Friday, 8 December 2017

Memory and Time in Novels

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When you get into reading books it is surprising how one book can lead into another so seamlessly or without a deliberate mindset on the reader; this also happens when you encounter other forms of popular culture.

I remember going to see 'Gone Girl' the David Fincher directed film at the cinema based on the bestseller by Gillian Flynn; a story written by the view of a female protagonist about the break-up of a marriage stemming from the sociopathic behaviour of a women; I am focusing on the dissolution of marriage in early 21st century culture and how the sanctity of marriage itself is being forgotten about. Shortly afterwards, I started reading 'The Children Act' by Ian McEwan; a male writer with a female protagonist again experiencing the break-up of her marriage, and following much upheaval and emotional processing of the matter, the couple stay together.

The same instance of familiar themes and narrative outlines has hit me again from two very different writers.  On this occasion it is Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, the tale of Tony who is the other side of 60 has one bad marriage behind him and yet has a chance encounter with a girl he nearly married and the fall out of that side-step in life.  Tony spends much of the time reflecting upon why he broke up with the girl and how he mis-remembered or did not recall at all a vitriolic letter he sent to the girl and her new partner, his friend.  The sense of memory is lost on him because he has lost all memory of his act.

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The second book is My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout; a story of the eponymous heroine who is in a hospital bed following an emergency procedure when she is visited by her absent mother at her bedside.  They have not spoken for several years following Lucy's decision to marry into a different faith causing a family rapture.  The time convalescing in hospital leads to Lucy recalling her upbringing in poverty and how her attainment to live better led her to New York and happiness with her husband - who is strangely absent whilst she is in hospital.

The book cover print is telling. A solo chair by the window which can be a holder for either Lucy or her mother; but perhaps inevitably, all you have at the end is yourself thinking about your memories. Memories are lonely when they are your own, with no-one else to share them with.

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Throw into the mix my second Barnes' book in the last two months The Noise of Time which is set in the middle third of the Twentieth Century following a Russian musical composer looking back at this life and the fascination of how things play out for a reason in hindsight, with the novelty of events occurring within leap years.; you have authors who want to concentrate on memory as the sole reason for living, yet it might be too late to remember.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

A Clear Blue Sky

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Jonny Bairstow is one of the most naturally talented English cricketers in recent years.  His ability to alter games with his disruptive batting or take vital catches behind the stumps means he is an integral part of the English cricket team. 

However, a new biography, A Clear Blue Sky, ghost-written with Duncan Hamilton, enlightens the reader upon the hard road Bairstow has had to travel to attain a cemented position in the England team as they seek to regain the Ashes down under this winter versus the dreaded Australians.

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Bairstow, is the son of a cricketer, he is from Yorkshire, cricket is in his blood, and yet it was an event when he was 8 that has created the basis of his desire and will to succeed on the world stage. When Jonny and his sister, Becca, came home one night to see their father David had hung himself, their world unravelled. At the same time, their mother was undergoing cancer treatment, you could be forgiven for the young Bairstow going off the rails and becoming just a statistic in crime and welfare.  However, the next day, Jonny and his sister went to school, education and learning has been a mainstay in his still young life; the need to carry on as normal was key to building character and as he says in the book, he had to grow up fast.

I mention the young life of Bairstow, who still has a long career of himself should injuries not come to the fore, and yet you wonder why are we reading a book about him now when a glorious winter could be on the horizon. Does the misery of his father's suicide explain enough why he has become a celebrated professional? Does the benefit of good education at schools that embraced sports explain his ability to translate to an international calibre athlete?  Or does the fact he have a recognisable name scream of nepotism or luck?

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Naysayers may say, you make your own luck, but the ghost written portion of the novel reads as an opportunity for Hamilton to tell the story of how Yorkshire had to tread water for years of mediocrity before the hiring of Jason Gillespie and a bevy of young talent - Bairstow, current England captain Joe Root, Gary Balance, Adil Rashid - helped them to the County Championship.

Bairstow has benefited from being one of the cricketers who has had cross-over/transitional skills from sports he has played throughout his development - football for explosive speed, hockey for hand-eye co-ordination and golf for playing under pressure.  Hamilton goes to lengths to show the success of individuals like Bairstow within a system based upon central contracts allowing personal as well as professional development along with his peer Ben Stokes.

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The book does at times read like a love letter for Yorkshire cricket and a by-gone era of when David Bairstow played, while the psychological and emotional stress has been abundant on the young wicketkeeper it should nevertheless be applauded at how he carries himself from day to day to perform at the highest level.

Unlike Stokes, who seems to have the shadow of controversy follow him, Bairstow appears to keep a clear head and avoid such vices eager to improve his game and become a vital part of a successful team in all three formats of the game - Test matches, ODI's and T20s.  The lessons and obstacles you overcome in your youth are the foundation for you as an adult, many sportsmen should look at the evidence of Jonny Bairstow to see what results can come to fruition through a combination of support, belief and talent.

A Clear Blue Sky is out now from HarperCollins across all formats

Monday, 13 November 2017

Out of the Shadows

Gary Jordan, a freelance journalist, has written a fan's perspective and history of the 1982 England World Cup side that despite being one of the best accumulation of talent failed to progress beyond the convoluted second round where two 0-0 draws eliminated a team that won its first three games confidently.

Harking back to the 1970 quarter final defeat by West Germany which was the end of that generation's playing time together and the end of international careers of Bobby Charlton and Martin Peters. Jordan makes pit stops at the terrible mid-1970s when England failed to qualify for two consecutive World Cup finals due to a mixture of being unable to change with the times and selection issues off the field as well as on it.

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Ron Greenwood - England manager 1977-1982

Jordan does investigate and explain how England side-stepped Brian Clough twice; initially for his nemesis Don Revie and then the FA darling, Ron Greenwood.  However, the reason England stumbled throughout the 1970s was more a fact to an inflated ego and self-importance of the Football Association following the glory of 1966.  England felt they were the best in the world, yet they did not follow it up despite playing so admirably in Mexico 1970; tactical naivety led to Alf Ramsey substituting Bobby Charlton when 2-0 up prompting a West German fightback which England could not prevent.

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The 1982 England World Cup Squad

Ramsey got too long in the tooth by 1973 when Poland denied England at Wembley, and Revie could not do much better in attempting to qualify for Argentina in 1978.  Revie promptly left England for the oil money of the Middle East leaving England as poison chalice for whomever took charge.

Greenwood comes across as an esteemable figure, lauded by his peers and hugely admired by his players who got the best out of youngsters and was able to combine experience and youth in a dynamic package.  Whilst he had the veterans of Kevin Keegan, Trevor Brooking and Phil Thompson, he equally relied on the brash Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins and Terry Butcher who would all become mainstays for the next four years.

However, Greenwood still succumb to problems that regularly beset England managers at major tournaments - think of the crippling metatarsals to David Beckham and Michael Owen, for Greenwood it was the lower back injury to Kevin Keegan who did not seek help from a respected German doctor until it was too late; and then tactical downfalls and second guessing. England needing to win the second second round group game versus Spain decided to play tactically and wait for an opportunity to win rather than go for the 'jugular' as Terry Butcher suggests, leaving the calvary of Keegan/Brooking only 26 minutes to save the day.  Greenwood admits he was damned if he did and damned if he did not but the chance of glory should not be passed up.

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Kevin Keegan - injury cost him a starting place

These are familiar pitfalls for all England managers and Gareth Southgate may well encounter these before Russia next summer but ultimately when you have a class of player at your disposal you should not pass it up, and while Southgate is attempting to incorporate youth in with mainstays, the foundation of any campaign requires goals. If you cannot score goals, you cannot win games.

The book is a nice read from Gary Jordan, short sharp chapters that recall the matches fondly bringing in all manner of cultural resonance from the Falklands War to the searing heat of Spanish summers which led to Paul Mariner losing a stone in weight wearing a heavy polyester kit during the opening France game.

Written with passion and fondness for a by-gone pre-1992 Premier League era, Jordan has written a great tome to a team that though full of talent is regularly forgotten about in the shadow of our recall.

Out of the Shadows is out now from Pitch Publishing.

You can follow Gary Jordan on Twitter, he is sports features writer for The American, a magazine aimed at Ex-Pats in England

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Sumlin's Time Slipping in Texas

When Johnny Manziel broke on to the College Football landscape and sport mainstream during his Heisman winning season in 2012, it was not just Manziel who was shouting loudest from College Station. Manziel had at the helm a much admired coach who was at the start of his career also in charge of a fledgling program hoping to make noise in a big state and stepping into a new conference power, the SEC.

2012 which included the Texas A&M Aggies famously defeating Alabama in Tuscaloosa 29-24, a game that led to Manziel's Heisman procession and an eventual Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma finishing with a 11-2 record.

Since then, the Aggies have not matched the much vaunted expectations that the inaugural season did, although 2013 was a 9-4 record and another classic versus Alabama. The team could not cope with the clamour for Johnny Football who although he had a greater season in terms of throwing statistics he had more interceptions yet less rushing touchdowns.  They won a Bowl game, but Manziel left for the NFL as did star wide receiver Mike Evans (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and from there Sumlin has struggled.

Following a 20-6 record for the first two seasons, the Aggies school invested $500m to develop Kyle Field and $10m for the coaching staff including a huge extension for Sumlin himself.  The Aggies currently sit 5-4 in the SEC West and were thoroughly dismantled 41-27 by Auburn at the weekend, leaving them scratching for a Bowl game with games remaining at home to New Mexico and two road trips to Ole Miss and LSU.

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The SEC year on year appears to be a race of who will finish second to dominant Alabama, yet Georgia have showed the potential in good recruiting and good coaching, coupled with consistent offence.

The Aggies have not built upon the brand of Johnny Football in terms of quality although Myles Garrett was the Overall first round pick, there should be a stream of talent to rival that of Alabama or Miami in recent years to have a revolving door of potential coming through College Station.

Sumlin must take the fall for an under par season which started poorly in the first game on the road at UCLA where they gave up a 34 point lead to lose 45-44 to Josh Rosen; they then won four straight wins the best being a 24-17 home victory over a now 4-3 South Carolina Gamecocks; before an inevitable home loss to Alabama although they kept it respectable in a 27-19 loss.  However the losses to Auburn and Mississippi State have put more questions with less answers forthcoming from Sumlin.

With those three games remaining and a .500 record looking a distinct possibility, fans where hopeful of more but instead got more shortcomings and the type of play not expected from the Aggies, who unfortunately where in the headlines for two glorious years but have flattered to deceive since then.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Wayne and Ford


Released from Doubleday Books, Nancy Schoenberger looks deep into the life-long career relationship between two titans of the 20th Century cinema landscape, who are both synonymous with that most American of film genres - John Wayne and John Ford - who forever will be the cowboy and the man who shot him.

The book covers all of their careers but touching base especially on the landmark films such as Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1942), The Quiet Man (1952) and The Searchers (1956).  Whilst Ford showed versatility throughout his filmography, he himself in later life succumb to the public opinion, 'I'm John Ford. I make westerns' mindset.

John Wayne for years worked in B-movie pictures before getting cast as the Ringo Kid in 1939's Stagecoach, a film that would be the making of his mythic status as the archetypal western hero. Stagecoach was the start of the Western film as we know it; the clearer boundary of good versus evil, the east intruding upon the west and the use of Monument Valley as the key backdrop for action.

Ford made Westerns without Wayne, and yet they did not match the illustrious status of those collaborations yet Wayne made Red River with Howard Hawks and won his only Oscar for True Grit in 1969, a throwaway role and film.

The book goes into the background of Ford, a heavy drinker between films who lived in a loveless marriage and due to his Catholic upbringing could not divorce, who harboured romantic feelings for Katherine Hepburn and suppressed homosexual yearnings for years.  Ford was a complex figure who found salvation in his work during the Second World War working with the Navy, whilst Wayne that most emblematic figure of masculinity and manhood chose to stay at home during the conflict whilst Ford and Wayne's contemporaries, James Stewart and Henry Fonda engaged in combat.

That difference of role during the early 1940s led to arguments between the men, as did Wayne's political beliefs for the Republican party.  Whilst Ford used his demons to make great work and found solace in the unity of a film crew and team, Wayne became the star of the industry that made him and shied away from moral responsibility at the behest of personal fortune.  Wayne attempted to direct his great picture in The Alamo, a film that nearly bankrupt him and became forgotten and a laughing stock.

The film skates over some films in parts which is unfortunate and should not be thought of as a book of film criticism but nevertheless does do credit to a great chapter in American film history with these two figureheads standing tall above them all.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Jessica Lea Mayfield

Sorry Is Gone, is the fourth album from renowned singer-songwriter, Jessica Lea Mayfield, a songstress who has created a gripping confessional LP following the break-up of her marriage. 

At times emotionally raw and yet unapologetic in wearing her feelings on her sleeve, Mayfield has created a piece of work that is both universal and personal.  Her first album since 2014's Make My Head Sing, and whereas that album had the music written first, for Sorry Is Gone, Mayfield had the lyrics written first as she quietly endured years of domestic abuse, hiding within a brewing tempest. Whilst there may be moments of darkness within the lyrics and riffs, there is light creeping out in the defiance such as in 'World Won't Stop'

From the titular track, Mayfield's music is a mix of Americana with a folk tinge but with a rebellious punk spirit running through its heartfelt veins, helped by having John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr.) on production duties helping Mayfield becoming the empowering voice she has become.

Female singer-songwriters are in the vanguard currently dividing opinion and winning fans from the mainstream like Taylor Swift and Adele to the more leftfield St. Vincent or Courtney Barnett; albums are appearing from young women with something to say and finding a voice loud enough to say it.

From the defiant album opener 'Wish You Could See Me Now' with the lines, 'Wish you could see me now/But no-one can see me now' a statement of intent but new beginnings. The album is a multitude of influences from the punk of that opener to the confessional folk of 'Maybe Whatever', the songs are a diverse mixture of opportunity and optimism.  And in 'Offa My Hands' you have the biggest middle finger in female music since Alanis Morrisette's 'You Oughta Know' in being raw but accessible.

Sorry Is Gone is out from ATO Records on September 29th and available for pre-order now

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The Re-Identification of Alabama QBs

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When you think of Alabama quarterbacks under Nick Saban's tenure you think of pocket passer's men who are leaders on and off the field, those 6' 4" tall athletes who stand tall in the pocket and are pin-point with their accuracy and poise under pressure.

Yet there has been a gradual change in identity of the man under center in Birmingham. Whilst there has been dual threat QBs surrounding the Tide from Cam Newton to Jameis Winston to Johnny Manziel; Nick Saban has been reluctant to make that leap to the dual threat due to the wealth of talent at running back over the years from Trent Richardson to Eddie Lacy.

Starting with Greg McElroy who eventually played for the New York Jets, he led the Crimson Tide to the National Championship in 2009 whilst not setting the numbers alight. In the Championship year he threw for 2508 yards and 17 touchdowns, that was followed the year later by 2987 yards and 20 TDs prompting his inclusion in the draft.

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AJ McCarron the archetype for QB

AJ McCarron inherited the role after McElroy left for the professional ranks, and in his three starting years he saw an increase of total throwing yards over those three years - 2011, 2634 yards; 2012, 2933 yards and 2013, 3063 yards breaking McElroy's passing record. His passing percentage was 66.8% which is par for a solid career and he had 15 total interceptions over his career. McCarron sits behind Andy Dalton as No.2 QB for Cincinnati Bengals awaiting his opportunity with immense patience.

Blake Sims had a veritable explosion in his lone starting season as quarterback, 3487 yards with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions coupled with 350 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns.  Sims was probably the marker of change for Saban.

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Jalen Hurts is a frontrunner for the Heisman

Via Jake Coker, we land at current QB Jalen Hurts who is the starting quarterback for Alabama this year following his freshman year, the first true freshman to start for Alabama in 32 years, throwing for 2780 yards and 23 touchdowns with a below average 62.8 percent; however, he also rushed for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns giving him 36 total touchdowns. Hurts became the first quarterback coached by Saban to pass for 300 yards and rush 100 yards in the same game.

Come to this season and following a cagey affair versus Florida State (10-18, 96 yards, 55.6% completion and 55 yards rushing) where a win was more important than the performance, Hurts returned for the home opener versus Fresno State and threw for 14-18, 128 yards, 77.8%, 1 TD with 154 rushing yards on 10 carries with two touchdowns in the 41-10 victory.

The surprising factor of the victory was that Alabama out rushed their passing offense, running for 305 yards from six different carriers - Najee Harris (13 carries, 70 yards), Bo Scarbrough (6 carries, 36 yards) and only 192 passing yards with the most for one receiver being Calvin Ridley with 45 yards off only five receptions.

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Nick Saban is changing his view on QB play

For sceptics, this is Saban falling in line with the rest of the league and not being original, however, perhaps this is Saban utilising the talent correctly.  In Hurts, he has a passer of accuracy who can execute passes to where it needs to go, this allows Saban the chance to dictate play from the off and by having Hurts keep hold of the ball when rushing you negate the threat of turnovers which are key and can effectively keep a stellar defense (better than Fresno State obviously) out of the game.

From worries over his pocket passing to utilising the speed and composure under pressure, Hurts will have bigger tests but its a step in the right direction for this Alabama QB.

Read more of my work at Forty Yards Scouting.
Follow me on Twitter @JamieGarwood and @NextToTheAisle