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Posts Tagged ‘France’

Æsthete’s Foot — Quennell, Acton and Powell on Waugh, Oxford and Crowley

Coo’ on Wu — extracts about Evelyn Waugh from Diana Cooper’s letters to her son John Julius Norwich.

Pinal Chap — Max Beerbohm’s memoir of Swinburne

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Football’s Great Heroes and Entertainers, Jimmy Greaves with Norman Giller (Hodder & Stoughton 2007)

Like Tony Iommi, Jimmy Greaves has put his name on an entertaining book that he didn’t write. And like Iommi, Greaves has earned the right to do that. He entertained millions as a player, then entertained millions more as a broadcaster and football pundit, but he never made a lot of money. I assume he’s not written this book, at least. It would be unusual if a good player from a humble background were also a good writer, because this is an easy and entertaining read.

And Greaves was a good player – very good, in fact. He scored 44 goals in 57 England games, which isn’t far behind Bobby Charlton’s record 49 goals for England. But Charlton took 106 games to score that many. If Greaves had played so long and scored at the same rate, he’d’ve had about 80 goals for England. But he retired early and was never the kind of conformist to win so many caps.

He missed out on the World Cup Final in 1966 too, but he says here that he agrees with Alf Ramsey’s decision not to play him. Booby Moore and Gordon Banks did play and both are included here. Moore was Greaves’ “best mate in football” and asterisks appear as Greaves says what he thinks of the way Moore was treated by “the f****** FA” after he retired and had to scrabble for money. Even mediocre players can become millionaires today, but Greaves’ generation often fell into poverty after they retired.

In one of the generations before that, Tom Finney was “never ever a full-time professional”, which is why he earned the nickname of “The Preston Plumber”. Finney is #2 in this book, after Stanley Matthews, but the book is written in order of birth, not by how highly Greaves rates them as players. In that case, however, birth-order and Greaves’ rating coincide, because only Matthews makes the “All-Star XI” that Greaves picks at the end. Playing 4-2-4, the XI goes like this:

Lev Yashin; Franz Beckenbauer, John Charles, Bobby Moore (capt.), Duncan Edwards; Alfredo di Stefano, Dave Mackay; Stanley Matthews, Pelé, Maradona, George Best.

I don’t know enough about football to disagree, but Johan Cruyff seems like an obvious omission. He’s #28 in the book proper. And where is Lionel Messi? Nowhere, because this book was first published in 2007, so he doesn’t appear at all. Footballers are like flowers: they flourish briefly, then fade. The big young names here, like Steven Gerrard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, are senior players now, approaching the end of their careers, not burning at the zenith as they were in 2007.

And I don’t think there are many generations of footballer to come. This book is about the winners of genetic and environmental lotteries, but new technology means that we’re on the verge of being able to rig the game. When bioengineering and eugenics can produce super-athletes to order, how much value will sporting prowess retain? In crude, one-dimensional sports like athletics, rugby and American football, it’s already possible to inject your way to excellence, which is one reason I’m not interested in those sports.

Football has stayed interesting longer because it’s intellectually and psychologically demanding too. Big muscles and speed don’t automatically translate into dominance on the football pitch. Lightly built men like George Best and Denis Law could excel even in the days of brutal tackles and lenient refereeing. Like everyone else in this book, they must have had special brains, able to process visual information at high speed and perform very some complicated combinatorics. They were born with that ability, I’d say, but they had to polish it by practice. Footballing skill has to become automatic, operating below the level of consciousness, as the German great Gerd Müller explained:

Asked about his gift for goals, Muller said, “I have this instinct for knowing when a defence is going to relax, or when a defender is going to make a mistake. Something inside me says, ‘Gerd, go this way; Gerd, go that way.’ I don’t know what it is.” (Gerd Muller, #26, pg. 135)

It’s no coincidence that the human beings who play football best are male or that eleven is roughly the size of a hunting-party. Long-distance running and spatial intelligence were once essential for hunting: chasing prey down, throwing spears, firing arrows, and so on. A game of football is like a ritual hunt.

So Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter had an even better name than was apparent as the time. He isn’t one of Greaves’ heroes, but he’s mentioned by George Best as one of the hard men who once tried to kick him out of games. Best mentions Ron “Chopper” Harris and Tommy “Iron” Smith too, then says:

But the hardest of them all was Peter “Cold Eyes” Storey at Arsenal. He seemed a real psycho to me. He used to prowl around the pitch almost grunting as he waited to chop anybody trying to get past him. (George Best, #27, pg. 144)

I hadn’t heard of Storey before, but I’d heard of nearly all of Greaves’ heroes. The exceptions were the Italian Gianni Rivera, AC Milan’s European Footballer of the Year in 1969; the Spaniard Francisco Gento López, Real Madrid’s fleet-footed left-winger for a remarkable 761 league and Cup games, from 1953 to 1971; and the Scot Jim Baxter, a skilful midfielder for Rangers, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest.

Otherwise I already knew the names and was happy to learn more about the players, from Alfredo di Stéfano to Zinedine Zidane, from Len Shackleton to Lev Yashin. Most of the men here are still alive, but football is in its dying days. Advancing technology will see to that, but as it does so it will also answer some interesting questions. It won’t be long before we can run computer-models of retired players and see how they might have performed in different eras and using different tactics. Was Pelé really the best of them all? I think he probably was, but that doesn’t mean he would be in history’s strongest team. The whole of a team can sometimes be more than the sum of the parts and managers are obviously crucial too.

Greaves chooses ten managers in the epilogue, then settles on Sir Alex Ferguson to manage his All-Star XI. But managing is something else that will be changed by technology. Will great managers emerge in the future among computer-gamers who have never played professional football? And when virtual football is fully realized, will people lose interest in the real thing? Probably not, because virtual football will derive its power from the real thing and its history. Bioengineering and eugenics will be the “Chopper” Harris of history, carrying out a crunching tackle from behind that ends the world’s greatest and most beautiful sport.

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Excuse My French by Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van WaesExcuse my French! Fluent Français without the Faux Pas, Rachel Best and Jean-Christophe Van Waes (Kyle Books 2013)

If you know only one language, you don’t really know it. Learning a second is like travelling abroad: you’ll see home with new eyes when you get back. But the title of this book is misleading: it’s not an introduction to French and it won’t teach you about grammar or morphology. Instead, it compares French and English idioms, from weather to the workplace, from food to sex. It’s a kind of linguistic daytrip, taking you a little way from English and helping you to see it afresh. As I said in “Rosetta Rok”, understanding your mother tongue is like eating a ripe apple. You can do it without apparent effort or thought.

So when you read “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, you understand it almost too easily if you’re a native speaker of English. Now try a similar thought in French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine – “the habit doesn’t make the monk” (pg. 79). You have to think again. It’s like seeing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle. And, of course, you gain an insight into French culture and history. France is a Catholic country and religion has always meant more there. So has blasphemy. In English we have “hide the sausage”; in French, they have mettre le petit Jésus dans la crèche, “put little Jesus in the cradle” (pg. 62).

Food is more important in France too. For example, I didn’t know how important pears were there. In English, we discuss things “over coffee”; in French, they do it entre le poire et le fromage, “between the pear and the cheese” (pp. 146-7). Rachel Best, a native speaker of English, and Jean-Christophe Van Waes, her French husband, explain the precise meaning of this phrase, saying that it dates back to medieval times. Idioms can be like linguistic fossils. Sometimes they’re misinterpreted or misunderstood in the contemporary language.

But books and covers, like monks and habits, are easy to understand and the section devoted to those sayings also mentions two Latin equivalents: cucullus non facit monachum, “the hood doesn’t make the monk”, and barba non facit philosophum, “the beard doesn’t make the philosopher”.

The Latin is easy to understand too, but there are always traps in other languages. Best and Van Waes say that the French equivalent of “to be cross-eyed” is avoir un œil qui dit merde à l’autre, which literally means “to have one eye that says shit to the other”. That doesn’t sound good as a literal translation. But they note that dire merde à quelqu’un, “say shit to someone”, means “to wish someone luck, as in the English theatre salutation ‘break a leg’” (pg. 72). So being cross-eyed in French may not be so bad after all.

Either way, standard French is often cruder than standard English. We say: “Don’t run before you can walk.” They say: Ne pète pas plus haut que ton cul – “don’t fart higher than your arse” (pp. 134-5). We say: “Don’t split hairs” and although French has an equivalent expression, they can also say: N’enculons pas des mouches – “Let’s not bugger flies” (pg. 140). And where English has a “couch-potato”, French has a cul-de-plombe, an “arse-of-lead”. But sometimes English is cruder: we have “colder than a witch’s tit”, they have un froid de canard, “a duck-cold” (from duck-hunting in winter). We have “built like a brick shithouse” and they have une armoire à glace, “a wardrobe with mirror”.

Elsewhere the sayings are more or less the same. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and à cheval donné on ne regard pas les dents are pretty much identical (pg. 115). “One swallow does not a summer make” and une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps differ only in season (printemps is “spring”) (pg. 101). When sayings are similar in wording, it’s usually because English has borrowed from French. When they’re different, sometimes French seems more vivid or funnier and sometimes English does. See above. And “cool as a cucumber” is better than d’une calme olympien, I think (pg. 28). “Rug muncher” is better than colleuse de timbres, “stamp-licker” (pg. 57). But “twilight” isn’t as good as entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” (pg. 100). Nor is “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” as good as il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué, “you shouldn’t sell the bear-skin before killing the bear” (pg. 133).

I wish we had those two and others in English. But if we did, I would probably take them for granted. This book helps you stop doing that to your mother-tongue. My French is too weak for me to know how good the translations, explanations and etymologies in this book are, but they seem fine and in a way it doesn’t matter. Language is an imperfect medium and meaning shifts like smoke. That’s one of the important lessons you can take from Excuse My French. I like the fast and funny drawings by Alyana Cazalet too.

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Fifty Bicycles That Changed the World by Alex NewsonFifty Bicycles That Changed the World, Alex Newson (Conran Octopus 2013)

Bicycles are good things. They’re cleaner, quieter and compacter than cars, but I understand the irritation that many people feel towards them. Bikes and pedestrians often compete for the same space and not all riders are considerate. But bike-ophobia isn’t a rational prejudice: for destruction and deadliness, bikes are to cars rather as the common cold is to cholera. Like trains, they’ve changed the world for the better, not the worse, because they don’t impose huge changes on cities and the countryside or poison the psychology of those who use them.

This book is a celebration of man-powered two-wheeled transport. It looks at fifty world-changing bikes, from the Laufmaschine of c. 1817, which had two wheels but no pedals, to the electric bikes of the early 21st century. These bikes, with their sophisticated long-life batteries, have finally ended what might be called “bicymplicity”. Bicycles were a machine that people could understand at a glance and repair for themselves in a few minutes. They’ve been a cheap and reliable form of transport right around the world for well over a century.

But how much have they actually changed the world? One big way may have been that they expanded the horizons not just of travellers but of suitors too, particularly in a big country like France. Exogamy became easier, so bikes may have changed our genetics and not just our muscles. Perhaps that exogamic assistance helps explain the popularity of cycling in France. But Great Britain has dominated the sport in recent years, as this book describes and illustrates: there’s a photograph of Chris Hoy, insect-eyed in a cycling helmet, celebrating his gold medal in the “London 2012 Olympic Games men’s keirin final” (pg. 103).

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics

Chris Hoy at the 2012 Olympics


Where has this British success come from? The book doesn’t have much text and doesn’t provide much of an answer. Nor does it explain some other patterns that are obvious as you look through it. Cycling is a very white sport, even though bikes are very popular in China:

The Flying Pigeon is synonymous with China. Since the first Flying Pigeon was produced in 1950 more than 500 millions units have been made, making it not just the most popular bicycle ever produced, but the most popular vehicle ever. (“Flying Pigeon PA-02, c. 1950”, pg. 34)

That page also notes that “China’s reformist leader Deng Xiaoping defined prosperity as ‘a Flying Pigeon in every household’.” The definition of prosperity has changed in China since then, which is why the country has such a bad problem with pollution. Bikes don’t pollute and don’t cut us off from the natural world. In fact, they have almost become part of it. As you’ll see reading through this book, bike frames have evolved almost like skeletons and in the extreme environment of BMX competition they’ve even lost their seats, becoming a minimalist combination of wheels, pedals, chain and handlebars.

Bikes can take us further out into the natural world too, as the page about mountain biking describes. Like skateboarding, mountain biking began in California and there’s a good picture of two young men, bikes at the ready, gazing down into a mist-filled, pine-covered valley. But I don’t think bikes are the best way to travel through a wilderness. They churn up the ground less than motorbikes but more than boots. Walking is still the quintessentially human way of moving about on the earth’s surface. Or perhaps you could say quintessentially hominid. In which case, perhaps we’re at our most human on a bike.

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Trench by Stephen BullTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)

This is a detailed history of trench warfare in World War One, from the early days of improvisation and error to the later sophistication of flame-throwers, phosgene and tanks. One thing that stayed constant was slaughter: the war involved hundreds of highly intelligent men devising ever better ways of mincing, mashing and maiming bodies and minds. Hundreds of thousands of men in the trenches then put those ideas into operation:

The infantry battalion soon included grenades of many types, new machine guns and snipers, catapults and light mortars. The Engineers adopted gas, flame and other examples of frightfulness. … For some this was the start of a new age, when, as Ernst Jünger put it, “the spirit of the machine” took possession of the battlefield and new leaders were born. (Conclusion, pg. 255)

But artillery was the biggest killer, responsible for “two-thirds of all deaths and injuries on the Western Front”, Stephen Bull concludes in chapter one, which examines “The Armies of 1914 and the Problem of Attack”. That problem arose from an important and overlooked point he makes in the introduction: “trenches were designed to, and did, save lives” (pg. 8). Wars are won more by ending lives, not saving them, so each side sought to overcome the protection offered by trenches to the other side. Gas was one solution; tunnelling to lay explosives was another. And the tank was, in a way, a mobile trench. It wasn’t decisive in this war, but it was indirectly responsible for one of the war’s most memorable photographs: New Zealand troops “holding a German ‘T-Gewehr’ anti-tank rifle” in a “captured German emplacement near Grévillers, 25 August 1918” (ch. 9, “The Tank”, pg. 215).

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle


The grins and the gun are included here with many other photos and illustrations: churned mud, stagnant pools and tree-stumps (pg. 99); a “male Mark IV tank ‘Hyacinth’” stuck in a ditch (pg. 201); a “German NCO and his Soldatenkunst [trench-art]” on brass shell cases (pg. 88); laughing British troops wearing captured German helmets (pp. 146-7); a “louse hunt” conducted by “Württembergers of the 123rd Grenadier Regiment ‘König Karl’” (pg. 189); a “bullet-riddled steel loophole plate” (pg. 155); a canvas-and-steel “dummy tree” used for artillery observation (pg. 198); and gas-masks for horses and dogs and a “gas-proof pigeon box incorporating air filters” (pg. 137). Bull discusses the Western Front from all three perspectives – Anglophone, Francophone, Teutophone – and describes how the three groups both fought and thought in distinct ways:

Interestingly many pictures of German soldiers in the latrines exist, whilst British sensibilities make this subject something of a rarity. George Coppard of the Machine Gun Corps – no stranger to hardship or death – professed himself shocked by such exhibitions. (ch. 1, “Trenchtown”, pp. 76-7)

The three groups looked distinct too: the faces and expressions differ both between the big nations and within them. But one photo could be of any nationality and from almost any war of the past hundred years: “Snipers of the US 168th Infantry” wearing camouflage hoods and garments “in May 1918” (pg. 163). They look both anonymous and ominous and though the photo is black-and-white, it might have been taken in the Second World War or in Iraq or Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. What happened in the First World War carries on now and learning about any war tells you something about all wars. But trench-warfare will probably never return on this scale and if you want to understand what it was like, this is a good guide.

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How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers, Ian Jeffrey (2008)

I’ve looked at this book to ask myself an important question again. Is photography art? My answer is still: No, it’s a skill, not an art. Art should be ex nihilo or ex parvo: creation out of nothing or little. I don’t think there’s enough choice and possibility in photography for photographers to be called “great” in the same sense that painters or sculptors or novelists are great. There’s less genuine art in even the best photograph than in even the worst painting. Or the worst painting that aims at some kind of realism, that is. But then good photography has been responsible for a lot of very bad art. Photographs mirror reality very quickly and cheaply and artists began to stop competing with them in the nineteenth century. Ars est celare artem, runs the old Latin saying: “the art is to conceal the art”. You aren’t supposed to see the brush-strokes in pre-photographic art or its modern heirs. But some artists asked: if you don’t see the brush-strokes, how do you know it’s Art-with-a-capital-A? And how do you know that we’re Artists? Yes, the rot that started with Impressionism and quickened with abstract art has reached high putrefaction in conceptual art and mountebanks like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Colour photography only made the flight from realism faster, but almost all the photographs in this book are monochrome, sometimes by necessity, like the ones from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, sometimes by artistic choice, like the more modern ones. There’s often more power in a monochrome photograph: colour is more exciting and eye-catching, but also more distracting. The viewer isn’t presented simply with shapes and outlines, with light and shade. That’s why some photographers choose to eschew colour, even in the twenty-first century. All photographers choose to eschew another distraction: motion. Unless, like Tomatsu Shomei from Japan, they represent it in a blurred photograph, like the B-52 he captured on Okinawa in 1969. Colour or monochrome? Still or blurred? Yes, there is a lot of choice in photography, but it’s the choice of the right moment, the right light, the right angle, the right combination of images, not the much longer and more difficult choices made in painting and sculpture. That’s why I call photography a skill rather than an art. True, photographs can be more memorable and thought-provoking than some traditional art, but they’re memorable and thought-provoking in a different way. A painting is rather like a cooked meal; photographs are more like raw ingredients that you cook for yourself.

One of the things you can cook from them is a sense of ephemerality-in-permanence. On page 46 there’s a photograph of two young German cadets taken by an unknown photographer in the springtime of 1914, “just” before “the outbreak of the Great War”. One of them is grinning with his hands in his pockets. It’s a happy moment in a life that may have ended a few weeks later. Or a few decades later – who knows? What we do know is that the young cadet is certainly dead now and certainly did not stay young if he survived the war. The photograph has frozen him permanently in that happy, carefree moment: ephemerality-in-permanence, as I said. But photographs can be ephemeral too, if they exist in single copies. In his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), the Mancunian writer Anthony Burgess describes another early photograph:

My mother left the stage and became a shopping housewife on those thoroughfares [in Harpurhey]. Just before the War of 1914-18 began, she gave birth to my sister Muriel. I had a photograph of the two of them, long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites, and it showed a firm-featured woman of considerable blonde beauty and a promise of similar beauty in the daughter. (Op. cit., pg. 16)

Burgess’s mother and sister both died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war, so the photograph was one of the few things he had to remember them by. A drawing or painting, unless he had made it himself, would not have been an emotional loss in the same way: it would have been a meal cooked by someone else, not raw ingredients to cook for himself. Unless you know some of the people or scenes in this book personally, you aren’t likely to be affected by the photographs in the way Burgess must have been when he looked at his lost mother and sister. But some of the photos are affecting precisely because you don’t know their subjects and couldn’t ever have known them. The photograph called “The Mountain Nymph” on page 22 was taken in 1866 by Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, and Cameron herself died in 1879. The girl in the photograph is attractive, but sad for an unknown reason. She’s also long dead, so the reason will remain unknown. Overleaf is another powerful photo by Cameron: “Iago. Study from an Italian” of 1867, which shows a stubbly, unattractive young man whose face is nevertheless full of character and interesting lines and curves. He’s also long dead. So, apparently, are the luminosity and richness of these nineteenth-century photographs and the almost sacramental care with which they were created.

The chemicals got much cheaper and easier to use later, so photographs lost the aura of Cameron’s work or of “The Broken Wave, Sète”, taken by the Frenchman Gustav le Gray in 1857. It shows a shore, a ship and some sea, with a wave breaking on rocks in the foreground. It’s simple, but it casts a spell. As photography got easier, it got more informal, but informality has a power of its own, like the unposed street-scenes captured by Louis Vert and Paul Géniaux in Paris at the turn of the century. Second-long slices of vanished life and vanished lives: the children are gone just as the adults are. The trees captured by Gustav le Gray in his “Study of Tree Trunks, Fontainebleau” (c.1855-7) may be still be there, but the sand-patterns and bird-tracks of Edward Weston’s “Dunes, Oceano” (1936) may not even have lasted out the day on which he photographed them. The mathematics behind the patterns is still at work, though, and so is the male gaze that will feast on the female “Nude” lying on the same dunes and photographed by Weston in the same year. It’s an interesting study in contrast: firm flesh and shifting sand; dark hair and white skin. It’s not a pornographic photo, but the girl is naked and her breasts, thighs and pubic hair do supply some of the “Opium of the Peephole” so widely available in our ever-more voyeuristic culture.

The girl on page 301 made her living from supplying that opium: she’s a “Topless Dancer in Her Dressing Room, San Francisco, California, 1968”. Wearing a blonde wig and sparkly, cut-away dress, she has, in the immortal words of the Finnish stoner-rockers Erotic Support, “Tits to Die For”: large, shapely and firm, as one delicate index finger held against the left breast subtly indicates. She’s touching her chin with her other hand and looks both attractive and slightly bored or melancholic. Did the photographer Diane Arbus ask her to adopt that pose? Yes, I think so, because her index finger echoes the raised index finger of St Thomas in a Leonardo print propped unobtrusively on the dressing-table behind her. Ian Jeffrey, who wrote the text for this book, calls this “a curious reference” and you could speculate for a long time about its meaning. I don’t think you need to speculate about the opium of the peephole in this photo or the male gaze that absorbs the opium. The photo’s subject is a topless dancer after all and her breasts, slightly above the centre of the square photograph, dominate the scene, partly because they’re breasts, partly because they’re spectacular, and partly because they’re paler than the sun-tanned skin above them.

If the photograph were in colour, it would be nearer pornography, but it’s monochrome, so it’s a study in shape and shade, not in biological reality. It’s an interesting study too: the dancer’s glamorous clothes and breasts, at the height of their natural perfection and beauty, contrast with the back-stage drabness and clutter of the dressing-room. But in a wider sense, all the photographs here are about contrast. Why choose that moment rather than another? Why photograph that face rather than another? Sometimes it’s hard to see why, sometimes it’s easy. Memorable or mediocre, contrived or compelling, photography altered culture for ever with its chemical chiaroscuro – and chromaticism – but I’d still claim it’s a skill rather than an art. Even the most skilful photography doesn’t match the art of a painting like The Roses of Heliogabalus, but what it couldn’t match it could undermine. Photography and moving pictures haven’t been as destructive as automobiles, modernity’s “mechanical Jacobins”, but their importance in history is partly or even largely negative, in my opinion. Now that they’re here, few of us would want to be without them, but that’s because the opium of the peephole is nearly as addictive as real opium. But it isn’t as inspirational to art or artists.

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