Book Review: Who Wants to be a Batsman? By Simon Hughes (2015)

Of the three disciplines involved in playing cricket: batting, bowling and fielding, it is the first that perhaps offers the greatest potentiality between glorious success and abject failure. A splendid hundred could lead to national fame, a sponsored car and a feeling better than sex, whilst a series of ducks can cause emotions of personal and professional failure (into the red zone of insanity).

So Who Wants to be a Batsman? is a study of the requirements of batting and the necessary qualities required to succeed. Unlike the author of The Art of Cricket, Hughes’ qualifications for this duty do not result from his own batting prowess (a bowler throughout the 1980s for the successful Middlesex team, in that time he averaged an undistinguished 11 with a single fifty against Cambridge University).

Hughes’ investigative skills and insight comes from his later career as a journalist, with his television and radio work as the (seemingly self-styled) analyst: going through video footage and offering observations on all kinds of technical and behavioural elements of the game. His findings on the necessities of batting are refined from observing and interviewing a series of successful batsmen (he focuses on modern players such as Pietersen, Sangakkara, Bell and Strauss).

The gist of his findings (which are itemised in ten wanna be a batsman rules) is that the successful batsmen train hard in a very detailed manner, are able to keep their minds uncluttered and can concentrate in the moment one ball at a time (and know when to relax), know what their goal is (scoring runs for their team) and have a passion for it.

So, this book is mainly about the mental preparation required for the game and, apart from a few brief passages where this preparedness is linked to the execution of a stroke, isn’t a technical manual explaining how to play, it is more for the many jobbing batsmen and fewer sports psychologists out there.

The study is woven together with an autobiographical strand about Hughes’ experiences as a wannabe batsmen: from his nurturing by his cricket-mad father (who I was interested to learn is a retired actor that I’d seen in TV series like Jeeves and Wooster and The Professionals) and through his professional career, when his desire to develop into a batsman is stymied by a mixture of the negligent attitude to tailenders present thirty years ago and his own incompetence.

Hughes’ skill as a wry anecdotalist make these long-ago tales of the county cricket scene very funny, as well as offering practical evidence of how not to bat (in anticipatory disregard of his ten golden rules). The knockabout autobiographical tone becomes more serious as Hughes’ transfers his hopes onto a surrogate, his gifted team-mate Mark Ramprakash.

Ramprakash’s serially (and to his admirers tragically) underwhelming career in test cricket gives Hughes a more sombre area to discuss the mental demands of top class sport. This failure was put into focus when, years later, he completely mastered the environment of Strictly Come Dancing. Also Hughes reflects on Ian Bell, a later England player similar in style and personality to Ramprakash who benefitted from a vastly more stable and progressive team environment.

The final chapter brings the story full circle: Hughes in his turn has passed his passion for cricket onto his two sons and single daughter. He keenly observes and supervises their progress, but decides in the end to let them take their own course. And it turns out that it is his daughter, playing for Middlesex under-15s, is the most skilled batter in the family: her maiden century is narrated to us by her proud father, paying note to the attributes that he has previously outlined to us.

So, Who Wants to be a Batsman? is an entertaining and informative read. Its mixture of anecdote and investigation perhaps drags a little in the second half (where the overactive narrative slows down a little). It’s a very good cricket book, both as a study of the mental attributes needed for batting and as autobiography.

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Cheers #2: “The Coach’s Daughter” (#1.05, 28/10/82)

Synopsis

Coach is excited at the impending visit of his daughter Lisa and her new fiancée Roy. However, his obnoxious personality quickly alienates everyone at Cheers. Coach is persuaded to talk her into breaking the engagement off, but Lisa has her reasons for wanting to be married.

Thoughts

This episode is focused on the character of Coach and is quite a charming, even heart-warming entry, in keeping with the characterisation of coach and his portrayal by Nicholas Colasanto.

It starts off with a fine example of Coach’s dottiness: his custom of giving all the individual bar glasses a personal name. An admonition to one of Norm’s arrival wisecracks allows Coach to explain to general delight that his daughter is coming to visit with her new fiancée. However, the fiancée turns out to be one of those unpleasant people with a genius for making others feel ill at ease. He is assertive to the point of rudeness and is hardwired to give everything the hard sell (Lisa explains that he is a door to door suit salesman; she’s his manager).

Like everyone else, Coach is appalled by him. He is persuaded by Sam to have a one-to-one talk with Lisa. On hearing her father’s views, she calmly explains that she is fully aware of Roy’s personality and his insincere reasons for wanting to marry her. When he reacts with bemusement, she jumps out of her seat and earnestly implores him to understand that Roy is the only man who has ever proposed to her, and as she desires marriage and a family, she is willing to accept him. The implication is that Lisa, despite her smart appearance and career as a sales manager, is an unconfident person, particularly in regard to her looks (she is not an unattractive girl, but is somewhat toothy and awkward) and her fear of becoming an old maid has forced her into accepting a marriage without love.

Coach is oblivious (“nothing’s ever obvious to me”) to her doubts and fears; all he can do is express (wonderfully) his unconditional love for her, as he has done all her life. This persuades Lisa to break off her engagement – she is her daddy’s girl again.

This episode is economical and spare: besides Coach, Diane gets some development with one of her creative pretentions (caricatures) and her noble attempt to engage with and understand Roy is a hilarious failure (“the man is pond scum!”). In support the other characters dip in and out with a very funny line or reaction – I find Ted Danson to be a rather good scene stealer.

To me it’s rather wonderful how, beyond the funnies, Cheers devotes time to the backstories, lives and emotions of (even) the supporting characters. “The Coach’s Daughter” isn’t the funniest piece of comedy, but it is moving and satisfying. Verdict 4/5

Quotes

  • “Sam, could you cover for me for a couple of moments?” (once Lisa and Roy have left for dinner at Melvilles) / “Sure Coach, where are you going?” / “To toss my lunch”
  • “The time has come for me to put my foot in my mouth” (Coach, to Lisa)
  • “You don’t get Pennsylvania and you don’t get me. You just get more and more obnoxious” (Lisa, to Roy)

Brittas Empire #2: “Bye Bye Baby” (1.3)

Synopsis

Gordon Brittas, concerned by the leisure centre’s appalling rate of staff absenteeism, instigates a series of one-to-one interviews with his employees (outside of their working hours) and books a stress expert to lecture on “Tranquillity without Drugs”.

Carol meanwhile is particularly overwrought: at her penury, Brittas’ threat to confiscate her baby and the circumstances of her failed marriage. Laura drags her away from the reception for a cup of tea. Brittas inadvertently fills the breach, handling a straightforward lost property enquiry in his fussy and petty manner and before long there is a long queue of fed up customers, including the stress expert who loses his temper at Brittas.

Carol learns that her husband will return to her and recovers her composure. However, Brittas’ arrangements to bring her baby to her only results in Colin unwittingly snatching somebody else’s infant. Then, when Carol’s husband arrives, the other child (who is of different race) is presented to him as his son by Brittas, who then (getting the wrong end of the stick about the estrangement) dismays him by suggesting that he is impotent. When Carol eventually comes down to the reception to meet him, she is bewildered by his sudden and angry departure.

Once the dust has settled, the staff gather in the sports hall for the stress lecture. Unfortunately, the speaker is further antagonized by Brittas’ insistence on using the centre’s projector instead of his own. When he finds that all of his presentation slides have been inserted upside down, he smashes up the projector, swallows a mouthful of pills and alcohol and rages at Brittas. All in all, Brittas in attempting to improve the well-being of his staff has managed to cause more (emotional) destruction. Back at home, as Helen returns from an overnight stay with “Uncle Simon” in a nurse’s uniform, he reflects on his own happiness, remarking to her that they are “the lucky ones”.

Thoughts

This episode is very farcical, with its centre dominated by the (slightly crude) baby snatching and resulting confusion, and the long sequence where Brittas’ laboriously handles a lost property claim. Chris Barrie is very good during this, mimicking echoes of Kenneth Williams alongside Brian Clough (“young man”).

It’s mostly about Brittas and his exasperating character: he sometimes notices the symptoms that relate to people’s reactions to him (normally when they relate to his job, such as with the Leisure Centre’s absenteeism), but he’s totally oblivious to the fact that he is responsible for them (the bookends to this episode, where his wife’s promiscuity is insinuated in an over the top fashion).

This episode is devoted to the lead character and most of the supporting characters don’t have much to do. Laura makes the fatal mistake early on of taking her eye away from Brittas to get on with her own job; she instead sends Gavin to assist with dealing with Carol, but Brittas easily intercepts him and drags him into his interminable handling of the missing school tie. Colin has a typically clumsy intervention where he grabs the wrong baby and perplexes Carol’s husband. Tim only briefly appears to deal with the mother of the snatched child. Linda has the week off.

Only Carol is prominent in this episode and we learn that her misfortunes are underpinned by the failure of her marriage. When she learns that her husband is coming back to her, she undergoes a startling transformation: her customary frazzled hysteria disappears and she becomes (somewhat chillingly – it’s a memorable moment) calm and composed (“Goodness me, I feel so much better!”),

The farcical nature of the plot and some of the performances pall a little (the times when Chris Barrie takes Brittas’ characterisation into his goofy, over the top “insisting” is mildly annoying). But Fegen and Norriss’ script has so much going on and so much detail, that the programme is very engaging. Some of the lines are amusing too: I liked Carol’s enigmatic “It’ll be like Minehead all over again” and Brittas’ “he’s going on the same list as the flower-arranging lady we had last week”.  

Book Review: Peter Knows What Dick Likes (1989) by Jonathan Meades

A 600-page collection of Meades’ eighties journalism (essays, features, portraits and reviews), with a screenplay and two short stories bundled in.

There are an exact 100 articles on a vast array of subject matter, written mainly between 1982-1988 (although there are some pieces from the early seventies) for themed periodicals and newspapers. The running order follows a general thematic route, which I’ll attempt to describe:

First up is a memorable study of the transsexual prostitutes of Paris, which leads into portraits of first Amanda Lear and then April Ashley, part of a small cluster of similar items about the elite members of several professions (hairdressing, window-dressing, interior dressing).

Next there are twenty-five articles on Meades’ familiar subject of architecture, topography and townscape (covered in greater depth in his much-later collection Museum Without Walls). Subjects include Vanbrugh, Garden Cities, Pevsner, Ian Nairn, Lutyens, Barcelona, Glasgow and the follies and his contempt for post-modern architects and critics.

After this, a group of early (71-74’) modern lit essays and reviews on Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Tournier and others. In these early pieces Meades’ authorial voice is fully formed, although his grip is marginally looser than his later pieces (in his vocab and the tightness of his prose).

We get to the centrepiece, the screenplay Millie’s Problem. A fantasy about a working-class Poole girl’s abortion, it is, as Meades notes in his introduction, the missing piece from his short story collection Filthy English. Apparently Channel 4 commissioned it as new drama and then got cold feet (a pity); ‘too harrowing’ even for early Channel 4 (what would they have made of The Hoody Brute).

After two short stories from 70/71’ (Perfect Portrait is very good, demonstrating Meades’ talents in presenting scenarios and his characters: normally detached individuals much given to immoral reflection), there is one more literary piece on Hesse, then two excellent pieces on Meades old-stomping ground of the environs of Salisbury, on the very different worlds of new-age travellers and the army.

A bunch of further portraits are next, about slightly edgy figures familiar to the world (Robert Elms, Richard Branson, Michael Heath). By now we’re into the last quarter of the book and a run of reportages of the fates of popular entertainments: wrestling, greyhound racing, end of the pier shows. Then a couple of TV reviews (which are more like essays on our failings as a civilisation – an archaeologist called John Romer gets a glorious kicking for the sin of blokishness). Then pieces on child stars (Meades visits HTV in Bristol and sits in on a recording of Aled Jones’ Chatterbox), country matters (hunting for foxes, rabbits, oysters, truffles and mushrooms) and alcohol (its consumption and presentation).

The last four articles are about Exchange & Mart, the painter James Tissot, the photographer David Bailey and Jane Gatz (an enigmatic piece to finish with).

Meades interest (curiosity doesn’t feel like the right word) takes him all over. And from quite a young age he appears to have been a monolith of erudition (he wrote Perfect Portrait and the series of review/essays on Borges at the age of 23/24, shortly after finishing training at RADA). Besides being spectacularly well-informed, his writing is acute in applying his intelligence (he manages to be both grim and joyful in dissecting his subject and dismantling his targets). He is also not an armchair critic; he goes to a huge amount of trouble (to judge from the physical range of his subject material) to visit, experience and encounter the people, places and works he describes.

My favourites from this collection? Well, the reportage about the gender re-assigned Bois de Boulogne sex workers, the good bits of Glasgow still left, the peace convoy, army life on Salisbury Plain and the essays on anonymous letters and Exchange and Mart are particularly good.  

Book Review: Modern France – A Very Short Introduction by Vanessa R Schwartz

This Short Introduction (from the Oxford University Press series) is a cultural entry, investigating the place that France has held over the past two hundred years, the origins and development of this role up to the present day.

It is neatly broken up into five discreet parts (all around 20-30 pages in length). The first looks at the impact of the revolution, with its use of words, images and symbols to empathize the revolutionary values and redefine the geographic and historical nation.

The 2nd chapter furthers this by investigating one long-term outcome of the revolution, the civilising mission of the French. This of course predates 1789; given the dominance of the French language in aristocratic and diplomatic circles and the major role of French thinkers and authors within the Enlightenment. The goals and ideals of the revolution were transmitted via the written word; accordingly, the skilled practitioners became (and still are) highly valued in French society.

Next, we move away to the subject of Paris, and its dominant role in modern France. This is investigated from the cultural angle: initially in Haussmann’s overhaul of the physical city (the visual impact of his boulevards), then looking at the city’s key role, over the next 100+ years, in consumerism, museum culture, visual representation (the origins of photography and cinema in France), fashion and tourism (today France is the most visited country in the world).

The last two chapters are grounded in the today. The background and consequences of France’s assimilation of the people of many other nations, races and religions into the culture of the Republic are considered. The much-pondered issue of compatibility between Islam and modern France goes back a long way. The author states that economic decline and failures in housing and employment is a more effective explanation for the rupturing, rather than cultural differences.

The final part is about, contrary to the rural and agrarian notions than many people hold of La France Profonde, modern France’s ongoing commitment to high technology and its utilization for the benefit of the nation. For example, the role of the Eiffel Tower and the TGV in tourism and France’s use of nuclear energy.

This technological bent, and its concern for modernity and utopianism, we learn takes its place alongside all the other influences of, and products of the revolution. The author in her introduction takes us back a short distance to 1989, for the bi-centennial of the revolution. The “opera-parade” staged that evening to celebrate the anniversary (and present France), consciously focused on the international, universal and very much ongoing effect of the revolution, rather than treat it nostalgically.

Whatever the strength of your Francophilia, this is a fascinating subject. The fact that the content is broken up into five chunks limits the depth that the authors covers here, but she presents her study very well – this short introduction is one to refer to often when wanting some more cultural background on France and its recent history.

Brittas Empire #1: “The Opening Day” (1.2)

Here’s another strain of reviews, this time on the successful 1990s sitcom “The Brittas Empire”, another ensemble piece set in a Leisure Centre in the English Home Counties. The idea of this programme was to present an insufferably annoying, pedantically bureaucratic and downright incompetent manager Gordon Brittas and document the resulting disasters in his attempts to serve his public.

I started recording these at the 2nd episode. This one is about the preparations for the notional grand opening of the leisure centre, with the Duchess of York (a middle-ranking royal familiar at the time from making presentations at several major sporting events) supposedly due to arrive later on in the day. However, the building has several major issues (such as malfunctioning doors, a overfed boiler and a leaking swimming pool). Brittas in the meantime marches around his leisure centre and remains oblivious to the chaos about to arrive.

This chaos is rather impressive as a disaster movie unfolds: both in its presentation (the flooded boiler room for example) and the dramatics: particularly the baby basket getting jammed in the automatic doors (and Carol’s crazed reaction). I also rather liked how the writers Fegen & Norris handled the structure: initially Brittas wandering around annoying people, then his peeved reactions to the problems arising and then a smug desperation and chaos and failure arrive, in the midst of which he remains guided by his arrogance and petty snobbery. Verdict 3/5

Cheers #1: The Tortelli Tort (1.3)

Here’s a new blogging theme: a series of reviews of a string of episodes of the famous and long-running American sitcom “Cheers”. An ensemble piece set in a Boston bar, following the life events and interactions between the bar owner Sam Malone, his staff and his regular drinkers.

(the background is that I’ve got eighty or so episodes sat on my DVR. I love Cheers, I need to start blogging more, and most importantly I’m obsessed with getting my DVR to 66% spare capacity, so lets get talking..)

This is the 3rd episode from the first season and its focus is the abrasive barmaid, Carla Tortelli. The plot device is that a bearish, obnoxious New Yorker called Ed Kellner enters the bar after a Red Sox defeat to the Yankees, in order to rub it in. He upsets everyone, and Carla explodes, jumping onto his back and driving his head into the bar. After she is pulled away, the New Yorker gives Sam an ultimatum: fire Carla or he’ll sue him. It’s a good demonstration of how small things can get out of control.

The resolution is that Sam and Carla put themselves out for each other: Sam, by not firing her and Carla, by attending the therapy sessions and keeping her cool when Kellner returns and decides to interrogate her – disaster is avoided.

It’s a simple play in three acts: (1) the set up with the baseball and the hullaballo, then (2) the post-mortem in the bar and (3) the reunion between Kellner and Carla. Rhea Perlman is good, notably in the hackneyed solemnity of her vow to quit following the Red Sox and also in her impassivity as she is taunted by the boor.

Verdict 4/5

Quotes:

“How ya doing Norm?” / “Cut the small talk and give me a beer”

“You have a history…” / “of being abusive with customers” / “I’ll handle this!” / “You have a history of being.. abusive with customers”

“Think of my kids – if I didn’t have this job I’d have to stay home with them!”