Sportsthoughts (132) – Quins’ and Hammers’ seasons splutter to a close

It’s been a bit of a damp squib of an end to the football and rugby season, at least if you support West Ham and Harlequins. Both have had little to play for, for some time now, and it shows. Moments of excitement interspersed with frustrating underachievement. Thoughts turn to next season, with a hope of something better.

For Quins, the downward slide since they won the Premiership in 2012 has now become alarming. Youthful promise is beginning to wear thin for the supporters. It is admirable that so many promising youngsters have come through the academy, and Quins still try to play rugby the right way. There is rarely a dull game when they are playing. There have been excellent performances too, this season. A win away to Leinster in the European Cup group round. The home win against Castres in Europe and Leicester in the Premiership. The recent away win at Sale. But there have been so many performances which have petered out after a good start. Undermined by spilled passes, endless penalties at key moments. The last home game against Bath encapsulated this. Quins more than held their own against the second best team in the country. They led for most of the second half. But a stupid penalty offence just after a line out in their own half with five minutes to go gave George Ford a kick to win the game. Of course he scored. 27-26 to Bath. Story of the season.

There have been a lot of injuries to key players and England call-ups have been disruptive. But these are the challenges that all the top teams face. A strong squad is needed, with plenty of back-up experience. And Quins lack that depth at the moment. Only yesterday, watching Man Utd v Arsenal, pundit Graeme Souness made the obvious, but good point that all top sides constantly refresh their squads even when they are on top. That’s what all the successful teams do to stay on top. Look at Barcelona. They already had Messi and Neymar up front. So they went out and bought Suarez too! They won La Liga and should take the Champions League against Juventus. Chelsea were pretty good last season, but by bringing Fabregas and Costa in over the summer, the team was complete, and ready to win the Premier League.

I think the management have now recognised the need for a shift in policy. For next season they have already secured the services of a number of seasoned international players. The hirsute Welshman, Adam Jones, to add some clout to the front row; Aussie James Horswill (after the World Cup) to lead the second row; another Welshman, Jamie Roberts, to add brute power to the centres. All exciting signings, even if Adam Jones is past his absolute prime. Add to that the genuine promise of Charlie Walker, Kyle Synkler and especially the awesome Jack Clifford, who has forced his way into a regular back row slot, and Quins have the makings of a return to the top four.

Hopefully, the mediocrity of this season will be a temporary blip.

With West Ham, things are more worrying. After a great November and December, the Irons were in the top four. We were ahead of Arsenal! Some people dared to dream, though I think most knew that it couldn’t last. Unfortunately, one of the non-believers appears to have been the manager, Sam Allardyce. Even though the team’s success was based on an attack-focused midfield diamond, spearheaded by a revitalised Stewart Downing, and two strikers – permed from Carroll, Sakho and Valencia – Sam quickly reverted to a cautious 4-5-1 when, over Christmas, we came up a few top teams. I saw this on Boxing Day at Chelsea: Playing deep, Downing isolated on the right wing, Carroll marooned on his own up front. Result: supine defeat. And without the manager really believing, I think that fed through to the players. Confidence and form dipped. Key players, especially up front, were injured. Leads against the likes of Man Utd, Stoke and Tottenham were thrown away in added-on time. The crowd got restless, and inevitably started to turn against Sam again.

Nonetheless, we almost got to 40 points remarkably early, in February. The draw at Tottenham took us to 39, which seems to be safe these days. 42, a few losing games later in March, when Sunderland were beaten – just! And that was enough to take the foot right off the gas. Only 5 points have been gained since then. The team have been well and truly “on the beach”.

Increasingly the mutterings from inside the camp against Big Sam have made us more certain that his contract will not be renewed for next season, the last before West Ham move into the Olympic Stadium, in Stratford. While I would welcome a change, to a more positive, confident style of play, I also recognise that removing Allardyce at this stage, without getting a really top notch replacement, is very risky. Relegation is never far away for the happy Hammers. It would be grim to start the new era in the Championship, with masses of unfilled seats.

So the Board really must get things right this summer. A top manager, and three or four high quality players, to refresh and strengthen the side. A big ask.

But let’s end on a bright note. There have been tremendous wins against Man City and Liverpool; the run in November and December was the best in years; Sakho was a great discovery; player of the year, Aaron Creswell, bought from Ipswich, was a revelation at left back. Adrian established himself as one of the best keepers in the Premier League; Downing got back in the England squad; and for a time Song and Kouyate were awesome in midfield, alongside the ever-dependable Mark Noble. There is definitely something to build on.

They have just got to believe, and that needs a manager who really believes too.

We live in hope, as all sports fans do. Until those hopes are dashed by reality. At which point you just say to yourself…. it’s only sport.

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Have You Heard? – (64) Three Kinds of Beautiful: new albums by The Unthanks, Laura Marling and The Staves

Three of the albums I’ve been listening to a lot recently are all beautiful sounds that have their roots in folk music. But the artists have evolved, taking different directions, but still capturing the soulful essence of our traditional music.

Beginning with “Mount The Air” by The Unthanks. Over recent years I’d heard various tracks by the band, but hadn’t explored further. The hook for me with this new album was the wonderful track, “Flutter”, which I highlighted in my last “Have You Heard” blog, praising the new music played on BBC 6 Music. It’s the most electronic and melodic piece on the album, combining subtle modern beats with singing that captures the essence of English folk music, with an authentic North-Western twang. (Listen to the pronunciation of flutter). It’s the middle of three tracks – the others being “Died For Love” and “Magpie”, which form, for me, the highlights of the album.

This album takes you back to the heart of English folk music. Or should I say English soul music? Updated to take in a bit of electronica, but also with a background drone in places that conjures up a feel of remote woodlands, mountain streams and mediaeval village festivals. Completely gorgeous – and daring. It starts with a ten minute slow-burning epic, the title track “Mount The Air”. This is not a band trying to entice you with an immediate pop hit.

Laura Marling’s “Short Movie” has a different kind of beauty. Its folk roots are there, but there are punchy rhythms; and a personalised, subdued anger, which suffuses the whole effort. Where there is assertion, it has a fragility, and so the music has a captivating sense of vulnerability and tenderness. I’m still discovering individual tracks – the album works for me as a whole. The subject matter can hark back to folky themes – the first track, “Warrior” has a narration from the point of view of a horse! Looking for one of those traditional princes to steer it on. No doubt a metaphor for love in the modern world. That song also identifies, for me, two of the influences on this album: Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell. Very good influences, in my view!

And finally, “If I Was” by The Staves. Their second album, some time in the making. Produced by Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver. Played in full at the concert I reviewed here. That was a wonderful event, and now I wish I’d heard more of the album beforehand, even though it stood up on first listens. Everything that was good about the concert is borne out on the album. It’s a fuller, more varied sound than on their first album, “Dead & Born & Grown”, an album I absolutely love. There is a touch of Americana (“Teeth White” especially), some pop-rock (“Black & White”), but the roots remain – and the voices are as spectacular and beautiful as ever. I don’t think there is another band where I take as much delight just in the sound of the voices as The Staves. And the highlights – for me the centrepiece of the album – are the third and fourth tracks. First, the vocal symphony of “No Me, No You, No More”. Really, the singing, the harmonies, are quite extraordinary. Live they were unbelievably moving. And then that song segues – as it did live – into the lovely, tender, regretful lost love song, “Let Me Down”. Together, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. Really, give it a try.

I could go through all the songs. I love them all. “Blood I Bled” takes up the mantle from “Eagle Song” from the first album. Hints of prog, a chance to develop into psychedelic folk. For another time? And “Damn It All”, which starts like a lovely celtic soul piece, and then moves into a guitar-driven, kind of angry dirge. Picking up from “Pay Us No Mind” on the first album. Defiant, when love falters.

I’ve got tickets for the November tour, because The Staves’ music is something I never tire of. It’s just so beautiful, rich: steeped in English tradition, but so modern too. I suppose speaking mainly to women in their twenties and thirties, if you study the lyrics; but universal in its musical scope. English soul music, to be set alongside R&B and rap and whatever else. All parts of what we are about today.

Three fantastic albums: rooted in an historic tradition, alive to the present and looking to the future.

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lovelondonscenes – 95

Kew Gardens in bloom, 3 May.

 

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Sportsthoughts (131) – The Bees sneak through!

It looked like Brentford had blown it, as far as the play-offs were concerned. In the top six of the Championship for much of the season, a string of draws – usually after they had been in the lead – saw them slip to seventh. So, with one game to go, all the results needed to go their way today. Crucially, Derby needed to lose while the Bees won. Nothing else would be good enough. Both sides were at home and both were playing teams from the lower reaches of the division. That had to favour Derby, although they have been very wobbly in recent weeks, declining from favourites to go up, to nervy potential qualifiers for the play-offs.

I’d missed the fact that the games all started at midday; so when I checked the football to see the the latest on Leicester-Newcastle in the Premier League, I saw that the Championship games were about to end. And what I saw was amazing. Brentford 3 Wigan 0. Derby 0 Reading 3! That meant Derby finished with 77 points and Brentford went up to 78. Furthermore, Ipswich lost, so the Bees ended up fifth, on goal difference.

That means they will play Middlesborough in the play-off semis. I think this is winnable for Brentford, although the stats say otherwise. In the two games this season, the scores have been Middlesborough 4 Brentford 0 and Brentford 0 Middlesborough 1. But ‘Borough have been on the slide. For a long time they looked like they would be in one of the two automatic promotion spots; but they fell away at the end. Downward momentum. On the other hand the Bees have upward momentum after that last ditch qualification. So the psychological edge may be with Brentford, even if Middlesborough are probably the better team.

The other semi is tasty. An East Anglian derby between Norwich and Ipswich. No love lost between these two. I have a soft spot for both. I spent quite a lot of my childhood living on RAF bases in Suffolk and Norfolk. Ipswich and Norwich were the first two football teams I used to go to watch. The first ever game my Dad took me to was Ipswich v West Ham, probably 1972. The first game I ever went to just with my mates was Ipswich v Everton. I saw the game in 1976 at Norwich, when they beat the brilliant QPR side (Stanley Bowles their long-haired genius) which was vying with Liverpool for the First Division title, 3-2. QPR were so much better, but Norwich never stopped fighting and sneaked the win. Liverpool pipped the Rs to the title, and the latter never got near the prize again.

One of my worst football moments was at Norwich, too. It was after a game against Leeds. The Leeds fans marauded through the city centre, chanting, threatening. They went into Woolworths and just helped themselves to sweets and whatever else. The police were nowhere to be seen. My Dad and I stood still on the pavement as they rushed past us. I was very scared. We were unharmed, but an old man was dumped on the pavement, blood running from his mouth. In a state of shock. People gathered around to help him – he was OK. But it was a bit like having been in the path of a tornado. It didn’t last long, but it brought devastation in its wake. This was football, seventies-style.

Norwich will be favourites to go through to the final, and objectively, I’d put my money on them to win promotion. But of course my heart tells me the Bees can do it.

Fingers crossed!

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Sharon van Etten at the O2 Empire, Shepherd’s Bush

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This was a concert that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I first became aware of Sharon van Etten when she released her album, “Tramp” in 2012. At the time I played it a few times, but it didn’t make it big on my playlist. Then in 2014, we had “Are We There”. That got great reviews in the papers I respect, and I bought it and liked it. Still not yet bowled over. I put it in my top ten for 2014 – see my top tens category if you are interested. but what then happened was that my interest in “Tramp” was revived. And in January this year, I had one of those musical epiphanies when I realised how brilliant Sharon van Etten was. The key track was “Give Out” and I wrote about that in my blog Have You Heard 59. And then my love of “Tramp” bounced back to “Are We There”, which is also an outstanding album. I also delved further back, and discovered the wonderful albums, “Epic” and “Because I Was In Love”. The latter was a really basic album musically, at times only a strummed guitar – and Sharon’s beautiful voice. There’s a track called “Keep”, which is so sad, so lovely, that once, when I heard it come on, on my iPod, walking to work from the tube, I just had to stop, collect myself, and take it in, before I walked any further.

I had high expectations of the concert then. And they were met – and exceeded. Of course it was “Are We There” which dominated; and the songs from that album, with more piano and synthesisers than before, worked really well in the live environment. Band songs. But I was really pleased that “Give Out” got an airing, as well as four other songs from “Tramp”, including the lovely “Kevin”. This photo is Sharon playing “Give Out”, with the capo on the fourth fret!

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Sharon is a diffident person on stage. You’d have expected her her to be centre stage, but she stationed herself to the left of the stage. No-one was really at the centre. We all focused on her of course, but the band were excellent, including her fellow singer Heather Woods Broderick, who has been with her for quite a while, certainly since “Tramp”. She’s in the video I included in that Have You Heard 59.

The band’s playing was rich and supportive, with some rocking out, which was possible with the tunes from “Are We There”. The rockier they got, the more Sharon reminded me of Patti Smith and PJ Harvey; but, in essence, she is a sensitive urban folk singer, full of tales of lost love, insecurity; sometimes hope, but mostly despair. But a beautiful despair.

Was there a highlight? Not really; it was just all really good. “Give Out” was a joy of course. And I did like the encore: Sharon solo on the piano, moving to the right of the stage, for “I Know”; the rockier take for “Serpents”, one of the big songs from “Tramp”; and then the celebratory “Every Time The Sun Comes Up”. At least in sound, if not lyrics.

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A wonderful concert. Deep, moving, beautifully sung and played songs. Rooted in past sounds, but also contemporary. The audience was mostly 20-30 somethings, with a smattering of oldies like me. But it’s music for all ages; timeless themes of love, mostly lost or difficult. A sound that began in folk,moved into Americana (a bit) and now has opened up into a bigger, wider, more dramatic sound, made for the live stage.

It worked so well at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Can it go further? No matter what happens live, I’ll be getting the albums.

Sharon van Etten: one of my new favourites.

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“Man and Superman” at the Lyttleton, National Theatre

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Yesterday Kath and I went to see George Bernard Shaw’s famous play, “Man and Superman”, at the Lyttleton Theatre at the National. A Saturday matinee performance, which started at 1.30 and finished at 5pm. Three and a half hours, which absolutely flew by. A brilliant, engrossing production, which starred Ralph Fiennes as John Tanner, the rich, idling iconoclast: the breaker of taboos, the political radical, the seeker after truth, and, in the end, the conventional man.

The play was written and first performed in the early 1900s, a turbulent time politically and socially, as new ideas challenged Victorian orthodoxy and the working man started to have a say. And women – or some women – started to break free from traditional shackles. Shaw was at the forefront of all of this, and “Man and Superman” fizzes with all these disturbances. At the same time, its enduring popularity comes from the fact that it is, in essence, a romantic comedy, and a genuinely funny one at that. Shaw himself called it “A Comedy and a Philosophy”. The philosophy runs through the play, and gives it its edge; but the heart of the philosophical discourse lies in a densely written third act, in which Tanner, captured by Spanish brigands in the Sierra Nevada (suspend disbelief please!) falls asleep and descends into a dream in which he becomes Don Juan in Hell and ends up in debate with the Devil about the meaning – or not – of everything!

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Strangely, I’m unfamiliar with Shaw’s work, though not his reputation; and so I was on quite a learning curve yesterday – and a fascinating one. I learned that the play has often been performed without that third act, and stands up as a satirical romantic comedy without it. I can see that; but after yesterday, I couldn’t contemplate a version without its philosophical heart. It clarifies what drives Tanner on, and prepares him for his capitulation to Ann, the wealthy young heiress, whom he has known since childhood. As he describes it, his ensnarement, his suffocation by the boa constrictor. The outrageous radical, the thinker of great thoughts, the man of impulsive action, the challenger of orthodoxy, succumbing to the inevitability of love.

The play succeeds on so many levels. It’s brilliantly written for a start, and this production, directed by Simon Godwin, sharpens and modernises it, so that it is even easier to relate to. It feels like a good thing to be watching as we go through our own political turbulence, as the status quo, the establishment orthodoxy, the received economic model, the political settlement, feels increasingly untenable. Being the National Theatre, the sets are stunning – quite simple in some cases, but so complementary to the play. And, above all, the acting is just superb. Ralph Fiennes is, of course, the star. His role, as John Tanner, dominates the play: he must have at least two-thirds of the lines. In the Hell scene, the other characters even joke about his verbosity! Fiennes plays the role extravagantly, all gesticulation and expression. But also with wit and sympathy. You engage with him. I was reading his biography beforehand. It mentioned the Harry Potter films. For some reason, I couldn’t remember whom he’d played. Must have been one of the good guys, I thought to myself. And then I remembered… Voldemort!

There wasn’t too much of Voldemort in this performance – although it was about someone who’d like to revolutionise the world…

The supporting cast are excellent too. Indira Varma, as Ann, displays the manipulativeness and disingenuousness of her character, while remaining likeable and sympathetic. Her part is crucial to the play: not only because the love interest  revolves around her, but because she portrays the “new woman”, challenging those Victorian norms of subservience and domesticity.  Even though Tanner suspects her of trying to trap him in that life of domestic non-bliss.

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And Tim McCullan, as the brigand leader Mendoza and the Devil, is very funny. Mendoza, the Che Guevara prototype, who used to be a waiter in the Savoy, and bores his fellow rebels, as well as the captives, with his poetry of his lost love, Louisa, who turns out to be the sister of Tanner’s driver, the working class sage, Henry Straker. A daft coincidence, which, I think, gently mocked dramatic convention. And a very louche Devil, presiding over a Hell which sounds a lot of fun (thus offending all religious norms at the time?), although its unthinking pleasures are denounced by Don Juan/Tanner, who wants to strive for a higher purpose. For the Superman.

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It’s a joyous production, which got a great reception at the end of the performance. Your attention never wavers, even when Tanner is expostulating at length about life forces, pleasure’s flaws and the dangers of women in that third act. It’s genuinely funny, as well as thought-provoking. Essentially it’s good because the play is good; but the production and the acting updates it, makes it real for us today, and completely captivates.

Yeah, I think I liked it!

It’s on until 17 May, and while it’s sold out, further tickets are released from time to time.

Photo credits

All are from Google Images. The top photo is just of the programme cover. The Hell scene is from the National Theatre blog and the photo is by Johan Persson. He also took the last photo, of Mendoza and Tanner, which I got from the Official London Theatre website. Ann and Tanner is from the Times online review and is by Donald Cooper/Photostage.

 

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lovelondonscenes – 94

No sooner do I capture one St Luke’s church in Chelsea, that I come across another. In the borough if not the heart of it. This one’s in Earl’s Court, heading towards the river. It’s the site of a primary school too.

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And, knowing how much my good friend DC misses the bluebells, here’s something for him along similar lines. Taken as I walked down to the river. I’ve given it a little tint.

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