Saturday, 6 June 2009

Esquire (July 2009) now on stands: on a sporting theme

This month's Esquire is much preoccupied with sport, as clearly it ought to be every now and then; and especially when we're on the cusp of summer and its own special set of games, foremost among them cricket, and all looking forward to watching England trounce the likes of the Netherlands in 20/20...
Anyhow, July's Esquire. Cover star Amir Khan is interviewed by Bill Borrows, Man Citeh fan and biographer of Alex Higgins, who usually writes a regular sports column (in which had a gratuitous go at NUFC fans a while back, but then such is his right...) That nice young Theo Walcott talks to Sue Mott. There's even a piece about whether a man can not like sport one bit and yet still count himself manly; akin, perhaps, to Andrew O'Hagan's well-liked LRB essay of a few years back on the subject of hating football. Modestly tucked away elsewhere, The Rachel Cooke Interview is with Tony Blair, whom some of you might remember. Ms Cooke's conclusion is that the whole experience was like talking to a bar of soap.
I have chipped in something on a sporting theme too, albeit entirely by accident: a piece about a pair of very good and very different sports movies released this month, Rudo Y Cursi and Sugar. The first is a bitter black comedy about football's corruption by money. The latter is a quite wistful character study set in American minor league baseball. But, as I write:
...the real affinity between these two pictures is their shared sense of how pitiless is professional sport’s chewing up and spitting out of young talent. Jesus had the right idea when he declared that many are called but few are chosen...

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Donkey-Boys: Dostoyevsky, Brecht, Bresson, Disney

Brecht is said to have kept a small stuffed-toy donkey on his work-desk, around its neck a hand-lettered sign saying, ‘I, too, must understand.’ Quite often I feel like I am that donkey. But it’s no bad thing.
‘I’m all for the donkey, in spite of everything.’ Thus Prince Myshkin enthuses to the giggly Yepanchin girls in The Idiot. Such is the Prince’s idea of sitting-room small-talk with young ladies. Famously Kafka had to persuade Max Brod that Dostoyevsky's characters were not all lunatics but merely ‘incidentally mad’; and Myshkin is perhaps the maddest, if only because of his purity. I suspect that readers like myself who love Myshkin and The Idiot do so in much the same way as the Prince was ‘awfully fond’ of the ‘good-natured and useful’ donkey.
Robert Bresson, too, was very good on the ‘exquisite sensitivity’ of certain animals, and so was very taken with The Idiot, in particular the profound communication Myshkin claims to hear in a donkey’s braying. ‘Absolutely admirable’, Bresson declared, ‘to have an idiot informed by an animal, to have him see life through an animal, who passes for an idiot but is of an intelligence.’ He went on to make the exquisite Au Hasard Balthazar.
Now, Dear Daughter – yes, you knew we would get round to her eventually – spend much of last week puzzling over Disney’s Pinocchio, a fine piece of work if a tad perplexing (also a tad unsettling) for a 3-year-old, in respect of its complicated fantasy-morality, one of the high points of which is the forced metamorphosis of a pack of juvenile delinquents into a herd of pack-mules, carted off to a life of hard labour for their sins. Yes, a donkey’s lot can be a source of great pathos. One would like to think that at least some of Pinocchio’s mates ended up on sandy beaches wearing straw hats and giving pleasure rides to little kids.

Monday, 1 June 2009

MPs' Expenses/New Speaker: Crusading Time Again

For most of my twenties and a bit of my thirties I held the peculiar view that being a Member of Parliament was a higher calling: one that bestowed an honour but also placed one in a certain tradition of service; and that accordingly MPs ought to be paid a decent but modest middle-class wage, their real reward being precisely that honourable service to the public weal.
In this belief, clearly, I was na├»ve and impractical, and time and experience have eroded its shaky basis in me. For what is an MP but a human man or woman doing a job? I suppose a bit of my thinking on same is vested in the character of Dr Martin Pallister MP in Crusaders. But certainly I saw enough of my contemporaries take a direct route from student politics through lobbying firms to seats in the Commons, just as one might steer a certain pre-set course to be an accountant or a barrister, or a graphic designer or a personnel manager, or any other sort of white-collar gig. Politics is a profession, requiring a particular set of skills, and one might seek admission to it based on the desire to improve the lots of others than oneself - or one might not. At any rate, you have to do something to make a living, and since one wouldn’t wish British politics to regress once more into the form of a rich man’s idle hobby, the basic salary of an MP mustn’t be a deterrent to attracting clever/capable people.
That’s all fine then. The problem, though, for me and the rest of the country, is this business of the perks, and who defines them, and who pays for them.
Put it this way: I’m thinking of buying a new rug for my gaff, and because of the non-standard dimensions of the ‘heavy traffic flooring area’ I need said rug to cover, I’m thinking of getting it made bespoke: a slightly pricier-than-usual undertaking, but certainly a household necessity, and a more economical choice to get a rug than a new floor. Still, I’m mulling over the cost a bit before plunging in, like most of us who buy our stuff according to the dictates of what we earn.
If, however, I were an MP... well, then obviously I’d stop wasting my precious mental energy and let you buy that rug for me, dear reader – you, that is, and your fellow taxpayers.
Vernon Bogdanor addressed the matter very eloquently in the Times a fortnight or so ago:
“The cost of furniture, gardening, swimming pools and horse manure should be paid by MPs from their salaries. This would mean, until Sir Christopher [Kelly] reports, a fall in the standard of living of many MPs. That, perhaps, is no bad thing when so many of the public have to confront the consequences of recession. It will put MPs in a stronger position to empathise with constituents facing hard times without tax concessions or an additional costs allowance...”
Meanwhile: this blog is hopeful that Frank Field will stand for election as Speaker of the Commons, even though this preference puts me in dubious company, including that of Simon Heffer. Clearly a rigorous fellow, with a strong conception of what is the right thing, the worst that can be said of Field, seemingly, is that he doesn’t tow the line, won't be bought and sold and, as a late-life bachelor free of dependents, has a slightly otherwordly conception of how to conduct oneself properly. Well, all that’s fine by me. Nothing wrong with high standards, eh? The job could benefit from an honest man: someone who's a bit of a -oh, what's the word? - a crusader.