s history that  played no part in the original text of ‘The Hobbit’.  Whilst I am sure that he will manage it eventually, he’s not going to get everything right.  The next movie will bring further challenges – for example, how to integrate the expanding repertory of Brit character actors – to James Nesbitt and Sylvester McCoy, we will soon be able to add Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as welcoming back Orlando Bloom’s Legolas.  Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into one of those dreadful movies  like ‘The Towering Inferno‘  filled with celebrity vignettes of little worth.  Whatever the case, Jackson doesn’t seem to have  had any problem so far in expanding the running time – ‘An Unexpected Journey’ weighs in at a hefty 169 minutes and there is plenty to suggest that the second and third films in the cycle will be of an equivalent length.

Watching The Staves @ The Hare & Hounds, Birmingham 28 November 2012

Catch ’em while they’re hot, as they say….and having recently been on the Jools Holland TV show, The Staves are about as hot as a trio of close harmony singing sisters from Watford can get.

I’d already seen them at the 2011 Moseley Folk Festival in what must have been a very early gig for them and they held the attention of the mid-afternoon crowd with the  quality of their singing and their material .  So, when they showed up at a local watering hole, it seemed rude not to go, really.  As a pub, The Hare & Hounds has little to recommend it, but the larger upstairs music room is excellent, with a high stage permitting decent sightlines from anywhere and good acoustics as well.

The Staves Portrait

The Staves – wonderful singers with an air of faded innocence

Things have moved on at a smartish lick for the Staveley-Taylor sisters since I last saw them.  Apart from the Jools Holland thing – which seems to have galvanised their career in a similar fashion to The Civil Wars last year – they have toured the UK a couple of times,  then toured in the USA with Bon Iver,  played support to them in front of thousands at Wembley Arena and released their first album,   ‘Dead & Born & Grown‘ (produced by eminence grise  Glyn Johns and his son, Ethan) in October.

The portents are promising for Camilla, Jessica and  Emily, who seem every bit as nice as those names would suggest.  Their Watford origins are clearly important to them and they come across with that heady mixture of Home Counties posh with a smidgeon of North London streetwise; the first comment from Emily after they came on stage was ‘Bugger me, it’s hot in here!’, but she said it ever so politely……

Hot, it certainly was, like a sauna, frankly – and packed as well.  As a former smoker I knew that there was an exit at the back of the room where folk could slip out for a crafty ciggy so I headed back there, reasoning there would be some kind of relieving smoky breeze wafting through from time to time.  Also, I knew that the room at the H&H is small enough that you get a good view and reasonable sound from pretty much everywhere.

And so it proved.  The Staves seemed genuinely puzzled by the fact that people actually shut up and listened to their songs, only making appreciative noises (with –  distressingly – some of that awful transatlantic whooping) between songs.  I guess it’s possible  that they have been playing some real toilets on this tour with audiences who just talk over the band.  Not in Kings Heath; people were there to hear the girls sing and how they obliged…

Staves on Stage

The Staves on stage

I think pretty much everything they did was from the marvellous new album and they seemed able to reproduce those fiendishly complex harmonies without any apparent stress – a wonder to behold.  You have the feeling that bigger challenges and more complex times lie ahead for these girls if they are to retain that sense of slightly faded innocence that characterises much of their output and also their approach to performance.  Catch ’em whilst they’re hot, but also before they lose the free-wheeling charm that makes them so special.

50 years of ‘Lawrence’ – plus an Intermission

My favourite movie – David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘ – celebrates its 50th birthday this year and is enjoying a limited cinema release with a new digital print by way of commemorating this anniversary.

I can still recall my Dad taking me to our local ‘fleapit’ on Wellingborough Road to see ‘Lawrence’ when it first came out.  I had only the vaguest idea who T.E. Lawrence was (or had been) but even at a very tender age, I was captivated, both by Peter O’ Toole’s astonishing turn as the eponymous, troubled hero as well as the wide-screen landscapes of the desert which are a substantial part of the movie’s unique signature.

Since that first ‘sighting’ of Lawrence on the big screen, I have, like many Englishmen of a certain age, become embroiled with the whole mythology of the man’s life.  I have read Lawrence’s  own books and many other books written about him, I have visited his cottage at Clouds Hill and his grave at Moreton and have already written about him on this blog, here:

The enduring impact of T.E.Lawrence…..

in February of 2010.

David Lean directs  a smiling Peter O’Toole somewhere in the Jordanian desert

Lawrence ‘s  ‘enduring impact’ has, of course, been substantially enhanced by  David Lean’s wonderful film but also, in my view, has something to do with this country’s post-Imperial status and the way in which we, as a nation have dealt with that.   Lawrence almost became a poster boy for a dysfunctional, crumbling Empire; emotionally conflicted and battered by circumstance, whilst retaining a certain fundamental English decency.  His fury and bafflement at the slings and arrows of the politicians,  the diplomats and the media somehow echoed the frustrations of thousands of ordinary servicemen and women who felt that they had fought in  (one or both of) the war to end all wars and if they were supposed to have won it, why did they so often feel as though they’d lost it?  For the story of a detached and reserved Oxford academic’s adventures in the deserts of Arabia to capture the imagination of so many ordinary British people is little short of extraordinary.

At the outset 0f the movie , in Cairo, O’Toole plays Lawrence as the Army misfit with his distracted manner and awkward exchanges with colleagues and  superiors.  He seems to inhabit, rather than wear his ill-fitting uniforms and is regarded with suspicion and ill-concealed irritation by his superiors.  In his first foray north-eastwards from Yenbo to meet up with Prince Feisal’s irregulars, he sits awkwardly on his camel and only as he gradually adopts local attire and becomes more comfortable with his life among the Bedouin does he seem more at ease.  In fact, only once in the film, after the fall of Akaba, whilst being interviewed by George Kennedy’s American journalist, does he ever really seem at peace with his role as the arbiter of the Desert Revolt.  The rest of the time he seems to veer from self-doubt and self-loathing to manic over-confidence and reckless humour.  It’s a tour de force performance and one from which O’Toole’s career never really recovered;  subsequently,  most people saw those vivid blue eyes and just remembered Lawrence.

Omar Sharif makes his unforgettable entrance……

Despite this ‘tour de force’ , after nearly 4 hours –   3 hours & 45 minutes plus a 10-minute intermission – we are  in many respects none the wiser about Lawrence’s motives;  – patriot or romantic?  pragmatist or accidental hero?  man of action or poetic dreamer?

And there are more questions about him…..  Away from the  War and the politics, there has been continuing speculation in this prurient age about Lawrence’s sexuality.  In 1962,  Lean was unable to tell what he thought was the full story of Lawrence’s capture and imprisonment in Deraa,  though the movie hints that Miguel Ferrer’s Turkish officer sexually assaults  Lawrence and he himself suggests this in his book, ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.  Yet again, we are forced to observe that so much of Lawrence’s story is untold and despite this movie and all the other books and documentaries and press articles, the man remains the proverbial enigma, elusive,  shrouded in mystery and so on.

Within the movie, Lean’s visual strategies often hint at this – Lawrence the public figure is often seen backlit atop a train carriage or in silhouette,  as a shadow or as a muffled figure, wrapped in his keffiyeh.  At the very end of the film, with Lawrence on his way to take ship to England, he’s back in Army khakis and being driven by an NCO in a jeep.  They pass a group of Bedouin who are returning to the desert.  Lawrence rises as if to salute them, but they do not recognise him.  He sits down again and (prophetically) a motorbike overtakes them – part of the extended ‘journey’ metaphors with which David Lean bedecks the movie.   Lawrence stares ahead – a man who is part of 2 very different worlds but not altogether at home in either of them.   Here in the very final frames of a 4-hour film, the hero remains  both obscure and obscured due to the fly-spattered, dusty windshield of an Army jeep.

We  cannot really see his face.  What do we actually know about him?

The official publicity materials for the movie tended to reinforce this approach – Lawrence’s face is similarly shrouded here……who was that masked man?

Without wishing to demean the efforts of a superb supporting cast – Anthony Quinn and Jack Hawkins were particularly effective – the other undoubted star of Lean’s movie is,  of course, the desert itself.  Some parts of the film were filmed in Morocco and Spain, but the most dramatic sequences were filmed in Jordan, particularly in the spectacular landscapes of Wadi Rum.  Seen on a super-large IMAX screen, these scenes are even more overwhelming and demonstrate a crisp, compositional flavour that just makes today’s CGI  epics look  flat and one-dimensional by comparison.  For all that it is 50 years old, ‘Lawrence’ has worn pretty well and for me it was a joy to see the film on an even larger screen than the one where I saw it originally.

 Some autographed publicity stills with Peter O’Toole and  Anthony Quinn as the larger-than-life Auda

 However,  the opportunity to see such a classic movie as it was meant to be seen does not seem to have transferred overmuch to a younger generation of fans. There was no more than a sprinkling of takers for this showing and most of them were as old, if not older than myself.  In the car park outside, we met some friends who were on their way in to see the latest James Bond movie – 007, of course,  being a character at least partly inspired by Lawrence.  Sadly, I suspect that box office business would have been somewhat brisker for Bond than it was for Lawrence.  Whether or not people will still be turning out to watch ‘Skyfall’  in 2062, however, is rather less likely.

Wayne Shorter Quartet @ Birmingham Town Hall, 01 November 2012

Been mulling this one over for nearly a fortnight now, not really knowing what to say.  Wayne Shorter is clearly a major name in postwar jazz, having contrived to be in the right place at the right time in terms of being a member of three hugely influential bands – Art Blakey’s  Jazz Messengers, the mid-60’s Miles Davis Quintet and the peerless Weather Report.  This would probably be my fifth or sixth encounter with Mr Shorter in a live context and I have to say that, like each of the previous encounters, this one left me disappointed in some ways, though this time, I think we can excuse him to a large extent.

Wayne Shorter 

Shorter’s recorded legacy up to the dissolution of Weather Report in the late 1980’s is pretty impressive.  Musical partners like Blakey,  Miles and Zawinul always seemed to be able to get the best out of him in the studio and apart from his work with them, there was an impressive run of solo albums with Blue Note, beginning with 1964’s ‘Night Dreamer’ .

Once Weather Report got going around the end of the 60’s,  Shorter  initially seemed an equal partner with Joe Zawinul and they survived a rotating slate of drummers and bassists through the mid-70’s before apparently settling on the ‘classic’ line-up with the extraordinary Jaco Pastorius on bass and the marvellous Peter Erskine on drums towards the end of that decade.

From that point, it seemed to be Jaco who took on the role of Joe Zawinul’s sparring partner in the band and in a succession of Weather Report gigs I attended through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s,  it was noticeable that Wayne Shorter’s presence and contribution appeared to be diminishing.  He would seemingly emerge from his shell only to duet with Zawinul on a medley that usually turned into ‘In a silent way’ and to lead the way on the marvellous  ‘A Remark you made’ .

Increasingly, it was a similar story in the studio,  with Zawinul adding layers of polyphonic synthesiser riffs from which Shorter’s horn emerged only sporadically.  During this era, it could easily be argued that it was the astonishing bass playing of Jaco Pastorius that became the main counterpoint to Zawinul’s huge multi- keyboard concoctions.  Either Wayne had lost his chops or he had lost interest due to the impossibility of competing with the band’s electronic barrage.

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The classic Weather Report line-up from 1978;                    (L-R)Pastorius, Erskine, Zawinul, Shorter.

Emerging from the wreckage of Weather Report in the late 1980’s, it surprised no-one to see Shorter opting for  more acoustic settings for his playing.  He made a succession of albums in this style, often collaborating with the likes of Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams whilst continuing to slum a little with  Steely Dan and  Joni Mitchell.  What really couldn’t be said was that escaping from late-period Weather Report’s electronic world music ghetto had provided Shorter with a new lease on his playing.  The solo cd’s that emerged from this period revealed someone whose playing and style both lacked conviction.  Of course, there had been problems;  Shorter lost his daughter, Iska, to an epileptic seizure in the mid-1970’s and his second wife in the 1996 TWA Flight 800 disaster off Long Island,  but he has been a practising Buddhist for many years, so maybe he was somehow able to come to terms with these awful occurrences.

By the millennium, he had put together a new  acoustic quartet featuring Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez,  multi-talented drummer Brian Blade and bassist John Patitucci.  This band have made a number of critically acclaimed albums in the 12 years they’ve been together, but I must confess that whilst I am familiar with Patitucci’s work with others and (in particular) with Blade’s superb Fellowship band, I have heard only snatches of this quartet and was therefore sufficiently intrigued to check out what someone told me – and it may even be true – was their only UK performance at the Town Hall on 1st November.

We had seats quite close to the front of the hall and my first surprise was to see how old Wayne Shorter looks, but then I hadn’t appreciated that he is nearly 80.  As he led the Quartet on to the stage,  it was quite noticeable that Pianist Danilo Perez was close behind him with his arms slightly extended in case the main man was to keel over.  Similarly, Shorter was fenced in with the piano at his back, a music stand in front of him and a stool (unused) to his left.  Seemingly, balance is now an issue and there were a couple of points in the performance where he would grab at the piano, presumably in order to support himself.

Wayne Shorter & Danilo Perez at Birmingham Town Hall, 1/11/12

The band were impressive, particularly Blade, who would play as softly as falling thistledown, then  punctuate proceedings with sporadic explosions from his kit that reminded me of Animal from ‘The Muppet Show’.  Patitucci was muscular and effective, despite intermittent technical problems that had techies crawling about underneath the piano in order to sort out the connections to his bass.  Perez, as might be expected of a pianist with a Latin American background, utilised a highly percussive approach with his left hand whilst plunging into occasional rhapsodic interludes.

In amongst all this, Shorter bobbed and weaved with occasional interjections that could best be summed up as intermittent phrases rather than flowing thematic statements.  Unsurprisingly, he was infinitely more fluent on his soprano sax than on his tenor, but even on the soprano, his presence among the shifting ebb and flow of the music was an ephemeral butterfly which flitted and fluttered and occasionally caught the eye (or the ear) without ever really imposing itself on proceedings.

Shorter is, of course, one of the last representatives of that whole post-bebop generation dominated by the likes of Miles, Mingus and Coltrane. Perhaps because of this, there is perhaps a tendency to allow veneration to overcome common sense.  Since this gig, I have read a number of glowing reviews suggesting that here was something extra-special, but the reality is that Shorter’s extremely accomplished quartet spent much of the gig papering over the cracks in their leader’s contributions;  it wasn’t that he was bad per se, but he is 79 and clearly not in the best of health.  Clearly, despite any financial incentives, he cares enough to get up on stage at an age when most of his peers were either dead or retired and that should be applauded.  However, both his contributions and his inspiration are severely diminished from his heyday and what I heard made me a little sad.

Sad, yes, because I never seem to have heard Wayne Shorter at his best in a live setting.  All the previous Weather Report gigs I saw failed to show him at his best; often drowned out by thundering bass guitar or tsunami keyboard washes.  And now, he just doesn’t have the chops any more, I’m afraid and as I close in on my sixtieth birthday,  I am perhaps more aware of  mortality than ever before.  We spend the first 50-odd years of our lives feeling immortal, then wake up to realise that we have very little time left.  Wayne Shorter is one of the last members of a generation whose musical endeavours and achievements have  stretched a long shadow across my life and now virtually all of them are gone.  Only Shorter, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner come to mind as members of a constituency that have retained their abilities into their late 70’s, but it has to be said that Wayne Shorter is just clinging on by his fingernails.

As I remarked to someone afterwards, the problem with sax players is that when they’re young, you just can’t shut them up and when they get to Wayne Shorter’s age, they don’t really have anything left to say or lack the puff to say it. Like the man said,  sic transit gloria mundi……..

Pond-life in SW6…..

Following on from the previous piece, it would seem appropriate to stop and take track of 2 wildly contrasting  Stamford Bridge encounters between Chelsea and Manchester United that have taken place over the last few days. 

Whilst it would be wrong to read too much into 210 minutes of 20-odd blokes chasing an inflated pig’s bladder round a grassy rectangle, these two matches have served to crystallise a few issues – some specific to football and, indeed to the contrasting philosophies of the two clubs, whilst some have wider implications outside the narrow confines of the national pastime.

 Wednesday’s  thrill-a- minute League Cup encounter went to extra time before Chelsea finally got the upper hand and won  5-4.  That followed on from Sunday’s more controversial Premiership encounter that saw Chelsea reduced to 9 players and United winning 3-2.

From a United perspective, the one to win was the Premiership game as Chelsea were starting to pull away at the top of the League.  Having said that, there will  be considerable irritation among United players & staff that we didn’t win the League Cup match as well.  We were probably within about 60 seconds of  a 3-2  victory in ‘normal’ time, when our erratic Portuguese winger,  Nani, decided – not for the first time in the game –  to try something clever when he should have just laid the ball off to a colleague.  Chelsea duly dispossessed him and briskly moved the ball to the other end of the pitch, where Scott Wootton’s clumsy challenge on Ramires produced Chelsea’s second penalty of the game.  Eden Hazard fired it home without undue fuss and we were off into extra time.

However,  I’m getting ahead of myself here….

Going into Sunday’s league game, the context was that Chelsea, newly-minted European champions, had – unlike United – invested heavily during the off-season in a couple of A-list creative  midfielders in the young Brazilian starlet, Oscar, and high-priced Belgian import, Eden Hazard, who joined from Lille.  Hazard was apparently coveted by United as well but ultimately chose to relocate to London rather than venture north in to dark, satanic mill territory.  Oh well, that’s his loss and any disappointment that United fans might have felt about his decision to opt for the nouveaux riches at the Bridge was at least partially offset by Hazard’s bizarre use of ‘social media’ to tease everyone about his destination for a couple of weeks before his transfer went through.  Talented? Undoubtedly.  Dickhead?  In all probability, yes. 

Eden Hazard: “Excusez-moi, mais qu’est-ce que c’est, le ‘Vimto’?”

Chelsea’s winning of the European Cup has caused some pained expressions elsewhere in London – particularly at the Emirates, where Arsenal’s self-proclaimed school of Wenger-driven cultured football has proved unable to deliver anything in the way of silverware for the past 7 years (and counting: see http://www.sincearsenallastwonatrophy.co.uk/.  )

Arsenal fans clearly saw their team as a natural fit for London’s first Champions League winners but have now found themselves gazumped by the spawn of Abramovich’s vulgar spending spree along the King’s Road.  Arsenal may have the history but since the Vieira/Henry era imploded, a succession of talismanic players have either failed to deliver for a  variety of reasons(Arshavin, Wilshere) or have jumped ship (Fabregas).  The latest Gooner icon to abandon north London’s culture club was Robin van Persie, who – to my considerable surprise – has ended up at United.

United’s strategy in recent years – according to their PR schtick – has been to invest only in young players who might have some resale value once they move on.  When Sir Alex Ferguson completed the purchase of 28-year old Dimitar Berbatov back in 2008, he said that Berbatov would be the last such player that United would buy and that they would subsequently concentrate on bringing in or bringing through young players.  Hence my surprise when van Persie,  injury-prone and cusping on his 29th birthday was brought in for big bucks on a 4-year contract in August.

Still can’t quite get used to RvP in United red!

Whatever reservations any of us might have had about RvP’s arrival, he has done his level best to assuage  anyone’s fears by beginning his United career like an express train.  To date, he has scored nine goals in League and European competition and has definitely added considerable menace to our forward threat.  Importantly, he also seems to have established a good rapport with Wayne Rooney, so if we can keep him fit, the portents are promising.

Van Persie also has a terrific goal-scoring record at Stamford Bridge, scoring a hat-trick there for the Gooners in a 5-3 trouncing last year, so he will have had few apprehensions about the game.  However, much of the pre-match chat at the weekend centred around the absence of  CaptainLeaderLegendScumbag John Terry, so beloved of this blog, who had finally deigned to concede that appealing a four match ban for racist remarks he made to Anton Ferdinand of QPR was not worth the extra negative publicity it would bring to him and his club.  He even managed an apology, which whilst extremely general in scope – never specifying Anton Ferdinand as the victim of his remarks –  was more fulsome than anything Luis Suarez managed.  So, Terry banned for both games against United and everyone hoping that with his destiny sorted  for now, football might take over from racism. 

For a while, this seemed a likely outcome on Sunday afternoon as United, generally dozy and dilatory in the opening  minutes of most games this year, came out the traps like greased whippets and opened the scoring after just 3 minutes thanks to a van Persie shot that smashed against the post, rebounded to strike David Lee Roth lookalike David Luiz and from there back into the net.  Just 9 minutes later and it was 2-0 thanks to an even better goal from van Persie. This one began with Rio Ferdinand; roundly booed all afternoon for having the temerity to be Anton’s brother, who scooped a great ball out to Rafael on the right.  The little Brazilian fed it further on for Tony Valencia to chase and once he reached it, he drove a low ball across the Chelsea area and into the path of van Persie, who swept home imperiously from about 8 yards out.

Robin van Persie & Tony Valencia celebrate United’s second goal

On this occasion,  it was Chelsea, not United,  who hadn’t really started playing, but towards half-time, they began to  get back into the game, with Jonny Evans lucky not to join Luiz on the own goal sheet as he deflected a cross against De Gea’s near post. The pressure built and built and just before half-time, the otherwise impressive Wayne Rooney, dispossessed by Hazard about 20 yards out, snapped back at the Belgian with a brainless foul which set up the impressive Juan Mata to curl home a free kick and reduce the arrears.  It felt like United had blown their great start and, sure enough, after the break, Chelsea continued to pressure us, with De Gea making some typically unorthodox stops to keep them out.

In the end, with United on the back foot and the ball pinging backwards & forwards across the goalmouth, it was the diminutive Ramires who got up above the largely disappointing Tom Cleverley to head home an equaliser. With over half an hour left to play, I braced myself for the Chelsea onslaught, so what happened next was more than a little surprising.  Picking up the ball near the halfway line, van Persie played a peach of a through ball into the path of the onrushing Ashley Young, who, as he shaped to shoot from the edge of the area was summarily upended by the uncompromising Branislav Ivanovic.  Clear red card for Ivanovic and a free-kick from a promising position which United duly wasted.  Down to 10 but largely unbowed, Chelsea continued to drive forward and the next significant action saw John Obi Mikel bursting forward into the United half before feeding the ball to Fernando Torres. Confronted by Jonny Evans, Torres pushed the ball past him as Evans went in for the tackle.  If there was contact from Evans, it was minimal and nothing like enough to impede Torres’ forward run.  However, with Rio Ferdinand coming across to cover, Torres could clearly see his options diminishing and – in my opinion – threw himself to the floor.

Referee Mark Clattenburg clearly agreed, rushing past an apprehensive Evans to brandish a yellow card at the kneeling Torres.  This was the Spaniard’s second card, having already been booked for a horrible chest-high ‘tackle’ on Cleverley in the first half.  So, out came the red card and Chelsea were down to nine men.  The atmosphere in the ground, already fairly volatile,  now became toxic as Chelsea fans,  already aggrieved by the John Terry Scandal, now became even more convinced that the world,  and in particular the FA & Mark Clattenburg, were against them.   Every decision in United’s favour was greeted with howls of dismay and anger by the Matthew Harding Stand, but Fergie has been down this road before and after a series of untidy fouls by Wayne Rooney, he was withdrawn in favour of Ryan Giggs – a wise move given that referees often try to ‘even things up’ by issuing a red card to the opposition, even when it isn’t really deserved. 

Javier Hernandez, fresh from scoring twice against Braga during the week, had also been introduced in place of the anodyne Cleverley.  The Mexican, like van Persie, has a terrific scoring record against Chelsea and his movement was soon creating problems for Luiz and Cahill.  Almost inevitably, it was he who scored what proved to be the winning goal on 75 minutes, but this, too, was mired in controversy.  Van Persie received the ball near the penalty spot and whipped in a shot that Cech partly blocked.  The ball spun slowly towards the goal line and a whole posse of players, including Hernandez, converged on it, but it was Cech who fly-hacked it away from the foot of the post.  The ball flew straight to the feet of Fabio, who advanced into the area and smashed in a wildly inaccurate right-footed shot which flew across the face of the goal rather than into it.  Hernandez had by this point disentangled himself from the Chelsea net and he emerged in time to deflect Fabio’s cross-shot into the Chelsea net.

Javier Hernandez wheels away after scoring United’s winner

What was obvious from replays was that Hernandez was either offside or had come back from an offside position before diverting the ball into the net.  He was also unwise enough to celebrate his goal in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, prompting a cascade of debris from the literati of that parish, one piece of which felled a CFC steward, which qualifies as ‘friendly fire’ I suppose.  Chelsea’s players protested the referee’s decision to allow the goal and it was at this point that he seems to have had some verbal exchanges with Juan Mata and John Obi Mikel which were to have further repercussions.  The remaining 15 minutes or so of the game were played out in a rancorous atmosphere where every decision that went against Chelsea was greeted with abuse and hostility.  Tony Valencia was booked for ‘simulation’ – a quite ludicrous decision and an obvious attempt by Clattenburg to redress the balance – and then missed a gilt-edged chance to make the result doubly secure, miscuing horribly when it looked easier to score.

And that appeared to be that; the final whistle went, the Chelsea fans booed, the United fans celebrated and the gap at the top was closed to a point.  However, in the aftermath, stories began to emerge about some of the verbal exchanges between Clattenburg and certain Chelsea players – specifically Mikel and Mata.  Said exchanges were allegedly racist in tone and though Mata’s complaint has now been quietly dropped,   Chelsea are pursuing Mikel’s accusation that Clattenburg called him a ‘monkey’.  Suddenly, the whole ‘racism in football’ issue, which the FA and numerous other bastions of the sport and the media no doubt hoped was about to recede into the  background, was back on the front page again.

Clattenburg and Mikel in discussions 

Various investigations are now under way, but there are suggestions that a deputation of Chelsea players and staff paid a visit to the referee’s dressing room 15 minutes after the game ended, in clear contravention of all the relevant rules.  It would seem that Chelsea are not only developing an almost Scouser-esque taste for self-pity and victimisation, but are also becoming a lightning rod for controversy.  Clattenburg has denied any wrongdoing and the assistants who could hear his remarks in their headsets have been quick to defend him.  Unless Mikel and Chelsea have some killer evidence, they seem likely to emerge from this self-inflicted scenario with their already tarnished reputation further diminished.  It’s good to see them wearing their European Champions crown with such dignity.

Anyway, whatever the outcome of the Clattenburg /Mikel affair, what was beyond doubt was that Chelsea and United had a repeat engagement just 3 days later in the League Cup.  United had a far larger ticket allocation for this cup-tie and a large and noisy entourage effectively took over the whole of The Shed end.  Mancunian wags had been busy producing posters, too, with this one parodying Chelsea’s John Terry love-in…..

This one, meanwhile, though a good deal less sophisticated, did a good job in celebrating Chelsea’s sudden conversion to the anti-racist lobby…

For this League Cup tie, Fergie fielded a team that had far more of a makeshift feel to it, with a mixture of fringe players and youngsters lining up against a  Chelsea team that was more experienced and featured a bench filled with  expensive talent. 

Chelsea had the better of the early stages with Sturridge tripping over the ball when in on goal, but it was United who took the lead thanks to some determined pressing high up the pitch .  Cech played a short goal kick out to Romeu, who dwelt on it, allowing Andes Ron to get a foot in and toe-end the ball away to Giggs. who had time to compose himself before curling a precise shot just inside Cech’s right-hand post.  An impressive finish to finish off some equally impressive work from Andes Ron, who had one of his best games for United.

Chelsea, however, were soon level, thanks to the pace and persistence of Victor Moses who was already giving Alex Büttner a tough time.  Another driving run and an injudicious lunge by Büttner  – a clear penalty, which  Luiz just squeezed past Lindegaard’s dive.

 Chelsea’s David Luiz

Despite this setback, United kept pushing forward in what was proving to be a breezily open encounter.  United retook the lead just ahead of half-time thanks to another great bit of work from Andes Ron, who sent Hernandez through with a precise pass after Poodle Boy Luiz had given the ball away in midfield.  A great first touch from the Mexican and a low shot made it 2-1 at the interval.

Andes Ron – impressive performance  from a guy I’d written off.

Into the second half and Fergie replaced the struggling Büttner with Nick Powell and the ex-Crewe midfielder soon brought Cech into action with a low drive that forced the Chelsea keeper into a sprawling save.

United’s makeshift centre-back pairing of Scott Wootton (21) and Michael Keane (19) had done pretty well up until this point, but the whole defence were looking shaky at set pieces, so Chelsea’s equaliser just on the hour mark came as no real surprise – Cahill arriving at pace to bullet a  free header  past Lindegaard.

Di Matteo now began to wheel out the big guns, with Hazard replacing the ineffectual Piazon.  Again, though, it was United who got their noses in front thanks to the goal of the night scored by the enigma-wrapped-in-a-conundrum that is Luis Nani.  A spectacularly slick interchange with that man Andes Ron saw Nani running free about 8 yards out on the angle and his dinked finish over the advancing Cech was just perfect. 

More big guns from Chelsea as Oscar replaced Romeu and with Andes Ron’s puzzling lack of fitness finally beginning to tell and the less experienced Ryan Tunnicliffe being introduced , it had really become a question of whether a substantially ‘greener’ United line-up could hold out.  Until Nani’s moment of unneccessary showboating United were close, but with Hazard drilling home the penalty with the last kick of the 90 minutes, we were into extra time and the momentum was definitely with Chelsea.

Poor Scott Wootton had already given away that penalty and he was at fault again early in the first period of extra time, trying to head a ball he should have left alone and simply playing in Daniel Sturridge for a routine finish.  With United looking stretched, Hazard broke away and dummied several United defenders before playing in Ramires for a simple finish.  At 5-3, that looked to be it, but then Hernandez was clattered by Spanish full-back Azpilicueta and Giggs slotted home another penalty to make it 5-4 in injury time at the end of extra time.

That was to be it, however; no more miracles and though United will have been disappointed to  lose having pushed Chelsea so close, they will know that Di Matteo had to wheel out most of his available ‘big guns’ to earn a hard-fought victory.  Youngsters like Michael Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe will have learned a great deal from such a defeat and it will probably help them mature and progress.   Keane, in particular, played brilliantly for much of the game and once his brother, Will, is fit again, I think we can look forward to another set of brothers as first-team regulars, as with the Nevilles and the Greenhoffs in earlier years.

Chelsea can look forward to a period of controversy as the Clattenburg Fiasco is resolved, but their cause hasn’t been helped by the long lenses of the tabloids, who captured a particularly noxious piece of pond-life named Gavin Kirkham in the Matthew Harding Stand making monkey-like gestures towards United’s Danny Welbeck, albeit at some distance.

Gavin Kirkham; another of Chelsea’s diamond geezer supporters

Here’s how young Gavin likes to spend his time when he’s not making racist  gestures at black footballers…..

N.B. ‘Playboy’ pillowcases – Gavin is clearly a ‘renaissance man’!

Obviously with fans like Gavin packing out the Matthew Harding Stand, the case against Mark Clattenburg is as good as proven.  It must offend the season ticket holders at such a hotbed of racial egalitarianism that a referee can abuse black footballers in the way Clattenburg has done.  Shocking……

United stumble onwards whilst JT jumps before he’s pushed…

OK, so today’s football agenda has been hijacked by the news that John Terry has got his retaliation in first by calling time on his England career, which is a probable indication that the F.A. are about to find him guilty of racially abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand in last season’s Loftus Road encounter – something that would prevent Roy Hodgson from picking him for the England squad for the forseeable future. 

Despite (or perhaps because of) all that has been said in the media and the courtroom on this issue, I think most people have already made their own mind up about John Terry.  For most people this latest strategy, which in effect blames the F.A. for his ‘problems’,  is a typical JT ploy that seeks to portray him as the noble and falsely besmirched ‘et tu, Brute?’ victim of some bureaucratic conspiracy.   Sorry, JT, but like Luis Suarez, we know what you are……

How he would like us to remember him……

Though there will be denizens of the Matthew Harding Stand who will continue to buy into JT’s manicured mask of affronted dignity, most people know him for what he is – a talented footballer, now past his best, who has misused his influential position and allowed his true nature to seep through into his public persona rather too often; in short, a wide boy, a chancer and probably not a particularly pleasant person .  JT tends to reinforce rather than confound the stereotype of the ‘thick’ working-class oaf who somehow made it to the top of the English game but who has now become a kind of ‘anti-Bobby Moore’.  He also has a habit of turning up for trophy presentations fully kitted-up when he has sat in the stand to watch the game.  Sorry, JT, but we are all going to remember that you were banned for the 2012 Champions League Final; at least back in 1999, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane only showed up (very reluctantly) in their club suits and only due to the demands of the United fans.  There’s class….and then there’s second class…and we all know which one JT is.

…but we’ll most likely remember him like this – missing a crucial penalty in the Moscow rain back in 2008….

The newspapers are full of hand-wringing pieces about how Roy Hodgson will miss JT’s on-field influence, but in truth he is a declining force even at Chelsea.  On the field, he won’t be missed for long and off it, everyone connected with Team England will probably sleep a lot easier from now on. 

Away from the JT show, there are lots of conflicting pieces in today’s papers about yesterday’s Liverpool vs United confrontation at the Dipperdrome.  The powers-that-be from both clubs are playing things with a straight bat and insisting that both sets of fans observed the niceties of the occasion, but I would beg to differ.  Unless I am suffering aural hallucinations, I would say that the fragile peace between the 2 sets of fans lasted for about 10 minutes into yesterday’s game.  There may (or may not) have been a temporary cessation of Hillsborough/Munich songs but other prejudices were well to the fore, with Patrice Evra getting booed every time he touched the ball and the United fans reminding Luis Suarez that they know what he is.  So much for those two observing the pre-match handshake ritual….

The fact is that for all the talking heads wheeled out on both sides and the media wagging its warning finger at those naughty fans, love was never likely to break out  between these 2 obdurate sets of hardliners.  There has been too much bad blood over the years for the cracks to be papered over for long. Expect normal service to be resumed from now onwards.

Events on the pitch would certainly have played into the perpetually simmering sense of Scouse injustice, with Liverpool losing a game by 2-1 that they should probably have won and a number of key decisions going against them.  Shelvey was sent off for a wild lunge on Jonny Evans, where a more sympathetic ref might have given both players a yellow card.  Suarez actually won a genuine penalty, but predictably over-reacted in Oscar-winning style, thereby ensuring he didn’t get the decision – a  satisfying case of his reputation for histrionics working against him.

Rafael da Silva equalises with an absolute screamer

United were woeful until Ferguson introduced Scholes in place of the abject Nani  at the start of the second half.  In the first half, only Ferdinand, Lindegaard and Rafael da Silva did themselves justice.  The peripheral Kagawa again looked worryingly lightweight and the whole team were guilty of giving the ball away with monotonous regularity.  A better team than Liverpool would surely have taken United to the cleaners, but they continue to get away with it and are somehow poised on Chelsea’s shoulder in second place in the table.  This is right up there with the Bermuda Triangle and the whereabouts of Lord Lucan as one of the mysteries of the modern age

The fact that we are still so reliant on Paul Scholes’ Indian Summer should worry any United fan and is also an accusatory finger pointing at Ferguson for his ongoing, dismal failure to address the enduring weakness in the centre of United’s midfield.  The old curmudgeon continues to get away with it for now, but the feeling persists that someone is going to catch up with us eventually and dish out a right hammering.  Also, any medium to long-term injury to Scholes and our season will be on the skids. 

Meanwhile,  the harsh truth for Brendan Rogers and his new Liverpool regime is that his team simply weren’t able to match us even when we play as badly as we did yesterday.  Liverpool’s decline into mid-table mediocrity continues apace and let that be a warning to us all…..

The Perfect (Mis) Match and other footballing miscellanea

A busy footballing week for those at the top table  of European football with the Champions League revving up for another season.  Also a busy week for Liverpool fans with the details of the Hillsborough Disaster finally released, a Europa  League  game in Switzerland on Thursday and a first confrontation with United at the Dipperdrome on Sunday.

Every dog and his missus seem to have had their say about Hillsborough, but I will disqualify myself on the grounds that I simply do not  possess enough information to make any credible contribution.  All I would say is that I hope that the families of the 96 poor folk that lost their lives can now get some closure.  It would be very sad to see a rash of financial compensation claims trailing through the courts and further prolonging their agony.  Time to move on if they can….

Talking of which, there have been a lot of hits on this site over the last week for a piece I wrote on last season’s Suarez Debacle entitled  ‘It’s never their fault, they’re always the victims, it’s never their fault…..’ (14/2/12), probably relating to negative publicity for some United fans who were singing that song during Saturday’s home game vs Wigan.   

Whilst I have no doubt that this song is not specifically connected to what happened at Hillsborough and is more of a general appraisal of Merseyside Attitudes, I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that the timing of its re-emergence is coincidental.     Anyway, there are strong rumours emerging from The Vatican this afternoon that Suarez & Evra have agreed to kiss and make up before Sunday’s game.  Set against what happened at Hillsborough, this would be a positive and appropriate gesture by all concerned and, frankly, long overdue.  Let’s hope it happens so we can focus on the football.

Having said that, after last weekend’s double snub of John Terry and Ashley Cole by Anton Ferdinand, I think the FA should do themselves a big favour and dispense with this empty pre-match handshake ritual immediately.

On the field of play, I would have to say that the Champions League got off to an absolutely cracking start, thanks to a tremendous contest between the old money of Real Madrid and les nouveaux riches from Eastlands at the Bernabeu Stadium last night – unless you’re a City fan, this was pretty much the Perfect Match. 

Not so sad this time; Ronny celebrates the winning goal…

City were quite clearly second best for most of the game, yet somehow led 2-1 going in to the final 5 minutes thanks to a Yaya Toure-inspired breakaway and a freakish Kolarov free-kick.  As daylight robberies go, it would have been right up there, but we were treated to 2 superb pieces of finishing; the first from Benzema, who curled a low shot just inside the post after a wonderful turn on the edge of the City area and the second from that boy Ronaldo,  who dipped a curling shot past a flapping Joe Hart with just seconds left.  A marvellous game and justice done at the end of the day, with an ex-United hero scoring the decisive goal.  Also, I have to say that there was something rather gratifying about Joe Hart’s ‘hissy fit’ post-match interview and all the City fans consoling themselves today with how far they have come to be so disappointed at losing in the Bernabeu.  Frankly, if I’d spent as much money as City have in recent years, I’d be disappointed, too.

Lastly, a word to lament the passing of sports journalist Brian Woolnough, who hosted Sky’s impressive ‘Sunday Supplement’ programme right up until May and had of course been a top tabloid scribe for many years.  I never took much notice of his writing, but always enjoyed ‘Sunday Supplement’ whenever I could get to see it.

Brian Woolnough hosting ‘ Sunday Supplement’ – R.I.P.

Listening to Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood…..

Some readers may perhaps find it a little strange that it has taken me until the closing months of 2012 to arrive at a considered view of Messrs Clapton & Winwood’s spasmodic series of reunion gigs and product ‘opportunities’  which, after all,  have been going on for about 5 years now. 

On the other hand, that’s probably somewhat to the point; back in the day I would have been on the case at once – after all,  these two were major deities in the pantheon of rock gods who strutted their fitful hour upon the stage,  then (we assumed)  disappeared to Hawaii or Malibu or Woodstock to ‘hang out’ with other rock stars and loads of beautiful girls, take loads of drugs and (eventually) put together another album’s-worth of songs that tugged at the social fabric and suggested that the younger generation were more fitting custodians of contemporary society than their elders.

Ugly work, but someone had to do it……nowadays, though, the low spark of high-heeled boys is just a distant glimmer of what it used to be and nobody says much any more about fighting in the streets or changing the world.  The torch has passed to another generation and when The Who sing about everyone f-f-f-fading away at the end of the Olympics, you sense that they might even be singing about their own g-g-g-g-generation.  It seems that even pill-popping mods from the mid-60’s have become commodified and the anger that drove Pete Townshend’s original lyric has just dissolved into grumpiness, cynicism and empty spectacle.  No wonder I feel able to approach Winwood and Clapton at a more leisurely pace .  They’re not quite Stadtler & Waldorf yet, but it’s definitely more about relaxation than revolution these days.

Winwood & Clapton on stage in 2011

Seen through that kind of lens, Steve & Eric are nowadays really just a couple of ageing geezers whose voices won’t quite make those high notes anymore and whose recent solo records hardly sell at all compared to the glory days of the 1970’s.    And they are far from being alone; every major city in the UK has bands composed of ex-members of this or that or the other band who used to be a big deal and who now get together once in a while in the function rooms of suburban pubs to run through a few of the old favourites  – in this town, it’s generally ex-members of bands like The Move or the Steve Gibbons Band (or both) who are involved in this kind of thing and if you’re  a fan, it’s no doubt a slightly nostalgic night out.

This is really what Steve and Eric are doing, but such is their residual clout in the minds of fans, promoters and journalists that they’re able to stage their bouts of nostalgia to packed houses in huge venues across three continents and record companies will still produce DVD’s and double CD’s of it all.  It’s a measure of the stature they once had and an increasingly rare event as most of the heavy hitters from that era  -for example, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin – are unlikely – for one reason or another – to tour again in any major way,  leaving only the possibility of a last hurrah from The Rolling Stones to turn back the clocks to when these dinosaurs really did roam the Earth and draw a line under the whole Rock & Roll epoch. 

In some respects, Eric Clapton has in any case been backtracking through his career highlights since well before the Millennium rolled around.  There have been excursions with B B King and J J Cale  ( and if  A.A. Milne or  e.e. cummings were still alive….)   and studio projects based around Robert Johnson’s slim songbook.  There have been onstage reunions with Cream and with John Mayall – and of course with Winwood, leaving The Yardbirds about the only rolling stone Eric hasn’t revisited.

Winwood has been slower to accept the role of a living museum piece and through the 1990’s pressed ahead with a series of albums of original material which largely failed to match the illustrious standards of what had gone before.  There was one last hurrah with a reformed version of Traffic who released a reasonable final album (‘Far from Home’) , toured extensively in the USA, supporting bands like the Grateful Dead  and played their final gig (though none of us present realised it) at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in September of 1994.   

Apart from that and the odd appearance on Jools Holland’s TV show, Winwood seems to have concentrated on promoting his career in North America and his profile in the UK has quietly diminished.  There was the obligatory 4 CD retrospective  in 1995 and even a mildly diverting BBC documentary called ‘English Soul’  which showed a man largely at peace in his Cotswold hideaway where he has taken on the role of occasional church organist and pillar of the local community.  When one of his daughters got married there last year, Charles and Camilla were in attendance and the child of the north Birmingham suburbs seems more than comfortable in his new role as a country squire.

By contrast, Clapton has been a troubled soul for most of his life and even the briefest trawl through his biography inevitably uncovers a catalogue of highs and lows that few can match – and live to tell the tale.  Murky family history, controversial and ill-chosen racist outbursts, high-profile  encounters with fame,  drugs and alcohol and the tragic deaths of those near & dear to him contrast with passionate affairs,  a fiendishly complex love life  and  a ‘jet set’ lifestyle,  lived in the fierce glare of the spotlights. 

Eric with his Granny in 1971

Over the years, we have seen the hair get longer and lanker, then be shaved to a grey stubble, the weight has ballooned to saloon bar habitué proportions then miraculously melted away to leave a gaunt ascetic ,  who sometimes  looks more like an accountant or an opthalmologist  than a seriously talented guitar player.  Because, that is one thing that has remained constant – for all his refuelling problems, his serial affairs and paternity issues, for all the glitzy guest star performances around the world, Eric remains one of the world’s premier blues rock guitarists.  He has outlasted those whose talents and technique exceeded his own as well as those lesser souls who simply aped his style.  He only needs to pick up that guitar and the music takes him; he is lost and ‘in the zone’  and the accumulated detritus of the years just slips away. 

In the end, he is,  like Keith Richards, a survivor and his mild and self-effacing approach  in interviews or, for example,  when cast in the role of Musical Director and M.C. for the 2002 ‘Concert for George’ (Harrison) at the Albert Hall belies the wild excesses he has experienced over the years.

So, if Clapton has caromed erratically off the walls of luxury apartments, rehab rooms and 5-star suites around the world whilst Winwood has slowly ripened in the mellow Gloucestershire sunshine – and I accept, of course, that such a view  represents a colossal over-simplification – then what has brought them together at this juncture?  Is Eric just being comprehensive in his trawl through his list of former colleagues?  There was the feeling with the reuniting Cream that he might just be working off some previous dodgy karma, but Winwood and Clapton even emerged from the Blind Faith debacle on sufficiently good terms that Steve was an active  participant  in  the ‘rehab band’ assembled by Pete Townshend for the ‘Rainbow’ project just a few years later.  These two do go back an awfully long way – to 1966 and Joe Boyd’s ‘Powerhouse’ project at least – and there seems every likelihood that they do actually get on.  Musically, neither of them have strayed far from the blues and R’n’B that initially inspired them, although Winwood has occasionally ventured a little further afield, stylistically speaking,  in his session work with the likes of Jade Warrior and Talk Talk.

Strangely it seems to have been a peculiar brand of English political conservatism that may have triggered their most recent collaboration.  Winwood’s status as part of the Cotswold ‘squirearchy’ would probably have made it almost mandatory for him to espouse the views of the Countryside Alliance, whilst Clapton’s involvement may have been triggered by his friendship with former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters.  Clapton played a gig with Waters at Highclere Castle in Berkshire in 2006 to raise money for the Alliance – who were, at the time, fighting the Labour government’s attempt to ban foxhunting.  His involvement was reported thus: “Clapton’s spokesperson confirmed “Eric supports the Countryside Alliance. He doesn’t hunt himself, but does enjoy rural pursuits such as fishing and shooting.  He supports the Alliance’s pursuit to scrap the ban on the basis that he doesn’t agree with the state’s interference with people’s private pursuits.” (www.contactmusic.com).

Steve Winwood in his Squire outfit.

Given their mutual enthusiasm for the preservation of rural barbarism and the rights of the individual, a reunion was perhaps inevitable and it duly happened back at Highclere in May 2007 for another Countryside Alliance fundraiser where Winwood and his band (introduced by another Alliance apologist, the  nauseating Jeremy Clarkson) were joined on stage by Eric Clapton for the latter half of their set.   Winwood subsequently guested  at the Clapton-curated tri-annual ‘Crossroads’ Festival in the USA, after which  Clapton played on Winwood’s ‘Nine Lives’ album and some New York dates were booked into Madison Square Garden for early 2008.  Beyond any shadow of a doubt,  we were now entering the realms of a full-on reunion, but whilst it might have looked like Blind Faith Mk. 2, that was never going to happen,as Winwood made clear in a BBC interview from later in 2008  –  “The idea of reforming Blind Faith arose fairly early on but it was decided that it wasn’t going to be that, because we didn’t want to limit it to that material. We wanted to touch on our own material.”

And, in a way, the interest this project holds for me lies in the songs that Steve & Eric have chosen for the setlists on this tour.  It would have been easy to churn out a predictable 90-minute set of Blind Faith, Traffic and Cream covers, but what I will confess that I do like about this project is the interesting choices the two of them made in selecting their repertoire.  Whilst there was a degree of inevitability about the appearance of over-familiar pot boilers like ‘Pearly Queen’ and the sickly ‘Wonderful Tonight’, there are also some genuinely left-field choices, particularly from Winwood’s side of the garden fence.  I would never have believed that we would ever see him performing songs like ‘No face, no name & no number’ or ‘Midland Maniac’  on stage again. 

Even Eric’s selection is not altogether predictable, with less familiar songs like ‘Tell the Truth’ and ‘Double Trouble’ given a run out, usually to good effect and the version of ‘Layla’ played at the Royal Albert Hall follows the revised arrangement that we first heard on Clapton’s ‘Unplugged‘ album.  In terms of cover versions, many observers have commented on the inclusion of no less than 3 songs connected with Jimi Hendrix and the fact that on most nights, the band’s set would climax with a 15 minute plus version of ‘Voodoo Chile’  – Winwood of course played and sang on the original version back in 1968.  Perhaps they both felt that history hasn’t been that kind to Hendrix and that songs like ‘Little Wing’ were due another airing.  Taking on ‘Voodoo Chile’  is another matter; this is one of those ‘holy grail’ tracks for Hendrix fans, but to be fair to our boys, they carry it off with considerable élan.   

Naturally, it doesn’t always work; a truncated version of Traffic’s ‘Glad’ sticks out like a sore thumb and songs like ‘Presence of the Lord’ haven’t worn particularly well.   On the whole though, the ‘everyday’ titles and the occasional variations would have kept Steve, Eric  and their cast of accomplices – including ex-Grease Band stalwart, Chris Stainton and bassist Willie Weeks who played on the 1976 ‘Steve Winwood’ album  – on their toes.  As mentioned any problems with high notes were glossed over by the  vocal talents of  Sharon White and Michelle John.  There seems to be a welcome absence of windy or sententious  pronouncements from the stage,  with Clapton handling the MC role for most of the gigs I have heard and, overall, it seems to work just fine.  There is nothing earth-shattering here; just a run through of 20 or so blues-based tunes with some accomplished playing from both the principals.  I’ve only seen fragments of the Madison Square Garden video but both Clapton & Winwood seem to be enjoying themselves and the mood is one of relaxed joviality for the most part.

Clapton & Winwood in Blind Faith days; somehow it seemed more important back then……

The music these two have made over the years – both together and apart – has often produced some high-water marks in my collection ; the original ‘Layla’ album, the ‘John Barleycorn must die’ album,  and numerous individual songs –  the original Spencer Davis Group version of ‘Gimme some lovin’, Cream’s ‘Sittin’ on top of the world’ , Traffic’s ‘No face, no name and no number’ and ‘The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys’, Blind Faith’s ‘Can’t find my way home’, Clapton’s 1975 version of ‘The Sky is Crying’  – and so on.  None of what Clapton & Winwood have produced via this reunion comes anywhere near these high-spots, but that’s OK.  This stuff can be enjoyed for its own sake and whilst  the politics are pretty dubious these days,  the playing is solid enough and the songs remain (pretty much) the same.

Lisboa August 2012….some photos….

Just spent a week in this beautiful city.

How did it take me so long to get round to my first visit?

Hope to be back very soon.

The stunning, atmospheric Brasiliera  Café 

Room with a view; Largo do Chiado at 0600 from my hotel.

 

How does he do that?  Street performer in Rua Garrett.

 

 A noite…..

 

Beautiful doorways at Rossio Station….

 Looking towards Sao Vicente Church…..