Tuesday, 31 December 2019

HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM IRRESISTIBLE TARGETS

You may have noticed a certain bit of radio silence from IT in the past two months. I have
been considering how to move forward in the New Year, and do more writing which can
help me earn a living, which IT patently does not, nor do many of the pieces which appear
elsewhere gratis on my part. I'm not sure I want to reduce this to being simply a notice
board for work published elsewhere; I'm also not convinced it's worth the effort of having
a review/essay site for its own sake; it reminds me too much of fanzine writing when I was
much much younger. I enjoy it, obviously, but I am perhaps unsuited to monetizing social
media.

I haven't reached any conclusions yet, but my idea is to transfer the archive of IT into a
website. My work on Medium(including the estimable Arc Digital site) and Patreon has not
attracted as much notice as I might have expected -- the difference between being involved and
committed perhaps.

In the meantime, I wish you all a very Happy New Year: what more can we hope for?

JOE BIDEN, JEREMY CORBYN & THE US ELECTION: MY ARC DIGITAL ESSAY

I did another piece for Arc Digital on Joe Biden's claim that being 'too far' left cost Labour
the election in the UK and would cost Democrats the election in the US. Is he right? Use this link
and you can read the article on Medium without enrolling....
https://arcdigital.media/american-corbyns-does-labours-electoral-catastrophe-disqualify-the-american-left-ecc7033ad70?source=friends_link&sk=05b48ee257a3c1b585e350a07c78f4f7

Thursday, 28 November 2019

THANKSGIVING AT IRON MIKE'S FOUNDRY

I wrote this for my weekly Patreon column, Friday Morning Tight End, as a freebie special, so I decided I should offer it here to those of you whom I have disappointed by not posting more here in the past few months. The column picks all the games every week, I'm running at about 2/3 correct, and subscriptions are $3 a month. Try it at patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte 

Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday, just as fall may be my favourite season. In the US it is the biggest travel weekend of the year, and with the traditional turkey, like Christmas without the attendant trauma of gift-giving. In Britain, Christmas is the biggest travel time, even though it seems to torture most people (Scrooge is after all, British) and being British they took the day they dislike and extended it by another day, then closed all public transport and annually locate highway works where no one is working along most of the major roads. But it's also the greatest football holiday, and football permeates not only the day but the whole weekend.

Oddly enough, I never played in a Thanksgiving game. Most colleges don't have them, because their students (including the football team) head home, but nowadays, of course money talks, and it's also a late Thanksgiving, which means that although the Egg Bowl, between Mississippi and Mississippi State will be played on Thursday, the rest of the weekend will also feature such match-ups as The Clean Old-Fashioned Hate, between Georgia and Georgia Tech; Vanderbilt vs Tennessee; Clemson vs South Carolina (Palmetto Bowl); Ohio State vs Michigan; the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn and two of the West Coast's biggies: Oregon vs Oregon State (The Civil War) and Washington vs Washington State (The Apple Bowl).

Of course the extending of the college season through conference playoffs has been a factor here too, not least because conferences realigned to add enough teams to justify a playoff. So the Texas-Texas A&M match which was a staple of the November calendar is now gone.

Thanksgiving morning was usually the time for the great high school rivalries. My dad played for West Haven against New Haven's Hillhouse High in a game in 1943 that drew over 20,000 to the Yale Bowl; Hillhouse had the legendary Levi Jackson, one of the best players to by-pass the NFL, on their team. But I played at a prep school, whose team was mostly local post-grads doing a 'prep' year before college (our most famous was Yale's Albie Booth; now it's Shady McCoy) but whose student body was about half boarders, who like college students went home for the holiday.

West Haven wasn't playing Hillhouse any longer when I was a kid; New Haven's Commercial High had been rebranded Wilbur Cross and they now played, so West Haven had no natural rivalry, and my dad wasn't interested. He also didn't care about the traditional Milford-Stratford game: teams from towns on opposite sides of the Housatonic River. That one disappeared as both towns added a second school, when Milford added a third, Milford High itself disappeared. There is a more famous cross-river rivalry, however, the State Line Game between Easton (Pennsylvania) High against Phillipsburg (New Jersey), towns on opposite sides of the Delaware River, and each a power within their own state. So we would play touch football in the yard, or down by the right of way to the beach, at least until the year we were up at my uncle's in Chelmsford, Mass and our game attracted a group of neighbours. The game sort of broke up after my brother's complaint about my coverage degenerated into a fist-fight: Myles Garrett eat your heart out.

Connecticut, where I grew up, boasts the oldest high school rivalry: New London High against Norwich Free Academy, now called, somewhat tackily,Ye Olde Ball Game, which started in 1875, but hasn't been played continuously. The oldest one that has been played continuously is between Boston Latin and English High (which for some reason isn't called Boston English) which has been played every year since 1887. Most of the rest of the oldest rivalries are between the posh New England prep (ie private) schools, and probably featured people who went on to run America: Andover/Exeter; Milton/Noble & Greenough; Groton/St Mark's. You also get anomalies: in Connecticut Derby/Shelton and Ansonia/Naugatuck are both big games in the Housatonic Valley that draw Thanksgiving crowds, but the Ansonia/Derby game during the season is actually bigger.

People think the Bears-Lions was the start of Thanksgiving pro football, but actually there were four games in 1920, a couple featuring NFL teams against non-league teams, including the Elyria (Ohio) Athletics, who played a scoreless draw with the NFL's Columbus Panhandles. The Bears (then called the Decatur Staleys) played the Chicago Tigers. Fixed rivalries came and went: the Packers and Lions was the big one when I was a kid, at least until Vince Lombardi refused to continue playing on Thanksgiving after a 13-13 draw in Detroit (in which Nick Pietrosante, who played his high school ball at Ansonia High scored the Lions' only TD. “Four days is not enough time to get ready for a game” Lombardi told commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Three games is overkill, but this is America and we give thanks that more is always better and money (more money) always talks. But we really should allow some time for people to enjoy their dinner without the TV drawing them away—it used to do that even when there was only one, or two (the AFL's made it two, then in 1966 the NFL moved against the AFL by adding the second, with the Cowboys as regular hosts) to distract you. The prime time game is fine, I guess. It's a shame the oddities of the NFL schedule make it hard to make Dallas-Houston, for example, or the Giants-Jets a permanent Thanksgiving Day game; you'd think their computers could deal with that. I'd love to see Chicago-Detroit be regular, and maybe Green Bay-Minnesota too (you could play the late one in whichever dome team was at home).

So enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, even if you're here in Britain and it's not a holiday. I used to enjoy hosting the triple header at the Number One Sports Bar into the wee hours of the morning, just to be left with the real hardcore who were flipping  metaphorical bird, not a turkey, at their jobs. Whether you do celebrate or not, whether you watch the games or not, stop for a moment and just think about what you have to be thankful for. It's worth a special day to remind you.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

BY THE GRACE OF GOD & SPOTLIGHT: Studies in abuse and faith

As you may have noticed I am not writing very much here at the moment, and in truth I am not writing
as much as I should be. But I did write an essay for Medium about two films concerned with child abuse and the Catholic Church, Francois Ozon's By The Grace Of God compared with Tom McCarthy's  Spotlight.  Both fine films, but for different reasons....here's the link.

FAKE NEWS AND THE BRITAIN TRUMP: MY ARC DIGITAL ESSAY

I've written a piece for Arc Digital about the links between Boris Johnson's election campaign and its following the Donald Trump/Steve Bannon blueprint. It was originally going to be much longer and delve deeper into the 2016 referendum, but there just wasn't room. Check it out, this link ought to get you in without the paywall!

Friday, 18 October 2019

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Elijah Cummings, recent foil (and thus, inevitably, target) of Donald Trump as head of the House Oversight Committee, was online at the Guardian yesterday, and is in the paper paper today. You can link to the online version here. It is pretty much as I wrote it; a couple of literals snuck in, but they also edited it nicely to make clearer his children and relationships. There were a couple of other stories. One I left out because I didn't see it as relevant, which involved the murder of his nephew at college in Virginia. Another was the mini-scandal around his debts, including on taxes, at one point in his life. The source I was reading attributed it to ill-health, which I thought might have some relevance given his poor health in the last few years, but another source mentioned his child support payments, which led me to dig out his first wife and the parentage of his three kids. I left the debt out, but as I said, I thought the piece in the end explains his children well. One of his daughters was also in the news when it turned out she was using Cummings' congressional car while driving for Lyft, which isn't quite at Hunter Biden levels of scandal, but did get a lot of press.

Last summer I posed for a picture in my Baltimore Elite Giants shirt (they were a team in baseball's Negro Leagues, and the Elite was pronounced ee-lite) in support of Rep. Cummings when Trump was attacking him, and the city of Baltimore, in which I worked one summer and which I liked immensely, because, even though it was still more or less de facto segregated, it was a real city. Cummings strikes me as an old-fashioned machine kind of politician, although the machine has changed as it constituent parts have changed, and one who, when he had his opportunity on the bigger stages, didn't let that constituency down. RIP

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

DANIEL SILVA'S ENGLISH SPY

The English Spy is the first novel by Daniel Silva I have read, but it is instructive in revealing some of the secrets of his immense popularity in spy fiction. The story begins with the detonation of a bomb aboard a yacht, which kills an English princess, part Diana part Kate, and sparks a massive investigation. The early signs lead English spy chief Graham Seymour, engaged in an ongoing feud/battle with the head of MI5 who is his former boss, to enlist the help of the Israelis, who have identified the killer.'He's an old friend' says the head of Mossad. 'Of yours, or ours?' asks Seymoure. 'Of yours', Uzi Navot replies. 'We have no friends.' Which means Silva's Gabriel Allen, the art restorer about to become head of the Mossad, comes on board. And because they are chasing after a former IRA bomb maker turned international terrorist named Eamonn Quinn, the two men turn to Christopher Keller, an assassin who once knew Quinn while he was infiltrating the IRA on behalf of the British.

From this beginning flows an international game of cat and mouse, a plot that is so inventive it was surprising Quinn, who appears to have structured much of it, does not get enough credit for the brilliance of his plan. And of course, it all points back to Ireland, recalling the past killings and betrayals that are the mark of international spies and assassins.

Allen, in many ways, is the English spy of the title; or perhaps it's Keller, and the two make an interesting pair, one which seems to have been set up for the future (note: I have not read further, or indeed back, in the saga, of which this is the fifteenth). In Silva's world the English are the civilised masters of the game, the Israelis are the harder edged forces having to deal with a more violent reality. Allen is the exception; the Israeli who to all extents and purposes is the very model of a modern MI operative. Their opponents, Irish or Arab, are almost universally evil, a lesser breed. And the Americans are the bulls in the china shop, blundering, unsophisticated, unreliable. It's an interesting world view. It's the sort of stuff I used to see businessmen reading in the business class lounge at Dusseldorf airport.

The story comes down to personal face to face violence. There are two former Russian sleeper agents involved, there are hints of lost love, and all the while Silva's new, Italian wife, is about to give birth in an Israeli hospital. The resolution makes sense, although there is a coda which is appropriate enough, but seems somehow forced, given the nature of Quinn and Keller. There is nothing fancy about Silva's prose, but he keeps the plot moving at a good pace and, as I said, the plot is immensely satisfying.

The English Spy by Daniel Silva
Harper Collins £8.99 ISBN 9870007552337

BREXIT: A MODEST PROPOSAL My suggestions via Arc Digital

I've written a piece for Arc Digital suggesting an easy way to make the current conundrum over Brexit something more bearable, entertaining and successful for all concerned. The piece was recommended to readers on Medium, in their World section, and they have provided a link by which you can read it and laugh without necessarily having to subscribe there, though that's not a bad idea. You can find that link here....happy reading

Monday, 30 September 2019

JOSEPH WILSON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Joseph C Wilson, the former US Ambassador who went to Niger to investigate whether Iraq was trying to buy uranium, and discovered that, contrary to the Bush administration's claims, they weren't, is online on the Guardian's website now. You can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it. Having to condense the whole business and combine it with Wilson's life made for little excess to cut away! I was amazed at the relatively easy the road to entering governmental service seemed to be for both Plame and Wilson. It might have been nice to expand the whistleblower motif to today's situation, where the case for keeping secret the identity of the CIA whistleblower re Trump's Ukraine phone call  is reinforced by the Plame Affair. I also would have liked to have more detail about the Wilson/Clinton relationship; I wonder who would play Clinton in that movie. I've never seen Fair Game but I might have to now after seeing the still the Guardian printed: it's interesting how much less serious Sean Penn and Naomi Watts look than their real life counterparts, and how it's actually Plame who's flattered by the actor portraying her.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

BIG GAME: LIFESTYLES OF THE RICH AND FOOTBALL FAMOUS

There is an interesting moment in Big Game when author Mark Leibovich mentions he had been reading 'an old book about the NFL, The League, by David Harris. It's a throwaway (the book is not mentioned in the index) because he's identifying where he first heard the story of Mark Davis' bar-mitzvah (Davis, son of Al, is now the Raiders' owner). Big Game is a strange book, because it basically cannot do what it purports to want to do, which is examine the NFL in the 'dangerous times' of Donald Trump, but in essence that is exactly what David Harris' book did, in 1986, which hardly makes it an 'old' book. Harris already saw the NFL in decline, and wrote about the way the business functioned as it became a sort of corporate monopoly. The NFL has prospered exponentially since then but Harris was also prescient in the very sense that Leibovich wants to examine, the sense that the league is a mirror and a signpost for American society. In the end, however, his book turns out to be more a part of that mirror than a signpost toward a better future.
The book instead is a sort of corollary to Leibovich's main gig writing from Washington about celebrity the New York Times magazine, a Sunday colour supplement that celebrates celebrity at the same time it bemoans its pernicious influence. Given that the book was written at the time Donald Trump (himself a frustrated NFL owner) was attacking the NFL (which is heavily dependent on its exemption from government monopoly regulation) this created a perfect storm for Leibovich to investigate, if not exploit. Which is odd also in the sense that, to an American audience of football fans, there will be little that is new, while to a British audience, much that needs to be explained is left for the American audience that already knows the stories. He admits he doesn't always cover football, which makes him somewhat similar to his New York Times colleague who covers horse racing but is next to him in the Super Bowl press box because, well, this is the New York Times.

Leibovich is a Patriots fan too, which puts him in the centre of the Ballghazi scandal, which is not really the best way to approach the structural truths about the NFL. Instead he tries to draw a metaphoric connection between the Patriots, Bob Kraft, Tom Brady, Bill Belichicks and Trump (not a difficult connection so far, as the three Pats are Trump 'friends', and Kraft at least was a major donor). It takes him until election night, and watching future ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson, to make that connection, and he decides he has grown 'weary of the … moral agonizing that surrounded the game'. It was as if he had just discovered NFL owners, as he puts it, 'with few exceptions, lean Republican'. The way Gronk laying out for a pass may be said to be 'leaning' just before his body smashes against the turf. He concludes that 'for consumers of football, politics and life in America, this had been a brutal season.'  Before you say 'no shit Sherlock', he never has really explained whence that brutality comes.

So what you get is really Lifestyles Of The Rich And Football Famous, which is somewhat revealing and sometimes entertaining, but never really on message. Unless the message is that the NFL is, for its owners, a different sort of big game, which would contradict the book's subtitles, since the times don't seem that dangerous to them, especially as the money continues to roll in. Like F Scott Fitzgerald, he's discovered the rich are different from you and me, and he's sharp enough to realise that Commissioner Roger Goodell's selling of the NFL as a liberation for the boring workaday lives of average Joes, is a sham...like a sort of reality TV.

But he admits that he is also a fan, and he seems to be seeking solace of his own when he interviews Tom Brady for a NYTimes Magazine profile, and Brady, while seeming perfectly pleasant in a business-like way, misses the chance to befriend him. All of a sudden he's lost in a sort of limbo where the celebrity life-style of the marketing TB12 conflicts with his idea of the game, and it's no fun to read about his difficulties with access—it reminded me of Richard Hoffer's book about Mike Tyson, where Don King is boycotting Sports Illustrated because they are part of the Time Warner empire alongside HBO, and Hoffer can't get any access, and all the best lines in his book are quotes from boxing beat writers. Then again, Leibovich can't fit that into the bigger picture: it's not easy, like when he deals with owners. But he does write very well and movingly about his own father, who was dying at the time, beyond trying to link the event to Brady's parents.

He's very funny about the owners as they parade around meetings with their latest trophy wives or girlfriends (and Kraft's deflations at a Florida massage parlor just down the road from Mar A Lago would have been more grist for that mill) like richer protologists at a proctologist convention, and the very best scene in the book comes when he spends some time interviewing Jerry Jones in his private bus, drinking Johnny Walker Blue from giant Cowboys 24 oz plastic stadium cups. Jones leaves him passed out in the trailer.  It's Jones who has the best line in the book: “Do you think the (TV) networks pay these rights fees to broke dicks? With their asses hanging out?” But sadly, he never talks to a network exec, or a former network exec without a skin in the game.

There is a constant irritation in the book when you realise it's been pieced together from various separate interviews (composted, too, meaning the use of off-cut material from earlier interviews) as characters get reintroduced, one, Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz, at the heart of Ballghazi (aka Deflategate) twice within the space of five pages. And there are insights like 'pie is delicious' which seem less than revelatory. But perhaps the real problem is, as Leibovich says, “football is football, angst is for writers”. Perhaps a contrast of the real angst of football with the faux-angst of 'protecting the Shield' and keeping the cash flowing might have been more instructive.

BIG GAME: The NFL In Dangerous Times
by Mark Leibovich
Harper Collins £16.99 ISBN 9780008317614

Thursday, 29 August 2019

FOOTBALL IS UPON US: MUCH MORE MIKE

The NFL season is rapidly approaching, and I've done a couple of deep previews of it. The first. which I wrote at the beginning of August, has just been published in The American magazine here in the UK. You can read it in print or online; go to this link for details. It picks all the divisions and also previews the four games in London this fall.

Then this week I did another, more detailed, preview for Betfair: grouping teams by Elite, Contenders, Dark Horses, Pretenders, and Forget It. Where did your team get slotted? Check it out at Betfair here. There will also be a Betfair video podcast up next week just before the season starts.

And of course if you're really hard-core and want complete run-downs you can go to my patreon site right here and read my off-season run downs of each team. They're done division by division, with looks at the full roster. There will be a feature or two next week before I start picking every game of the season with my Friday Morning Tight End column--67% right last year.


Monday, 26 August 2019

JIM BOUTON: THE LAST WORD

Although I'd recorded the interview with Matthew Bannister a month ago, my appreciation of Jim Bouton has just been broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Last Word. It's a wonderful show: it begins with Peter Fonda and ends with Bouton: two icons of Sixties rebellion, of counter-culture, from different ends of the American spectrum. You can listen to the show on BBC IPlayer (actually now rebranded Sounds! to appeal to those too young to seek out obituary programmes) with this link . Fonda leads off the show; my bit is at the end, starting around 21 mins. The rest of the show is as interesting as usual, but I do love the way Fonda and Bouton play off against each other.

In case you missed my story at Arc Digital, going into more detail, you can link to that here.