Friday, December 20, 2013

I Fear for Peter Hitchens

I’m worried about Peter Hitchens. He wants to do bad things. He is compelled to do these bad things. Every day, he wakes up and he is assailed by temptation. Jesus had it easy in the wilderness compared to the trials and travails that he suffers. The only thing stopping him from lighting a crack-pipe, getting drunk and disorderly and, presumably, going on a terrible crime spree is his immense, monolithic, immovable self-will, and what remains of the Criminal Justice System.

Why do I worry about this? Well, in his now much re-tweeted debate about Drugs Courts on Newsnight with Baroness Meacher and Matthew Perry, he said this: “The whole point of the Criminal Justice System, and we forget this all the time, is to deter people from committing crimes.”

He is, of course, absolutely right about this. I know from personal experience that I am but a judge’s-day-off away from mass-murder. Every day, Peter and I must have the same experience. We want to tear into the streets with sub-machine guns, give into our ids, and gorge ourselves on the buffet of potential delinquencies available to us. We don’t, but only because we are deterred by the Criminal Justice System. That is what it is there for. That is “the whole point” of it. If it weren’t for that, we would be unleashed.

I am, of course, being facetious – displaying the sort of "levity" that Hitchens aspires to but can never attain, the sort of activity that he tries so hard to deploy but fails to deliver, and therefore resorts to self-righteous spite and venomous disrespect instead (note how he gets gradually more defensive on Newsnight) – but, of all of his ridiculousness and Matt Perry’s flippant rejoinders the other night, that single statement has to be the most stupendously ludicrous, and the most disturbing.

“The whole point of the Criminal Justice System … is to deter people from committing crimes.” The nonsense of this is immediately apparent. The Criminal Justice System enforces the law, certainly with an eye to deterring (something which, incidentally, you can never measure the success of, for there are no records of people who consider committing a crime and then don’t, nor of what their reasons for their change of heart was either), but it also has a look to retributive justice and, we hope, rehabilitation. None of this is easy, but all of it is necessary. The approach to law, morality, and justice must always be highly nuanced and considerate of each individual case according to its circumstances. There must never be a “whole point”. We can never afford to be so blinkered.

It is when you dwell on it that the sheer unpleasantness of thought behind that statement reveals itself. Its implication is that the only thing stopping some people from committing crimes is the threat of punishment. He seems to think, though, that human beings are inclined to failure, to laxity, to wrong-doing, and therefore we need a “stern and effective” CJS to keep us on the moral path prescribed.

Hitchens has no time for rehabilitation. He seems to have no time for considering the complexities of retribution. He is merely interested in the rules of the game. Transgress them, and you are gone, not because you have done something morally wrong necessarily, but because you have made a life-choice that Peter finds disagreeable. To jail with you then, so that others may choose better. Such a view is smug, arrogant, self-centred, uncompassionate, ill-informed, flat-out stupid, and, in his case, probably intellectually dishonest.

To err is human, but should erring (if erring this be) be greeted as something worthy of harsh punishment, solely for the reason that others may be deterred from erring again? Not only is this an unjust form of reasoning, it is also a rod for one’s own back. The recurrence throughout the ages of drug-abuse, for instance, suggests that this is a problem we will not be able to eradicate. If it is a scourge, then it is not one we can defeat, as the failure of drug policies worldwide have demonstrated. The condition is too rooted in human nature.

One needs to rise above the level of the primary school headmaster in our thinking here in order to find better solutions. Hitchens, the crotchety, snarling, disgruntled school teacher par excellence, is not the man whose reasoning we should follow.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Sherlock Solution?

Having just rewatched The Reichenbach Fall, I am madly excited by the prospect of Series 3 of Sherlock (BBC1, 9pm, New Year's Day), not least because we will get the solution (we're told it's satisfying) to the greatest TV conundrum since Richard Whiteley revealed one with a Q and no U in it.
Theories have abounded, though I have to admit that I haven't gone looking for any of them. Here at any rate is my shot in the dark as to how Sherlock survived his fall from the roof of St Bart's Hospital.

Here are the facts:
1. John got a phone call saying Mrs Hudson had been shot, when she hadn’t been. This caused him to leave St Bart’s, but he would inevitably return within a broadly predictable period of time – the length of a return cab journey to and from 221b Baker Street.
2. Sherlock picked the location on the roof of St Bart’s. He may have guessed that he was going to be required to jump off the roof, or not. That is unclear, but he certainly chose that location.
3. Moriarty is definitely dead. His brains are all over the roof. If you look closely, there’s actually a little piece of brain. The rule of Sherlock is always trust your senses, and we saw his brains on the masonry, so he is dead. Dead. Finished. Extinct. A former-Andrew Scott. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. He’s run down the curtain and joined the criminal fraternity invisible. This is a late nemesis.
4. Sherlock definitely jumped. John saw him.
5. We definitely see a body hit the floor. Obviously, there are issues about what’s broadcastable and so on, but it doesn’t look like it’s hit the floor at a particularly fast speed.
6. When we first see “the cadaver” (marvellous word), it is partly obscured by a rubbish truck that is quite full with rubbish.
7. Before he can get to the body, John is hit by a cyclist. Afterwards, he is dazed and confused.
8. The cadaver on the floor is definitely dead.
9. Sherlock is definitely alive.

So, here’s my theory:
If Sherlock had jumped from that height and hit the ground he would be dead. He did jump from that height, and is alive. Ergo, he did not hit the ground.
The obvious option would be the rubbish truck. There doesn’t seem to be any other option for anything intercepting him with suitable cushioning to prevent him from dying. He must have landed in there.
Did he get lucky? No. I reckon Sherlock must have worked out that Moriarty wanted him to commit suicide to complete his story, and so he has this all set up, including exact timings. He would have found out what time the bins are usually collected, or there is another option which I’ll return to later.
That explains how he might have survived the fall, but not how we saw “Sherlock” dead upon the ground. Molly’s help is enlisted, and working, as she does, in the morgue, she will have access to cadavers. Find one that fits the symptoms of a severe trauma from a heavy fall, make it up to look like Sherlock and you’ll fool most, but not John. Surely not?
John can’t have been seeing straight. He saw what he feared he would see. When have we heard that before? Why, in The Hounds of Baskerville of course, with the gas that causes terrifying, suggestible hallucinations. So, give John some of that and he will see the dead Sherlock he fears he will. How would that be administered? By the cyclist – only option.
NO WAY. No way Sherlock could have organised that collision between cyclist and Watson. Apart from with the homeless network. That he could have done. He could also have arranged a similar thing with the rubbish truck. Because Sherlock picked the location, we can safely assume that he is in control of the environment to a reasonable degree.
Here’s the problem. Witnesses. Moriarty pointed out that there’s a crowd. People are milling around, buses are going past, and people rush to the body very quickly. It would be an unreasonable degree of control if it’s suggested that he controls all the people going past St Bart’s. So, how does the cadaver get there? Because at no point can that body be Sherlock’s. If it were, he would be very dead, which he isn’t, so it can’t be him.
So, how does Molly get the cadaver out onto the floor and how do people not notice that Sherlock actually landed in the truck? Molly must have dropped the cadaver from a lesser height – third or second floor, something like that. Then, it’s a magic trick. You see the body fall, you see a body hit the ground. Suggestion, distraction – it may well be seen, but it is not perceived.
Ok – even I’m not convinced by that last bit, but I can’t see any other way.

So, over to you Messrs Moffat and Gatiss. How did you do it?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Hard and Fast

The District and Circle
Are filled with prepubescents tonight –
Awkward, oblivious & nervous
In their youth.

And am I not a little envious?

Happiness is fleeting,
Unless it comes
Once in a while.

I’ve envied passers-by more
When they were with friends
Than when they were with lovers.

Your lover’s not my lover
After all.
Though she may share the same body
As mine once did,
Her face is somehow different.
And mine is waiting behind some other visage now –
By good grace, I hope,
Less mercurial than before.

There’s a reliability –
Sweet Reliability! –
In the laughter that has no other requirement
Than that you
(and it could only have been you)
Said that:
When people value not
That you have been funny,
But that you have been

These friends I see,
Unknowingly across from me,
May not last,
But their memories will endure –
Through thick and thin,
Sickness and health,
Richer and poorer –

Hard and fast.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The 17:00

Fair Waverley, nestled in the ‘Burgh,

‘Neath castles and bridges,
A hidden gateway to the carnival above.

Fair Waverley sends us trickling, then trundling, then hurtling
Into the views of cliffs and forests of fir
And past rivers and seas quietly rippling.

Stirrings of magic here,
In the age-old glacially sculpted hills.
Wisps in the trees?
Endless childhoods of boundless imagination,
Flit past the eye as the train gathers speed
And a stirring brews with this quickening -
The heart rushing to keep pace.

Then, ‘cross the Tweed,
Into the elegant North,
The proud North,
The grand North:
Forged by its sons and its daughters
Into a breathing Turner,
A multi-dimensional Constable,
Replete with castles and cathedrals of stone and steel.

Teeming Newcastle gives way to stately Durham,
And vistas tumble forth like dreams
As the Lark ascends.

Onwards! Southwards!
Towards Summer’s heat -
Away from Summer’s sun.

Then comes the lingering warning.
Yorksire is undulating beauty, from Godliness to grimness,
As men spurned the divine for devilry,
Senselessly building Drax, Goole and Donny.

The clouds are gifted a corona of early evening sun,
And the violent, vivacious land revels below – majestic to the brim –
But steadily, imperceptibly declining.

The Midlands: pleasant monotony,
Dimpled and disturbed by small peaks and troughs of homes and hills.
A tame, mellow pastoral symphony –
Troubled by the rushing onward,
To the metropolis.

As it draws closer, the dull accedes.
Dull, dull, flat, flat, flat,
Dull Anglia.
Flat Anglia.
Anglia – a melody of nothing
Save the cacophonous spouts of man’s unimagination.

And dull Anglia’s “jewel”: direst Peterborough.
Plastic, grey, vividless.
City of dark in the light.
Scented with all pervading hopelessness.

Saved by the sunset and the moon was Anglia.
Crescent glaring down on the Rothko painted death of day.
Divinity saving humans from men.

Then dark outside, and nothing to be seen, until,

Suddenly, Finsbury,

Before rolling stock slows respectfully for Islington,
So as not to disturb the middle classes,
Or clandestine, ill-fated political deals.

And finally grand but homely King’s Cross, and journey’s near-end.

What a vibrant mausoleum this is.
Filled with memories, once sweet, now bitter –
Or perhaps now mercifully bittersweetened
By the calming truth of life’s contradictions accepted.

The lark has now descended,
And a gently smoking saxophone teases through the night,
Under the looming lights, beneath the glass and steel.

Where are the stones and the hills?
Left some hours behind and
Buried beneath some years ago.

Only painted memories live here now
And, when time comes, merciful portals of escape,
To a splendour too crudely spent,
To a wealth that cannot be measured,
Beyond the accountant’s towers.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Blue light on the leaves that fall
As they twist and turn on the breeze.
Past glories sadly admitting to present beauty.
The descent a slow and final dance.

Where is the heat of the sun?
Only remembered, in the ghostly forest –
Grey overhead and brown underfoot.
The promise is whispered in the branches
Of new roses coming into bloom –

But not now.
For when the sun breaks through bright
It shines cold on the skin.

My head turns to catch it,
But it is vanished in the trees.

There! Again!
This time it is truly glimpsed –
A floating ember slowly turning to flame,
Before flitting to nothing between the evergreens.

Again! Again! Again!
Like a will o’the wisp
And ever swifter.
It smokes into a blaze and disappears –
Dances through the forest
Abandons all paths.

It gains a voice,
Resonates with song
Echoing off the trees.

And, imperceptibly, the flame billows into form.
She glances over her shoulder –
Laughing, teasing with delight.
She promises everything.
She guarantees nothing.

Consuming all sight.
And all the while vanishing,
And reappearing.
She lights all.
Devours none.


Fades into song alone.
Leaving all alone
With nothing but fragments of music on the wind.
And the dimmed day upon the fallen leaves.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Unenviable Life Prescribed

Ignore for a moment the media scrum. Forget all the many things which are ridiculous about this. If necessary, allow Republicanism to subside for a bit, and just focus on the noumena of the situation - the bare facts of what is about to happen.

A new child is about to be born. This is wonderful and beautiful, but in no way extraordinary or miraculous. It happens all the time. Move beyond that and see everything else that is about to happen to this particular child and just as a human story it's dizzying.

This child will be front page news the day it is born and the day it dies. It will be one of the most photographed human brings ever. Every stage of its development will be painstakingly followed by billions of onlookers. When they go to school, we'll all know when and where. When they have their first love, the romance will be broadcast, analysed, and dissected.

They have no choice of career. They have nothing to worry about, but little to dream of. Theirs is a life prescribed - a duteous pathway from which it is hard to deviate.

Now remember that this is nothing extraordinary. It is just a new child. Look at the life prescribed and apply it to yourself. Give due weight to the side-effects there of. Is it to be coveted and resented? 

Some people see their lives as a film in their heads, each moment caught by the unseen and often critical director in their minds. Now, imagine that director externalised, with his watching eye and his critical voice, showing you the rushes of your life in real time, and providing an unending and unwanted string of comment on every move you make. That is what the child is instantly heir too - a life in front of the unblinking lense. The concept is dizzying.

There shall be tremendous joy in this life. Few will have two million people cheer down the Mall at you for your very existence, but it is we who also make this child's life not as enviable as might be imagined. 

The child has the love of its parents, its family, a nation and vast swathes of the onlooking world. I wonder of those latter two. Will they also afford the infant the understanding it deserves?

Monday, July 8, 2013

And the Living Rooms of the Nation Exploded into Joy

Ramblings on the madness and mayhem of seeing a Brit win Wimbledon

He and I have one thing in common. Neither Andy Murray or I have any memory of what happened on that last point. I know that he served. I know that the point was awarded to him. I don’t remember if he hit a winner or if Djokovic lost the point. All I remember was jumping up and down, screaming like a lunatic with a number of others, and knowing that the living room I was in was like countless others around the country. A British man had won the Wimbledon title for the first time in 77 years.

Lord knows how many millions – how many hundreds of millions – had dreamt of this moment: the moment where, by hook or by crook, a British man would be “All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion of the World”, as the trophy proclaims. No-one – not one person – could have known what it would be like to be alive when the final ball crashed into the net (Djokovic did hit it into the net - I checked). It was perhaps the single greatest moment of sport I have ever experienced. Better than any of the partisan footballing triumphs I have seen. Better (just) than the Ashes being reclaimed in 2005. I can only imagine that England finally getting over its paradoxical sense of entitlement and inferiority, before actually fighting to claim the Football “Coupe de Monde”, and then doing so, could top this.

Do you want a match report? Look elsewhere – I can tell you very little. It was a match of high quality, even if (thankfully) Novak Djokovic did not bring his superlative, very, best game. The rallies were extraordinary. These two are capable of doing things with a racquet that defy belief. When a point looks almost certainly lost, they see opportunity, They are deservedly the best players in the world, and any encounter is instantly going to be classic. It was extraordinary, and there were countless moments when my comrades and I had to say “Fair play to Djokovic”.

However, I cannot tell you what happened in sufficient detail. It was not a match one remembered in detail. It was a living, breathing thing that one experienced. The question was not “What’s the score?” The question was “How’s he doing?” Was he ahead? Was he behind? Numbers like 6-4, 7-5 and 6-4 again meant nothing. It was all about being there, in flesh or in spirit, and being absorbed.

There was no greater example of this than the final game. Murray had three championship points. Three! Surely, this was the time. Surely, there was nothing that could stop this now. We all believed. It would be blasphemy not to have faith. Nevertheless, one-by-one, the points slipped away and suddenly we no longer believed that the 77-year wait was about to end. Rather, we believed that the most astonishing sporting collapse could be about to happen. That from the most invincible position, the Scotsman might produce a calamity that even the England cricket team would be incapable of.

However, he somehow survived and then, somehow, won in a manner that Goran Ivanisevic might have thought a little risky. God knows how, but he did it. He bloody did it, and a nation roared with joy.

The relief was terrific and it is a memory that was instantly immortal, but, obviously, Wimbledon has blown it. They don’t have a next series. Like when a TV show answers the “Will-they-won’t-they?” with “They will”, there will never be the same height of interest. We should all sidle off now. However, I sense that we’ll come back for more. After all, did you know that by 2014 we’ll have been waiting for one year for a Wimbledon champion?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Sun on the Horizon

Surely, I have been dreaming.
Which way is west?
Which is east?
All I see is the sun on the horizon.
Does it rise, or does it fall?

Say it rises:
What glory awaits when that red turns to blue?
We shall see the ocean from the height of the hills,
And beauty in a blade of grass,
And dance and sing and play
And play
And play,
As lovers smell roses in the garden.

Say it falls,
And all turns to dark.
What glories still await.
A canopy of stars, swirling in the cool of the moon,
Shall sit atop the madness of our night –
A madness of laughter in the forest
As friends join hands to walk toward the return of the dawn.

The sun still hangs on the horizon,
Neither ending nor beginning -
Simply a herald of whichever glory is to come.

The Quiet Rivalry

How Murray and Djokovic slowly but surely became the greatest rivalry in tennis

It is the final we wanted: the World Number One versus the World Number Two. Whereas in the recent past we may have ached for another instalment in the Federer-Nadal saga, now we crave more and more of Djokovic-Murray, a rivalry which has very quietly become one of the fiercest and most compelling in sport.

It began when they were children. Murray is seven days older than Djokovic, and the two competed against each other on the Juniors’ circuit. Their styles naturally lead to lengthy matches. Both are supremely good defensive players, but with a brutal aggression that they can call upon. Both have outrageous shotmaking ability. Crucially, both never give up on a point. As such, their matches feature numerous spectacular rallies.

It was Djokovic who reached his tennis maturity first, winning the Australian Open in 2008. However, it wasn’t until the early years of this decade that the two began to meet each other regularly in big matches. Their first Grand Slam meeting was also their first Grand Slam final against each other, as they fought for the 2011 Australian Open title. Murray was in his second consecutive final at the tournament, having been beaten by Roger Federer in the previous year. Djokovic was a former champion trying to reclaim his title. Sound familiar?

The match underlined Djokovic’s greater experience and confidence at the highest level. He defeated Murray in 2 hours and 39 minutes, 6-4, 6-2. 6-3. It was a comprehensive victory, and Murray’s third Grand Slam final defeat. He had not won a set in any of them. Djokovic, meanwhile, went on to complete a 43-match winning streak and have his most successful year to date, winning Wimbledon and the US Open later in the year.

At the start of 2012, the pair had a rematch, this time in the Australian Open Semi-Finals. The match was a bona fide classic and announced to the world that Murray was a pinhead away from being a Grand Slam champion. However, it was Djokovic who once again prevailed, this time in five gruelling sets, beating a valiant Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, 7-5 in 4 hours and 50 minutes. Djokovic went on to top that unbelievable show of endurance by beating Rafael Nadal in the final, the longest Grand Slam final in history (5 hours and 53 minutes).

Djokovic lost in the French Open final to Nadal a few months later. Had he won that match he would have held all four majors at the same time. Murray made the Wimbledon final, the first British man to do so in 74 years, but was beaten by Roger Federer. This was the final piece in the puzzle for Murray, who became a complete player after that tear-stained disappointment. He returned to Wimbledon a month afterwards for the Olympics, comfortably beating Djokovic in the Semis, 7-5, 7-5, before avenging his earlier defeat against Federer.

Murray went to the US Open as many people’s favourite to win the tournament, and he made it to the final where he faced Djokovic. The match was another classic. Murray ground out a two set lead, before Djokovic characteristically fought back. At 2 sets all, Murray took a loo break where he thought of all his previous disappointments and swore that it was not about to happen again. It worked, and he took the final set, winning the match 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2, in 4 hours and 52 minutes.

Djokovic was, as always, magnanimous in defeat, but he was hurt by it, and he responded in the best way possible. He defeated Murray in their subsequent three meetings, including this year’s Australian Open final, 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (7-3), 6-3, 6-2.

When they walk out onto Centre Court this afternoon, they shall do so as equals. It is folly to pick a favourite between them. It should be a long match and has all of the ingredients of a classic, and there should be many more of these to come.

Djokovic-Murray Career Stats
Grand Slam Titles
Djokovic 6-1 Murray
Career Titles
Djokovic 37-27 Murray
Djokovic 11-7 Murray
Grand Slam Head-to-Head
Djokovic 3-1 Murray
Grass Head-to-Head
Djokovic 0-1 Murray

The 21st Century's Greatest Wimbledon Finals

The Top Five Men's Singles Finals since 2000

5.            2012: Roger Federer bt. Andy Murray
    4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4
The first appearance of a British man in a Wimbledon Singles final for 74 years was always going to be an event, and in the early stages Andy Murray rose to the occasion, comfortably out-playing Roger Federer and winning his first set in a Grand Slam final. However, the rain came, play was suspended and the roof was closed, and suddenly Federer found another gear and eased away from his opponent. However, memories of the match itself, and Federer’s record-equalling seventh title, have become secondary to memories of Murray’s tearful post-match speech. “I’m getting closer”, he said, and he was right. A month later he beat the same opponent on the same court to win Olympic Gold, before going onto win his first Grand Slam title at the US Open.

4.            2009: Roger Federer bt. Andy Roddick
    5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 16-14
Andy Roddick was the greatest Wimbledon champion that never was, having been put to the sword by the peerless grass court tennis of Roger Federer on two previous occasions. However, this time he seemed like a genuine threat to the Swiss master, having put out the home favourite Andy Murray with ease in the semis. He continued that form, serving brilliantly before finding himself at 2 sets all having not been broken once. What followed was a titanic fifth set, the longest ever in a Grand Slam final, and the almighty tussle ended when Roddick’s serve was finally broken in the 30th game of the set as the ball hit the frame of his racket and ballooned into the sky. Federer’s victory was his 15th major title, surpassing the total of the onlooking Pete Sampras.

3.            2007: Roger Federer bt. Rafael Nadal
     7-6 (9-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 6-2
Federer’s total dominance of the sport had given him four consecutive Wimbledon titles, but he was being challenged by his great rival, the clay-court master, Rafael Nadal. The year before, Federer had comfortably dispatched the Spaniard in the final, but Nadal seemed more assured on grass than he had done before. Federer meanwhile was on the verge of equalling Bjorn Borg’s record of five consecutive titles, and he worked his way into a 2-1 lead in a thrillingly tight contest. However, Nadal suddenly stepped up his game and broke twice in the fourth set to win it 6-2, the Swiss uncharacteristically losing his cool over a Hawkeye line call in the first final where the system was used. Nadal twice had two break points in the early stages of the fifth, but when he lost the fourth of those his belief died and Federer rediscovered his champion qualities, winning the set with five straight games to claim that fifth title.

2.            2001: Goran Ivanisevic bt. Pat Rafter
    6-3. 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7
Two great champions that had never been met in the Men’s final in 2001, delayed to a Monday by the rain. Pat Rafter had been beaten by Pete Sampras the year before as the US master won the last of his seven Wimbledon titles. Ivanisevic meanwhile had been beaten by Agassi once and Sampras twice as the Americans had dominated the grass of Wimbledon in the 90s. Injury had forced Goran down the rankings and he had only got into the tournament on a wildcard. The set-up was extraordinary, and the final surpassed all expectations. Ivanisevic was in control but suffered from a bout of nerves, and ended up in an epic fifth set. Ivanisevic prayed on the spot were fortuitous shots had landed and waited until lucky balls were returned to him for his next serve. He finally triumphed in an amazing final game where he double-faulted three times before ultimately winning championship point on the fourth opportunity. He is the only wildcard ever to have won a Grand Slam.

1.            2008: Rafael Nadal by. Roger Federer
                6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7
Comfortably the best final of my lifetime, and what John McEnroe calls “The greatest match I’ve ever seen”, the 2008 final was the thrilling highpoint of the Nadal-Federer rivalry and saw the end of Federer’s five-year reign on Centre Court. Having been beaten twice before at this stage by Federer, Nadal took brutal control of the match, making Federer look truly vulnerable as he claimed the first two sets. After an 80 minute rain delay, Federer came back to win the third set on a tie-break, and then saved two championship points (one with the most thrilling, risky and exquisite backhands down the land as you will ever see) in a fourth set tie-break as he levelled the match at two sets all. A further rain delay saw the fifth set being played in increasing darkness. Federer got to within two points of completing the most incredible comeback and claiming a record sixth consecutive title, but Nadal held serve and at 21:15, Nadal served on championship point, and Federer ultimately netted a return. Nadal fell to the floor in triumph as flashbulbs lit up the south London sky. The match lasted 4 hours and 48 minutes – the longest Wimbledon final in history – and, with numerous rain delays, took just under 7 hours to complete.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tennis' Symphonic Era

The time of the Big Four was a glorious medley of classical styles

With the extraordinary events in SW19 this week, one senses the end of an era. This is not to say that Federer is finished, or that Rafa’s career is on the downward slide. They are still competitors and I would be unsurprised if they added to their trophy hauls. The indicator that things have changed at the top of the men’s game is this: the final we want to see in any given tournament (on a purely unpatriotic, non-partisan, neutral level) no longer involves Federer or Nadal. We want to see Djokovic vs Murray. In short, the tennis world seems to be changing, and it is perhaps time to reflect upon the era which seems to have drawn to a close.

Of late, John McEnroe has been talking of his era – what he calls the era of “Personalities”, about which Martin Amis has written so vehemently. At any rate, the era of Connors, McEnroe and Borg was a time of rock stars. Connors was a maverick who screamed rock-and-roll; Borg could have easily been in ABBA, and McEnroe, whiny, self-involved but brilliant, would have been very successful as an Art Garfunkel impersonator.

If that was the tone of the era between the 70s and 80s, then what we have just experienced has been nothing short of classical, symphonic delight. First there was Federer, who was Mozart, effortlessly producing super-human works of artistry and driving Andy Roddick (his Salieri) to distraction. Then came Beethoven, in the form of Rafael Nadal – brutish, bold, loud, brilliant, and almost certainly doomed to have his career hampered by a debilitating injury. His comeback this year from injury to win 43 of his 45 matches, and claim an historic 8th French Open crown had something of the 9th Symphony about it – joyous, magnificent, and created in defiance of his body failing him.

The antidote to all of this is the violence and bombast of a Wagner - a man whose work is brutal and often stirring, and carries on at tremendous length. Enter Novak Djokovic, the Serb whose abilities in defence are unbelievable. I have seen players hit a ball that has forced Djokovic into full stretch on his backhand just to return it, leaving his opponent, the court at his mercy, to send the ball to the same extreme on the opposite side, and Djokovic gets it back every time. Watching Djokovic play tennis is like watching Mike Hussey bat. You begin to lose any belief that you can get anything past him, and then, as your frustration is reaching fever pitch, he unleashes a violent blast that scorches its way past you.

This leaves us with Andy Murray. 2012 was his breakthrough year, but he has not yet really found his tone as a champion. A second Grand Slam title will see a character more clearly develop, but he seems to have something of Dvorak about him. Thrilling and strong, he shows flashes of Wagner’s fire and brimstone, but tempers it with an edge of elegant splendour.

Murray and Djokovic have hitherto been defined by Federer and Nadal’s pre-existing rivalry. It seems that Federer’s star is waning and, regrettably, Nadal is going to struggle with injuries. The next era is going to be defined by Djokovic and Murray. One wonders how they will be changed by what will follow them.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Trouble with Writing

The trouble with writing is that from the first stroke of a letter you have limited yourself. The blank page is a screen upon which your mind’s eye can project the infinite possibilities that your head can conjure. Any given blank page can end up containing anything.

“She exhaled a cloud of smoke that caught the blue light as it rose away from her perfectly imperfect face, whilst the sound of the music swirled between them, conjuring all manner of fantasies of what might be; of common joy and exquisite despair in equal measure.”

“The Gredunkadunk was a miserable creature. Long and fat in form, and stood upon four squat legs, riddled with humps and bumps and warts, this twisted, sweaty monster, stared at the boy, snarling its aggression at him with all the venom of its own self-loathing, but the boy stood still, fearlessly deflecting the nastiness of this beast with a simple kind-heartedness that did not admit to any instantaneous negative reaction.”

“His feet flew across the cobbled streets, the intermittent pain of the stones jabbing through the soles of his shoes only spurring him on and on, never once looking round at his pursuers, or ever letting his grip on the briefcase loosen as he sped into the night, white lights casting his flailing shadow onto the wall.”

“She fell, and Emily watched her. Her: Emily never knew the woman’s name, but Emily never forgot her curled brown hair float around her head as the air rushed past her, as that youthful body executed its terminal dance with gravity with increasing speed and terrible beauty.”

“ ‘One more, vicar?’
James had never cared for Antony’s humour. Studying Theology at university was a decision he had made from a misguided valuation of what was expedient to him at the time (all petty estimations taken from half-considered snapshots of what-was-what), but merely on the level of enquires as to his career ambitions, it had not been worth it. If he’d had a penny for every time some wag had asked him whether he was seeking a life in the cloth, any eventual vow of poverty would have proved rather difficulty to take.”

In short, the possibilities are endless, as is the desire to compose and to share. It is thus very hard just to pick one.

Friday, May 24, 2013


“Archie, you colossal shit! You’ve drunk all the Blue Label.”

Martin was not happy. This was his general state. He did once crack a genuine smile of contentment, but that was in Amsterdam and he soon forgot why he had done so. It was his considered opinion that, as mistresses go, happiness was the most fickle and that he would be better off letting it go on its merry way, rather than wasting his time constantly chasing it. On this particular occasion though, Martin was actively unhappy.

His brother, the aforementioned Archie – a man as affably diminutive as that name might imply – had consumed (through blissful ignorance) his sibling’s most treasured scotch. He had only had one glass (though it should be noted that it was a large one), and, in the process, had finished off the bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue. The mitigating fact that there had only been a glass (and a dribble) left was totally negated for Martin by the undeniable truth that Archie was not even a scotch drinker, as was made evident by his decision to put water in with the whisky. It was, from Martin’s perspective, a tale of several solecisms, and his raging sense of injustice was made all the worse, because, as is so often the way in these incidents, the object of his anger was beyond the reach of his wrath, Archie having left the night before for Swansea.

Martin poured himself a double Famous Grouse, a blend which he only kept strictly for use in hot toddies, but in this case he was willing to make an exception, so much so that, having stared mournfully into the glass, he made it a triple.

He sat, ponderously. Martin did ponderously very well. It was how he maintained his air of detached intelligence, which filled him with a melancholy which he hoped might make him mysteriously attractive, but actually made him look like a slapped St. Bernard. He continued to sip, quickly realising that, as he was loathed to let a single drop go to waste, the decision to make it a triple merely meant that he was a glutton for punishment. Suddenly the thought occurred to him that he really should not get so upset. He was young. He was affluent. There would be other bottles of Blue Label.

Surely, he should brighten up a little. It would help him, make him more approachable. People might actually listen to his jokes. If he was having a very good night, they might even laugh. Perhaps by pretending to be cheerful, he might actually happen to really become cheerful, much as in a story he had once heard about a young man who had pretended to be an airline pilot so successfully that he was accepted as such by airline workers (he did not recall how the story ended, but he could only assume that the consequences were amusing at first, but ultimately disastrous).

This was an intriguing idea. If he just put on the same sort of fake smile that he saw countless others do on an hourly basis, it was perfectly possible that he might become more likeable.

And at the thought of the word “likeable”, he instantaneously lost all interest in the idea. He had never cared for the word “likeable”. It seemed so tinny and inconsequential. Think of it when it’s used: “Oh, Jeremy’s so likeable.” Certainly, Jeremy sounds borderline bearable, but he also sounds like the sort of person who consistently loses drinking games and humiliates himself afterwards, gets overwhelmed in group conversations, and is so utterly inconsequential that his acquanitances, not wishing to offend anyone, simply call him “likeable” in order to safely indicate that they did not have any dislike toward Jeremy, and to successfully hide the fact that they might struggle to pick the wretch out from an identity parade.

“Best drop the whole idea,” muttered Jeremy, after another regrettable intake of Grouse. “If I continue to be an inexpungible spot of grey, at least people will be glad to see the back of me.” With that he downed the rest of the tumbler, winced a little, and returned to bed.

It was 4 am, and the June light was all but dawned. This made it hard to regain unconsciousness, and when Martin got to work later in the morning he was, if anything, worse than usual.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Farewell Sir Alex

As a Manchester United fan, I look back on the numbing shock of the sudden end of Sir Alex Ferguson's 26 year reign.

Aside from the Queen, Sir Alex Ferguson has been the only constant during my life. I have lived through 12 England managers, nine Italian Prime Ministers, five British Prime Ministers, four US Presidents, four Archbishops of Canterbury, three Popes, but only one manager of Manchester United Football Club. On a more personal level, he's been at the helm of the club for almost as long as my elder brother has been alive, and that guy's old. He can remember when the Tories last won an election.

I and millions of other United supporters are going into uncharted territory. We know that we are hated. No matter what any of us do, we will be despised. One of the most treasured compliments I have ever received was from a Liverpool supporting friend of mine who said: “You’re the only United fan I like.” The roots of this antagonism are many and varied, but one of them is undoubtedly Sir Alex Ferguson.

If we are frank, Sir Alex was what made us different from other clubs, not just because of his success, but because of his longevity and durability. Since his appointment in 1986, Real Madrid have had 24 managers, Inter Milan have had 19, Chelsea 18, Bayern Munich and Juventus 14 and AC Milan 13. The managerial merry-go-round was something that happened to other clubs.

A trophy-less season was no disaster: Sir Alex would set it right. Three seasons without a Premier League title (a difficulty that brings whole new meaning to the phrase “first world problems”) was troubling, but we knew Sir Alex would set it right. Our biggest player was threatening to leave: Sir Alex would set it right. With perhaps the exception of the continental challenge of the supreme Barcelona side, there was no problem to which Sir Alex did not have the answer. In terms of longevity, Arsenal have their own version of Ferguson in Arsène Wenger, and despite having now been trophy-less for eight seasons, they still say “In Arsène We Trust”. It wasn’t trust with Sir Alex: it was blind but justified faith.

We have known that this day has been coming, and we all know that we’ll never see anything like him again. There will not be another era of 13 league titles in 21 years, and when you have become accustomed to such incredible success, the comedown from the high is going to be difficult. In fact, Sir Alex’s retirement is nothing short of terrifying, and everybody knows it. The news hadn’t been known for a few minutes before friends started telling me that United are doomed to plummet, and the final twist in the Matt Busby comparisons came home to roost: not too long after that great man’s retirement, we were relegated to the second tier. In this modern era, it strikes me as unlikely that a club of such resources as United could descend so low and so quickly again, but a new era is upon us. We have lost the object of our unquestioning faith, and there is no replacement.

But, we have always known this was going to come, and we always knew this age wouldn’t last. We have been beyond blessed by a genius and now it is for us to know what it is to be like other clubs. That sounds arrogant and it probably is, but there can be no denying that Ferguson’s United has been unlike any other era for any club in the history of English football. He and his reign have been genuinely exceptional, and he will be missed by many of his rivals too, as the competition was so greatly valued. Indeed, for many fans of football, when next season comes, it will be a very strange beast. What will English football be like without its Godfather?

At the end of it all, there’s but one thing for this United fan to say: thank you Sir Alex.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

This Present Moment

Under soft sunshine and sweet songs,
The cares of day disappear,
And all the worries of past and future,
Give way to present glories.

There is no sorrow in the springtime heat.
The white snows are beaten,
And summer’s reign is heralded
By the white of blossom.

Peace is all that the noon allows.
The sun is early to rise
And late to depart,
And its generous time with us,
Lends we beings an immortal illusion –
A faith that the sunlit seconds will roll on
And on, one to another without cease,
Until the sunset comes at our bidding,
Giving way to clear, beautiful, lyrical night.

Farewell care and farewell fear.
Let the birds be as sirens to you,
The budding flowers as rocks in your sea.
Run your fearsome ship of yesterday
Onto the coast of beauty,
And never into a tomorrow sail again.

© Jack Blackburn, 23rd April 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

After the Thaw - Original Version

This poem was composed after an exercise at drama school, where I performed a character in a long-term improvisation for three days. The improvisation was set in 1649, and my character's name was Emmanuel, a veteran of the English Civil War. This poem went through many different versions as the writing was subsequently incorporated into a performance piece in a play. This is the Emmanuel version.

After the thaw, the sun was shining,
And the warmth had returned.
He had been alone, and he was happy alone.
But then he was changed.
He sipped from a sweetly poisoned cup.
And thirsted forever more.

Before, he would briefly encounter
And then release without regret.

Her stillness. Her intensity.

This was not mere satisfaction.
It was a joy he did not understand.
It grew in him,
Beautiful and cruel.

When he woke, it was night.
And the heat of the day,
Had been flooded by the cool of the moon.

And he was alone.

And in his solitude he felt
A feeling from the heat of battle.

He was afraid.

© Jack Blackburn, 21st April 2013