Last post of the season and my summer reading

June 17, 2018

So summer is almost here once again. In Madrid we haven’t reached 40 degrees, like last June. I normally finish at the end of June, but this year I need to start my reports and the World Cup has just started, and so this will be my last post until the autumn. Now is a great time to catch up on reading. Here are some of the books I am thinking of reading over the summer:

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken – Anonymous

I love law and am looking forward to this critical insider’s account of the current state of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Writing under the pseudonym of The Secret Barrister was originally a successful blogger. It is not a positive view:

Walk into any court in the land, speak to any lawyer, ask any judge and you will be treated to uniform complaints of court deadlines being repeatedly missed, cases arriving underprepared, evidence lost, disclosures of evidence not being made, victims made to feel marginalised and millions of pounds of public money wasted”.

Chicago – David Mamet

David is better known as a playwright and screenwriter. I haven’t read of his three previous novels, but I have seen a number of the films he’s been involved in: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, House of Games, Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross, State and Main, Heist and The Winslow Boy. His fourth book, his first in 20 years, is a story set in prohibition era in the Windy City.

Heavens on Earth – Michael Shermer

I am a big fan of the sceptic Michael Shermer’s work. Since reading Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time some twenty years  I have read The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, The Mind of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths and The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Apart from liking long titles, he is an excellent proponent of the sceptical point of view. In this book he goes in search of what drives our belief in life after death. He does explore religious worldviews, but he seems especially interested in the scientific quest for immortality, the world of extentionists, extropians, transhumanists, cryonicists, and mind-uploaders. I did read Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death last year, but I am looking forward to getting Shermer’s take on this. In last year’s summer reading I mentioned that I had been panning to blog about the singularity. I still haven’t got round to it and at this rate I think it may arrive before I actually write about it.

The Black Book – Ian Rankin

I am gradually working my way through Rankin’s oeuvre; this is the fifth Rebus novel, which came out in 1993.  After one of his colleagues is brutally attacked and left in a coma John Rebus finds himself in a case involving “a hotel fire, an unidentified body, and a long-forgotten night of terror and murder”.

The Vietnam War-  Ken Burns

This is the companion book to the Ken Burns’ Vietnam War ten-part documentary series on PBS. I am a big fan of Burns documentary work and this will help me remember this powerful series, which looks at the conflict from multiple perspectives.

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash – Alexander Maters

The author Alexander Masters is an author, screenwriter, and worker with the homeless. I haven’t read Stuart: A Life Backwards, his unconventional biography of Stuart Shorter. As the title implies, the book begins with Shorter’s adult life, going back in time through his troubled childhood, examining how his family, education and disability shaped his life.  The book I’m planning to read, A Life Discarded is from 2016. The source of this biography was the 148 diaries that Masters’ friends Dido Davies and Richard Grove, both Cambridge professors, found in a skip. The anonymous author was a prolific diarist, who averaged 2,500 words a day.

Rethink – Steven Poole

I am really interested in innovation and have done a number of posts about its importance. In this book The Guardian’s Steven Poole argues that innovation and progress are often achieved by going back to old ideas and revamping them. The ultimate message seems to be if you want to change the future, you need to begin by looking at the past.

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Skin in the Game is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book, and I think I have read the previous four – Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes and Antifragile. In his latest work Taleb argues for the importance of players having skin in the game. This is the idea that they should have something at stake, something to lose.

Taleb is not a fan of fund managers that get a percentage on wins, but no penalty for losing, or the war hawks don’t themselves bear any risks of dying during a war which they have championed.

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi

I don’t know too much about this book, but it seems to have transferred Mary Shelley’s work to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. The main character Hadi is a junk peddler who starts to bring home body parts, left in the streets from the day’s explosions. Feeling they deserve a dignified burial, he begins to stitch these bits together. If he can create a whole corpse, he hopes someone will bury it.


Anyway have a great summer and I’ll be back in early October.


Notes on a scandal

June 10, 2018

Nobody does political scandals quite like the English. I live in Spain and we’ve had our share over the last few years, but for sheer entertainment value it’s hard to compete with the Profumo Affair, Labour MP John Stonehouse’s faked suicide, Jeffrey Archer and the prostitute, Jonathan Aitken and the Paris Ritz Hotel bill allegations, and David Cameron’s notorious university initiation ceremony involving inserting a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig. It is such a competitive field, but I still feel pride of place goes to the downfall of the charismatic leader of the Liberal party.

The story was told in a 2016 book called A Very English Scandal by John Preston. Curiously, in Wikipedia it is called it a true crime non-fiction novel. But no it is a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless, it turns out to be a real page turner with an amazing cast of characters. It was recently adapted into a three-part drama series by the BBC, which I can thoroughly recommend.  Jeremy Thorpe was an MP by 30, and just seven years later he became one of Britain’s youngest ever party leaders. he was a brilliant politician, who had an eccentric fashion sense and according to Preston, “favoured a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat.” There was his lover, Norman Scott, who was mentally unstable and had a tendency to blame everyone but himself for his problems. There was Peter Bessell a fellow Liberal MP and a failed businessman, who took money from party funds to hire a hitman. The professional killer, Andrew Newton was known to his friends as chicken brain.

After a chance meeting in a friend’s stable in 1960, Thorpe commenced a sexual relationship with a young man who was then called Norman Josiffe. He subsequently changed his surname to Scott, which was how he was known when he became famous. At the time homosexuality was still against the law. Once the affair was over Thorpe saw Scott as a blackmailer who could wreck his political career. The higher he climbed on the political ladder, the greater was the threat to his ambition from Scott.

After the break-up Scott found employment here and there, but he never really stuck at anything.  He had a disastrous and brief marriage, and fathered a son who he was barely allowed to see. He often lived in poverty, and went through periods of severe mental illness that led to a suicide attempt. Given his financial difficulties, he would look to Thorpe, the man he blamed for everything that had gone wrong in his life. He was particularly obsessed with his National Insurance card, which he needed to get a job or benefits. Thorpe would wash his hands of his erstwhile lover and he would leave it all to Peter Bessell. By 1974 Thorpe was on the verge of joining a coalition with the Conservative leader Ted Heath, where he might have headed the home or Foreign Offices. That did no happen. Norman Scott would not go away. There were compromising letters and journalists sniffing around. Something would have to be done. Thorpe wanted to have Scott killed.

This is where it all descends into farce. Andrew “Gino” Newton, the man Thorpe’s men chose for the job, was so incompetent that he went to look for Scott in Dunstable instead of Barnstaple. The former town is in Bedfordshire, where Newton would spend a couple of days before he was told he was in the wrong place. He then had to drive 230 miles to the north Devon town, where he finally found Scott. He persuaded him that he had been hired by an anonymous benefactor to protect him from a hired hitman

He too him in his car out to Exmoor First he shot Scott’s Great Dane. He was then going to shoot his intended victim, but his gun jammed and Scott was able to get away. Newton had to speed off and Scott was able to hail down an approaching car. The first thing he said to the driver was that it was Jeremy Thorpe who was behind it all. The shooting of Rinka the Great Dane on October 23 1975 at a wet and windy lay-by on Exmoor had the opposite effect to what was intended. A scandal that may well have gone away would now wreck the career of Jeremy Thorpe. He would subsequently be arrested and would appear in court.

The trial began on the 8th May 1979, just five days after the election that saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Incredibly,       Thorpe had stood in his own North Devon constituency, where he was defeated by the Conservative candidate. Another of those standing was the satirist Auberon Waugh who campaigned against Thorpe representing the Dog Lovers’ Party. In an election address declared: “Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof.”

There were four defendants, but only Thorpe faced two charges. Thorpe hired a superstar lawyer, George Carman. He did a brilliant job of discrediting the three star witnesses – Bessell, Scott and Newton- as hypocritical, untrustworthy and amoral liars. Well it is true that they were not perhaps the most credible of witnesses to start with. His other stroke of genius was to persuade Thorpe not to testify. That could have been a real disaster.

The star of the show was the judge, the Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley. His fair and ballanced summing-up has entered the annals of legal history:

“It is right for you to pause and consider whether it is likely that such persons would do the things these persons are said to have done. While the accused were of “hitherto unblemished reputation,” Bessell was a “humbug” and Newton a “chump”. As for Scott, he was “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… he is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course he could still be telling the truth… you must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting that you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”

This summing up was brilliantly satirised by Peter Cook in his Entirely A Matter For You sketch:

After deliberating for 52 hours, the jury unanimously acquitted all four men on all charges. The previously impassive Thorpe broke into a broad smile, tossed the three red cushions on which he had been reclining out of the dock, then leaned over and kissed his wife. ‘Darling, we won!’ he exclaimed to her, while he congratulated his old Oxford chum Carman with the words: ‘Well rowed, Balliol!’

Despite his acquittal, Thorpe’s reputation never recovered and he faded into obscurity. Had all this not happened, Thorpe would now be remembered as one of the most of the great politicians of his era. In an interview not long before his death in December 2014, he remarked: “If it happened now, the public would be kinder.” He is surely right about attitudes to homosexuality – the past was another country. Yet it is amazing that the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe seemed blithely unaware that murdering someone might actually be wrong. In 2014 Michael Bloch published biography of Thorpe, which had had to wait until after his death. He said that Thorpe was a man with a massive sense of entitlement, who thought who thought the rules were for little people. He also had a penchant for illicit sex and got a thrill from being able to escape the consequences; he had a Houdini complex. In the end though, Scott would be his nemesis.


Real Madrid’s three-peat

June 3, 2018

Just one week ago in Kiev Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 to win their third European Champions League in a row, and their fourth in five years.  In American sports this is known as a three-peat. And a team with multiple successes is a sporting dynasty. Real Madrid are surely this. To put all this in context, until last season no team had been able to win back-to-back Champions League titles. 24 years of intense competition under the revamped format had produced a different winner every time. Not even Barcelona at their most brilliant managed to win the European Cup then do it again the following season. Last year’s demolition of Juventus saw them break the champion’s jinx. And now they have broken their own record. The recent burst of titles means that Real Madrid actually have a higher success rate – seven wins in 26 attempts than they did under the original format, where after winning the first five and one in 1966, they endured a drought of 32 years before winning their seventh title.  That makes a record of six wins over 37 seasons. Indeed, the last time Real Madrid lost a European final was against Alex Fergusson’s Aberdeen in 1983 – 35 years ago. Since then they have been in two UEFA Cup and seven Champions League finals winning all of them.

This success of the last 20 years is put in perspective by their role in the in their own league. Seven Champions league wins have been accompanied by “just” six league titles. In the same period Barcelona have four Champions leagues but eleven league titles. Bayern Munich have two Champions leagues and 14 Bundesligas. Juventus have just one Champions League, but they have won ten Serie A titles. This number would be twelve, but after the Calciopoli scandal they were stripped of the two titles won under Fabio Capello in 2005 and 2006. They were also relegated to Serie B for the first time in their history. Nevertheless, they won four more league titles than Real Madrid. How can a team that dominates in Europe not dominate at home?

A number of pundits have been less than generous in their appreciation. They are said to be lucky, but no team wins this tournament without a dose of luck. This fortune included the odd refereeing decision and Sergio Ramos injuring Mo Salah. Former Barça midfielder Xavi has invoked witches. I would agree that this is not a team like 1970s Ajax, Sacchi’s AC Milan or Guardiola’s Barcelona. But this team is different – they have not revolutionised football. But they do have the greatness of being competitive. They don’t mind if other teams punch them in the face – they just get up, dust themselves off and keep fighting. Their German midfielder Toni Kroos summed it up before their semi-final tie in Munich:

Many of our players played big games so we know how to stay calm in difficult situations because we know we can beat everyone. Even when we’re not winning we can change the game. We’ve experienced all kinds of situations so we don’t feel anxious.”

After their unexpected debacle in this year’s league the Champions League was their only chance; failure was not an option. This competitive DNA can sometimes seem to affect opponents three of their last four goals came from horrendous goalkeeping errors.  Sven Ullrich must have thought that he had the worst goalkeeping error against Real Madrid in the 2017-18. Of course the second goal by Bale was out of this world.

Then we have the manager Zinedine Zidane. I have to say I wasn’t especially optimistic when he was appointed. His results with Castilla were distinctly underwhelming. It shows how difficult it is to judge what makes a manager successful. Curiously he doesn’t seem to fit the profile of what club chairman Florentino Perez wants. He seems to want the authoritarian types who crack the whip with their players. The chief exponent of this style was José Mourinho. But what seems to work are the more easy-going types, such as Del Bosque, Ancelotti and Zidane. Florentino has won 23 titles, 19 of which have been with these three trainers. I don’t know if he is tactical genius, but he is an excellent man-manager. And after all the sterile controversies of the Mourinho years, Zidane was just the opposite, a wonderful ambassador for the club.  In over 300 press conferences and in all his other dealings with the media he deployed his considerable charm. His skills will be sorely missed.

The future suddenly looks a bit more complex. It started minutes after the final whistle last Saturday, with Bale and Ronaldo both asking to leave. We will see who the new trainer is. Now Florentino will be coming to the fore. I can’t say that fills me with optimism. I do rate him more in terms of the business and marketing areas, but I wouldn’t want him anywhere near the first team. Recently there haven’t been all these marquee signings so beloved of Florentino. There has been a more rational policy and this has coincided with the success. If you look at the Real Madrid midfield, it probably cost more or less the same as Pogba. I have a feeling that with a World Cup this summer the chequebook will be out again. Still, Barcelona with the great Leo Messi have won just one champions league since 2011 and are now eight trophies behind Real Madrid. And we have the three-peat to keep us going.