CATEGORY: Literary POLEMICS

The Selfish Gene Revisited

Frans de Waal, a leading primatology professor, gave a thought-provoking synopsis of his latest research (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s lesson for a Kinder Society) in the Sunday Observer 19/9/10. This research once again throws doubt on the prevailing wisdom that sport, and life generally, are primarily governed by our animalistic, competitive human natures. De Waal gets straight to the point in his articulate summation when asked by Robin McKie about the importance of empathy in the evolution of Homo Sapians:

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In My Dreams I Dance by Anne Wafula Strike

In a welcome relief to my usual cynical sporting blog, it is great to be able to report on a greatly uplifting human sporting tale. Anne Wafula, in her book, In My Dreams I Dance, paints a beautiful autobiographical picture of her life from a healthy young Kenyan baby struck down with polio, through to her amazing achievements in both Kenyan and later British Paralympics wheelchair racing. The tale is simply written, though much that is inspiring in the human condition shines through. The battle against disability prejudice, particularly in Africa, is cleverly contrasted both with all that is hopeful and communal in the African village, and also all that is efficient but soulless and individualistic in our European cities and towns.

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23 things they dont tell you

What better place to start in order to get a handle on the ever expanding bubble that is the English Premier League than Ha-Joon Chang’s smart little indictment of free-market capitalism. This book is tailor-made for understanding just why the EPL might be heading for one almighty implosion. Portsmouth FC might very well be just the tip of the iceberg. If ever there was an industry that had all the hallmarks of the free-market model, it is the EPL, complete with unsustainable mountains of debt, extreme light touch regulation bordering on zero regulation, and a business model that puts immediate profit gratification well ahead of any long term R&D and investment in the future. Read More…

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

I first came across Jacobson the writer at his launch of his ‘Mighty Walzer’, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in 1950’s Manchester with hard-bat table tennis as a constant backdrop to a young life emerging from the Jewish Diaspora of that city. I remember it as a cracking tale which definitely deserves a second reading and an accompanying review for this blog. At the launch of the book, in the basement of his then publishers, Random House, a number of table tennis tables were set up (that’s where I came into things) so that the publishing agents could indulge themselves in copious quantise of free booze and a game or two of ping.

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The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

by the title as much as anything, I started reading Dawkins latest offering, ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’. I liked the title because it seemed to be a direct salvo at FIFA and the IOC, who grandiosely like to call their respective tournaments the very same thing. Having recently suffered through the FIFA World Cup Final in South Africa, where Holland played ninety minutes of what Johan Cruyff described as, ‘anti-football’, I sure as hell knew I was not witnessing the greatest show on Earth. After a brief opening spell, I soon realised that I was reading the wrong Dawkins book. There was nothing in his latest tome that I did not already agree with.

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Who Are We? by Gary Younge

During any sporting event, especially international ones and particularly the really big ones like World Cups and Olympic Games, the question of conflicting allegiances can come into play. This is particularly true for those who might be considered immigrants or somehow not quite native, though it can affect every citizen if their ‘own’ team is eliminated and they need to redistribute their allegiances. A recent and painful example would be for England fans whose glorious, all conquering team were quickly ejected from the proceedings in South Africa just a few painful weeks ago. Who then do they rally around, if anyone, and what would be their inner logic?

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Why England Lose

The title of this gem of a book is a little misleading. Only one pre-chapter specifically deals with the supposed English football sickness. The main substance of the book deals with sport in general and asks; what makes certain countries successful at sport? The methodology of K&S is to number crunch. By using hard statistics and pumping them into a complex mathematical computer programme they claim to be able to see a definite pattern as to why some countries do better than others, including dear old England. According to this method, England perform as expected and at times do rather better than expected.

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The End of Overeating by David Kessler

I suppose Dr Kessler will be rather pleased with the timing of the NICE report which chimes perfectly with the contents of his latest text, ‘The End of Overeating’. This is a clear an indictment of the food industry as you will find, and a clear scientific explanation as to the obesity time-bomb we are witnessing across the planet. In the face of powerful industry lobbying, governments have been profoundly weak in tackling the problem, but research such as Kessler’s will make it ever harder for governments to look the other way. After hundreds of thousands of deaths at the hands of the big tobacco, governments were forced to act. Sooner, rather than later, the food industry will need to be brought to heal, possibly by the threat of class action style litigation.

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African Soccerscapes by Peter Alegi

Peter Alegi has produced an academic but highly readable and highly topical account of African football, past and present, which spreads a great deal of light on what we are witnessing in South Africa today. Divided into six easy bite size chapters, Alegi, a professor of African history at Michigan University, offers his readers a comprehensive account of African football from the roots of the British Empire through the period of the anti-colonial struggle and beyond into national independence and finally to the age of corporate globalisation. Alegi’s research has as much relevance to European football as it does to African, the two continents being inextricably linked through lingering colonial ties and present day corporate greed.

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Bounce: Matthew Syed

Matthew Syed, possibly unintentionally, has produced an explosively revolutionary text. Not a bad achievement for a man who used to describe himself as a Christian Socialist, a man who stood as a parliamentary candidate for Tony Blair’s New Labour Government, a man who is currently employed in Rupert Murdoch’s mean and nasty global media empire. Of course a man is entitled to move on, and one should not so much be judged on where you have come from but rather where you are heading. And, in my view, Syed has produced a damn fine revolutionary text which, furthermore, is written in a style and language that tens of millions of ordinary people, young and old, will be able to relate to.

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Pele: The Autobiography by Pocket Books

While the global financial speculators have been busy at their dirty work distorting and undermining global currencies, which themselves are on the brink of ruination due to the mountains of debt accumulated by successive governments, I thought I would indulge in a little light escapism. The impending bankruptcies haunting the PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) not to forget dear old Blighty, do not make for pleasant day-dreaming, so a few days off to read Pele’s autobiography seemed in order. In a lovely fairytale of a story, written with humility if not a little naivety, I was able to fill in many gaps in Pele’s life, a life that has touched most people of my generation no matter what their country of origin.

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It’s not About the Bike! by Lance Armstrong

I picked up a copy of Lance Armstrong’s autobiographical work for no particularly reason, though somewhere in the vaults of my decaying brain I did recall some major controversy concerning his Tour de France victories. That could only mean one thing; Armstrong was embroiled with the rest of those cheating, drug taking, and performance- enhancing European bikers whose evil deeds seem to dominate the cycling news year after year. Working on the old adage that there’s no smoke without fire, I had little doubt in my all-to-quick-to-judge mind that Armstrong was as guilty as hell. No one could win the gruelling Tour de France without a little help-up from the pharmaceutical companies. Read More…

Invictus: John Carlin, Book Review

Read the book forget the film. Paradoxically, all enthusiasts of the coming FIFA football World Cup In South Africa should read John Carlin’s Invictus, which focuses not on football but on the 1995 Rugby World Cup that was also held in that country. A Hollywood style film has recently been made on the basis of the book, though I couldn’t bring myself to watch it because films rarely catch the nuances of a complex story and Clint Eastwood the director, rarely offers any nuances in any of his films. Carlin’s book on the other hand is a classic, smartly written account, with all the political empathy needed to do this remarkable story justice. Read More…

Londongrad: The Inside Story of the Oligarchs by Mark Hollingsworth & Stewart Lansley

Londongrad is a jaw dropping read. If it was wrapped up into a James Bond film you would pass it off as unbelievable fiction just a bit of fun. But this is not fiction, this is the real thing and it certainly is not fun; Russian gangster capitalism spilling out onto the streets of London, complete with lethal poisonings, exploding helicopters and shadowy KGB/FSB units tracking down oligarchs that refuse to play ball with the Russian government. When they are not betraying or killing each other in deadly feuds, they are buying exclusive London real estate just as fast as it comes onto the market.

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50 people who fouled up football

As soon as I heard the title I rushed out to buy it. A mistake. What promised to be a definitive text on the soiling of The Beautiful Game proved to be just an amusing and cleverly written collection of anecdotes, personal hobby-horses and cheap gossip, all of which lets the real culprits right off the hook. The collection starts off promising enough with a few pointed pages about the man himself; Mr Roman Abromovich. But Henderson offers his readers no real insights into how Abromovich accumulated his billions, nor how he learnt to play the new game of gangster capitalism that replaced the old decrepit Soviet system. Read More…

The Damned United

I would imagine that most sports fanatics, and especially football fans of all descriptions, would have clocked this film many months ago. I, for some inexplicable reason had not, so I had the immense pleasure of viewing this cleverly constructed documentary/drama without the surrounding hype and without any preconceived expectations. If there are any of you out there in the blogsphere who have not yet seen this little gem, I can say without the slightest reservation that in all departments; acting, production and direction, this is a must see film classic.

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Keane: The Autobiography

Roy Keane’s Autobiography is a great read. Whether that is down to the journalistic skill of the ghost writer, Eamon Dunphy, or simply that Keane has a great story to tell, is not clear. Either way I felt somewhat mesmerised by his footballing life and I can only hope there is a volume two to come. Keane’s story oozes with painful contradictory pulses; between the desire for fame and the desire for privacy, between the cravings to play beautiful football and the need quite often to deliver brute force, between the temptation to play the playboy and the desire for a quiet family life, and of course, between the demands of team discipline and the urges of individual spontaneity.

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More Than Just A Game: Football v Apartheid by Chuck Korr and Marvin Close

The promotion on the front cover boasts, The most important football story ever told. Not only was I mesmerised by this story from the very start, but by the story’s end I seriously began to wonder if this book was a genuine contender for the title. The story is amazing enough in itself. The South African prisoners on Robben Island, a place made famous by Nelson Mandela’s thirty year imprisonment, organise firstly a football league and later an entire prison Olympics in the face of the most severe brutality meted out by the Apartheid prison authorities.

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The Meaning of Sport by Simon Barnes

I didn’t want to like this book from the very start. The fact that Simon Barnes is chief sports writer for the Times was an inauspicious marker. Anything that falls under the umbrella of the Murdoch media empire is sure to be tainted. Then there was the distinct whiff of Oxbridge about the opening few chapters complete as they were with clever literary references and a liberal sprinkling of Latin, French and German phrases. To make matters worse, Barnes is one of those ‘horsey’ people with a total preoccupation with all things equestrian. Not exactly the sport of the proles.

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What sport tells us about life, By Ed Smith

Some two years after Barnes barnstorming epic, former top notch cricketer and fellow Oxbridge graduate, decides to tread pretty much the same territory and for me he does a rather solid job. He presses many of the same buttons as Barnes exploring the contradictory nature of sport and the conflicting motives of both athlete and spectator. The first couple of chapters set the tone of what is to follow with Smith setting out his philosophical stall very much in the manner of Barnes. Sport, smith tells us, appeals equally to two apparently contradictory world views. First, the notion of a golden age of true heroes from which we have gradually declined.

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Foul Play – What’s Wrong With Sport by Joe Humphreys

It was like a gift from the gods. The thorny question of giving unquestioning allegiance to a corporate monster called Chelsea FC was weighing increasingly heavy on the mind. As each season passed the whole corrupting football affair was becoming less and less tenable. So when I stumbled on the book that put it all in some kind of perspective you can imagine my heartfelt joy. I was no longer alone in my torment. At least one other human soul had come to the conclusion that something was seriously rotten at the heart of our new global religion. If there were two of us, perhaps there were more. Read More…