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September/ October books: cycling, football and hard boiled masterpieces

October 28, 2015


Didn’t get through so many books in September and October given the return to teaching, writing two journal articles (and a bastard research grant application) which took an enormous amount of reading, and taking on a James Ellroy monster doorstop of a tome.

David Winner, Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch Football. 2000. Bloomsbury.

One of those 1990s/ 2000s serious evaluations of football as having something in common with the (high) arts. A pleasing journalistic affair full of brilliant interviews with the key people in the Dutch footballing renaissance of the late 1960s.

It’s rich in detail about the roles of Rinus Michels, Vic Buckingham, Johann Cruyff and Luis Van Gaal in the rebirth and sustenance of the modern era of Dutch football. With hindsight, the stuff on Cruyff also tells us much about his role the recent renaissance of Barcelona.

However, all the ascribing of inherently Dutch national characteristics in modern art and architecture as influencing its football culture all seems a bit Private Eye Pseuds Corner. At one point he notes that, because the Dutch need to hold back the water that threatens the low lying nation with dikes, they are spatial neurotics, and thus this obsession with space makes them revolutionary thinkers about football positions and led to Total Football (pp47-50).

That is pseudo-intellectual pish, but this book is well worth a read for its interviews with some remarkably prescient and important figures in the development of modern football.

Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road. 2014. Faber & Faber. (Kindle)

Barry is a former professional cyclist who has ridden all the major tours and has a rare insight into two of the most important cycling teams of the last 20 years: Lance Armstrong’s US Postal and Team Sky.

He is also a professional sportsman with a rare gift as a writer; I can’t think of any one else who has worked at the highest level of sport who is a better at conveying the nature of elite sport.

Part autobiography, part philosophical meditation on the rhythms of professional training – this book is a remarkable achievement.

Of course, the real story is that it outlines how he became a doper on Lance Armstrong’s team and thus becomes a cheater’s confessional in the manner of Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race and David Millar’s Racing Through the Dark. It says much about the pressures to cross the line into cheating. It is also brilliant about the nature of comradeship between people who do top flight sport.

The top and the bottom of it is: the boy can really write.

Ross McDonald, The Instant Enemy. 1996. Allison & Busby.

On the back cover of this hardboiled thriller, first published in 1968, Robert B Parker, a colossus of the genre in himself, says “I owe him.” The American novelist Eudora Welty says he is “a more serious and complex writer than Chandler and Hammett ever were.” The New York Times said: “(The) American private eye, immortalized by Hammett, refined by Chandler, brought to its zenith by Macdonald”

They don’t even come close to capturing the terse, sparse, hard boiled atmosphere of the Californian crime thriller. A teenager takes up with an older bloke and goes missing only to open up a wound of generations old hurt that leads to multiple murders.

It’s tense, febrile and constantly moving, and the central character, private investigator Lew Archer, should be among the pantheon of literary sleuths.

McDonald was the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar who died in 1983. Before he died he won most of the major literary prizes for crime novelists, rightly so. Can’t recommend him highly enough.

James Ellroy, Blood’s a Rover. 2009. Century.

A monster 639 page thriller which starts with a jewell heist in 1964 and then moves through the turbulent period of 1968-1972. It’s panoramic conspiracy theory fictionalisation of how Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, the Mafia, the CIA, left wing guerillas and voodoo religion were involved in a period that saw the assassinations of JFK, RFK, Dr Martin Luther King and thousands of other less fortunate people caught up in complex geo-political conflict.

It’s breadth is breathtaking. To call the plot labyrinthine is both hackneyed and wholly insufficient. There isn’t an A, B and C plot strand to this novel, there are A through to Z plot strands and then we need a whole new alphabet. It completely rewrites the established notion of how novels and screen plays need three of five acts.

It mixes fictional characters with fictionalised representations of real figures to make sense of the politically turbulent period of 1968-1972. It’s an old fashioned novel of immense ambition echoing the best traits of Gerald Seymour and Frederick Forsythe but with added oomph on steroids.

Ellroy is an awe-inspiring novelist. He shows you how far a supposedly narrow genre like crime fiction can go and challenges literary snobs to address their pretensions.

I savoured every line of this book. It was a rare pleasure.

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