Archive for August, 2013

Between two worlds

27 August 2013

I got round to watching Source Code, Duncan Jones’ second film, on a TV re-run recently. It tells the story of a man sent back in time to work out who planted a bomb on a commuter train – the same eight minutes, almost, over and over, until he gets to the bottom of the mystery.

Shades immediately of Groundhog Day, although Bill Murray’s weatherman had all the time in the world to get himself straightened out – enough time to learn how to play the piano, master ice skating, and to stop being a curmudgeon.

But the film that Source Code reminded me of at least as strongly is the Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death [AMOLAD]. And I know, by the way, that I’m not the first person to notice this.

Some of the references are clearly there, even without spoiling the plot of Source Code.

The epigraph at the start of AMOLAD is,

“This is the story of two worlds, the one we know and the other which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life & imagination have been violently shaped by war”.

Source Code tells the story of an airman (a helicopter pilot, Colter Stevens) who is similarly caught between two worlds, one real, one a simulation that might, indeed, exist only in his mind.

There’s also a visual and narrative match, between Goodwin, the operator in Source Code who is the link between Stevens and his two worlds, and June, the wireless operator in AMOLAD, who links the two worlds straddled by its bomber pilot, Peter Carter, after bailing from his burning plane. There are some script echoes as well.

The films share a pervasive sense of rules being broken, of the boundaries between the two worlds being negotiated, although in A Matter of Life and Death this is a far more formal negotiation, through the great set-piece of the courtroom.

It would be a spoiler for both films to extend the comparison to their endings. Does Stevens cheat death? Does Squadron Leader Carter? In both films, in their different ways, the women are the key. But go watch the films. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Matty Groves and murder noir

25 August 2013

The lasting appeal in the 21st century of ‘Matty Groves’, also known as ‘Little Musgrave’, has long been a bit of a mystery to me. There’s a version on Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief (as ‘Matty Groves’) and one (as ‘Little Musgrave‘) on Martin Simpson’s masterpiece Prodigal Son. It was collected by Francis Child in the 19th century, and is one of the oldest murder ballads. The earliest published version dates from 1658 (but is referenced earlier), and it’s been recorded by everyone from Joan Baez, Martin Carthy and Nic Jones to Christy Moore and Planxty.

The song is essentially a feudal tragedy. The Lady of the Manor picks up a commoner after church and takes him back to her castle while the Lord is away rounding up his sheep. Word gets out (massive spoiler alert) and Lord Donald, as he’s known in  Fairport’s version of the Matty Groves lyric, quickly heads for home, surprising his wife and Matty still in bed. (The names vary between different versions – Barnard, not Donald, for example, in Simpson’s ‘Little Musgrave’ – but the events described in the song are remarkably consistent). Chivalry prevails, at least to some extent; Matty is given time to dress (“It’ll never be said in fair England/I slew a naked man”) and then, as he stalls desperately, (“For you have two long beaten swords/And I have but a pocket knife”) is given the better of Lord Donald’s swords. Of course, he dies in the duel, and Lord Donald promptly asks his wife whether she prefers her dead lover or her live husband. When she gives him the wrong answer he drives his sword through her heart. As a final twist, the two lovers are buried together, with the Lady on top (“for she was of noble kin”).

Martin Simpson often insists on the contemporaneity of much of the English folk canon – another of the Child’s ballads, ‘Andrew Lammie‘, also on Prodigal Son, is a song about an honour killing – but there is almost nothing that appears to link the world of ‘Matty Groves’ to ours, other perhaps than Lady Donald cheating on her husband. All the rest is lost in feudal order and feudal chivalry.

The explanation, I think, is in the power of the narrative. From the sunny moment that Lady Donald approaches Matty Groves outside the church (on “A holiday, a holiday/And the first one of the year”), the story is a series of disasters waiting, inevitably, to unfold. It has the same dynamic as film noir – the dark ending is encoded from the start of the story. Lady Donald is Gilda. And as in noir, it starts (of course) with female desire and female transgression. Not so feudal after all.

The image at the top of the post is taken from the website LyricsOne, which has a number of versions of Matty Groves, and is used with thanks.

The four secrets of Barcelona’s system

10 August 2013

Yes, we’re talking football. And although Barcelona’s star has, for the moment, been partially eclipsed by Bayern Munich, it’s always intriguing to understand the methods that underpin the type of dominance in Europe that Barcelona has enjoyed for the past few years. In the latest edition of The Blizzard, Simon Kuper takes a forensic look. The modern Barcelona was built by Johann Cruyff, but he concentrated on attack. What Pep Guardiola brought to the team when he became manager was equal concentration on defence and transition. 

  • Pressure on the ball. “Barcelona start pressing the instant they lose possession.” There’s a reason for this: the player on the other team who has won possession has taken his eye off the game to make the tackle or interception, and has expended some energy. He needs a few seconds to reposition himself in relationship to the game. In other words, the moment at which you win the ball is also when you’re most vulnerable to losing it again.
  • The five second rule. If at first you don’t succeed in winning the ball back, if you haven’t done this in five seconds, don’t chase it. Retreat to form a ten-man barrier across the pitch with your team mates, waiting for the right moment to start pressing again. The moments? When a player miscontrols the ball, or when he reduces his options by turning back towards his own goal.
  • The “3-1 rule”. When an attacker does bear down on the Barcelona penalty area, one defender will go towards him. Another three will provide a shield just behind, something Guardiola picked up in Italy. But the other half of this – see “pressure on the ball” above – is that when they win the ball back, they don’t try to do something clever with it. The tackler is in the worst place to read the game; their job is to deliver the newly recovered ball to the feet of a teammate who has time and space to start the attack.
  • The one second rule. Barcelona believes that the success of a move on the pitch is decided in less than a second. If a player needs more time than this, because they don’t read their team-mates’ game properly, then the other team will have time to reorganise, the move will break down. It’s a reason why fine players from elsewhere (Thierry Henry, for example) never quite fitted in, while less gifted players who have come through Barcelona’s youth scheme (Pedro) continue to flourish. And the reason that the club was so keen to bring Fabregas home again.
How much of this will Guardiola be able to transplant to his new role at Bayern? That’s not clear. But there’s a telling quote from Fabregas in the article which suggests the answer might be less rather than more: 

“Everything [at Barcelona] has been studied down to the last millimetre. In my first matches I really had to adjust. I was so used to Arsenal, where I could roam around the whole pitch without worrying about anything. Here it’s really very different. Everyone has his own position and you can never lose it from sight. I had to go back to my youth days at Barça to master the basic principles again.”

And at only £3 for a digital download (less if you’re skint) The Blizzard remains terrific value if you want more to your football coverage than the sports pages offer.

The photograph at the top of this post is by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Mick Farren and ‘The End’

4 August 2013

I’ve been meaning to write briefly about Mick Farren since I read of his death at the start of the week. Farren was something of a counter-cultural polymath; he was a music journalist, provocateur, novelist, and from time to time a performer as well. (His 60s band, the Deviants, spawned the Pink Fairies, who were as influential as they have been under-regarded). But you can read all of this in Richard Williams’ generous obituary

I wanted to mention something from his first novel, Texts of Festival, which I read some time after it came out in 1973. My copy has long vanished, but it’s set in a post-apocalyptic depopulated world in which infrastructure has been destroyed and energy is scarce. I’d describe it as a “Mad Max” novel except that it predates the movie by six years. 

Anyway, the settlement has a creaking music system held together now by string and sealing wax, and so old and close to breakdown that it can be played only in one circumstance – if they get attacked. In this eventuality they must put on the Doors’ sing “The End” and play it at maximum volume, all the way up to eleven, while hoping the sound system doesn’t collapse under the strain. 

Spoiler alert: and so it comes to pass. 

The image has stuck with me for more than thirty years. And how many novels can you say that of?

There’s also a fine obituary by Ian Fraser at Terracope.