War and Peace, Tolstoy and toenails

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Finishing War and Peace feels like finishing the London Marathon, with fewer toenails lost along the way. When I told a friend I was reading the notoriously long and dreary book, his response was simply: “Why on earth would you do that?” It’s a question I hadn’t asked myself until I got a few hundred pages in and found myself slobbering half-asleep on the Tube rather than flying through the chapters.

I’m a completist. I never cast novels aside if they begin badly, or skip pages, or read the synopsis online. If I’m moaning about a poor film in the first 10 minutes, you can bank on me complaining about it when the credits roll. So ever since the book was bought from Eastbourne’s finest shop, Camilla’s, it has been sitting on the shelf waiting for me to complete it. Plus, I’ve read and re-read Anna Karenina – how could the same guy who wrote such a lyrical story really be dull and repetitive? 

Since beginning the book (or books – I have a more manageable edition split into three) it has been noteworthy how often it is used as a comparison in daily life. On consecutive days a travel itinerary was described as “looking like War and Peace”, then a friend complained their coursework was “longer than War and Peace”. Even the story of The Ashes was “positively Tolstoyian” said the paper. It’s been weighing on my mind, and my bag, for weeks now. 

As you canter through the first 50 pages, you can accept the preliminary scene setting, the dusting off of themes and the introduction of a grand cast of characters. After you trudge to the 400 page mark and no progress has been made, it is a little harder to take. Tolstoy paces his writing with his plot, dallying as the counts and princes count their principals in St Petersburg and Moscow, squelching through the quagmire of endless strategic outposts on the battlefield and dithering over endless domestic disputes. It’s enough to make you give up, wondering whether the war part or the peace part is the most soul-sapping. 

Soon though (well, not soon, after many bloody hours), you come to realise the characters are wondering the same thing. They are as lost in the book as you are, and keep you intrigued over whether or not any of you will make it to the end. It’s a cast of millions and you’re soon one of them. Political intrigues jostle with love matches, cads with gentlemen and foreign foes with local villains.

The book it most invites comparison to is Moby Dick. Both can accurately be described as epic in both length and scale, while they focus upon the minutiae of individual lives and subjects seemingly narrow in scope. However, they both contemplate religion, class, poverty, love, life and death with boundless ingenuity and vitality.

What sets Tolstoy’s Napoleonic tale apart though is its scale. I knew very little about these wars and less about the times before reading. I discovered the Russian aristocracy spoke French, more about the Freemasons than I’d garnered from that Simpsons episode and why the author thought Napoleon more of an inconsequence in the wars his name bears than a conquerer.

The vivid descriptions of military manoeuvres and domestic dalliances are brought to life slowly – more Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than Game of Thrones in the immediacy of action. Each time you feel the narrative is flowing rapidly, new distractions, introductions and sidesteps are taken. But he gains your ear and your trust. There’s a lot of preaching in the book, against the inaccuracy of history and the folly of man, but you feel Tolstoy deserves his say by this point. By the time you reach the grand epilogues, you care as much for the myriad of characters whose loose ends are so neatly tied up as  the writer’s thoughts on the nature of war and the power of history. 

The book probably says it all, but you are too numb to take most of it in. It probably needs another read, but I’ll give it another 50 years or so.

I’m floating in a most peculiar way

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I started writing in this tab about a month ago as we were flying towards the equator, leaving behind the dramatic outline of New Orleans and hurtling towards llama land, South America, the ancient Incan mystery of Peru. It was a whirlwind trip that left me with so many ideas that this one got set aside.

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The trip had been bookmarked by grand aged cities. Edinburgh, with its majestic castle mounted deep upon jagged rock,  dominating a skyline bordered by snowy peaks and underpinned with cobbled stones. The Big Easy, its buildings marking the flood water levels in the shadow of the Superdome. Lima, with 1970s cars crashing into one another around plantation-style mansions and dusty backstreets.

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New York, the skyline twinkling with multicoloured fibres from a thousand hastily rooted buildings, sticks in the mind. There’s a spirit of renewal that springs from every street corner. A gentrified area is bookmarked by young girls selling lemonade and reading fortunes on the sidewalk. A block further and the boring brightness of Macy’s dominates consumer consciousness, but the old buildings stand tall even if the old spirit is completely imagined by this overtired writer.

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Weeks later, flying over the deserts of Arabia, arid deserts suddenly transform into mountain ranges. A vast expanse of water appears. I guess it is the Red Sea and am chuffed when the pilot confirms my lucky guess. As deep blue replaces blurred yellow, the past few weeks fizz past too. London, Dubai, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Perth, Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai: a dozen flights in a dozen nights, six countries and a million memories.

We’d been watching Commander Hadfield’s ‘Space Oddity’ performance on loop last night, and David Bowie’s original has found its way into my headphones. As David sings “planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” a jet zooms far underneath us, adding to the surrealness as much as the beauty. 

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Depriving the body of sleep does funny things and you quickly lose track of time zones, find yourself without appetite, hungry straight after eating, hot in the cold or overemotional at the slightest agitation. You (I) talk too much, babble on nonsensically or ponder for minutes on end about what’s past without registering what amazing scenes are right in front of your nose. You (me again) also work ultrafast, typing with eyes closed and brain elsewhere but words flowing like lava. It’s an odd state, overexposed to wonder and underexposed to rest, taking everything in with a pinch of salt and pocketing your befuddled joy for rainy days.

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The “Welcome to Lebanon” text has already flashed through on my phone, but there’s no land in sight yet. It feels like we’re floating in the blue above, below and beyond. I’ll let you know when I hit the ground.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

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Sometimes it is hard not to judge a book by its cover. That is just what I did when picking up Christopher Isherwood’s book Mr Norris Changes Trains. The luxurious sleeve, together with the author’s reputation as the writer of A Single Man, was enough to buy it. But there is also has a hint of the ridiculous, something entirely in keeping with its contents. 

Based loosely upon Isherwood’s own experiences and exploits in the Weimar Republic as the Nazis steadily rose to power, it focuses upon the character of Arthur Norris, an importer/exporter of delightful contradictions. He is a gentleman, a swindler, a masochist, a communist, a master of deception forever fooling himself. His behaviour is observed through the impeccable vacuum of narrator William Bradshaw (Isherwood’s middle names).

Isherwood reduces Bradshaw’s character to that of helpless but not hapless onlooker, slipping into the background to allow Norris sufficient space to flourish in this most intriguing of settings. Through a series of lightly played scenarios, the combination of sexual freedom and political intrigue in Berlin is deftly explored. Hackneyed commies and closeted government officials give rise to plenty of comedic set ups, which Isherwood delights in exploring for comic effect. Boozy nights out are sketched with Cabaret grotesques and light-hearted capers. Much is made of Norris’ distinctive bedroom tastes and silly wig. 

His politics are given even lighter shadings. While he speaks at communist meetings and often pops abroad to do Party work, the severity of the situation is never addressed. Communists appear a little bloodied and brown shirts begin appearing more regularly.  However, the backdrop of Germany’s wider upheaval is played with the same wry smirk as Mr Norris’ own mysterious travails. Isherwood walks a tightrope between reportage and yarn, leaving the reader feeling the meatier material got cut. Bradshaw himself appears asexual and, though he dabbles with translation for the communists, apolitical. 

More menacing than the Nazis is an unsavoury character named Schmidt, formerly in Norris’ employ. He blackmails Norris into taking one risk too many – but even his threat is dismissed in comic fashion by the landlady. Tension and danger are never properly established, so appreciation of the extremity of the situation is sadly lacking. The book started life as part of a wider, more substantial novel to be called The Lost. Mr Norris was torn from that narrative and placed solo; that move leaves him as the punchline of a joke only Isherwood knows.

There are wryly observed asides aplenty; bawdy scenes in which to revel in Isherwood’s stylish prose. But you feel he is always holding out on you. Like its protagonist, Mr Norris Changes Trains is ever the charmer, but falls short of really delivering. Mind the gaps.

Ladybird’s Olympic legacy

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While we dissect how wonderful London 2012 was from the chilly vantage point of January, there are no doubt many publishers licking their chapped lips. To accompany the multitudes of promotional, commemorative collections hastily slug on the shelves are the blockbuster autobiographies of the all-conquering athletes. Jess Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Ben Ainslie and Tom Daley are among those quick out of the blocks to share their stories, filling many a stocking. None of them are likely to rival their sporting triumphs in their lists of achievements.

But are these hastily cobbled books really a bad thing? Not everybody gets into reading by devouring Tolkien, hiding a torch under their duvet to finish the last chapter of Harry Potter or cuddling up to The Gruffalo. Sometimes a decidedly shoddy book can have a huge impact, such as the one discovered in my parents’ loft last month when retrieving the Christmas decorations.

It was 1996. A mobile library pulled up outside my primary school. I climbed its three steps casually and entered the van with little anticipation of what treasure I would find within.

It wasn’t even a story, let alone a novel. Just 53 pages long. Ladybird’s Olympic 96 book, complete with a “fantastic foldout of Atlanta”. Fantastic indeed. Inside I learned, in one paragraph, of the genius of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. I discovered that Atlanta is the state capital of Georgia. I found out the yachting events would be held at the Yachting Marina, which seemed very apt. WHATIZIT, the exquisitely named official mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games, was eager to supply all manner of juicy information.

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Further inside were single pages devoted to each Olympic sport, with descriptions of the discipline and its leading lights, plus – crucially – space within which to name the winner of each event. I filled them in with religious fervour. I recorded Yelena Nicolayeva’s victory in the 10 kilometre walk; I jotted down Balasz Kiss’s hammer win for Hungary; my pen was on the verge of running out as L Flessel triumphed in the individual foil fencing.

Aged nine, my parents didn’t allow me to watch most of these events take place live and even yours truly may have flagged during the weightlifting qualification rounds. Many of the winners’ names were furiously scribbled via Teletext. The long names of Ukraine’s medalling gymnasts proved too fast for my hand, resulting in several laps around the information retrieval service’s infuriating scrolling system.

Nevertheless, judiciously jotting the Olympic results down left an impression greater than the heroics of the standout athletes in Atlantic – even Michael Johnson achieving the 200m/400m double. The book ingrained a passion for sports stats that has since thrived in football, cricket and baseball, as well as a love of books. The next time the mobile library came around, I checked out The Hobbit, amongst others and was soon well on the way to filling my first bookshelves.

You could look up who won all of those 1996 Olympic medals on Wikipedia in about eight seconds now. But tracing their names with my finger in the old Ladybird hardback, their glories come to life far more vividly than on a laptop screen. There will be many legacies of London 2012. Let’s hope one of them, by hook or by crook or by terrible Tom Daley memoir, is somebody getting into books.

From Angel to Angel – it’s good up North

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(Photo by Mafyoo)

When you leave London so rarely that south of Brixton feels like the countryside, a few days spent up North (capital N) feel like another world. There are coves, there are tarns, there are falls. There are creepy men in inns who think that any food not served with chips is “pretentious”.

Yes, yes, the south has these things too. But it doesn’t offer the opportunity to drive through places named Giggleswick, Nook, Puddlemire Lane and Cow Brow. No wonder Wild Beasts songs are so beautiful, intricate and remote, having grown up around here.

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(Photo by William Haine)

We turned up at Angel to pick up a hire car and were soon giggling giddily when the car looked closer to a monster truck than a mini. Soon aiming for the wonderfully vague yet pointed road signs proclaiming The North, only a mistaken detour into Bradford (scenic it ain’t) tarnished a lovely drive to Malham Cove.

Having already climbed a tree (obviously) and followed a beautiful babbling stream, the Cove soon loomed large. It is 80 metres of craggy majesty, stained black to add menace and drip-dropping water to hint at its ice age waterfall past. Like a limestone cowboy I suggested the shorter, rockier route up and around the Cove. Then, like an idiot, I swiftly fell on the floor, ripping a hole in my trousers and cutting my knee open.

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A few hours later, The Angel at Hetton offered mouthfuls of jus, froth, scallops, wontons and other scrumptious things they eat on the telly. As this holiday had grown out of an idea to replicate Steve Coogan’s culinary adventures in The Trip, it was suitable that the locally shot game of the day was partridge.

The other Trip-inspired restaurant – we were too short on time and money to fit in more than two – was Holbeck Ghyll. The breathtaking view over Windermere outshone the food (“is this bread fancy, or just stale?”) but a post-prandial stroll was perfect for lots of Michael Caine, Alan Bennett and of course Holbeck Ghyll impressions.

Before that, the historic town of Skipton came calling, the allure of its castle equalled by the reputation of its pork pies. Fascinating as it was to investigate the final battlements to fall during the English Civil War, it was equally enjoyable to meet the acquaintance of one Lord Norman Fighting-Chamber. Being an ancient stone room in need of little sustenance, he politely declined our dinner invitation.

The higher quality of the cooking was confirmed when, after visiting a takeaway in Windermere, one of my companions choked on his stir-fried chicken. This was understandable though; it was the only place open and we’d just been subjected to a pub folk session punctuated by conversation with the Windermere Walkers club. We didn’t learn though – the next day a service station McDonald’s tempted us in.

With that – and a fair few hours of the I, Alan Partridge audiobook, our little trip was over. It’s good up north. Must go more often.

“You suck!” US vs UK fandom

New York Yankees at Camden Yards

“Hey buddy. You suck!” was the starting point. Before you knew it, a few hundred Yankees fans were echoing the chant. Nothing surprising here, except the shouts weren’t directed at the Red Sox taking on their heroes on the field of play. Instead they were aimed at a couple trying to take a cheesy photo of themselves in the bleachers. This was as intense as the atmosphere got, in a game where the Yankees were battling to secure the Division title against their bitter rivals.

A few weeks later, over in England, a Yorkshire derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United was marred when an away ‘fan’ ran onto the pitch and assaulted the home side’s goalkeeper Chris Kirkland. The game was sound-tracked by repeated obscene chants aimed at managers, players and fans alike. Sheffield Wednesday coach Dave Jones labelled Leeds fans “vile animals” and called for them to be banned from away grounds.

Back in the Bronx, most people sat happily chatting away, stewing slowly on overpriced beers and wandering around to frequently top up on corn-based snacks. What was most striking was how congenial everyone was. Nobody sat on the edge of their seat, biting their nails and swearing under their breath for hours on end. Few hurled real abuse at the officials, players, or even opposing fans. Many only glanced at the action every now and then.

The same occurred at a Knicks game I attended earlier in 2012, and Patriots vs Broncos match a few days after the Yankees ballgame. Three different sports, all with crowds enjoying communal fun. In America sport is a social occasion, not a life-and-death embodiment of their hopes and desires. When was the last time you had actual, tangible fun at a football match in England?

This doesn’t mean British fans care more about their teams than their American counterparts. They just express it, on the whole, with far more anxiety and far less delight. This could make the satisfaction of victory less fulfilling in the US; when the Yankees won the division, the cheering was no more jubilant than when a consolation goal goes in for a losing Championship football team.

The differing cultures are brought out again in their singing styles. The lack of inventive chanting at American sports grounds is staggering. While English football crowds seem determined to turn The Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’ into a funereal dirge as they explain their respective strikers “score when they want”, each team do have their own quirks and clever songs. At Yankees, Patriots and Knicks games, most audience noise is spoon-fed via loudspeaker direction. “Let’s go (insert team name), let’s go,” can only stay bearable for so long. “DE-FENCE” gets intolerable quite quickly and regular yells of “USA! USA! USA!” are just plain bizarre to an English onlooker.

There are exceptions. Red Sox fielder Jacoby Ellsbury was being lightly mocked by the Yankees bleachers regulars with chants of, you guessed it: “You suck!” Two seats down, a New Yorker lampooned the vapidity of the chants with a wryly delivered: “Mr Ellsbury, I question your ethics. Pardon me, sir, but your demeanour is disquieting!” On my limited experience, this exception proves the rule though. Nevertheless, at the US games singing never deteriorated into personal, vitriolic abuse, as it so often does in UK sport.

Another striking element of American sport is the singing of the national anthem before play and, in baseball, the performance of ‘God Bless America’ during the seventh-innings stretch. Sport becomes a vessel for outpourings on national pride, and delight in the particularities of America. The same only happens in the UK when national teams are playing, and even then is treated as a dated formality rather than an integral part of the overall celebration. Group-sponsored patriotism isn’t really a thing in England in the same way as America.

It could be argued the more important the sporting competition is deemed by the fans, the more likely they are to be highly engaged. The atmosphere becomes increasingly intense; in turn the chances of this spilling into violence grow. Nothing excuses incidents like players being assaulted by fans, and of course they are not particular to the UK either. But if football games here had some of the sociability of sport in the US, they might be more pleasant places to spend an afternoon.