Archive for September, 2013

Good men die like dogs, revisited

29 September 2013

Men die like dogs.001I first came across this quote at the tail end of my career in the (British) television business, uncredited, on a scrap of paper left by a photocopier, long before it was simple to share things on the internet. I was disillusioned with television at the time, which was being casualised and commoditised around me, so it struck a chord. Since then, I’ve seen it reappear from time to time, sometimes referring to the music industry instead.

Well, there’s always someone on the internet who’s more obsessive than you are, and it turns out that most of the quote comes from an article by the gonzo writer and critic Hunter S. Thompson originally in the San Francisco Examiner in 1985, republished in 1988 in his collection Generation of Swine.

But the last line – “there’s also a negative side”  (set-up, pay-off) – was added later by someone else. But it’s a good joke which also captures well the egoism and the vanity of the television business.


Domestique: Riding for the team

23 September 2013

The sports story template is Rocky, basically: athlete tastes success, athlete suffers failure, athlete faces down demons to snatch success from the jaws of failure. Indeed, I listened to a presentation recently by the publisher at the justly admired Yellow Jersey Press when he said that when he bought the rights to Bradley Wiggins story after his Tour de France victory, and then published in time for the Christmas market, they basically structured it as “Rocky on wheels”.

Another cycling story, that of the insufficiently recognised Graeme Obree, also fits the template, not least when turned into the film The Flying Scotsman.

So it comes as a shock – and maybe a surprise – to open a sports autobiography in which the protagonist never won anything as a professional – at least not individually – and who admits, quite early on, that the pressure of winning was too much for him.

Charly Wegelius was an expert domestique – and by the end of his career, at least, pretty well paid for it. His book, Domestique, is about the frustrations and pleasures to be had from putting your talents at the disposal of your team.

There’s an illuminating passage about the fragility of the life of the professional cyclist during a chapter on one of his Tours de France, as his bike buckles on a descent and he braces himself for the fall.

“A crash, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can be all it takes to start off a chain of events that can end a career. … There is nothing worse for a manager than having one of their twenty-five riders unable to compete. The pressure is passed on to other riders and the management themselves while they try to fill the gap left by an injured rider. … 

There is simply no room in the twelve or twenty-four months on a rider’s contract for time out for crashes. People often marvel that cyclists continue to race with horrific injuries, and think that cyclists are tough. It’s not that cyclists are particularly robust guys, it’s just that they don’t have a choice. … If a rider can get to the finish then at least he has a chance to race the next day. If he can do that then he won’t abandon his team in the race, he won’t lose race days, and he won’t be seen as a problem to anyone.”

The classic in this genre is Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game?, about the life of an end-of-career professional football player in the second tier of the English league. There are some cricket equivalents (Peter Roebuck’s It Never Rains onwards). The only other book I know of that sheds similar light on the life of the cycling domestique is Matt Rendell’s A Significant Other (maybe also Le Metier by Michael Barry.)

But a brief memo to the publisher, Ebury Press: in the fact-checking department, David Millar famously stopped half a metre short of the finish line of the Altagliru in protest, not 150 metres. And Alberto Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, but not in 2008. And please, proof it one more time before you publish it in paperback.

Designing the Battle of Britain

12 September 2013

It’s the anniversary of Battle of Britain Day this weekend, named for the decisive battle of the Battle of Britain on the 15th September, when the Luftwaffe tried to ‘sweep the RAF from the skies’ over Britain, and pretty much everything that either side could put into the air was up there.

This time last year I went to visit the Battle of Britain Bunker at Hillingdon, the operations room which managed the air defences of the South Coast. It’s now an RAF museum, and has an energetic young curator who is trying to increase public access to this important part of our military heritage.

 Of course, the big map table which tracked the progress of the battle has been made famous by films such as The Battle of Britain (1969). But I was actually more interested in the monitoring system on the wall, a system of lights that enabled commanders to see at a glance the status of every section of every squadron at every airbase in Group Eleven, which covered the south-east.

Spitfires and Hurricanes could only stay in the air for about 30 minutes before they ran short of fuel, so on 15th September they were in a constant cycle of being ready on the ground, in the air, returning to base, and refuelling and re-arming. 


What the lights represented was a live real-time information system, kept up to date largely through phone messages and slips of paper. In an age when the first valve driven computer was still being designed (at Bletchley Park) it’s an impressive piece of information design.

The Battle of Britain Bunker is open by appointment for guided tours. There’s also a virtual tour online.

The photographs are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.