Friday, March 16, 2018

Showdown in Richmond

This could end in tears. As we saw recently in the England/Scotland match, hunger and intensity are the deciding factors when two evenly matched teams collide. I feel that a sorely aggrieved England will bring huge intensity into this match. Farrell is the fulcrum around which the team revolves and he should always be played at out half - as Jones now realizes. The pit bull Hartley is back also and you know England are going to play a brutal pragmatic game. The Irish pack is stronger - especially in the back row but I worry about our backs - especially defensively. England’s lethal back three, Watson, Daly and May could exploit this weakness. It’ll be very close but if it becomes a goal kicking competition I fear the worst. Farrell will not falter. Based on the crucial importance of home advantage and the hunger born of injured merit I suspect England will win

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cheltenham Day 3 - A Few Terse Thoughts


The least distinguished of the three days and apart from the Stayer’s Hurdle it’s hard to get excited about the quality of the racing. However that doesn’t mean that we won’t be piquing our interest with a few (hopefully) judicious bets.

JLT Novices Chase

The term “Novice Chase” strikes fear into the heart of any serious punter. Approach with caution. I think that Henderson’s Terrefort (4-1) is a reasonably safe conveyance so the race should concern him and Mullins’ Invitation Only.

Pertemps Final

Another handicap hurdle lottery. There will be a few Irish dark horses lurking but I like Philip Hobbvs’ Louis’ Vac Pouch (8-1) and Jonjo O’Neill’s Forza Milan (12-1).  McManus has a few runners so we must of course check out the betting late on.

Stayer’s Hurdle

I’ve always liked Jessica Harrington’s horses in staying hurdles and Supasundae (8-1) looks a likely sort especially given his course form. I also like Yanworth who returns to hurdling from chasing and is trained by another expert in staying hurdlers – Alan King. I think Sam Spinner’s winning run will be ended by the competitive realities of Cheltenham (like Black Colton yesterday).

Mares Novice Hurdle

There is no need to look beyond Mullins’ Laurina. Maria’s Benefit winning run will end here.

Kim Muir

A race to avoid but you know you’ll have a bet. I’ll have a few bob on Sugar Baron – a piquant combination featuring Nicky Henderson and Katy Walsh.





Cheltenham – Day 2 – Post-Mortem


Again on Day 2 there are a couple of foregone conclusion races where my interest will be Platonic – Altior should win the Queen Mother Chase and Samcro should confirm his reputation in the Ballymore, both at restricted odds. I’m more interested for betting purposes in the handicap hurdle races: the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter. And I have a fancy for one in the final race the Bumper.

Overall Post-Mortem:  A good day for those who stuck to the championship races and followed form. Alterior, Samcro, and Presenting Percy were all eminently predictable. You can enjoy the quality in those races but where’s the betting fun in following favourites. A disappointing betting day for me with only a few placed horses. Alterior’s win gave me an ante-post double with Footpad which provided a little balm for my wounds.

Ballymore Novices Hurdle

Samcro has been touted as the biggest certainty at the meeting – and a future great. We shall see – his biggest danger is Mullins’ Next Destination and it’ll be a surprise if they’re not first and second. My eye is drawn to the 80-1 on offer for Mind’s Eye. He has been hammered by Samcro and ran a stinker when favourite at Leopardstown in early February. However that race was too short for him and his novice jockey made too much use of him. Henry de Bromhead always does well at Cheltenham and unless he’s in as a pace maker for Samcro (both owned by Michael O’Leary) he might sneak a place.

Post-Mortem: Samcro won as predicted with Next Destination third. His win, however, was more workmanlike than brilliant. Maybe the going was a factor. Mind’s Eye plugged on into 10th and having lurked at the back of the field throughout was clearly not a pacemaker.

RSA Chase

Two Irish horses dominate the betting for this, Presenting Percy and Monalee – the former has formidable course form and should be thereabouts. My old school-friend Joe Donnelly runs Al Boum Photo who could make up for his disappointment at Melon’s narrow defeat yesterday. However, I’m going to look beyond my compatriots to Paul Nicholls’ Black Corton at 9-1. He’s won twice at Cheltenham and is ultra game. I suspect he’s slightly below Grade 1 class but hope that his proven courage will get him up the hill in front.

Post-Mortem:  This was dominated by Presenting Percy and Monalee as the betting suggested. Presenting Percy was very impressive and we’ll be hearing more about him. Black Corton jumped poorly throughout and on this show is just not in this class.

Coral Cup Handicap

I do like a good handicap hurdle I do. And I am inevitably drawn to Nicky Henderson’s horses who always seem to do well in the big ones. (Call Me Lord was beaten a whisker in the Betfair last Saturday causing me much financial distress). William Henry at 8-1 is the obvious choice but I prefer Burbank further down the weights. He tried chasing unsuccessfully and made a promising return to hurdling in January. Based on last years novice form he has a good ew chance at 16-1.

Post-Mortem:  The Henderson horses finished 4th and 7th and at least gave me a run for my money in a field of 27. The winner was a Mullins outsider who could not have been predicted apart from the fact that he was trained by Mullins whose horses are always trying.


Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nobody likes a short-priced favourite that is reported as being lame a few days before the race. Alterior reportedly had a hoof infection which necessitated some pus being extracted. We’re told he’s fine now but I notice he’s drifted out to 11/10 from odds on. He’s a Cheltenham specialist and if fit should win. Otherwise Douvan is waiting in the wings. No bet in this.

Post-Mortem:  Alterior’s win was the highlight of the day. I had him in an ante-post double with Footpad so at least I made a few bob. He wasn’t at his best in the going but his fabulous jumping and gameness saw him through.


Cross-Country Chase

The novelty event (over banks and bushes) is normally won by an Enda Bolger horse or a Gordon Elliot one – Bolger particularly has had any number of course specialists over the years. Causes of Causes trained by Gordon Elliot will be everyone’s fancy but I’ll take a punt on The Last Samuri at 13-2. He’s a guaranteed stayer having come second in the Grand National and if he takes to the eccentric course shouldn’t be far away. A small bet only.

Post-Mortem: The Last Samuri was backed down from 13-2 to 11/4 favourite but could only manage third. One of Gordon Elliot’s did the business. No excuses apart from a lack of course familiarity.

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle

Another juicy handicap hurdle. My Cheltenham has been rescued a number of times by decent priced Nicholls’ hurdlers and being sentimental I fancy Grand Sancy at 16-1. He has the profile of an improving horse. He’s got a low weight, will love the ground, and has been chosen by the stable jockey – Sam Twiston-Davies. This race can be very rough so luck in running is the sine qua non.

Post-Mortem: This was won by Veneer of Charm at 33-1. No study of form would have elicited him as a possible winner. That’s handicaps for you – and Irish-trained horses. Grand Sancy ran a stinker and was pulled up. Maybe he’s sick the poor pet.

Champion Bumper

This is frequently won by Irish-trained horses especially Willie Mullins – he has the 5-1 favourite Blackbow. However I’m going to go for Acey Milan (13-2) trained by the up and coming English trainer Anthony Honeyball. He has course form on heavy going and has been very impressive in his last two runs. He’s being burdened with my best bet of the day.

Post-Mortem:  Sometimes I should listen to myself. Mullins, predictably, had the winner (Relegate at 25-1) and indeed four of the first five home. My selection interrupted a clean sweep by finishing 4th and earning place money.



Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cheltenham Day 2 - Prognostications


Again on Day 2 there are a couple of foregone conclusion races where my interest will be mostly Platonic – Altior should win the Queen Mother Chase and Samcro should confirm his reputation in the Ballymore, both at restricted odds. I’m more interested for betting purposes in the handicap hurdle races: the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter. And I have a fancy for one in the final race the Bumper.

Ballymore Novices Hurdle

Samcro has been touted as the biggest certainty at the meeting – and a future great. We shall see – his biggest danger is Mullins’ Next Destination and it’ll be a surprise if they’re not first and second. My eye is drawn to the 80-1 on offer for Mind’s Eye. He has been hammered by Samcro earlier in the year and ran a stinker when favourite at Leopardstown in February. However that race was too short for him and his novice jockey made too much use of him. Henry de Bromhead always does well at Cheltenham and unless he’s in as a pace maker for Samcro (both owned by Michael O’Leary) he might sneak a place.

RSA Chase

Two Irish horses dominate the betting for this, Presenting Percy and Monalee – the former has formidable course form and should be thereabouts. My old school-friend Joe Donnelly runs Al Boum Photo who could make up for his disappointment at Melon’s narrow defeat yesterday. However, I’m going to look beyond my compatriots to Paul Nicholls’ Black Corton at 9-1. He’s won twice at Cheltenham and is ultra game. I suspect he’s slightly below Grade 1 class but hope that his proven courage will get him up the hill in front.

Coral Cup Handicap

I do like a good handicap hurdle I do. And I am inevitably drawn to Nicky Henderson’s horses who always seem to do well in the big ones. (Call Me Lord was beaten a whisker in the Betfair last Saturday causing me much financial distress). William Henry at 8-1 is the obvious choice but I prefer Burbank further down the weights. He tried chasing unsuccessfully and made a promising return to hurdling in January. Based on last years novice form he has a good ew chance at 16-1.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nobody likes a short-priced favourite that is reported as being lame a few days before the race. Alterior reportedly had a hoof infection which necessitated some pus being extracted. We’re told he’s fine now but I notice he’s drifted out to 11/10 from odds on. He’s a Cheltenham specialist and if fit should win. Otherwise Douvan is waiting in the wings. No bet in this.


Cross-Country Chase

The novelty event (up hill, down dale, over banks) is normally won by an Enda Bolger horse or a Gordon Elliot one – Bolger particularly has had any number of course specialists over the years. Causes of Causes trained by Gordon Elliot will be everyone’s fancy but I’ll take a punt on The Last Samuri at 13-2. He’s a guaranteed stayer having come second in the Grand National and if he takes to the eccentric course shouldn’t be far away. A small bet only.

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle

Another juicy handicap hurdle. My Cheltenham has been rescued a number of times by decent priced Nicholls’ hurdlers and being sentimental I fancy Grand Sancy at 16-1. He has the profile of an improving horse. He’s got a low weight, will love the ground, and has been chosen by the stable jockey – Sam Twiston-Davies. This race can be very rough so luck in running is the sine qua non.

Champion Bumper

This is frequently won by Irish-trained horses especially Willie Mullins – he has the 5-1 favourite Blackbow. However I’m going to go for Acey Milan (13-2) trained by the up and coming English trainer Anthony Honeyball. He has course form on heavy going and has been very impressive in his last two runs. He’s being burdened with my best bet of the day.







Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cheltenham Day 1 - Post Mortem

Cheltenham – Day 1:  Post Mortem

I’m struggling to find anything I really fancy on Day 1.  There are four short-priced favourites that will probably win (Getabird, Footpad, Buveur D’Air and Apples Jade) but they are of little interest to me as I won’t bet at such short odds.  I will enjoy watching the races however. My betting interests on Day 1 will be more speculative than passionately committed.

Overall Post-Mortem:   Three first and three seconds in the six races I bet on. However, the three seconds hurt as two were beaten by necks and the third by a head. If only, If only. I ended the day with a modest three-figure profit instead of a substantial four figure one had those narrow defeats gone the other way. All the fun of the fair.

Supreme Novices

This is a tricky looking Supreme – you could make cases for 4 or 5 of them. Getabird will probably get Mullins off to a good start but I’d prefer to have a few bob each way on Kim Bailey’s First Flow (11-1) – he will relish the ground and on form would be a shorter price if he had a more fashionable trainer. I’ll have a saver Nicky Henderson’s Claimantforgan at around 14-1 - Henderson has any number of decent young hurdlers so his selection for this race is worth taking seriously. Somerville Boy at 10-1 is a danger I’m aware of.

Post-Mortem:  First Flow wasn’t good enough and Claimnanmtforgan ran reasonably. My modest saver on Somerville Lad saved me.
Arkle Chase

Willie Mullins regards Footpad as his bet bet of the meeting and I couldn’t disagree. I won’t be taking 5-4 on a novice chaser however so I will admire him win without financial interest. If he trips up I fancy Petit Mouchoir to take advantage - Henry de Bromhead has an excellent Cheltenham record.

Post-Mortem:  Footpad won easily as predicted.

Ultima Handicap Chase

This is a bit of a lottery but you keep an eye out for course form amongst the lower weights which is why Singlefarmpayment and Coo Star Sivola head the market. However I won’t touch anything under 10-1 here. I like Paul Nichols Vincente at 16-1  and will have a few bob on him and on Pipe’s promising young horse Ramses de Tailee (14-1). Pipe wins this race regularly. Shantou Flyer who I backed in his last two runs (second both times) would do me a disservice if he wins this time – I think he has too much weight.

Post-Mortem:  Vincente ran a stinker and Ramses de Taille didn’t stay. I had Shantou Flier in a double with Somerville Lad – his neck defeat cost me around €1,500.

Champion Hurdle

Nobody wants to look beyond Buveur D’Air for this and it looks as if he only has to turn up. Faugheen is shot, Melon is flakey, My Tent or Yours is too old, Elgin is a jumped-up handicapper. My ew My Tent or Yours is a non-runner so I suppose an ew bet on one of Mullins makes sense. But which one? I will observe from afar.

Post-Mortem: I followed the money and backed Melon at 12-1. Buveur D’Air won as predicted but Melon only went down by a neck. Tough luck again Johnny.

Mare’s Hurdle

Apple’s Jade at 4-7 is another shoo-in it seems. Only a fall or a sniper will stop him. Mullins’ Benie Des Dieux is being backed (he’s 7-2) and he seems the only threat.

Post-Mortem:  No bet in this but Apple’s Jade ran no race and got turned over by a Mullins horse.


National Hunt Chase

I don’t bet in novice chases as a general rule. This one has the added uncertainty factor of having amateur riders involved. Put a gun to my head and I’d say back Rathvinden – despite his being brought down and unseated his rider in his last two races. He’s more mature than most of the field and Ruby Walsh likes him (he won’t of course be riding him).

Post-Mortem: I had a modest bet on Rathvinden who won at 9-2 after a nicely patient ride by Patrick Mullins.

Close Brothers Novice Chase

Another novice chase so again I will be observing. Gordon Elliot may get his double via De Plotting Shed but if I were to bet I’d back Henderson’s Rather Be (10-1) ew. If I am desperate at this stage I might just do that.

Post-Mortem:  I did just that but he was beaten by a neck at 12-1. I only backed him for a win unfortunately.




Cheltenham Thoughts - Day 1

Cheltenham – Day 1

I’m struggling to find anything I really fancy on Day 1.  There are four short-priced favourites that will probably win (Getabird, Footpad, Buveur D’Air and Apples Jade) but they are of little interest to me as I won’t bet at such short odds.  I will enjoy watching the races however. My betting interests on Day 1 will be more speculative than passionately committed.

Supreme Novices

This is a tricky looking Supreme – you could make cases for 4 or 5 of them. Getabird will probably get Mullins off to a good start but I’d prefer to have a few bob each way on Kim Bailey’s First Flow (11-1) – he will relish the ground and on form would be a shorter price if he had a more fashionable trainer. I’ll have a saver Nicky Henderson’s Claimantforgan at around 14-1 - Henderson has any number of decent young hurdlers so his selection for this race is worth taking seriously. Somerville Boy at 10-1 is a danger I’m aware of.

Arkle Chase

Willie Mullins regards Footpad as his bet bet of the meeting and I couldn’t disagree. I won’t be taking 5-4 on a novice chaser however so I will admire him win without financial interest. If he trips up I fancy Petit Mouchoir to take advantage - Henry de Bromhead has an excellent Cheltenham record.

Ultima Handicap Chase

This is a bit of a lottery but you keep an eye out for course form amongst the lower weights which is why Singlefarmpayment and Coo Star Sivola head the market. However I won’t touch anything under 10-1 here. I like Paul Nichols Vincente at 16-1  and will have a few bob on him and on Pipe’s promising young horse Ramses de Tailee (14-1). Pipe wins this race regularly. Shantou Flyer who I backed in his last two runs (second both times) would do me a disservice if he wins this time – I think he has too much weight.

Champion Hurdle

Nobody wants to look beyond Buveur D’Air for this and it looks as if he only has to turn up. Faugheen is shot, Melon is flakey, My Tent or Yours is too old, Elgin is a jumped-up handicapper. My ew My Tent or Yours is a non-runner so I suppose an ew bet on one of Mullins makes sense. But which one? I will observe from afar.

Mare’s Hurdle

Apple’s Jade at 4-7 is another shoo-in it seems. Only a fall or a sniper will stop him. Mullins’ Benie Des Dieux is being backed (he’s 7-2) and he seems the only threat.


National Hunt Chase

I don’t bet in novice chases as a general rule. This one has the added uncertainty factor of having amateur riders involved. Put a gun to my head and I’d say back Rathvinden – despite his being brought down and unseated his rider in his last two races. He’s more mature than most of the field and Ruby Walsh likes him (he won’t of course be riding him).

Close Brothers Novice Chase

Another novice chase so again I will be observing. Gordon Elliot may get his double via De Plotting Shed but if I were to bet I’d back Henderson’s Rather Be (10-1) ew. If I am desperate at this stage I might just do that.




Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Emil Nolde at the NGI



An edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 25 February 2018.

Emil Nolde loved the Nazis but this love was unrequited. Heinrich Heydrich described him as “the notorious art Bolshevik and leader of degenerate art”, and over 1,000 of his works were confiscated by the regime. This was the same Nolde who asserted: “I have always and continually stood up for the National Socialist cause with the fullest conviction at home and abroad”. One of the most poignant and ironic scenes from his life shows the once-feted artist furtively painting small water colours in isolated corners of his house in Seebüll, Northern Germany. The Nazis had issued a Malverbot forbidding him from working and he had to follow his vocation surreptitiously between 1942 and 1945. The 1,300 or so watercolours from this period are referred to as his ‘unpainted pictures’. They are small expressions of bigger ambitions. Many formed the basis of larger oils that he painted after 1946 when the Nazi storm had passed. While we can sympathize with the constrained artist, we are also aware that he escaped the fate of Jewish contemporaries of his such as Charlotte Salomon and Felix Nussbaum, both of whom died in the gas chambers.

The Emil Nolde exhibition consisting of 120 works (oils, water colours and prints) is a major coup for Sean Rainbird and his team at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). It keeps up the momentum established since its reopening by two very successful shows featuring Caravaggio and Vermeer. However, in scale and career-covering comprehensiveness it surpasses both these earlier shows. Nolde is a significant figure in art history being one of the key 20th century Expressionists. After a late start, he had a long career, and despite his erstwhile affiliations lived to enjoy the spoils of his success. The West German Government awarded him its highest civilian honour, the German Order of Merit, in 1952.

The title of the exhibition, Colour is Life, is apt. The vibrancy and beauty of his images, especially his flower paintings, are evidence of how besotted he was with colour. In his autobiography he declared that “colour is strength, strength is life”. This is not the timid colour of costive hothouse flowers but the wild and vibrant reds, yellows and shimmering blues that he encountered in the South Sea Islands and in the enormous skies and windswept marshlands of his homeland in Northern Germany – between the turbulent North Sea and the more demure Baltic. Colour made his work expressive. He saw it as: “heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death”.

Nolde was born Emil Hansen in 1867 in the village of Nolde, three miles inside the current Danish border. During his early years this area was annexed by Prussia and became part of Germany. Nolde retained an affection for both these countries but primarily for the area where he was born. So much so that when he married the Danish actress Ada Vilstrup In 1902 he changed his name from Hansen to Nolde. This dedication to his homeland, and to the Germanic notion of Heimat, goes some way to explaining his embracing of National Socialism and Hitler. In 1933 at a dinner in Heinrich Himmler’s house he declared: “the Führer was great and noble in his efforts and a man of action blessed with genius.” It does not however explain his anti-Semitism. At one stage he denounced his fellow-artist  Max Pechstein to Goebbels as a Jew. Nolde’s rows with Max Liberman and other Jews in the Berlin art establishment did nothing to ameliorate this prejudice.

Nolde came from peasant stock and started life as a wood worker – a skill he translated into some memorable woodcuts in later life. He studied carving and illustration in Flensburg and worked in furniture factories to earn a living. His travels took him to Berlin, Karlsruhe and Berlin and in 1889 he gained admittance to the School of Applied Arts in Karlsruhe. He spent a number of years afterwards taking private classes and visiting Paris where he immersed himself in the Impressionist movement. He was 31 before he began to began to work full-time as an artist and it wan’t until around 1912 that he began to achieve a degree of success. He was courted by Kirchner and became, briefly, a member of the Dresden expressionist group Die Brucke and he also exhibited with Kandinsky’s Munich-based group Der Blaue Reiter in 1912. In his autobiography Nolde acknowledged the influence of Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh but most of all he wanted to forge a German identity for his art. “My art is German, strong, austere and profound”. Some of his earlier religious paintings hark back to Matthias Grunewald – often referred to as a proto-expressionist. There are echoes of Gruenwald’s magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece in Nolde’s 9-piece polyptych Life of Christ. Ironically this latter work was given a central position in the Nazi’s Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Goebbels was an early fan and at one stage hoped that German Expressionism would become the house style of the Third Reich. Hitler however had other plans. He saw all modern art as degenerate and demanded a return to the classical style. A style that Nolde, to his credit (and to which he owed his escape from post-war retribution), refused to embrace.

The 120 works in this exhibition, apart from a couple of works from the NGI’s permanent collection, come directly from the Nolde foundation in Seebüll. The work ranges across Nolde’s career embracing his visits to the South Seas, his travels in Siberia, his experiences in the cafes and nightclubs of Munich and Berlin, and rural life in Northern Germany. His tribal masks and grotesque figures denote his admiration for the Belgian artist James Ensor with whom he spent time early in his career. The exhibition is arranged thematically rather then chronologically. The themes are: Idea of Home; the Metropolis; Conflict and Ecstasy; the South Seas and the Exotic; and Sea and Garden pictures. There are so many highlights that it seems invidious to single out a few, but here goes: The dramatic woodcut Prophet with its hints of El Greco; the scarlet drama of Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red); his 1917 Self-portrait with that intense blue-eyed stare that evokes Van Gogh; and above all the dramatic skyscapes such as Light Breaking Through.

Half way through the exhibition the NGI, the will swap all works on paper for others sharing the same themes. This makes a virtue of the necessity to reduce exposure to light and preserve these delicate works. It gives the Gallery the opportunity to double the number of water colours on display and further broaden this already comprehensive survey of Nolde’s work..

When considering Nolde, Auden’s views on the separation of the artist and the work seem apt:

“Time that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well.”

If we were to scrutinize the lives of many artists we would find much that is distasteful – Caravaggio and Picasso spring to mind. But we tend to regard the sublime art as somehow detached from the flawed life. The more so as time passes. Emil Nolde’s political naïveté and his anti-Semitism do not prevent us from admiring and enjoying his dramatic and timeless paintings.


National Gallery of Ireland











Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Observation on the Six Nations - So Far



So far, so predictable except I didn’t see Scotland winning last Saturday – passion and intensity undid a complacent England. We were very poor against France and were lucky to escape. It was the first match so it must be down to getting our systems up and running. There was a singular lack of creativity that luckily was not evident in the next two matches. Earls has been the outstanding player in terms of making things happen in all three matches. This is a late flowering in a career that was more steady and efficient than brilliant up to now. Elsewhere the front five have been rock steady and the back row, especially Stander, have excelled. I think Bundee Aki is a weakish link at centre – especially defensively, and I do wish Rob Kearney would stop running aimlessly into trouble. He’s been at it for years. Centre is a problem area with Henshaw and now Chris Farrell injured and Ringrose ring-rusty.  Sexton and Murray are of course indispensable but it seems that Sexton’s old kicking malaise has resurfaced. I never liked his technique – he sets up and then turns away for a little meander before he eventually strikes. We should never have let Wales get so close. We need a dead-eye dick like Owen Farrell or Halpenny. When we play England every point will count – and I’m not sure Murray’s agricultural style is the answer.

So what next. We shall surely beat Scotland (who won’t be able to crank up the same passion in Dublin) – and I suspect that England will beat a disheveled France in Paris. If we can get a bonus point against Scotland (very do-able) we may have the championship won before the finale at Twickers. We’d be 6 points ahead unless of course England score four tries also – not impossible. The most likely scenario after round 4 is that we’ll play England with them needing a bonus point victory against us and also of course a better points difference. That could turn very nasty but somehow I can’t see Schmidt allowing that to happen. Paddy Power has us at 3/10 to win the Championship - buying money I reckon. The Grand Slam is another matter.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Recent Reads - February 2018

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin
****

I do like a blue-stocking and Claire Tomalin is a blue-stocking par excellence. This is the highly readable autobiography of the writer who made the transition from literary journalist to successful biographer of Dickens and Jane Austen. Tomalin doesn’t spare herself unpleasant truths: we hear about her womanizing husband Nicholas Tomalin who was killed while on assignment in Israel, her handicapped son, and the tragedy of her talented daughter who committed suicide. Tomalin was ambitious and a high achiever from university days and made sure she moved in the right circles. There is a certain smugness in her harping on about the intellectual and artistic heft of the area she chose to live in in London.  She bought a house with Nicholas in Gloucester Crescent and her neighbors we are told included Jonathan Miller, Vaughan Williams’ widow Ursula, George and Diana Melly, Beryl Banbridge and Alan Bennett. It seems like a L’Age D’Or for Guardian readers. She ultimately ended up married to Michael Frayn, the playwright, who also happened to be a neighbor in her increasingly gentrified area. She left the Sunday Times on principle at the time of its move to Wapping, and found her true vocation afterwards when she began to write biography. The only weakness in this entertaining read is the way it peters out at the end when she moves from her own life to her explorations of the lives of others. The last 50 pages or so seem rushed and cobbled together.


Form - My Autobiography by Kieran Fallon
****

This is mainly for those interested in the world of horse-racing. It’s hardly a master-piece of silver-lined prose but unlike most sports biographies it errs on the side of frankness and honesty. Fallon freely admits his cocaine use, his drinking problems and one memorable incident where he dragged a fellow-jockey off a horse (after the winning post it should be said). However, his sincere affection for horses comes across. Retired now, rather than sipping rum in the Bahamas, he still rides out every morning for the sheer love of it. For those who know their racing the best bit are his affectionate pen pictures of characters like Jimmy Fitzgerald, Sir Michael Stoute, and Aidan O’Brien. Of the latter he describes how well O’Brien treats even the most lowly member of staff at Coolmore. He never got close to Henry Cecil (nor, despite tabloid gossip, to his wife)  but nonetheless gives us some respectful insights into that withdrawn and austere figure. The book also contains a tactical master-class on riding in the Derby - a race he won three times.

Wounds - A memoir of War and Love by Fergal Keane
****

Dark doings down south during the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. Keane is the son of Abbey actor Eamon Keane who theatre goers in the 60s and 70s will remember - I do. His family came from Listowel and the story centers on the doings of his grandmother’s brother Mick Purtill and his friend Con Brosnan. The murder of an RIC man, Tobias O’Sullivan, and the reverberations within the community in which both the victim and killers lived form the backdrop to an account of those troubled times. It’s a chilling book not least for the implacable righteousness with which the IRA went about their business despite their awareness of the vicious and random brutality from the Tans and the Auxiliaries that would follow. The detailed description of how James Kane was kidnapped and executed by the IRA for being a spy is an intimate account of how these things happened. He was allowed make a will, write letters to his family, and then knelt down with his captors to say a decade of the rosary before they shot the still kneeling man. Hard times.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Dog Shit Debate



There’s been a spate of hysterical outbursts in the media lately about the mortal dangers of dog shit. Some Meath backwoods man, a councillor French, has called for drone surveillance and DNA testing to counter the imminent plague. Environment minister Denis Naughten has got in on the act describing it as “a danger to public health”. Even our ostensibly enlightened local council (DLR) have been placing melodramatic notices (see above) around Killiney suggesting that our children will be blinded unless you pick up after your pooch. The same council might do better by supplying more rubbish bins. There are whole swathes of public walking areas in the borough with no bins at all. Check, for example, the fields and football pitches around Shanganagh.

Now we’re all agreed that dog shit is disgusting and stepping on it is an aesthetic disaster and a practical nuisance. So people should pick it up, especially if it’s on a footpath or in a public area. I’m not sure it’s such a problem in the middle of a field or on a deserted beach where tide and rain will take care of it. But I daren’t say that out loud. However, to suggest that that it’s a health danger is just plain alarmist and untrue. It’s an aesthetic issue and an inconvenience. Good citizens should remove it to make the environment more pleasant for all.

You have as much chance of getting seriously sick from contact with dog shit as you have of being hit by a meteorite. The incidence of toxoplasmosis from uncooked meats is quite high but acquiring it from dogs is extremely uncommon. In the UK and the USA Toxocariasis (acquired from dog faeces), is described as “a rare disease”. It affects 0.00% of the population in the USA. We in Ireland of course don’t keep any statistics.

Anyone who has a dog knows that its favorite indoor pastime is excavating its arse with its tongue. One of its next favorite pastimes is licking its owner on the face with the self same tongue. If dog shit was as toxic as this tribe of ignorant alarmists claim we would be seeing vast numbers of dog owners walking around blind. Their pets replaced, poignantly, by seeing dogs.

It’s disgusting, it’s inconvenient, it’s distasteful but it’s not dangerous. Stop pretending it is.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Gilbert and George at the MAC


An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 4 February 2018

Gilbert and George’s monumental show at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast, is dominated by whippets. Not, alas for dog lovers, the canine kind.These whippets are the small steel containers used for nitrous oxide – a popular recreational drug, especially in the gay community. In the blood-red apocalyptic world depicted in this exhibition, these bomb-shaped objects serve as a metaphor for both the violence and the careless hedonism of our blighted times. Gilbert and George themselves appear in the large pictures in a variety of guises: bemused everyman, appalled witness, shattered victim, or dead-eyed killer. “We are the centre of the art, we are always the centre of the vision”. The show is meant to be provocative. According to curator Hugh Mulholland its aim is: “To force us to examine our complicity in all that is wrong with society”. This is a thread in art that goes back to Goya’s Disasters of War and embraces the likes of Hogarth and Otto Dix.

Gilbert and George have been around as an artistic duo for a remarkable 50 years. Notwithstanding their outsider claims they have slowly morphed into national treasures in the UK. All the signs are there. They won the Turner Prize for their photo montages in 1986. In 2007 they had a retrospective at the Tate Modern that was the largest in that institution’s history. An hour-long interview with Mark Lawson on the BBC in 2011 further confirmed their place in the cultural life of their country. George is the Philip Larkinesque one with the glasses and Gilbert is the shorter one. They met at St. Martin’s College of Art in London in 1967 and have been partners in art and in life ever since. From their base near Brick Lane in East London they issue forth in character every day to pursue their inordinately ordered and well documented lives. “We are the living walking sculptures, walking through London.” It’s amusing to see them slipping into sculpture mode when our photographer began taking photographs. Like well-trained soldiers their arms go down by their sides and they assume the formal position.

When I met them in Belfast a couple of weeks ago I was expecting to encounter them in living sculpture mode – but they seemed perfectly normal and chatty. There was a distinct absence of preciousness or self-importance. But of course back in their early days they published the Laws of Sculptors that promised that they would be “always smartly-dressed, well-groomed, friendly, polite and in complete control”. The latter became evident when I tried unsuccessfully to steer the conversation away from their well-rehearsed beliefs towards more personal matters, such as Gilbert’s background in the South Tyrol. They were dressed in very smart tweed suits, one dark green, the other rust red. When I remarked on them George told me they were Donegal Tweed. “We’ve given up on Harris Tweed since the split.” This cryptic remark was aimed at Scotland and its import became clear later when they aired their views on Brexit.

Their dedication and persistence over 50 years clearly springs from a profound belief in what they do. It has always been thus. Back in 1969 after they left art college they were miffed to find themselves excluded from a major contemporary sculpture show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. “We felt outsiders at the beginning.” They proceeded to crash the opening and perform their Singing Sculpture routine for the delectation of the throng. The event was attended by the hugely influential German gallerist Konrad Fischer who invited them to show in his gallery in Düsseldorf (alongside such luminaries as Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman) and so their career was launched. They remain grateful to Fischer “everybody said no and he said yes”. Given that you can’t sell a singing sculpture, their early shows also included charcoal drawings and eventually they began to use photography and build their large-scale photo-montages.

The images in Scapegoating are bizarre, violent, and sinister. The predominance of women in burqas and bearded men in robes infers an Islamic source for the violence and mayhem. But they claim to have many Moslem friends around Brick Lane which has a large mosque. They also referred to the late Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh as “a liberal and a bigot” because “he spoke against Islam”. When it comes to sexual matters both are ardent libertarians. A triptych containing multiple slogans urges us to:  “Keep a catamite – Snog in the synagogue – Caress a constable” and other more arcane sexual acts. Their tolerance does not extend to loving religion which they pretty much blame for all the ills of the world. Hence: “Beat up a bishop, Piss on a priest, Infibulate an iman”. Contradictions occur here also. We are urged confusingly to: “Masturbate a monk” and “Fuck the vicar”.

When asked what brought them to Northern Ireland their simple response was “Hugh just asked us.” Mulholland sees Northern Ireland “as a divided and fractured society at times unable to confront uncomfortable truths.” He maintains that Gilbert and George place themselves “and by extension us” within their work. Their concerns are universal – these pictures could be shown in any Western capital. They have no issues with Northern Ireland politics specifically or its conservative stance on social issues. When I mentioned that gay marriage was still banned there, they were unmoved. “It’s not relevant for our generation”, George maintained, “it’s too much like copying straight people.” He went on to express admiration for cult writer John Rechy, the author of gay classics such as City of Night and Sexual Outlaw. They have a civil partnership which presumably takes care of inheritance issues. Rather surprisingly, considering one is Italian and one is English, they are ardently pro-Brexit. George seemed to do most of the talking on political matters:  “We’re pro-Brexit of course. Who is running the whole show”, he asks rhetorically, “Germany and France of course”. He mentions that he was bombed out of his childhood home in Plymouth by German planes, so this animosity may have long roots..

For artists whose work sells for substantial six-figure sums they have a refreshingly democratic attitude towards the product, encouraging versions that can be distributed widely and cheaply. Gilbert boasted that “In London we signed 4,000 posters at £10”. In 2007 they allowed access to one of their posters on the Guardian and BBC web sites for 48 hours. They were delighted that subsequently, wherever they went, they were approached by people to sign them. “Do you know that lovely young actor Luke Evans, he’s unconventionally good-looking ?” George asked me. “He downloaded one and asked us to sign it in a New York hotel”. On the Friday after the opening in Belfast, they sat in the gallery for three hours signing catalogues.

When I queried them about their own tastes the surprised me with their enthusiasm for AE (George Russell) – whose mystical visions seem far from their hard-edged realism. They recently discovered pictures by him in a theosophical library in London and professed themselves beguiled by them. “We think he’s a great artist. You should have an AE Museum”. They were bemused at his seemingly lowly rating at home. “Why are his paintings so inexpensive. He’s madly underpriced.”

Although Gilbert was born a Catholic and George a Protestant, they eschew all religion, while claiming to be “more Christian than most of our detractors”. A barb aimed at the Rev. David McIlveen (father of the serving DUP MP) amongst others. Their previous show in Belfast in 1999 was described as "an assault upon decency and morality". As we walked out to get some photographs I asked George about McIlveen’s attack on their work. That doesn’t bother us he maintained. “Did you notice that his name has EVIL in it and our name has GOD in it. True?”




MAC
Belfast
Mon-Sun: 10am-7pm

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Jaundiced View of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing


I am loth to criticise anything associated with the late great Townes Van Zandt and a film that includes both his own version of Buckskin Stallion Blues at the beginning and Amy Anelle’s version at the end is bound to engage my sympathy – initially. However, the more I think about this film the less I like it. It’s entertaining and constantly engrossing but I still left the cinema with a bad taste in my mouth. Fargo it ain’t although it’s set in the same kind of quirky small-town location and has the same actress as main character. It’s a cold confection, lacking the charm of the latter movie. It wasn’t Frances McDorman’s fault – she was superb in the main role as was Sam Rockwell as the red-neck deputy. And Woody Harrelson did his thing as the sheriff – all folksy authenticity. Mind you I don’t know how he came to be married to a young Australian (Abbie Cornish) in Missouri but maybe I missed something. I suppose my major gripe was the whole farcical nature of the enterprise and the lack of reality in the seemingly realistic scenario.  I have no problem with farce or black comedy per se, but too many elements in the film didn’t convince me.  No mere deputy would be allowed to carry on as Rockwell did without censure from his seemingly decent boss and colleagues. Why were there no repercussions when McDormand assaulted two schoolchildren, attacked the dentist and burnt down the police station. At the very least she would have been held under suspicion for the latter. And to be a little petty, would such a small town have its own advertising agency?

The ostensible cause of the whole ruckus, the rape and murder of McDormand’s daughter, was only briefly and unsympathetically attended to – and never resolved. And why, oh why, expose Peter Dinklage (the dwarf in Game of Thrones) to a cruel and dwarfist vignette where his amatory ambitions were cruelly sneered at and dismissed. I think the bottom line for me is that the film was a series of visually spectacular and dramatic set pieces that didn’t coalesce into a convincing creation. It entertained briefly but irritated long-term. A bit like my relationship with plum pudding – I like the initial taste, the fruity bits and the brandy hit but then it lies leadenly in my stomach for hours.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Recent Reads - January 2018


Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
***
Patricia Highsmith was a fascinating character right down to the snails she carried around in her handbag and her voracious sexual appetite. She became an active and predatory lesbian while still a school girl – at a time (the late 1930s) when it was very much a love that dare not speak its name. No married woman or visiting journalist was spared her advances and she had a hit rate that would put Don Juan to shame. She was also a decent writer of entertaining novels – usually with a dark flavour. However, her biographer spends way to much time analyzing her books in detail – she was no Dostoyevsky. Her life, especially her tortured relationship with her mother, was more interesting than her work and this book would have been better if it were a third shorter than its 500 pages.


The Rub of Time by Martin Amis
***
I prefer Amis’s non-fiction to his fiction – especially in recent years. Earlier in his career I enjoyed Money and London Fields. But The Moronic Inferno, The War Against Cliché and Koba the Dread worked better for me. His latest entertaining collection throws its net wide embracing poker, porn, politics and literature. There’s even a piece on the Tangerine Terror across the Atlantic. There are very few duds and I especially liked his two essays on Philip Larkin where his ongoing admiration is tinged with some recent reservations. There’s also a very astute piece on Nabokov and of course something on his hero Saul Bellow. It’s not all high art – there’s a very good piece on the renaissance of John Travolta and a rather sad piece on his fading tennis skills.

Sticky Fingers – the Life and Times of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan
***
I expected to enjoy this a lot more than I actually did. Maybe I grew weary of the relentless confirmation of what a prick the founder of Rolling Stone actually is. He had the gumption to realize that he could monetize the whole sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene that developed in San Francisco in the Sixties and didn’t much care who he stepped over to accomplish this. His interaction with people like John Lennon and Mick Jagger are occasionally interesting – the Stones were not amused that he called his magazine after them and threatened legal action. He pointed out that they had in turn taken their name from a Muddy Waters’ song and in the end there was a compromise whereby he let Jagger control a UK edition (which quickly foundered). There’s plenty of entertaining tittle tattle about sex and drugs and who was sleeping with who – everybody with everybody it seems. The early drug-fueled chaos of producing the magazine is amusing but it’s now a corporate advertising platform that not many people care about. I gave up about half-way through its 550 pages. I may dip in again if I’m stuck.


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
*****

This is a stone masterpiece. I avoided it for a long time because I felt queasy about the basic premise – uneasy spirits chatting in a grave yard while Abraham Lincoln mourns his recently deceased young son. But it works. The chatty corpses in Limbo are in denial about their state and look back towards their unfinished business on earth. They also take a keen interest in whether Lincoln’s son will linger restlessly with them or pass over fully. Their conversations are punctuated by contemporary accounts of Lincoln and his son, how he died and how the family dealt with the tragedy. It came as the American Civil War was in full spate and many thousands of families were mourning their dead. It’s a sophisticated and thought-provoking novel and it has sent me off to discover Saunders’ earlier works (all short story collections).


Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty
***

This is hardly the classic I was expecting from all the laudatory reviews I read over the past 6 months. It was a reasonably convincing portrait of a marriage stuck together by old custom that endured despite the yearning of the female partner for something more spiritually satisfying. She had survived a shooting in Northern Ireland and also felt the need to keep a promise to God. The husband’s relentless drinking (morning, noon and night) seemed unconvincing to me. The ice metaphor was a trifle crass also I felt – a bit too obvious. It kept me mildly entertained – no more.