Welcome to my blog. There's no particular theme I'm just posting random thoughts and things that interest me

Sunday, 15 April 2012

I wrote this in March 2010, a few months before Frank Lampard's 'goal' against Germany in the World Cup was not given. In spite of that incident, and the others that have followed, including the one today at Wembley by Chelsea against Spurs, I stand by my view...

Say NO to video evidence in football

It’s Sunday 13 July 2014. The World Cup Final at The Maracana Stadium, Rio de Janeiro. England v Germany.

It’s the last minute of extra time with the teams locked at 2-2 and England substitute Daniel Sturridge is clean through on the German goal. As he’s poised to shoot the referee blows his whistle and brings play back. Germany have called for their last video referral.

They’re claiming a goal after Lukas Podolski’s snap shot cannoned off the bar and bounced towards the line moments before 'keeper Joe Hart’s long clearance released Sturridge. Germany are convinced they’ve scored but England are also considering a referral as video evidence has revealed that the corner that led to Podolski’s shot should have been a goal kick after brushing a German boot on the way out.

After viewing video replays from 9 different angles over 4 minutes the goal line evidence is inconclusive and play resumes with a drop ball in the centre circle. The match peters out and the Germans go on to win on penalties.

Far fetched? Maybe the bit about England getting to the World Cup final but the video referral? Not if FIFA bows to the views of the likes of Arsene Wenger, Terry Venables, Mark Hughes and Alex McLeish to name but four of the managers calling for football to follow the likes of cricket, rugby league and American football and use video technology in some form or other.

After Thierry Henry’s infamous handball knocked the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup, Wenger insisted that referees can't cope and need external help: "Football accepts that a billion people see it, one guy doesn't see it and it is the one who prevails. It cannot work."

Last Saturday, after his Birmingham side were denied an 81st minute goal after Liam Ridgewell’s header was adjudged not to have crossed the line, manager Alex McLeish said: “In key moments like that, they are actually doing the officials a disservice by not using [video technology].”

Ironically, McLeish’s rant came on the same day that FIFA announced that they'd ruled out the introduction of video technology to assist officials during games thereby ending all further experiments with goal-line technology. Most of the response of the press was that this was just another example of how out of step FIFA is with what football fans really want. The Daily Telegraph’s headline read “What are FIFA’s technophobes afraid of” and sarcastically mocked FIFA by suggesting that FIFA thought football was already perfect and couldn’t be improved.

Football isn’t perfect but I think FIFA’s decision is nothing less than the saviour of the game we love. If goal line technology was introduced it wouldn’t be long before teams were allowed a set number of video reviews similar to those already in place in American football and recently introduced in cricket – farcically in the case of the non dismissal of Graeme Smith in the final England v South Africa test match in Johannesburg.

FIFA’s main reason for rejecting technology in football is that it would disrupt the flow of the game. Of that there can be no doubt. The great genius of football is the fact that the game can change so quickly. Brian Clough famously said it only takes a second to score a goal. He was only exaggerating a bit. Wayne Rooney’s brilliant goal against Arsenal at The Emirates this season was scored a mere 9.2 seconds after Ji-Sung Park had won the ball in his own penalty area.

Advocates of technology say that the money in the game means you have to move with the times and that’s it’s too important not to use because football is now big business.

But football isn’t about money, it’s about sport. That’s the whole point of it. It’s not the fact that football is big business that makes us go straight to the back page of the newspaper every morning or tune to Sky Sports news every time we turn on the TV. And it’s not because football is big business that people like Southampton fan Vince Reeves recently risked missing the birth of his first child so that he could keep his place in the queue to get tickets for the recent 5th round FA Cup match against Portsmouth.
Football isn’t real life, it’s a long running soap opera that brings out every human emotion: joy, despair, frustration, deceit, respect, love, fear….the list is endless. It appeals to us on an instinctive level. A teams of humans against another team of humans officiated by humans.

The call for technology is just an attempt to bring football into real life. To bring order to chaos, to impose the CCTV culture of our age onto sport. FIFA should be applauded for standing firm against this. What makes football so compelling is its innate unpredictability. Maradona’s “hand of god” and the referee’s failure to spot it are as much part of the game as the sublime goal that followed.

Football teaches teamwork, loyalty and discipline but most of all it teaches everyone who has ever watched or played a game that football, like life, is not fair. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t. You can appeal to a higher being, in football the referee, and sometimes he answers your prayers and sometimes he doesn’t. On occasion he get’s it plain wrong just like in life the big man upstairs doesn’t help when your wife runs off with your best mate or your prized BMW gets nicked.

Pundits on TV say things like the referee “should” have awarded a penalty or free-kick or a player “should” have passed or “should” have scored. It’s as if there is a blueprint that ought to be followed. One day a game will be played when technology will make sure that every refereeing decision is correct, every pass will be perfect and every chance that “should” be scored will go in. It will be the most perfect game ever, and also the most boring. Football will have died.

Fast forward again to the Maracana. The referee hasn’t blown and Sturridge coolly rounds the keeper and slots the ball into an empty net. England have won the World Cup for the first time in 48 years. Video replays show that Sturridge was marginally offside when he received the ball but hey, that’s football.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

London 2012 hype is getting to me

Cynical Londoner I may be but I think I'm coming down with Olympic fever

Ben Johnson stole my Olympic innocence in 1988. Along with the rest of the world, I watched open-mouthed when the Canadian sprinter won the 100 metres gold in Seoul. He hadn’t just beaten his bitter rival Carl Lewis. He had destroyed him and crushed the world record in the process. The greatest run in history! 

I can still see him now: whirling Road Runner legs, right arm raised high in victory and huge bulging eyes, blazing like burning cannonballs. Except a second glance at that crazed glare and his sideways smile and you didn’t need a scientist to tell you he was a drugs cheat. 

It was as plain as when you looked at one of the syringed East German swimmers who were as big and scary as grizzlies and almost as hairy. Johnson was banned for a while, then ran in the next Olympics, and later got banned again. I had already stopped watching.

It wasn’t only the cheating. It was the fact that just because a couple of nerdy looking blokes from Lymington had won the Men’s Star Team Sailing (whatever that was) we were a nation of Nelsons all of a sudden. Plus the way old women at bus stops would claim they had always loved hockey and didn’t Sean Kerly have nice legs, to say nothing of his stick work. 

So when we were given the 2012 Olympics, I wasn’t the only cynical Londoner rolling his eyes. I knew we were in for five years of propaganda. Forget the cost and the chaos.  This was the greatest thing to happen to Britain since Henry V was practising his archery at Agincourt. Or so we were told.

Once the Games start, the roads will be blocked, the Tube jammed and annoying tourists will stop you every few yards asking how to get to the Olympic village. Some chance - as if any self-respecting Londoner even knows where Stratford is, or would admit it in public if they did.  

For all that, the Olympic hype is starting to get to me. I still know the opening ceremony will be an embarrassing fish supper compared to Beijing’s delicate banquet. But the aerial shots of London will be breathtaking. Half the world will wish they lived here. St. Paul’s, conveniently cleansed of Occupy protesters, will look magnificent. 

I almost feel guilty now when I see wholesome Becky Addlington and shy Jessica Ennis staring at me from the back of cereal boxes. Maybe not all the competitors will be injecting steroids behind the bike sheds after all. 

I am coming down with Olympic fever and once the Games start, I may have to take to the sofa. 

I’ll fight it of course, like a true Londoner. But then one day the TV will be on and the commentator will be yelling that plucky Kerry from Kidderminster has just won a gold medal and is the best in the world, THE BEST IN THE WORLD, at Greco-Roman canoeing or short course artistic pistol shooting or something. All those early mornings practicing her triple drainpipe were not in vain.

And the BBC will play a montage of our Kerry’s proudest day, with dreamy shots of the Mall or Tower Bridge, set to a swooping anthem by Elbow. The crowd will be singing God Save the Queen and waving those silly little union jacks and I won’t be able to resist anymore. I’ll be staring at the screen as bug-eyed as Ben Johnson, with a lump in my throat, holding back the tears. Innocent once again. 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Where are the Protest Songs?

Rioting youths, economic chaos, Margaret Thatcher everywhere you look – it’s like the 1980s all over again. Except for the music.

Margaret Thatcher is hard to avoid at the moment. First there’s Meryl Streep giving the Iron Lady a humanity she never showed in 12 years as Prime Minister. And then there are the newspaper columns by grey-haired old Tories calling for a state funeral when Lady T, (or if reports of her mental health are anything to go by, “Lady gaga”), finally keels over.
For many, her death will come thirty years too late. In the days when striking miners were burning her effigy and anti-poll tax marchers were battling the police up and down the country, millions would have celebrated Thatcher’s funeral like the winning of the World Cup.

Musicians wrote songs fantasising about her death. Morrissey dreamed about seeing “Margaret on the guillotine”. And Elvis Costello spoke for many with the lyrics:

“And when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

Of course that was back in the bad old days of the 1980s when British soldiers were dying in a pointless war thousands of miles from home, the country was in economic disarray and out of control youths were rioting in our city centres. How times change…

Musicians weren’t just singing about burying Maggie though. They were singing about their lives and the society they lived in, too.

When rioters sent the Liverpool suburb of Toxteth up in flames in 1981, the UK’s number one single was Ghost Town by The Specials, who sang:

“This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can't go on no more
The people getting angry.”

During last summer’s riots, as kids in designer hoodies looted shops for flat-screen TVs and the latest Nike trainers, Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger topped the charts. It opened with the words:

“Swagger jagger, swagger jagger
You should get some of your own
Count that money, get your game on
Get your game on, get ya, get ya, game on.”

I’ll admit, I have no idea what “swagger jagger” means so I may be missing the point - perhaps Simon Cowell’s protégé was making a heartfelt political statement.

Life in Britain in 2012 is like life in Britain in the 1980s in a lot of ways, but not when it comes to music. When the Sex Pistols yelled:

“I am an anti-Christ,
I am an anarchist”,

millions of alienated Britons, bitter about their job prospects at a time when there were three million people unemployed, screamed out with them.

Where are today’s protest songs?

Occupy London and the recent student marches show that people care about what is going on. But their dissent will never get support from the mainstream media. That’s why music is so important. It’s a rallying cry for anyone trying to challenge the established order, just as it was when Billy Bragg growled his anti-Falklands war song Islands of No Return and The Jam railed against social injustice on A Town Called Malice.

I’m not saying Rizzle Kicks shouldn’t “do the hump” or Coldplay sing about Paradise. But who is giving a voice to the ASBO generation? Or the students with debts they’ll still be paying in middle-age and the soldiers coming home in body bags?

If we want music that is going to try to change the world, do we really have to wait for the next Margaret Thatcher?

This post is reproduced from the article in this month's edition of Kingston University's Mouth magazine  www.mouth-online.com 

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Book That Changed My Life

There’s no doubt that books can change your life.  I like the story of Robert Penn, author of It’s All about the Bike, reading Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt on the London Underground in a grey suit on a grey day on his way to work. As he put it: "Several Central Line stops later, I’d raced with Dervla Murphy on her bicycle, Rosinante, from Dunkirk to Delhi, and made the decision to quit my career as a lawyer and cycle round the world."

My own epiphany came when I was given Pele, King of Soccer for my eighth birthday. At night I would read it under my bed covers and rehearse in my mind the skills and tricks illustrated by Paul Trevillion’s drawings at the back of the book.  In the morning I’d race into the garden with my orange and black plastic football and practice for hours on end. 

With a child’s absolute certainty I knew that this was the book that would lead me to FA Cup glory with Chelsea, swiftly followed by a winners’ medal for England at the 1982 World Cup. The absurdity of football’s next global superstar emerging from a middle class Jewish family in Hampstead Garden Suburb, rather than the teeming flavelas of Rio de Janeiro, never occurred to me.
For quite a while, Pele, King of Soccer was the only book I would read.  The idea that you could read more than one book seemed disloyal. This was my book; the only book I needed. Eventually I realised that in spite of my garden diligence I wasn’t going to be the best footballer in the world. Or even my class for that matter. To my parent’s relief I agreed to try another book.  

I must have read hundreds of books since then. Some have moved me, some have amused or educated me and many have entertained me but none have changed me. Until I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

Safran Foer’s book was inspired by three things: his holocaust surviving grandmother, getting his first dog, and the birth of his son.

Food was important to Safran Foer’s grandmother. Like many grandmothers she liked to see that her grandson was never hungry. She had more reason than most. When the War started she ran from home to avoid the Germans:

"I was always running, day and night, because the Germans were always right behind me. If you stopped, you died. There was never enough food. I became sicker and sicker from not eating, and I’m not talking about being skin and bones. I had sores all over my body. It became difficult to move. I wasn’t too good to eat from a garbage can. I ate parts others wouldn’t eat…I took whatever I could find. I ate things I wouldn’t tell you about."

When a Russian farmer saw her he went into his house and came out with some meat for her. She didn’t eat it. The reason: it wasn’t kosher. "If nothing matters, there’s nothing to live for."

No wonder she kept 60 pounds of flour in her basement, dozens of Coke bottles and pyramids of Uncle Ben’s rice. As Safran Foer concludes, it was "as if the fruits she always offered us were picked from the destroyed braches of our family tree".

If Safran Foer’s grandmother gave him an understanding of the importance of food, the birth of his son raised its own questions. He wanted to understand why we eat certain foods and not others. What is meat and where does it come from. How is it produced and how are the animals treated? Why for example do we eat pigs and not dogs? He wouldn’t dream of eating  his pet dog George so why do we eat pigs – animals clever enough to play fetch like dogs and even unlock their own pens.
In the past 50 years the average cost of a new house has risen nearly 1,500 per cent, a new car 1,400 per cent, but the price of eggs and chicken meat has not even doubled. How is this possible? The answer is factory farming. It is responsible for 99 per cent of the meat eaten in the U.S.A and 95 per cent of poultry and 60 per cent of pigs eaten in the U.K.

Safran Foer’s book makes horrifying reading. He explains how the chickens we eat are genetic freaks, bred to grow at rapid rates so they can be killed at only 39 or 42 days. The quicker they grow the bigger the profit. They’re kept is such unnatural conditions, standing in tiny spaces covered in excrement, that they have to be pumped with antibiotics to keep them alive and free of disease. Even then thousands die every day. The labels ‘free range’ and ‘organic’ are a sham. A chicken may in theory have access to daylight and grass but theory and reality don’t coincide.

The story is the same when it comes to pigs and cows. Pregnant pigs are kept in crates so small they can’t even turn round and some go insane from the confinement. The meat we eat comes from drugged, sick animals bred to exhibit unnatural characteristics, kept in horrendous conditions, and killed when they are still juveniles.

If these animals live a miserable life then their deaths virtually defy belief. Safran Foer describes cows being butchered while still conscious due to stun guns not working, and chickens routinely being scalded alive. These and similar abuses are not isolated incidents. They are part and parcel of standard processing practices. Then there are stories of pigs being beaten with metal bars or having their snouts cut off and then rubbed in salt solely for the amusement of slaughterhouse workers. His research revealed that every processing plant has hundreds of similar stories of torture to animals.

Safran Foer, and others quoted in the book who raise and live with animals, say that we cannot turn a blind eye to this suffering. Animals, even birds and fish, feel pain, anxiety, terror.  Anyone who has had a pet knows this. Like Safron Foer I only got my first dog in adulthood and it has changed the way I see animals. We have a duty to treat them properly. How many of us would eat meat if we had to look an animal in the eye before killing it ourself?

Then there is the effect on our health.  Safran Foer argues that a flu pandemic, similar or worse even than the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which killed over 50 million people, is almost inevitable. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer are striking at younger ages than ever before. For the first time in over 200 years children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

This book is not a one-eyed rant by a vegetarian about why we shouldn’t eat meat. Safran Foer interviewed factory farmers, animal rights activists and traditional farmers for this book and they are quoted at length.  This is a reasoned argument by a curious investigative journalist.

Ultimately you have to draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. Does cheap meat justify not only the suffering of billions of animals, but also the effects on our health and the huge environmental consequences - 30% of the earth’s entire land surface (70% of all agricultural land) is used for rearing farmed animals.

You only have to see my previous blog post Trial By Lunch to see that I enjoyed a good steak or burger. But films like Supersize Me and Food Inc and books like Michael Pollen’s In Defence of Food had left me with nagging doubts. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals has tipped me over the edge. When I make dinner or go to a restaurant my motto is no longer Withnail’s, "I want something’s flesh". I have become a vegetarian.

Whether I can keep it up I don’t know but it has been two weeks now and I haven’t wavered. My kids are less impressed. Yesterday I made lentil soup. I overheard my nine-year-old say to his brother, "If Dad asks you if you want some of his lentil soup, whatever you do, say no. It looks like cow-pat." It did, but at the moment I’d rather eat that than the cow it looked like it came from. 

Friday, 24 June 2011

Trial by Lunch

If you ask me what’s the best thing about being a lawyer I wouldn’t hesitate: lunch. In the old days I would save up a week’s worth of 25p luncheon vouchers and blow the lot every Friday on a square hamburger at Wendy’s on Regent Street. I really knew how to live then.

Wendy’s was pretty exotic for someone who’d grown up eating little else besides Frosties, and to a lesser extent Coco Pops – which I loved but were risky as I had to eat them quickly before the milk went brown. You could say I was a fussy eater.  If I woke my parents up screaming from a nightmare it wasn’t because I was being attacked by monsters. It was because I’d dreamed I’d been forced to eat macaroni cheese or worse, semolina with jam on it. I grew out of it eventually (although I will never, EVER, eat rice pudding).

The vogue a few years ago was for in-house lunches. I was once invited with a client to the boardroom of some estate agents to celebrate a property sale we’d all worked on. We sat around a mahogany dining table drinking wine from cut glass goblets, eating off fine bone china plates whilst being served by a man who wasn’t sure if he was meant to be impersonating Jeeves or Boris Karloff.

It was about as relaxing and enjoyable as a meeting to discuss funeral arrangements with a firm of undertakers. The client’s thank you was succinct: “Thank you for lunch. If you ever invite me again you will cease to act for me with immediate effect”.
Waitresses dressed as French maids
Lunches tend to be more fun and less formal these days. In the last week I’ve been lucky enough to go to a few interesting restaurants. 

First off was Le Relais de Venise in Throgmorton Street in the City. The name of the restaurant translates I think as “Food for fat, pink insurance brokers” - although I was never that good at French so this may not be an exact, literal translation. The concept of this restaurant is brilliant and confirms that simplicity really is genius. 

Apparently, the Frenchman behind it, Jean-Pierre, was fed up with customers coming into his restaurant, reading the menu full of Boeuf en Daube aux Pruneaux and Magrets de Canard aux Cerises and then saying: “Can you just do me a nice steak and chips, maybe with some sauce on it?” So that’s all he serves. Salad of lettuce, walnuts and a mustardy vinaigrette to start, followed by entrecote steak cooked rare or medium, with special sauce and chips. At £21 it is amazing value. The steak is tender, the chips crispy, and the waitresses are dressed up as French maids out of Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head. What’s not to like?

Pollen Street Social
Next up is Pollen Street Social, the new restaurant opened by Gordon Ramsey protégé Jason Atherton.  has received loads of publicity, and some rave reviews. I was invited by Peter Prescott, a client and friend of mine, who is no slouch when it comes to restaurants, being co-founder and managing director of the brilliant Boundary in Shoreditch and Lutyens in Fleet Street. Peter was checking out the competition. I was intrigued to taste food cooked by one of the most innovative and celebrated chefs in England.

The room is modern, understated and elegant and the waiting staff bob around smiling. It’s informal and buzzing. After dismissing it initially as bland, Peter grudgingly admits that he can’t help liking the place. He starts with the “signature” Full English Breakfast. As you’d expect from this type of restaurant it isn’t the groaning plate you’d get down the cafe but a dainty dish which could be gobbled in one mouthful. Very tasty, very small is the verdict.

I have the BBQ mackerel which the waiter “explains” to me as he serves me. Apart from the fact I could only understand about one word in six due to his Inspector Clouseau accent, I have a problem with having food explained as it's presented. I just want to choose it and eat it. It’s a bit like having a joke deconstructed before you get to the punch line – it loses its impact. In any event, the feeesh eez deleeeshouss.

Sort of Tiramisu
To follow I have Irish ox cheek with tongue and onglet.  I don’t really know why I choose it but nothing else jumps out at me. It's meaty and falling apart as I eat it, as I presume it is supposed to. But I’m not sure I’d order it again. I would though the creamy horseradish mash which accompanies it.

Dessert is what is described as tiramisu. Nice as it is I prefer the one my brother in law makes with cream and what we used to call “sand” biscuits (I think they’re called sponge fingers) drenched in coffee and booze, which actually looks like tiramisu. It’s not that the food isn’t all delicious. It’s just that I find complicated food like this slightly too clever by half to be really enjoyable when you go to a restaurant and want to have a good chat with a mate.
Taberna Etrusca
Taberna Etrusca in Bow Courtyard near St Pauls is a traditional Italian restaurant of the type you hardly see any more. When I was a child, going out to a restaurant (which was a rare event) inevitably meant going to the local Italian with its red check tablecloths, huge peppermills and laughing waiters pinching my cheeks and handing me a lollipop on the way out. 

Taberna Etrusca turns back the clock, minus the check tablecloths but including the waiter greeting you like his long lost cousin from Palermo. As we go in, the lawyer I’m with says he has acted for “the family” that owns the restaurant for years.  I’m not sure how to take this and anxiously eye the Al Pacino look alike in the corner in case he slides off to the toilet. At the same time I check the barman to see if he suddenly ducks down under the counter. 

My fears are unfounded. I have clams in a tomato and white wine sauce followed by veal with lemon and zucchini. I would happily have licked both plates clean. A couple of glasses of wine to ease it all down and I leave smiling like a 10 year old with a lollipop.
Feeling somewhat plumper but willing to plough on, my week ends at Bistro du Vin in St John Street in Clerkenwell, which is part of the Hotel du Vin chain. The first thing that strikes me is the window decoration which consists of a couple of sides of beef hanging in all their gory glory. Vegetarians beware. 

The room itself is all dark wood and brown leather chairs surrounding a central cooking area. You can eat at the bar and watch your steak or burger being cooked on the Josper Grill. I have quite a chat with one of the chefs about this grill. It costs £10,000 and is basically an enclosed barbeque which uses only charcoal for heat. I’m told that because the meat bakes and grills at the same time it cooks quicker and doesn't dry out. I find it funny that not only do menus go to great lengths to explain the provenance of their ingredients we now get a whole spiel about the cooking equipment. What next? “ The chef was conceived in a field of natural pasture besides a stream of pure mountain water….”
I have avocado with prawns and marie rose sauce to start. This is a throwback but with fat, fresh prawns and a ripe avocado is a classic, simple starter. Seduced by the Josper Grill and not fancying a big steak I choose the burger. It looks great and tastes sensational. The meat has really taken on the charcoal flavour – not in a burnt sausage on the barbeque way – but is still moist and juicy. I can’t remember eating a better burger. Even Wendy’s square patty pales in comparison. The chips are a bit flaccid and undercooked but it is all about the burger so I forgive them.
Not surprisingly given the name, the Hotel and Bistro du Vin chain is renowned for its wine. They have a special wine machine which dispenses wine by the glass but doesn’t spoil the wine in a bottle once it’s been opened. It looks a bit like a cigarette machine. I can only imagine Wallace and Gromit had a hand in designing it. The upshot is that they can serve classic wines either in tasting measures or by the glass so you can try some amazing wines without having to buy the whole bottle.

I try a “big” Italian red which I appreciated as being very smooth but probably wouldn’t be able to pick out again if you tested me against a £4 Bulgarian Merlot. It struck me that this is probably the worst possible place to put a wine machine. They have wine here anyway, it’s a restaurant. Better to put it on the platform at Waterloo Station, they’d make a fortune.
Wine machine designed by Wallace and Gromit
Of the four, I’d go back to Bistro du Vin with friends to sit at the bar and have a steak; take clients to the Italian or Relais de Venise and a foodie to Pollen Street Social. On second thoughts though, I’d better head to the gym…

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Booker Question

I’m not one of those people who has to finish a book once I’ve started it. If a book is boring me I’ll quite happily abandon it without a backward glance if I’ve got something better to do. I once whiled away a three hour delay at a shopless Porto airport trying to remember all 92 football league clubs and work out how many grounds I’d been to as The Da Vinci Code lay in my bag, stalled forever at page 62. It’s not a snobbish thing either. War and Peace, Swann’s Way and Lord of the Rings have all gone the way of The Da Vinci Code. (Although I like to think I haven’t given up on War and Peace -  I’m just reading it very very slowly).

As I can’t possibly like everything, if I start a book I don’t like I put it down, move on and forget about it. Except every once in a while I read a book which irritates me so much I just can’t let it go. The Times called Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question “a masterpiece”. Novelist Beryl Bainbridge described as “wonderful”. And to cap it all, it won the 2010 Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. So I bought it and started reading.

I’ll admit, I got off to a bad start. On page 6 we’re told, “It was a late-summer evening, the moon high and skittish.” I knew horses could be skittish, people even. But a moon? I couldn’t get it out of my head. What did it mean? As I sat contemplating, I could see our cocker spaniel Ziggy stretched out by the French doors dozing peacefully, bathed in moonlight. Suddenly, Ziggy jumped up and pressed his nose to the window. It must be foxes in the garden I thought, until silly me, it hit me - a skittish moon freaking out the dog. I wish the moon would stop that and grow up. And as for those stars, so arrogant and aggressive. I wanted to shout out, “Oi twinkle, stop staring at me or I’ll put your lights out!”

Anyway, over the (skittish) moon (as it were) I read on. This is the storyline: three blokes occasionally meet up after two of them lose their wives. That’s it, the end. Except it isn’t quite everything. These loathesome, boring characters endlessly and earnestly ponder BIG themes like loss, friendship and identity, in particular Jewish identity. One of the three, the one who’s not Jewish, is called “Julian”. As Jacobson keeps labouring, the “Ju” bit sounds like “jew”. See what he did there? Exactly, so what?

I’m prepared to accept that maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s not fashionable with Booker Prize judges but I think a plot and some characters the reader can empathise with are a reasonable starting point for a novel. If it was good enough for Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Mark Twain then is it too much to ask of Howard Jacobson? However big and important a book’s themes are, they have no impact if the reader isn't engaged in the story or the characters.

The blurb on the back also describes the Finkler Question as funny. I found one joke early on: one of the characters mistakes the Yiddish word for a swan with the Yiddish word for, wait for it, a penis. Laugh? I nearly wished I was filling out my tax return again.

If you’re still interested in buying this self-indulgent nonsense then my advice would be to check out your local charity shops. I bet they’re awash with them and after page 40 the book won't even be second hand. Meanwhile, where did I leave that War and Peace…

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Mary Kubicek, a 21 year old research assistant at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, had never seen a dead body before she attended Henrietta Lack's autopsy. Determined not to faint, she avoided looking into Henrietta’s lifeless eyes. Instead, she focussed on handing petri dishes to the pathologist as he cut tissue from the cancerous tumours that littered Henrietta’s body. Then Mary noticed Henrietta’s feet and the chipped red nail polish on her toes, and gasped. “When I saw those toenails I nearly fainted,” Mary recalled. “I thought oh jeez she’s a real person.”

Before the autopsy Mary had merely thought of Henrietta Lacks as the source of the extraordinary cells grown by her boss, tissue researcher George Gey.  These were the first human cells successfully grown outside the body. Months before, whilst Henrietta was being treated for the cancer that would soon kill her, tissue was taken from her cervix without her knowledge or consent. Unlike all other cells which Gey had tried but failed to cultivate, Henrietta’s cells – which he called HeLa cells by taking the first two letters of her names – did something Gey had never seen before. “They could be kept alive and grow.” Gey had created the first “immortal” cells. Cells that could divide an unlimited time in a laboratory.

Gey was soon sending the cells to virtually any scientist who asked for them. In 1954, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine with the help of HeLa cells. Since then the cells have been mass produced and used in countless research projects all over the world including ones relating to cancer, AIDS and the effects of radiation. It’s estimated that by 2009 more than 60,000 scientific articles about HeLa cells had been published. That number is increasing by more than 300 per month.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot looks beyond the science. She asks who was the woman with the flaking red toenail polish. And what happened to the five children left motherless by her death at the age of 31?

Skloot vividly evokes Henrietta’s early life living and working in the family’s Virginia tobacco fields – the same fields which her ancestors had worked as slaves. Later, after Henrietta, her husband Day and their five children move to Baltimore, Skloot describes how Henrietta would sneak out to dance halls with her cousin Sadie after her husband had gone off to work. As Sadie recalls: “We used to really swing out heavy. We couldn’t help it. Hennie made life come alive – bein with her was like bein with fun.”

At the heart of the book is Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who was just two years old when her mother died. Deborah and her three brothers didn’t even know about the HeLa cells until 22 years after their mother's death. Skloot helps Deborah and her brothers try to answer the questions that have been gnawing at them ever since. As Deborah says: “If our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don’t get a dime.”

Skloot’s brilliant, fascinating book deals with poverty, racism and the medical ethics that determine who owns the cells our bodies are made of. 

But most of all this is a book about Henrietta’s family and especially Deborah who “just wants to know who my mother was.” When a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital invites Deborah and her brother Zakariyya to look at some HeLa cells under a microscope it’s so moving you would think they had been reunited with their mother after 50 years. “They’re beautiful,” Deborah whispers, "I never dreamed this day would come.”