The Man Who Will Be King

Electric with the ball, solid defender, goood kicking game, He's a complete rugby player

Electric with the ball, solid defender, good kicking game, He’s a complete rugby player

The best rugby player in the world is widely acknowledged to be Jonathan Thurston of the Cowboys, Queensland and Australia. But the next best player in the world is Matt Moylan of Penrith and NSW. He’s the real heir to Darren Lockyer for the Kangaroos number 6 shirt, and would walk into the Wallabies team at fly-half if he played Union. He combines balanced, sinuous running with the best passing game since Andrew Johns. He’s going to make the NRL and rugby league in general worth watching for the next decade. He isn’t famous in the Northern Hemisphere yet, but he will be. Enjoy!

Video Credit: Jazz Bowler Productions






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What Ever Happened to the Likely Lad?

Out of the spotlight. King of the Rabbitohs - Sam Burgess

Out of the spotlight. King of the Rabbitohs – Sam Burgess

A friend of mine, a keen rugby union fan, recently asked me what I thought of the Sam Burgess saga. Nearly a year on from the rugby union world cup, where his selection was widely seen as a contributory factor in England’s early exit from the tournament, Sam is back in the NRL with the South Sydney Rabbitohs who are floundering near the bottom of the NRL ladder, and certain to miss the finals.

It’s quite a fall from grace given a year ago every second rugby (union) article in the media was focused on his apparent x-factor and mystical leadership qualities.

Before explaining what happened a few facts need to be established. As a rugby league player Sam Burgess has a justified reputation as one of the most effective forwards in the world. His physical size, 6 ft 5 or 1.96 m, and weight, 256 lbs or 116 kg, combined with an incredible engine allow him to play a full game of 80 minutes, without the regular spells on the interchange bench players his weight usually enjoy. He almost always runs for 150+ metres gained in a game from 20+ carries, and typically makes 30+ tackles.

Hard hitting and hard hit. Getting smashed by the Bulldogs

Hard hitting and hard hit. Getting smashed by the Bulldogs

He’s also fast when he gets into his stride and his generic rugby skills are good, if not outstanding. He rarely makes mistakes, has a good football brain and knows how to inject himself into the play if he sees a lazy defender or an uneven defensive line. His tackling is fearless, well-timed and frequently forces or intimidates opponents into mistakes, or leaves them physically degraded.

Although some allege he has returned a lesser player this year, this combination of attributes is still apparent in NRL 2016, as the stats show. He’s run for an average of 170 metres a game and made an average of 39 tackles, very good stats for an individual in a team running 14th on the ladder (out of 16).

So what happened in rugby union? Firstly Sam was always a forward, is a forward and always will be a forward. The jury was out in rugby union where he was touted for the curious position of inside centre, or number 12. I say curious as there’s no particular pattern as to who can play here. Styled as “second five-eighth” down in NZ, the position was considered a creative one. A stylish passing player required, with a decent kicking game. In the early post-professional era from 1995 onwards, this changed somewhat with the ‘crash-ball’ centre, like Australia’s Nathan Grey or latterly Wales’ Jamie Roberts, adopted by some teams. Burgess was presumably destined to be the latter type.

Playing at inside centre for Bath vs Wasps

Playing at inside centre for Bath vs Wasps

There were a couple of major problems with the idea of sticking Burgess in at 12. Firstly it negates his immense workrate. The 12 will often be involved in the game, depending on conditions, but not in the same way as a back-row forward. Secondly Burgess had never played in the backs and had no kicking game. Among modern 12s, only the aforementioned Roberts rarely put boot to ball. The model I guess was rugby league convert Sonny-Bill Williams whose unique offloading ability and rangy stride made him a very capable 12 for both the Waikato Chiefs, and the All Blacks, when Ma’a Nonu was injured. However SBW had played, and excelled, at centre in the NRL, and was a far more agile player than Burgess.

Burgess’s rugby union club Bath realized all this pretty early. While Burgess made some solid charges and thumping tackles at 12 in his early weeks of Aviva Premiership rugby, he struggled with the defensive aspects (where to be, rather than what to do), and had little experience as a second receiver and distributor. Bath also had two better players at 12, the lively incumbent Kyle Eastmond (also a rugby league convert but a stand-off rather than a forward) and long striding young tyro Ollie Devoto (now at Exeter and in the England squad).

So Bath shifted Burgess into the forwards at number 6, the least technical back-row position, and the one most suited to his physique and desire for involvement. At this point things started to go well for Burgess. He enjoyed a regular run in the team culminating in a solid display in the Bath’s victory over Leicester in the premiership semi-final. Although they lost the final to Owen Farrell’s Saracens juggernaut, Burgess again played well, and while not considered England material yet, it was acknowledged he had enjoyed a reasonably successful first season in his new code.

At this point fate intervened in the form of England coaches Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell who decided they wanted a big character in their England team, and Burgess fitted the bill. Having a number of favorites in a rather one-paced back row, including Captain Chris Robshaw at number 6, and the very average Tom Wood at 7, Burgess was shunted into the backs to again play 12. After an exhaustive training camp in Nevada, or Colorado, or somewhere Rocky Mountainish, Burgess was chosen for the final squad ahead of the much more experienced Luther Burrell (yet another rugby league convert). This engendered shock and hype on a tremendous scale, but a good outing in a warm up match against France alongside the sublimely talented Henry Slade, put him in the matchday 22 against England’s first world cup opponents Fiji.

The new lean Sam Burgess in England RU colours

The new lean Sam Burgess in England RU colours

The rest they say is history, but not quite as it was later written. On the plus side Burgess played well. He came on at 12 in the second half against Fiji and immediately made a difference, giving the England team some much needed go-forward ahead of the crunch game with Wales. On the minus side he frequently looked confused about where to be in defence, lumbering around like a demented polar bear when Fiji had the ball. Nor was his ball carrying as menacing as usual. Having definitely lost weight on the US training trip, he looked somewhat gaunt.

After the Fiji game incumbent fly-half and Bath teammate George Ford was dropped for Owen Farrell, and Burgess was put in at 12 alongside the dependable but pedestrian Saracen Brad Barritt, who usually played 12 himself.  It was here where you have to question the tactics. Lancaster picked a team without any tactical plan (apart from we must use Burgess as a battering ram) and the focus of selection was more on how to mitigate Burgess’s apparent defensive deficiencies (by picking Barritt), rather than how to attack and dominate the Welsh.

With Slade in the form of his life, he would have been a much better complement to Burgess than Barritt, and if either of their defence wasn’t up to the job, why were they both in the squad? As it happened the match played out with England dominating possession, but lacking creativity, and Wales always clung on, inspired by the brilliant fly-half Dan Biggar. Burgess was solid, and blunted the charges of Wales’ highly rated Jamie Roberts, before being substituted with 10 mins to go and England 7 points ahead. The rest, as they say, really is history with Wales scoring a runaway try, converting, and then winning with a penalty.

How that was Burgess’s fault is anybody’s guess, but the clamour for a scapegoat had already started to grow, ahead of a do or die game against Australia, who after 4 years or mediocrity had suddenly got their best XV available, and in form.

Lancaster duly shuffled the Titanic deckchairs once more, dropping Burgess to a pointless mascot role on the bench (Slade could cover 10, 12, 13, 15 and would ahve been a better choice), pushing Barritt to inside centre, and bringing in the previously injured Jonathan Joseph. It wasn’t enough, with a demoralized pack featuring some average players in Parling, Wood and Morgan, a front row on the back foot, plus a misfiring lineout, leaving the backs starved and easily picked off by the experienced Australia attack, boasting the diminutive Giteau at 12, and the in-form Bernard Foley at 10.

Burgess came on for the last 10 minutes with England two scores behind. Again he acquitted himself well, throwing a good faceball that sent Anthony Watson haring up the wing. However he was lucky to escape a high tackle charge on Michael Hooper who ran as an illegal blocker, and Owen Farrell was mistakenly sin binned after perfectly legitimately tackling the intended receiver. After that the Aussies scored another late try, eliminating England from their home World Cup in the group stage.

It was then that #blameburgess really got going with the rugby league haters in the media, led by the Times’ Paul Ackford and the Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones putting the boot in.

Ackford was a 1980s beanpole second row who Burgess would have swatted like a fly.

Ackford was a 1980s beanpole second row who Burgess would have swatted like a fly.

Burgess’s subsequent decision to leave Bath and return to South Sydney added to the conflagration, quite understandably offending Bath fans but also giving the rugby league haters ammunition to fire. For me it’s a shame Burgess didn’t have another season in the back-row at Bath, where I have no doubt he would have emerged as a formidable player at 6 or 8. The fact that his fiancé was from Sydney, and that his entire family lived out there, probably were the deciding factors, rather than anything to do with rugby.

All in all it was a sad tale, but I really don’t think Burgess can be faulted too much. He didn’t pick the England team, and while he didn’t make much on-field impact, he didn’t let anyone down either. Like Jarryd Hayne in the NFL, he was an easy target for the armchair critics, but you don’t get a profile like his without taking some risks, and this was one that didn’t come off. There is plenty to look forward for Burgess. His personal form has been good in a tough season for Souths, and the Four Nations tournament is set for the autumn, where hopefully he and England RL can build some momentum ahead of the Rugby League World Cup 2017 in Australia.

 

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Stronger In

Divorce would be messy.

Divorce would be messy.

I’m voting for remain tomorrow. The problems and pain points Leave voters have identified can be solved by better government at Westminster – not by trashing our existing relationship with our European allies. We already control our borders and if the government funded the Border Force properly, to record and filter those both arriving and leaving, the UK would have clarity on immigration. Similarly with the NHS – it isn’t failing under the strain of too many migrants, it’s failing because it’s underfunded. In fact importing nurses and other healthcare professionals from both the EU and non-EU countries like the Philippines is the only thing keeping it running, as this government won’t invest in training the next generation of British health workers.

The strange thing about the leave argument, regardless of all its lies and misconceptions on immigration, is the absence of any post-Brexit plan. Ripping up all our trade relationships and starting over will require investment in a new cadre of of diplomats to negotiate with every trading bloc (EU, US, China) and every other country (the rest) unilitarally over the next decade. This implies a huge investment in the Foreign Office and the Treasury.  Funnily enough I haven’t heard anything about this. Similarly for EU regulations on workers rights, environmental protection, competition. We will need our own regulations to replace them with (assuming we want safe products in our shops, clean rivers and beaches??? – maybe i’m overthinking this!). This again will require significant investment in central government with expansion of both the Treasury and other government departments to replace the functions currently performed by the EU. So I guess taxes will have to rise? Who knows? Because, as I said, there is no plan.

However in the absence of this investment in good government, multinational firms and exporters will leave the UK. There is no way the EU will allow us to continue exporting to the single market nations if we scrap all environmental protections and turn our factories and offices into sweatshops as workers lose all protection. So replacing the status quo with something resembling the status quo is baked in the cake. There’s no avoiding it.

Again, I haven’t heard a peep out of Boris or Nigel about that. Their entire campaign is just hot air about ‘taking our country back’. What they really want is power, and that’s when things will turn ugly. A Boris administration with all his extreme right wing fellow travellers in the cabinet won’t have the strategic nous, the patience or the competence to recast Britain in a post-Brexit world. The economy will falter, knee-jerk, sticking plaster solutions to all the post-Brexit problems will be all they can come up with, and ultimately multinational companies will desert our shores for Ireland, the Netherlands and other countries where they can get on with business. Our great public institutions like the BBC, the armed forces, and the NHS will be destroyed by lack of investment – a process already underway. London and the south east will survive on offshore finance and stashing the wealth of the world’s super-rich, while all the regions beyond will decline further.

Only one winner if there’s Brexit

Only one winner if there’s Brexit

Make no mistake, this means relegating the UK to second tier status, and there is no parachute payment or any way to get promotion back to the premier league. Brexit is a self-inflicted disaster waiting to happen. So vote to remain in the EU.


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All That Man Is

A lot of literature written about men describes the way they would like to be viewed from the outside, Cool, calm, collected, James Bond, Jack Reacher. If you want anything that delves into a man’s actual feelings, inadequacies, or the challenges we face daily, it is likely to be heavy on imagery and description, rather than the confessional nature of books focusing on women. Hemingway’s male characters don’t tell you how their feeling but you guess from the words and actions, like an outsider looking in. The modern antidote to this a UK TV show called “Peep Show” where the two main (male) characters are accompanied by a voiceover charting their tortured internal logic, selfishness, occasional selflessness, frequent helplessness, and general bafflement at the human condition, as they desperately try to keep up appearances and conform to the masculine ideal. If you liked that deep look into the psyche and thought processes of men, then a new book of short stories “All That Man Is” by David Szalay is for you.

All that man is

Captivating, real.

The book is in nine parts, all set in various parts of Europe, with each story about a different man at a particular stage of life, emerging from adolescence, youth, maturity, middle age or older. None of the characters have much in common on the face of it (penniless posh English student, French tourist, Russian Billionaire, retired civil servant, Scottish misanthrope) but all have exactly the same fixations – sex or love, money and the associated pride, status and self-image. The strange thing is you start each story thinking “this clown is nothing like me” but every single time you get this awful echo of your own past, or fear of your own future.

It’s mesmeric despite some of the rather depressing subject matter. Part 9 is the story of the bitter middle-aged drunken Scot living a rentier (The absurdly inflated UK housing market pays for all sorts of people globally, I promise you) in Croatia. His self-delusion, sheer greed and sense of entitlement is something to behold. I always used to have running joke with Asian expat friends that if it all went wrong you could just retreat to Batam (a dusty Indonesian island across the Singapore strait) and eke out a meagre existence drinking cheap beer and eating $1 mee goreng. The fact that this guy chose Croatia is by the by – it’s the same mode of existence. His travails and disasters are cringeworthy but absolutely ring true. For modern day realism, sly, dark humour and Szalay’s chameleon like ability to make each character alive and believable in very different contexts, this is highly recommended.





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La Giettaz: Small is beautiful (and spooky)

LaGiettazview

From the top of the chairlift at La Giettaz, looking towards the Combloux ski area with Mont Blanc in the background

Skiing is usually a social activity. A chance to get together and enjoy the mountains, take some moderate exercise, eat and drink well. To ski alone is seen as fairly eccentric, although I’m hardly the only person to do it. I don’t do it all the time but I find it relaxing and therapeutic to just charge on your own, lift to lift, with nary a stop. I suppose it takes a degree of comfort with the environment to really enjoy it, and that’s what puts people off.

When you are somewhere with stunning views and good food, like La Giettaz, where I spent a happy weekend in mid March, skiing solo is pure pleasure. As with Cordon, the key to this place is the relaxed atmosphere and lack of crowds. The pistes are open and easy and there are no groups of English haw-hawing, wearing fancy dress, overspending or generally making beasts of themselves. I think a driving holiday around smaller resorts in France is a great option. If you want to scare yourself or ski some steeper stuff you can always get a guide, or drive to Chamonix, Tignes or whereever for the day, spend EUR54 on a lift pass (EUR28 at La Giettaz/Combloux) and go hard. The following week I went to Tignes/Val D’Isere for four days and skied with some friends and it was fun, but is the actual skiing experience so much better?

For example Val D’Isere boasts some of the world’s most impressive and efficient ski lifts including the amazing L’Olympique (capacity 3,750 per hour) which meets the top of the Funival (2,200 per hour) to service Val D’Isere’s Bellevarde ski area.

Postively vomiting skiers up the hill makes for crowded runs

Positively vomiting skiers up the hill makes for crowded runs

While it’s all very fast and slick, and goes some way to justifying the extortionate daily lift pass spend, it creates it’s own problems. At any one time at the top of these lifts there 200-300 people of varying abilities setting off and the pistes served are as a result, often crowded. That to me is irritating, potentially dangerous, and not the thing that mountain holidays are made of. Maybe I’m just getting old – which is becoming my catch phrase it seems.

And as for the food….well there’s good eating in Val D’Isere, especially the 2 Michelin star l’Atelier d’Edmond in Le Fornet, where I ate two lunches in succession on my Tignes trip. But sorry La Giettaz again won out. The unheralded Les Balcons de Lydie was my chosen spot and frankly I preferred their honest to goodness French country fayre to the microscopic stuff.

Magret de Canard, pichet de vin rouge - all for EUR18 :)

Les Balcons de Lydie: Magret de Canard, pichet de vin rouge – all for EUR18 🙂

The last thing to touch on is the village itself. La Giettaz is a real french village rather than a ski resort, with school, Marie and everything else, situated in the lee of a cliff on a steep part of the D909 – the Col du Aravis road to la Clusaz.

La Giettaz is pretty isolated.

La Giettaz is pretty isolated.

The cliff and steepness of the terrain mean it’s pretty much in the shade most of the time and it’s got a rather spooky feel. I strolled around the village on a Friday night and it seemed somewhat deserted with a defunct ‘a vendre’ hotel right in the middle, one bar, Chez Lulu, and one pizzeria/creperie. If the French ever localized Scooby Doo, La Giettaz would make an excellent setting. My hotel, the rather optimistically titled ‘Fleur des Alpes’ appeared to have only a handful of guests, and took me back to the my childhood in cheap french hotels on the way south to camping in the summer. The evocative musty smell and sausage shaped pillows set the scene, while dinner was served by the owner sans menu. She just sat me down brought some soup, then pork casserole, followed by yogurt and fruit. All very healthy but a bit Colonie de Vacances for my taste.

Rather gloomy. It does get a bit of sun around midday

Gloomy La Giettaz view looking down the valley towards Flumet. It does get a bit of sun around midday

The village seems to be run by one family, the Bibollets, whose name dominated the war memorial on the church wall. They also run the ski school, ski shop and Chez Lulu. Presumably they marry out to improve the bloodline. Either way it’s worth a weekend or a day away if you are stuck with the hordes in La Clusaz, and it’s a great counterpoint to the French mega-resorts in the Tarentaise.

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A Weekend in Cordon

Amazing view of the Mont Blanc massif from Cordon

Amazing view of the Mont Blanc massif from Cordon

The start of my post-Lenovo, post-Melioidosis holiday. Finally. With Mihika in Munich and three days to kill before the arrival of Baffy & Syd, who were attending England vs Wales at Twickenham before travelling to the Alps from Windsor in their charabanc, I decided on somewhere small and pretty to dip my toe back in the ski waters. Chamonix is the obvious place to head to on a Friday night from Geneva, but that’s no place for the convalescent skier. Expensive, frantic, an international melting pot of crampon toting ‘extreme’ dickheads, I couldn’t even face the gentle slopes of Brevent. So gazing at the map, I happened on Cordon, which faces the Mont Blanc Massif but is still 20 kms away from the mayhem , and isn’t connected to Megeve so would be quiet (i hoped).

The Friday night traffic made the drive 2 hours.

The Friday night traffic made the drive 2 hours.

After shuttling down from AMS in a very crowded plane, I picked up my hire car, a Golf 1.4 TSI automatic. I wasn’t too thrilled with an auto, but being thrust into the Geneva Friday night traffic changed my mind. It’s pretty nippy, and has lots of flashing lights, screens and buttons on the dashboard. Top Gear eat your heart out!

All roads lead to snow!

All roads lead to snow!

The drive was slow due to the weekend traffic heading for Cham & Megeve, but uneventful, and I found the hotel easily enough after a 10 minute climb from the Autoroute Blanche exit at Sallanches
I had naturally (stupidly?) booked the most expensive place in the village (a small village to be fair), the Chamois D’Or, and have to say it was wonderful. Very welcoming, decent rooms/bathrooms and wifi (not a given in France). More to the point the cuisine was superb. 4 courses for 32 euros starting with a terrine, a fish from Lac Leman, an excellent plat de fromages, followed by the best Fondant Chocolat I have ever eaten.

Fondant in almond and mint sauce. Absolutement splendide!

Fondant in almond and mint sauce. Absolutement splendide!

Next morning and it was up to the ski station, a 5 minute climb from the hotel. 17 euros for a day ticket, but only pomas, no chairlifts. However, the view is so spectacular it’s worth it. You can see the whole of the Mont Blanc range from the Domes du Miages to the Aiguille du Argentiere. On a blue sky day only Zermatt surpasses it. The skiing is pretty decent too. 11 kms of reds & blues. Easily enough for a couple of hours and completely empty pistes. It was a great place to get my ski legs back and enjoy some proper french hospitality, both on the mountain and in the village.
Saturday evening I watched the aforementioned rugby in my room (the bar is a bit posh at the Chamois D’or and there’s no TV) before another excellent repast. This time an avocado salad to start followed by Veal escalope with Linguini.
DSC_1174 avovado
Top stuff. Very relaxing weekend and set me up nicely for the drive over the Col des Aravis to La Grand Bornand on Sunday.

At the summit of teh Col du Aravis - about 1500m I think

At the summit of the Col du Aravis – about 1500m I think

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A Whole Life

Simple and hypnotic

Simple and hypnotic

There aren’t many books I can read in one sitting, and “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler isn’t one of them. It took two sittings. Before I went to sleep and after I woke up. Probably 2 hours in total as it’s not a very long novel, but strangely hypnotic. There isn’t much of a plot – the novel just details the miserable childhood, moderately better coming-of-age, solitary maturity and relatively happy old age of an Austrian mountain man, Andreas Egger, through the twentieth century.

Egger is the definition of phlegmatic. Whatever life throw’s at him, including natural disasters, lost love, the eastern front, and the small-minded Alpine neighbours’ typical Austrian conservatism, he accepts.

Egger does not search for meaning, he just lives, without getting frustrated over events that he cannot control. The important things in his life are his and his alone, like the first time he meets his future wife. He doesn’t look for meaning, he accepts the small victories with gratitude, rather than trying to balance them on some imaginary scales against any amount of suffering or misfortune.

The book has been a best seller in Germany. I naturally read the English translation and to me, it was beautifully done. Highly recommended.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Beautifully written and very insightful

Beautifully written and very insightful

I am supposed to be writing a short piece about skiing in the Japanese Alps east of Tokyo. A self-indulgent vehicle for some spectacular POV skiing videos and a smug record of my transition from social media workhorse in Singapore to international bon viveur and adventurer. Life just doesn’t work like that though. Months of planning my post-resignation ski odyssey, my “fourth ski season” with guided adventures, and endless powder didn’t add up to anything.

I was supposed to wave goodbye to Singapore on the morning of January 29th and fly to Tokyo sipping Champagne in SIA economy plus. Instead I was flying to Manchester in KLM economy with a bleeding 2.8 cm deep, 3 cm diameter, surgical wound in my upper thigh and a ringing (literally he called me just before I headed for the airport on the evening of January 28th) endorsement from a surgeon that the suspected post-op diagnosis was a disease called Melioidosis, and that I should seek immediate treatment.

So instead of a cosy Ryokan in a snowy wonderland, I’m in isolation room J14, infectious diseases ward J3 in North Manchester General Hospital, approximately 11 miles from where I grew up. It started as these things do with a minor irregularity, a cut that wouldn’t heal that I noticed over Christmas. Through January, my health spiralled downwards and gradually, disbelievingly, I realized that this was going to be no extended ski holiday and I was heading into a medical whirlygig.

Bearding up in ward J3

Bearding up in ward J3

Without going into extravagant detail, the treatment consists of regular intravenous antibiotics, combined with poking, prodding, scans and encouraging words. So I’m left with hours to fill and reading is my way of escape. Currently a bestseller in the US, “When Breath Becomes Air” is the memoir of a late, eminent neurologist & neuroscientist Paul Kalanithi who was diagnosed with lung cancer at 36 years old and died in March 2015, 8 months after birth of his first child at 37. “Couldn’t you read something more cheery?” queried my Mum who is worried about my mental state. Well actually when I’m plunged into a new situation (first general aneasthetic, first hospitalization, first time anyone’s said “this is treatable, the prognosis is good”) my first reaction is to read up. I have suddenly developed an interest in medicine, illness, and death that is completely at odds with my distaste for the subject as recently as the “Call the Midwife” Christmas special.

The first thing about this is it isn’t a conventional cancer memoir, detailing every stage of his illness, treatment and decline. It’s much more about the man’s life, his struggle to become a brain surgeon, and the experience of having his dream snatched away just as he stood atop his professional mountain. There are countless reviews of this book online, most much more insightful than this but I have a few observations. Firstly, it’s beautifully written. As much as anything this man was a writer and I recommend it just on the basis of that. Secondly it is very moving, but only in the sense of being a frank unsparing memoir, not in a schmaltzy, glib “Scrubs” kind of way.

My fascination is really with the chapters about how he decided to become a neurosurgeon and the struggle that ensued. I would find the responsibility of making decisions on a person’s immediate physical future virtually impossible I think, and it’s reassuring to know that, despite medicine being his “calling”, Dr Kalanithi took years to come to terms with it. Secondly, although it sounds macabre, the descriptions of operating, are fascinating, better than any diagram, you get a feel for what he actually did as a surgeon.

Lastly the theme of this book is death and it gives lie to the myth that Doctors are some kind of omnipotent force, with a black and white line between treatment and decline. He freely admits that physicians are necessarily working in a grey area where they make frequent but unavoidable mistakes. They simply cannot know the outcome of any particular course of action, and just rely on judgment and instinct based on an exhaustive education and experience. The religious dogma that life is sacred and that the physician is always working to extend it is completely undermined by the complexity of treating serious injuries and chronic disease. Even in his own final days this reality is clear with his and his doctors’ rejection of a ventilator to help him breathe in favor of morphine and a more peaceful and necessarily quicker death. If that isn’t a form of voluntary euthanasia I don’t know what is. It happens every day all over the world and I hope the dignity of this choice is extended beyond cancer to other conditions like MS or locked-in syndrome where people live in a kind of excruciating limbo for potentially years.

For my part, despite my current affliction I didn’t find it depressing at all. Kalanithi’s real insight is Hemingway-esque in that he decides it is the struggle that’s the stuff of life. Bad things will happen to you and, within reason, you just have to suffer through, just as you should enjoy the good times. Not much help? Well, that’s reality for you.

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“Submission” – Best Novel of 2015

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Submission” by Michel Houllebecq is a triumph. It’s maybe the best novel he will ever write – with his familiar middle-aged male anti-hero finding redemption in the arms of Islam, rather than the destructive spiral down evident in his previous works. The plot has been much talked about in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and subsequently Paris. A middle-aged French academic, Francois, witnesses the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power after the 2022 Presidential election, and the subsequent Islamization of France, including the Sorbonne where he teaches. The media have used the word “controversial” to describe the book, because they lazily assumed it was a critique of Islam. It is nothing of the sort, it’s a critique of modern consumer society, just like his other books. The depiction of Islam seems to be quite neutral and accurate – a patriarchal, illiberal cult with a political mission to control society via an exclusively male elite. I’m not clear what’s “controversial” about that. The reception to the book has been mixed. There are two camps – those who have read it (very positive reviews) and those who haven’t (he’s an Islamaphobe). In fact the book doesn’t cast any judgement on Islam – it’s just a scenario. A scenario that may suit some (middle aged sexually frustrated blokes) and not others (feminists, jews, gays, people with an education), but could lead to a more stable society, somewhat at peace with itself. Personally I don’t like the idea, but my opinion won’t matter. In the end ‘submission’ might be the easy option, which is exactly Houllebecq’s point.

Says it all

Says it all

Some critics have also poured scorn on Houllebecq’s predictive power, seemingly unaware that by deriding his imagined future, they are implicitly making predictions themselves. As far as I can see his portrayal of a gradual Muslim takeover via the current political process, given a hopelessly divided France, is the only way Islam can succeed. Terrorist attacks certainly help cow the population and encourage division, but the ultimate route to power is through co-opting the existing ruling class, not via violent revolution. The so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in France, the UK and elsewhere realize that. Only last week Mr Establishment himself, Catholic UK Labour MP Keith Vaz, said that the reintroduction of blasphemy laws would be fine with him. How the mask slips! Houllebecq also has decent form on imagining society’s future. His 2001 novel “Platform” culminated in a Islamist terrorist attack on western tourists in Thailand. That prospect would have been considered far-fetched in mid-2001, ahead of 9/11 and ofcourse the Bali bombs in October 2002.

As with previous Houllebecq classics like “Whatever”, “Platform” and “Atomised”, the main character is a cynical, lecherous hedonist whose life is crumbling around him as he enters middle-age. His satire of modern French society, and modern academia is as savage, accurate and funny as ever. As an expert on nineteenth century French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, Francois retraces some of Huysman’s steps towards his (Huysman’s) eventual embrace of Catholicism, mirroring Francois’s own spiritual journey from despondency and nihilism, towards Islam. Francois comes to realize that the reinstatement of a patriarchal society will actually give men like him social status, and renewed purpose, through continued access to the the only thing that motivates him, sex with young women – via polygamist marriage.

The novel is definitely one to re-read, and somehow I found it uplifting. Well-written, poignant, funny, and a clear warning that simultaneous handwringing over terrorist attacks, while appeasing the nonsensities of “moderate” Islam will only yield one result. I would also recommend his earlier works, especially “Atomised” and “Platform”.
This very good interview with Houllebecq in the Paris Review is also worth checking out.
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Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay

Judge the book by its cover- underwhelming.

Judge the book by its cover – underwhelming.

Sweet Caress” is one of those most disappointing of things; a bad book by a favorite author. I’ve read everything (fiction-wise) that William Boyd has ever written and as soon as I heard about this I knew I would buy it.

The book is a fictional set of memoirs by a character called Amory Clay whose life spans most of the 20th century. Boyd’s used this same technique before in his most acclaimed novel “Any Human Heart“, so I had no doubt he could pull it off. He’s also successfully written females as the main character – in his clever thriller “Restless“. The sad reality is though it doesn’t work in this case. Boyd still writes beautifully and the novel starts well….but the character doesn’t develop for me. Her love interests, which are central to the book just feel random. A selfish american bloke, a fat french clown, a shell-shocked English soldier (supposed to evoke her Dad) and tedious descriptions of each man’s penis (Big, small, bendy..who cares!)

The 1930s Berlin section just doesn’t evoke the place, and her reaction to fairly cataclysmic events is pretty much indifference as far as I can tell, all the way through the book. Even some of the research just seems below par versus previous Boyd books. The Vietnam section appears to be drawn from watching “Platoon” – cliched beyond belief. I get the impression the publisher wanted this, and Boyd did the best job he could even though he must of known it wasn’t working. Just a very average book interspersed with dull, grainy photographs. I finished it out of loyalty to Boyd but if I was on Amazon I’d give this 2 stars maximum. Bizarrely it has some positive reviews, but as I’m learning, doing book reviews is difficult, whether you like the book or not, and I think some of the reviewers maybe have gone on reputation.

Amory Clay’s family has a fun way of describing people & things to each other through the book – using four words only. A neat idea I think. For “Sweet Caress” I would choose: Boring, pretentious, flat, arduous.

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