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

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.”

Sunday, 20 March 2011

For Richer, For Poorer Confessions of a Player -
Victoria Coren

Victoria Coren’s obsession with poker started when she was a teenager. We’re talking old school poker here. Seedy, smoky backrooms with men called “Slim”, “the Kid” or “the Greek”. The days before maths drop-outs and Scandinavian game theorists could make a million dollars online without leaving their bedrooms. Touring America in her gap year with a friend, Coren visited Las Vegas intending to stay two days. She played poker and stayed 12. Hardly typical behaviour for a middle class, privately educated schoolgirl about to go up to Oxford.

In For Richer, For Poorer Confessions of a Player, Coren engagingly charts her progress from losing her pocket money in cash games with her brother and his friends to the final table at the main event of the European Poker Tour in 2006, which carried a top prize of $1m. Interwoven with this journey are tales of legendary poker players and the story of her life.

Coren writes with moving candour about her gambling habits, failed love affairs and depression. She is also very funny, especially when describing some of the card room characters she meets and what it is like to be a young, single woman in a man’s world. Coren tells of being greeted once by Dave “Devilfish” Ulliot. Staring at her chest, he says: “There’s a couple of things I wanna talk to you about."

The best passages are the ones about her family and particularly her father –former Punch editor Alan Coren - which are tender and poignant.

In this entertaining and insightful book, Coren also answers her own question: is she happy she’s put poker ahead of a finding a husband and having children? She is. Poker, it seems, is about friendship, being true to yourself and belonging. Coren concludes: “I just want to keep playing, keep playing, keep playing."

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Come on Feel Le Noise

In an interview to promote Neil Young’s 34th and latest studio album Le Noise, producer Daniel Lanois said he was “awestruck” when Young asked him to produce an album for him. “I’ve been wanting to make a Neil Young record all my life”. Young, also in the interview, chipped in: “Me too. I was dying to do a Neil Young record”.

Young was once sued by his own record label, Geffen Records, for making music “unrepresentative of himself”. After being courted by David Geffen for years, Young’s first album for his new label was the electronic Trans. It was panned by critics and fans alike. As a follow up, Young offered up a pure country album, Old Ways. Geffen rejected it, demanding a “rock and roll album” instead. Taking Geffen literally, Young started recording a rockabilly album. An incensed Geffen cancelled the final recording sessions and the 25 minute Everybody’s Rockin’ album was released unfinished. The law suit that followed was finally settled with Young returning to Reprise Records, and total artistic freedom.

So, have Young and Lanois managed to make a “Neil Young” record? Whatever that may be.

Le Noise opens with a signature fuzzy electric guitar riff on Walk With Me. This is somewhat ironic seeing as the initial idea was to make an acoustic album. Prior to going into the studio, Lanois - best known for producing Grammy winning albums for U2 and Bob Dylan - spent four weeks preparing an acoustic guitar sound which he felt had “taken the acoustic guitar to a new level”.

In fact, only two of the eight tracks feature acoustic guitar. Young plays his ‘50s Gretsch White Falcon electric guitar on most of the tracks. Somewhere along the way the concept changed from an acoustic album to a “solo guitar” album. That’s all there is; guitar, Young’s inimitable voice and Lanois production skills which he pretentiously refers to in interviews as his “sonics”. He’s keen to emphasise that there are no overdubs, just “extractions and manipulations” of Young’s playing and singing.

The best tracks are Hitchhiker and Love and War. They are better even than “Angry World” for which Young this year earned a long overdue first music Grammy. Hitchhiker is the reworking and completion of an unfinished 1992 song and is the only song on the album to feature Young’s legendary Les Paul Guitar “Old Black”.

Lanois says this is an album of riffs rather than instrumentals which is a shame because I felt Hitchhiker was crying out for some drums and a trademark guitar solo. 

Hitchhiker, is a potted history of Young’s drug abuse, and is a typically personal lyric. Young admits in interviews that it is “totally autobiographical”. He also describes it as a metaphor for change which makes no judgement on his drug use, good or bad. Other lyrics just come to him like something remembered, he says. He doesn’t come up with an idea he just writes and “suddenly, there it is”.

The haunting acoustic guitar on Love and War, accompanies poignant lyrics:

“I've seen a lot of young men go to war
And leave a lot of young brides waiting
I've watched them try to explain it to their kids

And seen a lot of them failing”.

The name of the album comes from Young’s nickname for Lanois which is a play on the producer’s surname. Presumably this reflects the collaborative nature of the project. Young has said that he wants now to focus on singer/songwriting and that producing is not a thing he is interested in at this stage.

Le Noise is certainly an excellent album. I think though this is due to Young’s brilliant songwriting, unique voice and great guitar playing rather than Lanois’ production. Except for the stark acoustic songs, Lanois’ production is just a bit too clever with its loops and repeated phrases. Instead of enhancing Young’s guitar sound it actually detracts from it.

Clearly this is a “Neil Young” album. But it’s also a bit too much of a Daniel Lanois album for my liking. I’d love to hear these songs live with an electric guitar in Neil Young’s hands and the freedom to meander off into an endless solo. And on that note, here’s Young’s manic rendition of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life, recorded at Glastonbury in June 2009. It climaxes with Young contemptuously bashing a broken stringed “Old Black” with a mike stand.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

In The Beginning....

“Call me Ishmael” is regarded as one of the great opening lines in literature. But why? On its own, it’s hardly a humdinger and its reputation surely has more to do with the book that follows than the line itself.

In contrast, the start of Martin Amis’s The Second Plane, about September 11, is stunning:

“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment.”

The phrase “sharking low” is typical Amis brilliance and the sentence sets up the whole piece. Powerful as Amis’s essay is though, it’s unlikely anyone will remember its opening line in 150 years for the simple reason that it’s doubtful it will stand the test of time in the same way as Moby Dick.

Below are six of my favourite openings which I believe do justice to the superb pieces of work they start. I’ve limited myself to books I’ve read which sadly means leaving out The Go-Between’s "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” which has always intrigued me but never quite enough to make me read the book. In no particular order:

The Fight – Norman Mailer

“There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then The World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”

Mailer, the literary heavyweight, proves more than a match for his subject, the world most famous man, Muhammad Ali. I also love the opening of Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance: “At dawn, if it was low tide on the flats, I would awaken to the chatter of gulls. On a bad morning, I used to feel as if I had died and the birds were feeding on my heart.”

But I never really got on with Mailer the novelist. Give me Mailer the reporter. In fact, just give me The Fight. Quite possibly the best sports book ever written.

Farewell to the Ultimate Football Man - Hugh McIlvanney

“In the language of the sports pages, greatness is plentiful. The reality of sport, like that of every other area of life, shows that it is desperately rare. Greatness does not gad about, reaching for people in handfuls. It settles deliberately on a blessed few, and Matt Busby was one of them.

If Busby had stood dressed for the pit, and somebody alongside him in the room had worn ermine, there would be no difficulty about deciding who was special. Granting him a knighthood did not elevate him. It raised, however briefly, the whole dubious phenomenon of the honours system”.

McIlvanney is the doyen of British sportswriters and these words could just as easily be used to describe him. He’s that good.

All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy

“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.”

That’s quite a few more than a couple of opening lines but how could I leave out “That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.”? You enter straight into the old west and after 300 pages of mesmerising prose you don’t want to leave. Luckily you don’t have to as this is only book one of the Border Trilogy. The Crossing and Cities of the Plain are superb, but this is the best of the three.

Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book

“An old pro told me originality does not consist of saying what has never been said before; it consists of saying what you have to say that you know to be the truth.”

The bestselling sports book of all time is on the face of it just a short book about how to play golf. But it’s also a book about life, written by a great teacher. My other favourite golf book is Davis Love III’s “Every Shot I Take” written in memory of his father, who died in an airplane crash. This isn’t really a book about golf either. It’s a letter of love to a dead parent and it made me cry. There’s more to these golf books than meets the eye.

Pafko at the Wall– Don Delillo

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful”.

Delillo’s much quoted line opens his breathless description of a famous 1951 baseball game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. This novella is so vivid it makes me nostalgic for an era I’m too young to remember, a game I’ve never heard of and a sport I don’t even follow. For some reason it was added as the prologue to the interminable 800 page novel Underworld. Luckily it was at the beginning or I would never have found it.

American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis

“Abandon all hope ye who enter here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn't seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, "Be My Baby" on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”

Compelling and horrifying in equal measure, and beautifully written, this is the defining book of the 1980s. If you haven’t read it don’t be put off by the film, which misses Ellis’s point entirely.