When he was king

 

(c) PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Gramercy Pictures

 

The world seems a smaller, sadder and quieter place after the passing of boxing superstar and all-round sporting legend Muhammad Ali yesterday.

 

Smaller, sadder, quieter and also less eloquent, less witty and less entertaining: for Ali was a rare thing, a sportsman who’d honed his words to be as devastating as the way he’d honed his body.  You could fill a book with his pronouncements, witticisms and (usually) good-natured insults.  Of Sonny Liston, he said: “The man needs talking lessons.  The man needs boxing lessons.  And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”  Of George Foreman: “I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won.”  Of Joe Frazier: “Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.”  On his refusal to serve in the US Army and fight in Vietnam, he said bluntly: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.  No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”  On aging: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”  (Well, that’s me told.)  And of course, on his less-than-modest self: “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double-greatest.  Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.  I’m the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring today.”

 

In his prime, his gob was massive and his patter was relentless; but still he was an idealistic man who wasn’t afraid to make bold and unpopular decisions.  However out-of-favour he temporarily became, though, through actions such as affiliating himself with the Nation of Islam or refusing the draft, he still ended up the best-known and best-liked American on the planet.  I got a sense of his universal appeal one winter’s day in 1996, while I was living in Sapporo on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.  Out on a freezing ice-and-snow-covered street I encountered a prim, middle-aged lady whom I knew as the mother of one of my Japanese friends.  Where, I asked, was she off to on an inhospitable day like this?  Oh, she said with an eager gleam in her eyes, she was going to the cinema — which was showing When We were Kings, the acclaimed and just-released documentary about Ali’s legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, i.e. his bout with George Foreman for the world heavyweight title in Kinshasa in Zaire in 1974.  The fact that a Japanese housewife could be hurrying to see a documentary about a black American boxer who’d fought his last fight 15 years earlier was a sign of the weird and wonderful world that Ali had created.

 

And in fact I remember that Ali-Foreman fight of 1974 – when it rumbled, in the jungle.  I was a kid in Northern Ireland and no doubt all sorts of Troubles-related mayhem was happening that day, as it seemed to happen every day back then.  But the Rumble was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about the next morning.  We were discussing it, my eight and nine-year-old compadres and I, in the primary-school classroom.  Why, even our primary school teacher – another prim middle-aged lady – was talking excitedly about how Ali had beat Foreman.  And it was the same a year later when he took on Joe Frazier during the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’.  The next day we were rabbiting on about that too.

 

He was a divisive figure for a long time in the US, but 1970s Britain loved him.  He never seemed to be off British telly.  (Did Ali apply his publicity machine equally to every country in the world, I wonder, or did he just get a special kick out of indulging the limeys across the Atlantic?)  He was interviewed several times by Michael Parkinson.  He appeared on This is Your Life with Eamon Andrews.  He sent a cheeky filmed message to English football manager Brian Clough, a man who famously produced as much hot air as he did: “Clough, that’s enough.  Stop it!”   Christ, he even turned up on Jim’ll Fix It and I seem to remember him giving Jimmy Savile a friendly, joshing tap on the chin.  It’s just a pity he didn’t punch Savile’s horrible greasy face down his throat and out of his arse.

 

Ali’s boxing career didn’t end happily.  His 1980 fight against Larry Holmes, for instance, was a horror show.  It’s said that afterwards Holmes felt so bad about beating Ali so humiliatingly that he sat crying in his dressing room.  Thereafter, of course, Ali had to suffer the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease – an affliction whose worst crime, perhaps, was to rob him, the most articulate of men, of the ability to articulate himself.

 

So it’s best to remember him by watching When We Were Kings, a documentary that captures the glory (and, admittedly, some of the grotesqueness) of the Rumble in the Jungle.  It shows you Ali at the peak of his greatness and a surprisingly dark and threatening George Foreman.  (This might come as a shock to a younger generation who know George primarily as the patron of the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.)  It also allows you to see the 20th century’s most opulently corrupt dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who’d arranged the staging of the fight in Zaire.  And some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians, like James Brown and B.B. King, whom Mobutu had flown in for a musical gala to accompany it.  And the 20 century’s biggest literary ego, Norman Mailer, who was there to report on it.

 

Norman Mailer, actually, got a book out the event, 1975’s The Fight, which is well worth a read.  It provides a fascinating insight into the mind of the man who believed he was the greatest.  (It also mentions Muhammad Ali.)

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

Muhammad was a giant but he achieved his worldwide celebrity on account of his talents: his athleticism, his grace, his wit, his humour and his bloody-mindedness.  Which puts the modern-day celebrity of, say, Kim Kardashian into pitiful perspective.  And as someone who eventually became one of America’s greatest ambassadors to the rest of humanity – regardless of the often uneasy relationship between him and his mother country – it’s worth remembering that he was a Muslim.  Donald Trump, take note.

 

Death log 2015, part 2

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Continuing my tribute to people I liked who didn’t make it past 2015…

 

In January, the theatre, film and TV actress Geraldine McEwan passed away.  Prim and forthright, wry and twinkling, McEwan’s persona made her perfect for playing two of the greatest Misses in British literature.  In the 1970s she played the titular, self-assured but too-fond-of-Mussolini Edinburgh school-mistress in a TV adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Spark reckoned McEwan best captured the essence of Jean Brodie, an accomplishment considering that Vanessa Redgrave had already played her on stage and Maggie Smith had played her on screen.  And later, from 2004 to 2007, she played Agatha Christie’s deceptively spinsterish and demure-looking sleuth in a dozen instalments of Miss Marple.

 

July saw the departure of the great Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.  Though he was famous for his performances in David Lean’s epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and also for being the world’s most prominent bridge player, I’ll cherish Sharif most for playing the beleaguered Captain Brunel in Richard Lester’s 1974 thriller Juggernaut, which for my money is the best of the 1970s disaster movies.  Sharif’s calm and charm are put to the test when a psychotic criminal places six powerful bombs on board his passenger-stuffed cruise liner and – worse – the best the British government can do to help is send in a boozed-up bomb disposal expert played by the (at the time) boozed-up Richard Harris.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Writer Christopher Wood died in May, although his death wasn’t reported in the media until months later.  As well as co-writing the scripts for Roger Moore’s best James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and for his worst one, Moonraker (1979), Wood was responsible for those oh-so-British, oh-so-1970s sex-comedy Confessions of… books and films, which he wrote / scripted under the pseudonym Timothy Lea.  In an interview with Penthouse magazine, Wood opined, “They were funny then, and they’re funny now.  Then again, I always did like smut.”  I’ve written about Wood before on Blood and Porridge, here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=1549

 

In September, the American actress Catherine Coulson died.  In her supporting role as the Log Lady in David Lynch’s much-loved Twin Peaks (1990-91), she provided that TV series with some of its funniest and most bizarre moments.  Before that, she’d helped to fund and served as assistant director and camera operator on Lynch’s breakthrough movie Eraserhead (1977); and she’d been married for a time to the late Jack Nance, who played the spectacularly bouffant-ed Henry Spencer in Eraserhead and the easy-going but henpecked Pete Martell in Twin Peaks.

 

(c) Lynch/Frost Productions

 

October saw the death of Denis Healey, British Defence Minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s.  He was described as ‘the best Labour Prime Minister Britain never had’ so often that I’m sure he was heartily sick of the phrase.  Still, it’s surely true that if the Labour Party had made the pugnacious and rambunctious Healey its leader in the 1980s, he’d have had a better chance than anyone else of ousting Margaret Thatcher from Number 10.  Instead, though, Healey ended up as deputy leader only, under the hapless Michael Foot.  Foot was a gentle, intelligent and very well-read man, but he belonged to a different political era; and the right-wing British press of the 1980s tore him to pieces.  (Mind you, Foot’s treatment seems mild compared to the abuse that’s been hurled at left-winger Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader in September this year.)

 

British film critic Philip French died in October too.  A reviewer for the Observer for a half-century, French was one of the few ‘establishment’ film critics whose opinions I could stomach during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  Unlike, say, Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, or the BBC’s Barry Norman, or the ubiquitous Leslie Halliwell, French wasn’t a prude and didn’t allow his tastes to be boxed in by what was deemed ‘respectable’.  Actually, unlike a lot of his peers, he seemed to genuinely like films.  He loved Western movies in particular; and he was about the only major British critic to laud Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – now seen as one of the classics – when it was released in 1982.

 

In 2008, French identified his all-time favourite movies.  His list included such worthy choices as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006).  I’m not so sure about his inclusion of Gandhi (1982) or Ratatouille (2007), though…

 

Gunnar Hansen died in November.  In 1974, this Icelandic-born actor played Leatherface, the most memorable of the serial-killing and cannibalistic Sawyer family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Masked, able to converse only in mewls and gibbers, and wielding the buzzing chainsaw of the title, Leatherface was initially one of the most terrifying characters in horror-movie history.  It’s a pity that his fearsomeness has gradually been lessened by familiarity, with successive sequels and remakes trying to turn him into a money-spinning franchise.

 

From revolvermag.com

 

Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, who also passed away in November, was drummer with the great heavy metal band Motörhead during its glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He thumped the tubs, as they say, on 1977’s Motörhead, 1979’s Overkill, 1979’s Bomber, 1980’s Ace of Spades, 1982’s Iron Fist and 1983’s Another Perfect Day; although he played with them again from 1987 to 1992.  Devotees regard him as part of the band’s greatest line-up, alongside front-man and bassist Lemmy and guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke.  Alas, he wasn’t the only member of that line-up to succumb to the Grim Reaper during 2015:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6016

 

Another hard-rocking fatality of 2015 was Scott Weiland, one-time vocalist with grunge band the Stone Temple Pilots.   I was sniffy about the Stone Temple Pilots when they appeared, seemingly riding on the coat-tails of Nirvana and Pearl Jam; but I suspect if I listened to their 1992 breakthrough album Core now, it would seem much better in retrospect – compared to the dross that’s clogged up the charts in the 23 years since.  Actually, I prefer the five years (2003-2008) that Weiland spent as vocalist with the super-group Velvet Revolver, whose line-up included three Guns N’ Roses alumni, Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum.  I’ll always remember Velvet Revolver for their performance during the Hyde Part component of the Live 8 concerts in July 2005.  Swaggering onstage and promptly unleashing a sonic assault of heavy metal, Weiland, Slash and chums blew away a whole park-ful of cocoa-sipping Elton John fans and tofu-munching Coldplay fans.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAoL3QSDadE

 

In November, Jonah Lomu – the 1.96-metre-tall Tongan-New Zealand rugby player once described as ‘the first true global superstar of rugby union’ – died at the tragically young age of 40.  Lomu will live on in my memory for his performance during the semi-final between New Zealand and England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  He laid waste to Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Rory Underwood, Mike Catt, Dean Richards and co. and helped his side knock 45 points past them.  Afterwards the Daily Telegraph described Lomu as “a runaway potting shed in boots” and said of the game generally: “If it had not added so much to English doom and despondency, it would have been permissible to laugh.”  To be honest, not being English, I laughed.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Late 2015 was not a good time for old British character actors.  Warren Mitchell died in November.  Although Mitchell appeared in many low-budget British horror movies – The Trollenberg Terror (1958), Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Night Caller from Outer Space (1965) and Terry Gilliam’s medieval monster-fantasy Jabberwocky (1977) – and comedy movies – Postman’s Knock (1962), The Intelligence Men (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969) – he’ll be chiefly remembered for playing the reactionary loudmouth Alf Garnett in Johnny Speight’s 1960s / 1970s TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.  Speight intended Alf to embody the horribleness of right-wing bigotry.  Alf detested everyone outside his little bubble of white, Protestant, Conservative-voting southern Englishness, constantly insulted blacks, Pakistanis, Jews, Catholics, Scots, Welsh people and northerners, and at the same time was a hideous human being: selfish, cowardly, pig-ignorant and bullying.

 

It must have been galling for Speight (and Mitchell) when it became clear that many of the show’s fans hadn’t seen the irony.  They thought Alf was a hero for ‘speaking the truth’ and ‘telling it like it is’.  Mind you, that didn’t stop the two of them reviving Alf for further series in the 1980s, by which time he’d become a frail, pathetic old-age pensioner dependent on a home-help from the local social services, who happened to be – horror! – black; and for a final hurrah in 1997 with An Audience with Alf Garnett, which was broadcast on the eve of the general election that saw 18 years of Conservative rule come to an end and Labour sweep back to power under Tony Blair.  This was sly timing indeed, slice Tony Blair’s father-in-law was the actor Tony Booth, who’d played Alf’s layabout son-in-law in the original Till Death Us Do Part.

 

Also in November, British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey died.  The multilingual Jaffrey made over 150 movies in Britain, India and the States.  For me his finest hour was his supporting role as Ghurka soldier Billy Fish in John Huston’s epic adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  The film is regarded as a major entry in the CVs of its two stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine; but Jaffrey’s delightful performance as the quirky, loyal, courageous and ultimately self-sacrificing Billy Fish comes close to stealing the show from the two leads.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

And in December Anthony Valentine died.  I’ll remember Valentine for appearing in every second TV show I watched as a kid – as a regular in Callan (1967-72), Colditz (1974) and Raffles (1975-77) and as a guest star in Department S (1970), Budgie (1971), Z Cars (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1975), Minder (1979, 1980 and 1983), Hammer House of Horror (1980), Tales of the Unexpected (1980 and 1982) and Bergerac (1983).  But the biggest impression he made on me was in the 1976 Hammer horror movie To the Devil a Daughter, during which satanic forces caused him to spontaneously and explosively combust inside a church – a dangerous ‘full body burn’ stunt that was actually carried out by Hammer’s main stuntman Eddie Powell.

 

Finally, December saw the death of respected Scottish journalist Ian Bell, who for as long as I can remember penned columns for the Scotsman, Daily Record and Herald – it’s for his work in that last publication that he was probably most celebrated.  In a journalistic / political era of soundbites, platitudes and simplifications, Bell was admirably unfashionable.  His writing was cerebral and ruminative and required concentration but, if you persevered, you’d have a hard time disagreeing with his arguments by the time you reached its end.   

 

If I’m not mistaken, his final column was a critique of the speech given recently in the House of Commons by Labour MP Hilary Benn (though it was cheered to the rafters by his Conservative counterparts) that called on Britain to join the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria.  “The great, acclaimed speech managed to say very little…” noted Bell.  “He did not explain why, having been wrong about three previous interventions, he had a remote chance of being right on this occasion.  He did not spare much of his passion on the risk of civilian casualties, despite all we know of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”  Spot on, Ian.  And farewell.

 

http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14126940.Ian_Bell__The_dismantling_of_Hilary_Benn_s_empty_war_rhetoric/

 

(c) The Herald

 

Oh God, it’s Rod

 

(c) Rolling Stone

 

I have resisted the temptation to take a peek (or as they say in Scotland, a keek) at footage of the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which was held the other day in Glasgow.  This is because, from the snippets about it I’ve read in the news media, it was a bit of a cringe-fest.

 

For example…  Susan Boyle forgetting the lyrics to Mull of Kintyre, a ballad so simplistic I’d always assumed a monkey would manage to knock it out after a couple of days of being shut up in a room with some sheets of paper and a typewriter…  Battalions of wee kids running around, pretending to be Tunnock’s Teacakes…  John Barrowman being, well, John Barrowman…  The Red Arrows dousing the sky with red-white-and-blue smoke, the colours of the Union Jack, and discreetly not omitting the red smoke – because that would leave only white-and-blue smoke, the colours of the Scottish saltire, and with the referendum on Scottish independence just two months away the Ministry of Defence didn’t want to do anything that might encourage Scottish nationalist sentiment.

 

http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/uk-defence-secretary-blocked-red-3909504

 

(Oddly, during the Iraq War, the MoD was happy enough to put the saltire on leaflets distributed among the locals southwest of Bagdad when soldiers in Scotland’s Black Watch regiment were stationed there.  This was in the hope that those soldiers might be perceived as being different from unpopular American and ‘British’ forces.  So the MoD’s thinking regarding the saltire seems to be: use in illegal wars mounted by Tony Blair and resulting in 100,000+ deathsGOOD; acknowledging Scotland at a major sports competition, held in Scotland, where Scotland competes as a separate countryBAD.)

 

 (c) BBC

Courtesy, P. Smith

 

To be honest, the uninspiring but tourist-friendly, a-bit-crap-but-cheerful tone that seems to have pervaded the ceremony (again, from the bits I’ve read about it) was as much as I’d hoped for from the powers-that-be in Glasgow, a place that seems to have been under the dominion of the Scottish Labour Party since the late Bronze Age.  My expectations were low because: (1) the Labour city fathers of Glasgow were never going to attempt anything too rousing or imaginative – on the scale, say, of Danny Boyle’s opening for the 2012 Olympics in London – for fear of giving Scottish people ideas above their station and, again, tempting them to vote for independence in the referendum; and (2) with its few remaining ‘big hitters’ like Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander based down in Westminster, the gene pool of the Labour Party in Scotland is pretty shallow these days.  (I mean, have you heard Scottish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont try to construct a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent argument, in TV interviews recently?  Jesus Christ…)

 

Still, I’d have thought that no one involved in organising the ceremony would be so numpty-ish as to wheel on Rod Stewart to sing at it.  But they did.  Rod Stewart.  Rod bloody Stewart!

 

Now I’m not going to go into matters of Rod’s ethnicity and question his right to perform at the biggest sporting event held in Scotland in a generation.  He was born in London and whenever he opens his mouth he sounds like a dodgy geezer involved in a complex heist operation in Bethnal Green in a Guy Ritchie movie.  But his dad was from north of the border.  And even if he had no Scottish ancestry at all, if he wants to call himself Scottish, that’s fine by me.  However, there is the inescapable truth that, for a good long time, his music has been rubbish.  Lowest-common-denominator, soft-rock-singalong rubbish.

 

Sure, he was great between 1969 and 1975 when he was the frontman for the Faces, but there was never any chance of Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones joining him onstage in Glasgow for a Faces reunion – especially as one of those guys is now dead.  But since the mid-1970s his career has been woeful in terms of quality, even if he has managed to shift ‘product’ by the lorry-load and made a fortune, which I suppose is what matters to him.  If the masses want endless, raspy wave-your-cigarette-lighters-in-the-air dirges like Sailing or You’re in my Heart, then Rod is the man who’ll happily provide them.  “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart, rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so fully,” commented Rolling Stone magazine in 1980, rightly.

 

The nadir came in 1978 with Rod strutting around to a vaguely disco-y beat and singing Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?  The answer to that questioningly-titled song is, of course, an emphatic two-letter word.  The same two-letter word I would fire at Vladimir Putin if he stood up at a karaoke machine and started singing Don’t You Want Me, Baby?  Or at Imelda Marcos if she stood up at one and started singing Let’s Spend the Night Together.

 

That said, although I can’t stand Rod’s rendition of it, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy can’t be that bad a song in itself.  For there is at least one version of it in the world, sung by somebody else, which always brings a smile to my face.  Here it is:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ-RiV6l_Q8

 

Now why couldn’t they have had him singing at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games?

 

Shades of Schaedler

 

(c) The Scotsman

 

A quick plug for a new football book, Shades: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Erich Schaedler, written by Colin Leslie, which will be launched today at Easter Road Stadium, home to Hibernian Football Club.  Shades tells the story of the legendary Hibs full-back Erich Schaedler, who started his footballing career in my hometown of Peebles and is mentioned in the two books I’ve authored about the local football clubs here, Peebles Rovers and Tweeddale Rovers.

 

In C’mon the Dale – The History of Tweeddale Rovers Football Club, I wrote the following about Schaedler:

 

“It was in the late 1960s that the possibly the most famous player associated with Tweeddale Rovers wore one of their jerseys.  The son of a German soldier who came to Scotland as a prisoner-of-war during World War II, got married and settled in the Scottish Borders, Erich Schaedler played his early football for both Tweeddale and Peebles Rovers.  Later, he signed for junior Edinburgh side Melbourne Thistle, then for Stirling Albion and finally for Hibernian, where he gained legendary status playing at full-back.  The pinnacle of his career came in spring 1974 when he played for Scotland – ironically, given his family background, against West Germany in Frankfurt.  A few months later, he joined the Scotland squad for the 1974 World Cup, which again took place in West Germany.  Thereafter, Schaedler played for Dundee in the late 1970s, returned to Hibernian in 1981 and rounded off his footballing career at Dumbarton in 1985.

 

“Schaedler’s experiences on the Peebles footballing scene were erratic to say the least.  He started off as an attacker, but during his first stint at Tweeddale Rovers there was a shortage of defenders and he was moved to the back of the field.  Subsequently, Peebles Rovers spotted him and signed him as a full-back, intending to play him on the left.  However, Peebles Rovers’ existing left-back was playing so well that Schaedler failed to get a team-place and he eventually returned to the other Rovers, Tweeddale.  Then the Peebles Rovers left-back who’d kept him out of the team broke a leg, and he departed from Tweeddale Rovers a second time.

 

“Barely had he returned to Peebles Rovers, however, than an injury left him with a damaged nerve in his neck and prevented him from playing for weeks.  By the time he’d recovered, the other Peebles Rovers left-back had also recovered from his broken leg and his place was gone again.

 

“However, a recommendation by a friend soon moved Schaedler north to Melbourne Thistle in Edinburgh – and the rest was history.”

 

The tragic and well-publicised circumstances of Erich Schaedler’s death – he took his own life on Christmas Eve, 1985 – mean that too often these days his name is known for the wrong reasons.  Let’s hope this new book will shine at least some light on the thing he should be remembered for, his remarkable talent as a football player.

 

Haile highly successful in Glasgow

 

In 2009, eight years after I’d finished working there, I returned to Ethiopia to research an MA dissertation.  It came as no surprise to me then to discover that the Asmara Road, one of Addis Ababa’s main arteries, had been renamed the Haile Gebrselassie Road.  This was in honour of the country’s greatest athlete, long-distance runner and twice-Olympic-champion Haile Gebrselassie.

 

When I lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001, Gebrselassie had already been accorded national-treasure status.  I remember attending a conference at Addis Ababa University while the 2000 Olympics were taking place in Sydney.  At one point a lecture hall I was in went ape-shit because it was announced that Gebrselassie had just won a gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Ethiopia.   However, adored and acclaimed though Gebrselassie is, the diminutive (five-foot-five) athlete has never allowed things to go to his head.  From all accounts he’s a humble, unassuming sort, mindful of his origins as the son of a subsistence farmer in Asala who first got into running by jogging eight kilometres every day to the nearest school.  He also does much for Ethiopian charities, including education, health and clean-water ones, and has even donated his Olympic medals to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto.  I hope you’re reading this, Usain Bolt…  And making notes.

 

Last weekend, Haile Gebrselassie – who seems to have been around for so long now that I almost assumed he was getting near pension-age, although he’s actually only forty – made it to Scotland to take part in the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow.  Not only did he win the thirteen-mile half-marathon, but he ran it in an hour, one minute and nine seconds, making it the fastest half-marathon win ever seen in Scotland – clearly, Gebrselassie had kept away from the chips, Scotch eggs, white puddings, whisky and deep-fried Mars bars while he was sojourning in this dreich nation of ours.  It was also good going for a man who’d announced his retirement in 2010 after withdrawing from the New York City Marathon with an injured knee.

 

Incidentally, my sister ran in this year’s Great Scottish Run in order to raise money for a Motor Neuron Disease charity.  She completed it in two hours and fifty-six seconds and, I think, can be proud of herself for doing so in just under twice the time set by the mighty wee Haile.

 

Such was Gebrselassie’s popularity that, while I was in Ethiopia, local pop star Teddy Afro recorded a song about him.  Here it is, a dozen years later, on youtube – the song isn’t very good, but at least it’s not very good in a nice way.

 

 

Brian and Byron

 

 

I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a temporary job in Nottingham.  Here’s a photo of some civic sculpture near the city square, commemorating legendary football manager Brian Clough, who was in charge of local side Nottingham Forest from 1975 to 1993.  During that time, Clough guided Forest to winning the League Cup four times and the European Cup twice.  My apologies for the unprofessionalism with which I took this photograph, which has ended up with a sign in the background seemingly indicating a public toilet lodged in Clough’s right armpit.

 

Although he died in 2004, there has since been a revival of interest in Clough thanks to David Peace’s book The Damned United.  This was a fictionalised account of Clough’s turbulent and troubled 44-day tenure at Leeds United, then the mightiest football team in England, in 1974.  It was filmed in 2008 with Michael Sheen in the main role.  I know that Clough’s family were upset by both the book and the film.  I haven’t read Peace’s novel, although if it’s anything like his Red Riding books, some of which I am familiar with, it must make grim reading.  However, I’ve seen the film and I didn’t think it portrayed Clough in a particularly unsympathetic light.  Michael Sheen looks nothing like Clough but he does a good job of capturing the cocktail of lovability and punch-ability that made the man such a fascinating character.

 

 (c) BBC Films

 

Meanwhile, located a few miles up the road between Nottingham and Mansfield is Newstead Abbey.  This was the ancestral home of Lord George Gordon Byron, doyen of the romantic poets.  In fact, you could say that Byron wrote the rulebook on how to be a romantic poet, including how a romantic poet should be attired.  (Though as Rowan Atkinson once sneered in Blackadder the Third, “There’s nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt, trying to get laid.”)

 

Byron actually lived at Newstead Abbey for just six years, from 1808 to 1814.  The building, though, dates back to the twelfth century and it has monastic origins.  Standing now as a lone façade is the famous, historic-monument-listed West Front, which was once part of a church built there in the 13th century.

 

 

Not being particularly conversant with the romantic movement, the little I knew about Byron consisted of a few poems (for example, Ozymandias) and a few facts about his life – his general notoriety, of course; his lameness; his keeping of a pet bear during his student days at Trinity College in Cambridge; his suspected incest with his half-sister; and that wild weekend party he had on the shores of Lake Geneva with Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818, during which copious opium was smoked and copious hallucinations were experienced, and after which, somehow, Frankenstein was written by Mrs Shelley.  To be honest, I only know that last stuff from watching Ken Russell’s gloriously crazed horror film Gothic, made in 1987 and starring Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands.

 

(c) Virgin Films

 

Newstead Abbey now houses the Bryon Collection, a series of exhibits dedicated to the poet – so that when I arrived there one Sunday afternoon in September, I learned rather more about him.  For example, previously, I hadn’t known much about his death.  This occurred during the Greek War of Independence and was the result of a fever he caught in the Missolonghi Marshes the day before he was due to lead an attack on Lepanto.  Byron has since become a national hero in Greece, incidentally.

 

Less seriously, I liked this little exhibit about the intensely fashion-conscious Byron’s dress style.  It invites visitors to don ‘robes, shirts and tartan wraps’ and then inspect themselves in the mirror to see if they’ve achieved that vital ‘Byron look’, which made young ladies swoon in the 1810s and 1820s.  “The helmet,” visitors are instructed, “should be carried in the crook of your elbow – not worn on the head.”

 

 

You can also see Big Bad Byron’s bed, which he had transported to Newstead from his student rooms in Cambridge.  Also making that journey from Cambridge was his famous pet bear.  A guide in the building told me that the bear died after it escaped one day into the grounds.  The estate workers managed to recapture it, but when they tied a rope around its neck and attempted to drag it back to the house, they inadvertently throttled it.  Byron, who’d been away from Newstead at the time, was predictably displeased when he returned and discovered the fate that’d befallen his ursine pet.

 

 

And here’s a plaster bust of Byron, made two years after his death in 1826, standing by the majestic window in the building’s Grand Staircase.  Hanging at the top of the staircase, meanwhile, is Veronese’s grim, and somewhat homoerotic, painting Apollo flaying Marsyas.

 

 

Alas, I found in the building no mention of Ken Russell’s Gothic, in which Gabriel Byrne and Julian Sands, playing Byron and Shelley, had got so memorably and melodramatically addled.

 

The grounds around Newstead Abbey are extensive and gorgeous.  They contain a lake, a pond, a ‘fernery’, and about ten different gardens, including Japanese, French, Spanish and ‘sub-tropical’ ones.  Indeed, a lot of people who’d turned up there seemed more interested in using the place as a recreational park and picnic area than going into and exploring the house.  For that reason, the walk along the estate’s long driveway wasn’t particularly pleasant as there were constant processions of cars coming and going.  I was also narked that cyclists and walkers had to pay a pound at the estate gates just to use the driveway, although later this was balanced out by the relatively cheap five pounds it cost to get into the house itself.

 

Thankfully, for part of the way, a woodland path runs through the trees parallel to the drive – it’s not far enough removed from the drive to spare walkers the noise of car-engines, but at least the vehicles are no longer passing them by mere inches.  Halfway along the woodland path, I stumbled across this strange sight – a mouldering tree-stump whose topmost surface had been covered with small, round stones, resembling eggs crowded onto a circular tray.  I don’t know anything about forestry or woodsman-ship, so I have no idea what this was for. Creepily, it looked a bit Blair Witch Project.