Book Review: Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (2008)

An earlier book by Jonathan Wilson: a 350-page history of football formations and strategies. It’s a very good read: each chapter covers a phase of development in football history, which in turn focuses on the country or wider area where it happened. For example, after the first 40 years the primitive, direct and physical game of England (and lesser so Scotland) is superseded by the development of stylish team interplay in Central Europe and further afield by individuality in South America. As so on and so on as the game evolves, the formation and pattern of play is modified.

Wilson is very readable. Allowing for the passions invoked by the subject (even at this analytical level), he outlines the tactical development of the game impartially but adds lots of detail, insight and fascinating anecdotal history. My favourite sections were the chapters covering Italian and Argentinean football in the sixties and seventies: pragmatic, often brutal football but strikingly intense personalities! Less colourful but perhaps equally fascinating was the detailing of Maslov and Lobanovskyi’s work at Dinamo Kiev (the latter is perhaps too dry a subject I fear for my taste).

Sometimes as a novice to tactics (even after enjoying the game for 25 years), I could do with some more detail as to the mechanics of each formation; but for its detail and history, and its passion even, this book is excellent.

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The Best of Wodehouse – An Anthology (Everyman): Short Stories (1)

Reading, seemingly such a sedentary pursuit, is in fact rather demanding. Allowing for our natural aptitude for understanding arrays of letters (or “words”), perceiving and interpreting arrays of these words, both in small chains and larger chunks, and then accepting that we have understood: i) what we wanted to understand; ii) what we think the author might have wanted us to get out of the exercise; iii) ideally a synthesis of i) & ii). The trouble is, so very often we find ourselves quite bloody tired from having to avoid sleep, that i), ii) and iii) slip from our grasp (in my case between the mattress and the beside cabinet).

Thank God therefore for good writing and brevity. And accordingly praise all heaven for its finest purveyor, P.G. Wodehouse of Guildford, Surrey. Ignoring a trio of school-set novellas collected under the title The Golden Bat, my plunge into the Wodehouse lake was via a 800-page anthology under the Everyman imprint, book-ended by The Code of the Woosters and Uncle Fred in the Springtime, with an excerpt from Over Seventy as an epilogue.

The middle of the collection is devoted to a selection of his short stories. I won’t pass comment of the Jeeves stories, other than to obviously remark that they’re fantastic, but of the others, I will attempt to strain my critical faculties a little (not so much that my brain catches up with my sore shoulder).

Uncle Fred Flits By

Uncle Fred is a majestic character: a powerhouse of poise, resourcefulness and charisma housed in a slender, dignified frame. Here, whilst sheltering from a shower on a South London street, on a whim he trespasses into and takes over a suburban household, allowing his wits free rein to overwhelm the credulity of the other characters. The exception is his nephew Pongo, a personable young man who, knowing the truth, is worn down to almost nervous exhaustion by the outrageous behaviour of his uncle. His propensity for falling in love at first sight is tested here: the domestic affair Uncle Fred barges into is a dispute over a pretty girl marrying an inferior boy (Pongo is hit by love and envy like a lightning bolt out of nowhere). Frustratingly unable to exercise any kind of chivalric urge, Pongo is left to watch his Uncle play a benevolent god and get the kisses. Brilliant stuff.

The Crime Wave at Blandings

This one wasn’t my favourite out of the short stories. It’s none the less very good, but perhaps I didn’t enjoy the tension between the differing personalities of Lord Emsworth and Lady Constance, and how the very dry presence of Rupert Baxter sits between them. Also, the crime wave turns out to be some tomfoolery with a pop-gun (perhaps having recently read The Code of the Woosters with its theft of police headgear, didn’t help here). That said, Emsworth is a sedately lovable character and the resolution, where the responsibility for the various shootings somehow are resolved in Emsworth’s (and our) favour, is really enjoyable.

Book Review: Mons: The Retreat to Victory (1960) by John Terraine

A superb book of First World War military history, in which John Terraine covers the opening skirmishes of the war in August/September 1914.

Both sides are conditioned by recent history, in this case the fall-out from the Franco-Prussian war: Germany, the continent’s supreme power with its military complex furnished by its leadership oppose France, honour bound to avenge for the past humiliations of 1870. On the pretext of Austria’s quarrel with Serbia, the two sides engage into battle under differing delusions: France is myopically bent on offense without any consideration of the manpower and strategy opposing them. The German army’s advantages in strategy through its war plan are gradually undone by the complacency of its generals as the plan’s execution nears completion. The British, in particular its high command, are buffeted around by these delusions to near disaster.

Over two weeks in late August 1914, encountering the bulk of the German forces through Belgium and Northern France, the Allied armies of Britain and France are forced to retreat back 200 miles to within 20 miles of Paris. From there, they stage a counterattack that sends the Germans into retreat. Terraine rehabilitates the reputation of General Joseph Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief who belatedly wakes up to the reality of the situation facing his forces and calmly manages his way through the situation and saves his country from defeat.

The Retreat to Victory is an overview of the role played by the British Expeditionary Force, the small but highly trained Army that entered the war against Germany in support of treaty obligations to Belgium and alliance with France. The book covers three phases: the background to the B.E.F’s entry into the war (in the years leading up to the conflict, and also the mobilisation and arrival in France), the initial days of the deployment climaxing in the Battle of Mons, and the retreat itself, where the Germans are heroically kept at bay by the II Corps.

The Retreat to Victory is extremely readable: I got through it over a week, reading a chapter a day. Detailing the B.E.F’s journey to Mons and retreat to the Marne, it is also full of fascinating anecdotal detail (the stories are superb and quite too many to mention). It concentrates on the human drama of the leadership and on the character and personalities of the British and French generals: primarily the triangle of Joffre, Sir John French and General Lanrezac.

Terraine stylishly describes the events (in which the B.E.F. slowly enter a nightmare and escape by the skin of their teeth) and offers superb insight: he blends the heroism of the soldiers with the slow journey of the Generals and politicians towards reality, outlining the practicalities of the Allies avoidance of the mighty German Army with its place in history.