Wednesday, 31 January 2018

SUPER BOWL LII: THE SUPER BOWL SHUFFLE

One of the most interesting side stories in Super Bowl LII is the overlap of players between the two teams, interesting enough for me to write this piece and send it to a website where I have written before, who forwarded it their live sports department, who lost it for a couple of days, then let me know there was no space for it. So I offer it here, as an IT Super Bowl Special. Note that it's written assuming most things need to be explained. Note too, on the topic of explanation, I will be covering the game for the BBC on Sunday....

PATRIOTS AND EAGLES: THE SUPER BOWL SHUFFLE 

In last year's amazing Super Bowl comeback victory by the New England Patriots, defensive end Chris Long made one of the game's biggest 'hidden' plays, drawing a holding penalty against Atlanta's Jake Matthews, which helped push the Falcons out of range for a field goal that might have made their lead unassailable. Last year running back LaGarrette Blount scored 18 touchdowns for the Patriots, leading the league, but after a fumble in the Super Bowl, he didn't see the field again.

This year both Long and Blount are returning to the Super Bowl, but with the Philadelphia Eagles, not the Patriots. Their quest to stop the seeming inevitability of another Patriots trophy gives them a chance to do what only five other players have ever done: win Super Bowl rings in consecutive years, but with two different teams.

Oddly enough, three of those five players did it while having to beat their previous team along the way. Ken Norton, Jr, son of the heavyweight boxing champ, actually won three in a row: with Dallas in 1992 and 1993, after which he moved to San Francisco to win with the 49ers in 1994. His teammate that year was 'Neon' Deion Sanders; in 1995 Sanders won with the Cowboys.

Brandon Browner became the only player to get his second ring while beating the team with which he got his first. Though with an asterisk.  Browner got a ring with Seattle Seahawks, although he missed the second half of the 2013 season and the playoffs. The next year he was with the Patriots when they beat Seattle 28-24 in the Super Bowl; his awareness of his old team's plays helped Malcolm Butler make the game-saving interception in that one.

No one remembers Derrick Martin, a reserve defensive back who collected rings with Green Bay in 2010 and the New York Giants in 2011. Even fewer remember Russ Hochstein, another three-ring player. Hochstein, a backup lineman, played in only one game with Tampa Bay in 2002 and was released before they won the Super Bowl, but received a ring anyway. He was signed by the Patriots, where he wound up starting briefly and winning rings for the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Former Tampa defensive star Warren Sapp guaranteed the Patriots would lose a Super Bowl because Hochstein was starting, saying he had no talent. The Pats and Hochstein won anyway.

The presence Long and Blount on the Eagles' roster highlights a Venn diagram of convergence between the teams. Long made two key plays for the Eagles' in their conference championship win over Minnesota: hitting quarterback Case Keenum to force an intercepted pass which was returned for a touchdown, and then recovering a Keenum fumble which led to another score. Long had played in New England on a year-year contract, after a long career of frustration with the Rams; he sought a new challenge with the Eagles. In effect, he played this year simply for that challenge; he donated his base salary for the season to educational charities.

Long's pass rush ability was orchestrated by Eagles' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, known for his aggressive blitzing, a defensive strategy almost opposite of New England's 'bend but don't break' containment. But Schwartz got his first job in the NFL with Patriots' coach Bill Belichick, when Belichick was coaching the Cleveland Browns and hired the young Schwartz as a scout. Then Schwartz got his first coaching job in Baltimore under Belichick disciple Ozzie Newsome. Another ex-Pat in the Eagles' defense is linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, whose ability to play on special teams (kicking plays) is the core of his value.

Blount wasn't offered a new contract by the Patriots, and signed with the Eagles as the power-running part of a committee of rushers. His role diminished in mid-season when Philadelphia traded for London-born running back Jay Ajayi, who'd fallen out of favour in Miami and was thus available relatively cheaply. But the combination of the two allows the Eagles to batter and wear down opposing defenses.

It's not all one-way traffic, however. The Patriots' leading rusher is Dion Lewis, who came into the league with the Eagles, but was released after a series of injuries, and eventually signed by New England off the street when no other team was interested. The star of the Patriots' comeback victory in their conference final against Jacksonville was Danny Amendola, a slot receiver who was signed by the Eagles after Dallas released him, and then claimed by the Rams where he had five seasons before New England signed him to replace Wes Welker, which is exactly what Amendola had done in college at Texas Tech. New England's offensive coordinator is Josh McDaniels; McDaniels had coached Amendola in his one year as offensive coordinator with the Rams.

On defense, cornerback Eric Rowe will match up against his old team after being acquired in a trade last season. Rowe's price was the same as what the Eagles paid for Ajayi, a fourth-round pick in the draft of college players, so you could say everything evens out. And a key defensive player for the Pats, safety Patrick Chung, left New England for Philadelphia in 2013, to play for his old college coach, Chip Kelly with the Eagles. After one season, Chung was released, and resigned with the Pats, where he's been a starter ever since.

In today's NFL, where salary caps put pressures on the huge 53 man rosters, and free agency can price out a team's star players, building a roster in creative fashion can help perpetuate success. This is what the Patriots have been known for in the Belichick-Tom Brady era; that the Eagles are showing the same sort of acumen makes the cross-over of talent between the teams no surprise, and helps explain why the two are in the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

SUPER BOWL LII: ARE BETTORS MISUNDERESTIMATING THE EAGLES?

I wrote this piece last Friday (26/1) for Betfair: you can find it on their website here, where it looks much nicer. I thought I'd put it up here before I write my 'official' Super Bowl previews for them and for nfluk.com.  I asked, in  George Bush fashion, 'are bettors misunderestimating the Eagles?' and a few days later someone dropped a million some odd bucks on Philadelphia +5.5 at one casino in Vegas; the line has dropped to 4.5 in the meantime. I doubt he read this column...

ARE BETTORS MISUNDERESTIMATING THE EAGLES?

We did alright here in the Conference Championships last week, didn't we? Pats-Jags under, Eagles-Vikes over (the Eagles got within half a point all by themselves) and the Eagles on the moneyline. Which sets up the Eagles and the Pats in the big one.

It isn't the dream match America supposedly wanted: the home-town Vikings team becoming the first to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium against the team that unites America in hatred, the Patriots. The Eagles are in one sense plucky underdogs against the perennially successful Pats, but in another, they rank among America's least-likeable fan bases. They are the ones who attacked Santa Claus with snowballs. Whose stadium was the first with its own on-site night court to deal with drunken assaults and the like. I once described Philadelphia fans (in the context of baseball, but still relevant) by pointing out that in other places, New York for example, fans threw batteries at the opposition's outfielders. But only in Philly did they boo the thrower if he missed.

Joking aside, Philadelphia has a point about not getting enough respect, not least from the bookies. They were the top seeds in the NFC, but underdogs at home against both Atlanta and Minnesota. They could easily have lost to the Falcons, whom they outplayed but allowed four chances at a winning touchdown from inside the ten yard line. They emerged with a 15-10 win: and both Atlanta scores came off punt turnovers that handed them great field position. Minnesota was a different story. What seemed to be a balanced matchup of great defenses and effective offenses, both operating with backup quarterbacks, turned into a rout. The easiest explanation is that the Vikings' D was built not to give up the big play, especially on third down, and once the Eagles hit on a couple of those, their offense wasn't geared to come back from way down. Any time your offense becomes one-dimensional, your defense can get better, and that's what happened.

In the other Conference Final, the Jags seemed to have the Pats on the roaps. Their defense, up there in the same discussion as Philly's and Minny's, stifled them throughout the first half, until at the two minute warning, they retreated slightly, and Tom Brady carved them up for a TD in just over a minute. Then came an inexplicable bit of coaching, as the Jags, their lead reduced to 14-10, and with 55 seconds and two time outs, elected not to pursue further points. To me this seemed like running up a flag of truce in the middle of the battle. The Eagles, up 21-7 with even less time in their first half, would march downfield quickly and get a field goal to extend their halftime lead. That the Jags wouldn't try the same spoke of caution, if not fear.

And so it played out. Protecting the lead, as they had in the last two minutes of the first half, created vulnerabilities in the Jags' defense. The Pats, as they usually do, adjusted at halftime; their defense played better even as the Jags' offense became predictable. And Brady, throwing with remarkable accuracy, brought them home with the win. Special kudos to Danny Amendola, who caught the final two touchdown passes, the second with a balletic toe-touch in the end zone, returned a punt 20 yards to set up a score, threw a 20 yard completion to Dion Lewis (which Lewis 'fumbled' in the game's most controversial play) and threw a key block on the James White's TD run in the first half. My one-time BBC Super Bowl partner had a pretty good game.

The opening line on the Super Bowl settled quickly at the Patriots minus 5.5, which seemed to still be undervaluing the Eagles. Most of this is down to quarterback bias; Nick Foles is a quality back-up (who had a great year in his first year as a starter under Chip Kelly in Philly his first time around there) but he is a backup, and he has limitations. The Eagles have a five point win and the Pats a four point win among their four playoff victories, and given the similiarities between the Eagles and Jags, 5.5 seemed worth taking with the Eagles. It is likely to go down as money flows in on Philly (in fact there was a huge bet at one casino in Las Vegas which drove their line down a full point) but we'll look at the game again next Friday, and some of the ancillary bets on offer too....

Monday, 29 January 2018

CARELESS PEOPLE: THE GREAT GATSBY AND MURDER

The Great Gatsby is one of the four greatest American novels, a small pantheon which includes Moby Dick, The Confidence Man and Huckleberry Finn. It is thus the greatest American novel of the 20th Century. Sarah Churchwell's Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby is one of the most engaging studies of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, a book whose greatness was not recognised until after his death, and whose greatness also relates back to all three of those books I mentioned above, though it resembles less closely Moby Dick because its focus is perfectly minute in the same way The Confidence Man and Huckleberry Finn's are. Like them, it does not self-consciously occupy epic space, though it treads on epic themes.

Careless People is an amalgam of the book's title and subtitle. The 'People' of the title refers both to the characters of Gatsby and the circle around Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. This is the real core of the novel's 'invention', and Churchwell's depiction of the way in which the carelessness of the world Gatsby so yearns to inhabit reflects that of the world the Fitzgerald's created around them is probably the most thorough I have read. She's particularly good on now-lesser remembered figures of the New York literary and journalist world, especially those poetasters and scribes whose criticism delineated the bounds of literary success. It is like being transported back to the Twenties in New York, on Long Island, and the whole book is worth the descriptions of the Fitzgeralds and Ring Lardner, neighbours on the north shore (not the Hampton side, as people assume) of Long Island.

She provides bushels of contemporary insights. Scott's friend Alex McKaig prophetically on first meeting Zelda: "tempermental small-town Southern Belle. Chews gum-- shows knees. I do not think marriage can succeed." Mark Twain on Jay Gould (a model for Gatsby): "Get money. Get it quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it dishonestly if you can. honestly if you must." One critic said the Fitzgeralds were "plagarizing their existence", while Zelda said flappers were '"merely applying business methods t being young" and Churchwell notes perceptively that Scott was "an instinctive critic of a society in which he was the most perfect conformist". The overall effect is to immerse in both the writer and his society in a way that illuminates Churchwell's equally erudite readings of the text. And I was pleased to discover that EE Cummings was the first user the word 'party' as a verb. Not the least of the insights to which readers may be pointed is the parallel with our own era.

There are occasional errors. For example, she refers twice to  Fitzgerald's first 'drab room in the Bronx', on Claremont Avenue and 125th Street. Except Claremont and 125 is in Manhattan's Morningside Heights, running alongside Columbia and Barnard colleges. The room may have been drab, but it was in the uptown centre of New York's intellectual community, and convenient for 125th street station.

That speaks in microcosm of the book's weak point: the subtitle of Murder and Mayhem. For it is the famous murder of the Rev. Edward Hall and one of the singers in his church choir, Eleanor Mills in New Brunswick, New Jersey which Churchwell sees as the inspiration for the killing which is central to The Great Gatsby's carelessness. Both were married, and suspicon soon fell on Hall's wife, though the presence of a 'fast' 15 year old girl, Pearl Bahmer, and her older lover, as well as, later, a witness known as 'The Pig Lady'. New Brunswick, the home of Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, is not far from Princeton, the far posher private university where Fitzgerald studied. It is not unreasonable to suppose Fitzgerald would have followed the case, which received massive publicity, perhaps even through the American papers he took in Paris.

My difficulty is there seems to be little, almost nothing in the murder that seems to reflect Gatsby, although Churchwell cites a couple of academic papers which have discussed the connection, she is making it in detail for the first time. And while she takes the case through from crime to trial, the period reconstruction of the lurid world of the murder and its coverage is not nearly as skilled as her portrait of the literary world of New York was. Other famous killings of the era have spawned more compelling portraits, for example Ron Hansen's A Wild Surge Of Guilty Passion, about Ruth Snyder. Of course such works don't have the shadow of one of the great American novels lurking behind them. When the connection between the Hall murders and Gatsby begins to seem gossamer, Churchwell doubles down like a harried professor, asserting it exists because it exists.

The difficulty is compounded by Fitzgerald's own break-down of Gatsby's nine chapters, written in the back of a 1938 novel by Andre Malraux, Man's Hope. One imagines he was preparing an article about his writing of the book, perhaps inspired by Malraux's title: because hope lies at the heart of Jay Gatsby's dreams. The first chapter references 'glamour of Rumsies'. When Churchwell later explains that Pad Rumsey was a polo playing scupltor married to the daughter of E.H. Harriman, one of the richest of the railroad barons. He died in a car accident on the Jericho Turnpike in Long Island it seems evident that this would be the particular source for the killing in Gatsby.

Churchwell herself talks about the problem of trying to think intelligently about the relationship between life and art, namely that it is "so easy to think unintelligently about it, to make literal-minded simplistic equations between fiction and reality." She has done a superb job of melding Fitzgerald's life and art, and this was one of my favourite reads of the past year because of that; the Hall murder, fascinating as it is, seems somehow extraneous to that relationship.

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell
Virago, £9.99, ISBN 9781844089686

Monday, 22 January 2018

PETER MAYLE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Peter Mayle is in today's soaraway tabloid Guardian; it went up at the Guardian online yesterday (you can link to it here). It appears pretty much as I wrote it, apart from a couple of bits of explanation that were removed for length.

I had written that Mayle disliked intensely John Thaw's TV portrayal of him. When A Year In Provence appeared on television, Thaw was at the peak of his success as Inspector Morse; the curmudgeon that was Morse was much closer to his own personality than Mayle was, and when you consider how important Mayle's relaxed, knowing forbearance was the key to the book's success, it was easy to see why he wasn't happy. I then pointed out the irony of his neighbour in France and friend from advertising days, Ridley Scott, casting another grumpy Aussie, Russell Crowe, in A Good Year , where the lead character is very much Mayle manque. Crowe's adapting to France, and to Marion Cotillard, lacked the ease of Mayle's.

For some reason this entire section got cut: "Mayle sold the house and moved to the Hamptons' village of Amagansett on Long Island, a summer playground for New York's rich. It was a good place to work; his neighbour Joseph Heller called it a 'dead-ass life,' and Mayle wrote two more French comedy novels Anything Considered (1996) and Chasing Cezanne (1997) as well as a children's book, A Dog's Life (1995) illustrated by Edward Koren. But he could not resist the lure and in 1999 returned to Provence, to a secluded mansion between the picture book village of Lourmarin and the even-tinier Vaugines. He returned to non-fiction books about Provence, and the novel A Good Year." I thought it made some sense, and wanted to explain even more the similarities between the Hamptons and what one might find with expatriate life in Provence, but I'd left that out already, for space.


Apparently it was Mayle who, while freelancing as a copywriter after leaving BBD&O, first used 'nice one Cyril' in bread adverts, but it seemed like explaining the story wasn't quite worth the importance to his career. I mentioned the great George Mikes at the top of the piece; I also toyed with a comparison of Mayle and Bill Bryson, with the common ground being telling the British what they wanted to hear; in effect reinforcing stereotypes while seeming to be critical. Mayle's exuberance is something of a different quality than Bryson's Arthur Marshall style chuckling. The link is how well they each understood their audience.

I was also tempted to point out the way Mayle's writing reflected his advertising copy-writing. It's always to the point, it usually has some kind of 'objective correlative' to hook the reader, and it reinforces its points as it goes along. When I said he sold Provence to Britain and then the world I was not kidding.

I was serious about A Year In Provence being a springboard, for better or worse, for all those tedious reality shows about 'relocating', redoing and profiting off houses, travelling, or becoming a foodie. It wasn't as predictable or inevitable as the slew of imitators whose manuscripts flooded publishers, but the influence was real. And as such he was an important writer for the post-Thatcher era. RIP.

Friday, 12 January 2018

TALKING TRUMP TRANSATLANTIC ACROSS THREE COUNTIES

I guested briefly on the morning call in show on BBC Three Counties radio, adding a non-Republican perspective (listen from the start if you want to inflict that on your ears) to the Donald Trump, US embassy, official state visit 'controversy'. I come on about 20 minutes into the show. And oddly enough, the first thing I needed to do was put Trump into some sort of trans-Atlantic context. Like most things American, Britain has their own much paler (no fake tans) versions of the worst of America.

Here's the link  The fill in host was named Tim. I'm come in around the 20 minute mark, but you might want to listen to Andy, just before me....

TRUMP AND THE EMBASSY ACROSS THE RIVER

Former US Secretary of State of John Kerry once complained that the United States was 'building some of the ugliest embassies in the world...we're building fortresses'. It was a telling metaphor. If form follows function, these buildings were designed to provide a modicum of safety for Americans often unappreciative, if not hostile, countries. In fact, much the same function as the State Department and its colleagues in intelligence perform on behalf of US 'interests' in those countries.

It is thus odd that Donald Trump should cancel his appearance to dedicate the new US Embassy in Nine Elms, given the 'special relationship' between the US and the UK, a relationship so special Trump failed to include the UK in his catalogue of 'shithole' countries from which he'd like to bar immigration. But since arrangements for the official state visit that Theresa May rushed to offer him after his election have not yet manifested themselves, any visit by Trump now ran the risk of being seen by the world as a sort of consolation prize. Especially because Britain cannot guarantee a protest-free Vauxhall, not as much to protect the President physically as to protect his fragile self-esteem, but in essence denying both the form and function of the new building.

Trump's own objections to the embassy, as voiced on twitter, are as easy to decipher as his fear of being met with demonstrations of mass disapproval. He called the Grosvenor Square embassy 'the best located and finest embassy in London', and said the new one was in 'an off location'. Donald Trump is a child of Queens, the New York City outer borough located on Long Island. He is one of the 'bridge and tunnel' people who see Manhattan as the centre of earthly delight. When he took over the family business from his father, his first moves were to rename it the Trump Organization and move it into Manhattan. To Trump, being on the 'wrong side' of the river is literally slumming, especially when the new embassy lies in a bleak development area south of the Thames River, reminiscent of the New Jersey marshlands across the Hudson from Manhattan.

Trump was also quick to blame Barack Obama for the move, saying he'd sold the Grosvenor Square location 'for peanuts' and spent the money on the new one in a 'bad deal'. Trump remains at heart a real estate hustler, and he could not pass up the opportunity to remind his followers of his own business acumen. Never mind that the move of the embassy was a product of the Bush administration, including the sale of the lease that runs until 2953 to the Qatar Sovereign Wealth Fund. The symbolic figurehead, the golden eagle, will remain on the building overlooking the square, to people that once this was the seat of the American presence in Britain, and was back to the days of Johan Adams, but it will also confirm a shrinking specialness for that special relationship.

The old embassy, opened in 1960, was designed by Eero Sarinen. Its fortress appearance is more the result of recent renovation than original design; it never really fit Grosvenor Square, but it did squeeze itself in without claiming domination. The structure was low and sweeping, and many years ago, quite pleasant and relaxed to use, more like a modern town hall than a fortress.

Of course it's probably best remembered for the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War, which infamously featured a young Bill Clinton. This year is the 50th anniversary of those demos, as well as the ones in France, Mexico, America and elsewhere that will provide acres of fodder for ageing pundits.

But the threat posed by those demonstrations seems placid compared to the fears that fueled the Bush administration's flight from Mayfair. In the wake of the President's 'Global War On Terror', the US government was selling fear, and the Grosvenor Square building was a vulnerable branch of the store. It wasn't large enough to house the extra bureaucracy needed to 'protect' America by making the visa process more of a trial, nor could it house the huge increase in intelligence personnel, nor could it be protected adequately from the busy traffic that still passed nearby everyday.

To its credit, the new building manages to avoid the look of a fortress, though the Kieran Timberlake design has met with criticism in British architectural circles. It certainly doesn't do anything to spoil the landscape in Nine Elms, blending in with the graceless luxury flats with river views springing up in the emptiness of the neighbourhood. Its security is guaranteed by the large open spaces and moat that surround it, as well as invisible high tech equipment. Given the penchant for nicknaming London buildings, in the spirit of the Gherkin, it most resembles an artichoke. Or perhaps an armadillo. Or indeed a kind of Star Wars death-star: one expects those glass windows to open like gun portals, and laser weaponry to emerge. And while it lacks the Stalinist-modern menace of the MI6 headquarters, also in Vauxhall, but in the 'on location' side of the Thames, it also falls short of the state department' idea that it 'gives form to core democratic values of transparency, openness and equality. Just you try to get in, and try to open one of those windows.

The Michael Wolff book Fire and Fury would suggest quite strongly that the primary concern of the Trump White House is protecting the image and self-regard of its occupant. In such a situation, the idea that he would travel to Vauxhall, which he'd probably describe as a 'shithole', to cut a ribbon on a modernist fortress in disguise rather than accept a lift round Knightsbridge in a golden carriage with Her Majesty the Queen should surprise absolutely no one. The Trump team are probably drawing up architectural plans for the new 'special relationship' as we speak.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

SUE GRAFTON: O IS FOR OBITUARY

My obituary of the mystery novelist Sue Grafton went online at the Guardian yesterday; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as it was written, including great quotes from my friend Meg Gardiner and from Jeff Abbott, both of whom were gracious enough to let me poach from their reminiscenses. I would have liked to include Meg's story about being a Grafton fan-girl: driving on the 101 in Santa Barbara she followed a car with the vanity plate THNXKNZ (Thanks, Kinsey) all the way to its home, only to realise it was Graftons husband driving! Could happen to anyone!

I opened with the word 'hard-boiled', although the Millhone books aren't really hard-boiled. Her world view isn't as hard-boiled as Lew Archer's; I would have liked to get further into the debt she owed Ross MacDonald. Where I should have gone was to point out that the alphabet titles were a good device to bring 'mystery' fans to her books: they had enough of the 'cozy' puzzle about them to satisfy those, while Kinsey Millhone was boiled hard enough to appeal to the Megs and Jeffs and many many other readers.

I also spent some time trying to see if I could make sense of a link I felt between the Millhone books (first published in 1982) and the TV series Cagney & Lacey, which also debuted in 1982, though the pilot aired in October 1981. I thought about it and concluded it was just something in the zeitgeist that meant America was ready for women in those classically male roles with some classically male attitudes. I do think there's a certain flow in her writing that reflects those years writing for television, though. I also spent some time trying to link Millhone's name and Dr Kinsey, but that didn't go anywhere. But I will have to dig up a viewing of Lolly Madonna XXX someday....RIP Sue Grafton