June 05, 2010


I picked this questionnaire up from Norm and think its quite interesting as a revelation about my own practice whilst reading.

Do you snack while reading? > Mostly not.

What is your favourite drink while reading? > Tea or green tea and perhaps in the evening water

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? > I do mark my books- partly because I'm often reading on trains, tubes etc and don't have a notebook available, partly because I think it allows you to see whatever the statement is in in context.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? > A bookmark normally or else just memory.

Fiction, non-fiction or both? > I read mostly non-fiction and particularly history. I try to read more fiction all the time but am not neccessarily successful. My degree left me with an ability to plough through non-fiction in a way that I can't with fiction.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? > I do try and get to the end of chapters, partly because I normally feel chapters are or should be clauses in the argument of the book and therefore contribute to the whole. It also makes remembering where you are easier.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? > Nope- never do that. If I get irritated I either write something about why the book is awful, talk to someone about why it is awful or just stop reading. There is no point wasting time with rubbish (incidentally I get far more upset with bad quality than with stuff I disagree with- the former is bad, the latter is interesting because it may change my mind).

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? > No. My vocabulary is largely self taught (I still don't always pronounce some words correctly because I've seen them on the page) and I infer what things mean from context.

What are you currently reading? > The City of God against the Pagans by Augustine (is anyone else depressed that when you type City of God into Amazon you come up with the film and not this book)

What is the last book you bought? > The Devil in Holy Water or the art of slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon by Robert Darnton.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? > Not really, I will read whenever I have the chance. Just after I've got up in the morning I tend to spend 10-20 minutes reading and going into and coming back from work. I also will read all evening and all Saturday if its possible.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? > 'Stand-alones'? Anyway, them. (I've cheated as I agree with Norm)

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? > Yes several. The book I reccomend the most is Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan- that's because it was the book that made me fall in love with the history of ideas. But apart from that and Gibbon's Decline and Fall, there are just too many to mention.

How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)? > In an ideal world, fiction by subject and period, non-fiction by author. In the real world this is something I need a free couple of days and courage to attempt.

June 03, 2010

Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United

I don't often read football books, but this like Jonathan Wilson's Inverting the Pyramid I consider an exception. Inverting the Pyramid was a great book because its about the ways in which you can organise eleven people on a field in order to kick the ball into a net at the other end of the field. Wilson writes about football pure and simple. The Unforgiven is completely different. Written in part by another Guardian journalist, Rob Bagchi, is about the way in which an intriguing personality- Don Revie- took over and shaped a football club from top to bottom and about how he related to those above and below him in the hierarchy, not to mention other equals at other clubs. It has its fair share of 'at this point in the season Leeds won 7-0 at Southampton' (being a Leeds fan I enjoyed those bits, less the bits where we finished second in everything!) but that isn't really what it is about. Its centre is on Don Revie and what he did to Leeds United and how that set of actions was received more widely.

Revie was the kind of man who had he been born middle class in Surrey would have been a captain of industry or Prime Minister- like say Brian Clough or Bill Shankly- because of where he was born and the fact that he could play football that is what he did. He was a skilful England international, playing as a withdrawn striker and attacking midfielder and had a productive career particularly in the mid-50s at Manchester City. Like his nemesis Brian Clough (with whom he shared many accomplishments- perhaps something which deepened their rivalry) Revie's career could have been more impressive. As it was in the early 60s it declined and he joined the then second division and rather non-descript Leeds United- whose stature in 1960 was a bit like Crystal Palace's today without the history. Leeds were a struggling team who had bounced up and down between the divisions. By the early 1960s they were in decline and Revie was brought in eventually as manager to redress that decline.

What he did was to form a club. Over his first couple of seasons, Revie got rid of most of the playing squad that he had inherited, with the exception of Jack Charlton. He elevated young players from the youth team and the fringe of the previous squad, players who would go down in Leeds's history- Bremner, Gray, Lorimer, Sprake, Hunter- and made a series of judicious purchases, none more so than a veteran named Bobby Collins. He had therefore two senior pros- Collins and Charlton later joined by Johnny Giles. Charlton was a natural rebel. Collins and Giles had both been discarded by bigger clubs. Revie melded this group of individuals into what he called a family, later on he was mocked for taking players on bingo nights in big groups and for rubbing them down, performing the work of a physio and a trainer- but the intimate knowledge and fatherly concern were instruments of management. Revie turned the playing staff at Leeds United into a unit and was able to do this because the senior pros he had let him and those who would not join in, he could exclude.

Revie's success thus- and he was successful, taking Leeds to two Championships, three FA Cup Finals and one FA Cup trophy, European finals and the League Cup- was built on the fact that noone had ever done anything at Leeds United. He took advice of course- particularly and ironically given how the fans perceive each other from Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United- but his techniques were founded on the fact that he could clean out Leeds when he arrived. They were also founded on a particular culture inside football: the authors of this book make it clear that as time went on players became more resistant to the Leeds culture, people wouldn't join a club in which the Beatles were out and Bingo was in. Leeds were emblematic though of the new clubs winning English trophies- Clough's sides were similar in this, they came up and could win, but the truth in Leeds was that Revie was able to profit from a seam of good youngsters but could not sustain it as the economic foundations, the fans in the stands, weren't there. The story again is similar for Clough: after the great late 1970s, it was never glad confident morning again, because Nottingham Forest like Leeds could not maintain a challenge.

The authors are fascinated by the question of why Leeds could not do this. Leeds afterall is bigger than Liverpool which sustains two historically vast clubs and Leeds has a vast hinterland through Yorkshire, clubs like Bradford and Huddersfield's accomplishments lie in the distant past. Part of the reason was that until the 1990s, football was the third sport in Leeds behind Rugby League and Cricket. Part of the reason lay in the attitude of Revie's boards who never fully supported him, particularly after the early 1970s. Part of the reason is that we will never know because Revie took on another job- he went to England (an episode which was disastrous from the word go) and Leeds hired Brian Clough (possibly the most spectacularly wrong decision of all time- see United, Damned). The story of the 1970s in Leeds United remains unfinished. But what the authors do draw attention to is the way in which the story of Leeds United is in part the story of Leeds's transformation from an industrial city into an equivalent to London in the north. Revie's team are part of that story.

Lastly there is the unpopularity. Revie was always accused and still is accused of producing a dirty team and being corrupt. The latter accusations have nothing to them and the authors do a good job of discarding them. The former is more interesting. Leeds could kick with the best of them but they were kicked to: famously in one match between Leeds and Manchester United, Bobby Collins of Leeds would find and kick George BEst and Nobby Stiles would try and break Collins's leg. Two Leeds players had their careers ended by injury: Collins and Eddie Gray- and others had their hard men. What is more interesting and it is an area the authors don't really get into, is the cultural expectations that meant that Leeds fouls were seen as part of their character whereas the fouls administered at Chelsea or United were not. There is a story here of the attitude of English people to football clubs which tells us a lot about their attitudes to particular regions. I suspect that attributes of clubs in the popular imagination are both informed by and inform the kind of stereotypes that all English people have about the regions of England.

The book is good and it is readable (I finished it in under a day) and it does tell an interesting story. It isn't aimed unlike Jonathan Wilson's tome at a purely analytical market and so doesn't open up some interesting questions but the story of Revie is fascinating in itself. The man was prickly and shy, always brow beaten by Clough for instance because he was so sensitive to accusations and willing to be defensive rather than go on the offensive. He had a good reputation amongst his peers: I mentioned Busby but Shankly too was a Revie fan. The image of Revie could be probed more though because I think it tells us something about the ways in which football has shaped the imaginery England that we all carry within ourselves and also about how that imagination has shaped fan's notions of what clubs are about.

May 31, 2010

Breathless (1983)

Another reviewer described Breathless as a return of serve. Jean Luc Goddard released his Breathless in 1961, it starred Jean Paul Belmondo as a French petty criminal who ends up killing a policeman and Jean Seaberg as his American girlfriend. Breathless made in 1983 returns the same concept to America: this time Richard Gere is the petty criminal and Valerie Kaprisky stars as his French girlfriend. The concept is the same- ie the criminal kills a policeman after a chase involving a stolen car, fixated on the girl he runs around an iconic city (LA in the American Version, Paris in the French) trying to seduce her, before ultimately being betrayed. The story isn't difficult: Goddard explained that a girl and a gun were all you needed for a movie and in both cases the girl and the gun are all that is really available. There are no other characters- there are just the central performances. You have to be ready here for a film that takes you along for a ride through a mood rather than through a story.

So is this ride worth it? Is the American ride worth it after we've already been on the French version. Goddard's film is an undoubted great, one of those films that makes France the land of cinema. Belmondo's side glance and Seaberg's cutting accent are icons of cinema: Kaprisky and Gere do not rise to those levels. Enough has been said by others about the fact that Kaprisky looks to be what she is in this film: an incredibly pretty girl but one without much acting ability. Gere on the other hand infuses the film with a maniacal energy, so different from Belmondo's languid cool. The American film feels much faster, more hectic than the French. This has two effects: the first is that the American movie is much easier to watch. Its quick and its fun: the music is great and the pace frenetic. The moods are therefore different. The French film is more complicated, more philosophical- it is about choice- the American movie is about two people, a guy and a girl who are literally mad. The real return of serve from the States to Breathless was not this movie which shares its title and concept, but Bonnie and Clyde, a far better film about love, sex and violence.

Does that mean this film has nothing to say? Of course not, it is just not a profound cinematic document. What we learn from the film is the craziness of the two protagonists: Valerie's Monica constantly tells us that Gere's Jesse is crazy. But to suggest that her actions are reasonable is to redefine logic. Seaberg's character is far more confident and interesting than Kaprisky who exists as a sexual object. A girl in a short skirt who runs around with the American college elite. In a sense there isn't much to separate Jesse from the Professors that she normally meets: if she has a mind the latter don't cultivate it, if she has a gene for excitement he does. Energy and bustle are the heart of this movie- "You know me Tony all or nothing" is Jesse's epitaph- he lives life to the full and neglects others around him. Both Jesse and Monica face problems that are only theirs: bound in with characters that are by their nature self loving and other ignoring. He is a perpetual adolescent but then so is she, as played by Kaprisky. Neither are realistically childlike- they know the adult world- but both are self centered and unmannered.

I don't think this is a bad film- it suffers by comparisons with a great film and I can't quite tear my mind away from the comparison- but it has energy and vivacity. Kaprisky is an unworthy successor to Seaberg- but Gere does his best (occasionally his performance seems as though it is too worked) and the film passes enjoyably. Profundity is too sleek and slow for this jazzed up Breathless: but it still manages a kind of creation of empathy and that's an achievement.