Author: notreallyworking

London-based writer and editor who loves movies, sport and mid-century design.

Todd Haynes’s Carol: a failed seduction

Carol_Cate Blanchett

Object of desire: Cate Blanchett as Carol (photo: StudioCanal)

If 2015 turns out to be the year I fell out of love with cinema I’m going to blame Todd Haynes. He’s been one of my favourite directors since he made the sublime Far From Heaven with Julianne Moore, more than a decade ago. In 2011 he had Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce steaming up the small screen in his erotically charged remake of the old Joan Crawford vehicle Mildred Pierce. But despite the presence of the luminous Cate Blanchett, I’m afraid Haynes’s latest period drama – an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol – feels devoid of passion.

It’s Christmas season in New York in the early 50s, and Therese Belivet (played by Rooney Mara) is working in the toys section of Frankenberg’s department store. She spends her free time taking arty black and white photos and fending off her over-eager boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who wants to whisk her off to Europe. During one of their tiffs we learn that Therese and Richard are not lovers. The reason behind their obvious lack of sexual chemistry soon becomes clear, when Therese falls hopelessly under the spell of a customer who (conveniently) leaves her gloves behind in the store.

This stranger is the alluring blonde Carol Aird (played by Blanchett), who lives in New Jersey with her impossibly cute daughter Rindy. Carol’s affluent lifestyle is complicated by her resentful and estranged husband Harge (played by Kyle Chandler) and the lingering presence of her former lover Abby (Sarah Paulson), who remains a confidante.

Despite the yawning gap in age, experience and income, Carol gradually draws out the shy Therese, who seems awed by the sheer presence of her glamorous new friend. As their meetings move from public spaces to private ones, the romantic undertones become more pronounced – Carol places her hands proprietarily on the younger woman’s shoulders and presents her with an expensive new camera. Cruelly, real life crashes into this delicate web of unspoken feelings, forcing the pair to escape onto the open road.

I first read Highsmith’s novel, which was originally published in 1952 as The Price of Salt, back in the early 90s, so I knew how things would turn out for the star-crossed lovers. My disappointment with this adaptation isn’t due to Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy taking liberties with the plot – they have stuck pretty closely to the source material – but with the film’s shift in viewpoint. The novel’s third-person narrative presents events entirely from Therese’s point of view: Carol is the object of her romantic longings and the focus of her yearning for something more than her dull job and unwanted beau. Therese’s confusion about her contrasting feelings for Carol and Richard are clearly articulated. As readers we fall for Carol because we see her through Therese’s eyes.


Looking for love: Rooney Mara as Therese (photo: StudioCanal)

The film splits its focus between the two women, showing us scenes of Carol with her in-laws and at her lawyer’s office that are not in Highsmith’s book. Though the novel runs to fewer than 300 pages, the film-makers have had to omit much of Therese’s back story concerning her family and her day-to-day working life. Instead of hearing Therese’s thoughts and opinions, we’re presented with endless scenes in which she stares into the middle distance during (artily shot) car journeys or chats with minor characters.

Shorn of her inner life, the cinematic version of Therese comes over as boring and one-dimensional. Cate Blanchett’s Carol simply blows Rooney Mara’s pallid Therese off the screen in every scene. This makes their love affair – supposedly the focal point of the movie – seem at best tedious and at worst unwatchable. It’s not so much slow-burn as no-burn, and I defy you to watch this movie’s single sex scene, which is captured in huge, disorienting close-ups, without wanting to press fast-forward.

In Blue Jasmine her character was a sobbing, sweaty, emotional train-wreck, but here Blanchett has to keep Carol’s unhappiness and insecurity on a tight rein. It’s a beautifully modulated performance in which her big scenes have more weight because they stand in such contrast to the coolness and restraint of the rest of the film. Tellingly, Carol the movie only came alive for me in those scenes that don’t involve Therese. Carol’s displays of insecurity when confessing her fears to Abby, her anger with Harge and her courage in dealing with the humiliation of a bitter custody battle over her daughter all moved me more than the insipid romance.

No one loves to wallow in mid-century style more than I do, but Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman are so intent on making us swoon at the parade of sleek automobiles, smoke-filled lounges and the immaculately attired Carol herself – those perfect cheekbones and shiny red nails – that the movie feels both slow and over-long.

Though it comes garlanded with 5-star ratings and trailing Oscar hopes, I’m afraid Carol the movie failed to seduce me.

Peep Show returns

inkboy at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark of a great comedy: Peep Show’s David Mitchell (pic: Pinkboy at English Wikipedia)

To judge by last night’s Channel 4 News interview, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is as grumpy, lacking in social awareness and loath to say sorry as he was during his stormy tenure in No. 10 Downing Street. The same might be said about Mark (David Mitchell) and Jeremy (Robert Webb) the protagonists of the brilliant Peep Show, which returned to C4 last night for its ninth and final series.

Six months after the long-suffering Dobby’s departure for New York, relations are still frosty between the El Dude Brothers. Mark has a shiny new career at Metro City Bank, where his piss-poor sales record has not gone unnoticed by his new/old boss, the scarily intense Johnson. Meanwhile “qualified” life coach and inveterate slacker Jeremy’s unwholesome lifestyle has hit a new low, as he’s living  in the tiny bathroom at Super Hans’s flat. It’s all “toilet toast”, strategic pissing down the plug-hole and staying positive – “It’s a great space – extremely versatile”.

Back at Croydon’s most famous bachelor pad, Jez’s old room has been taken by bearded bore Jerry, who wears cardigans and argyle socks and likes to watch DVDs about William Morris. Can Mark reconcile himself to stupefyingly  boring evenings of “Ruskin and a-reading” with Jerry or will all that talk of “wallpaper and workers’ rights” force him to forgive Jez for trying to steal Dobby?

This being Peep Show, you know that any attempt by the male characters to reform or to reinvent themselves is doomed to fail within 23 minutes (the average length of an episode). So it’s not long before Super Hans’s detox stag night degenerates into a coke-fuelled binge that sees Jez cruelly evicted from the bathroom and beating a path to Mark’s door.

After 12 years I don’t expect Peep Show to be as fresh, insightful and scabrously funny as it was in the early days. (Let’s face it, most comedies go into a terminal decline after a couple of series.) I was a late comer to the show, so I didn’t get hooked until about five years ago, when I binge-watched the first three series on a tiny portable DVD player during a wet and wi-fi free Christmas.

This was Men Behaving Badly for the 21st century, replete with swearing, STDs and self-loathing on an epic scale. I’m not usually a fan of toilet humour but I’ve sat and laughed through numerous “number 2” related gags. Obviously I’m not as sophisticated as I like to think I am: one of my favourite episodes is “Nether Zone” (Series 7) which involves pee, pizza and Jez’s experiments with a multi-functioning letterbox/”pleasure portal”.

Even an average Peep Show episode by writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain pisses all over most other so-called comedies of the past decade. That’s because the show’s unique selling point – the window into Jez and Mark’s mean-spirited, cringe-making and often deluded innermost thoughts – still has comedy mileage.

Though we’ve seen these characters plumb the depths of infantile and indefensible behaviour (last night’s “The William Morris Years” featured some impromptu waterboarding), David Mitchell and Robert Webb make Mark and Jez seem oddly likeable and all-too believable in their chronic inability to hold down a job or a steady relationship. I could listen all day long to Mark being angrily articulate, pompous and self-pitying, while still looking quite cuddly and vulnerable.

Jez, of course, has elevated the art of lying to an Olympic sport, but as we saw last night he’s less adept at crafting a sincere apology. If memory serves, sorry wasn’t a word that slipped easily from the lips of Gordon Brown following his disastrous encounter with Gillian Duffy during the 2010 General Election. I bet he wishes that “bigoted woman” comment had been a Peep Show-style unvoiced thought, instead of a soundbite relayed to the masses on his (still) open microphone.

Nespresso: instant self-satisfaction

Caption here

Nespresso: foil wrapped for your pleasure.

The good old British cuppa has an image problem. According to recent reports, traditional tea drinking is in decline, as we succumb to the lure of green teas, tisanes and a bushel of fruity infusions. This would have baffled my late grandmother, whose liked her Tetley (or Typhoo) served in a pint mug and stewed to the colour of American Tan nylons (M&S, of course). An anaemic-looking brew or anything a bit fancy (Darjeeling or Earl Grey) would invariably be greeted with the suggestion that it “needed an iron tablet”.

It’s not just posh teas that are threatening the humble cuppa’s position in the nation’s affections. Since I bought an Nespresso machine in July, I’ve realised that the making, serving and consumption of coffee is more than just a way to head off that mid-morning slump. Nespresso is a lifestyle choice: sexy, sophisticated and aspirational, it’s the almost-instant coffee that says you’re really going places.

By going places, I don’t just mean hanging out with the latte-lovin’ Daily Mail readers down at your local branch of Costa, Caffè Nero or (God forbid) Starbucks. When you drop a shiny aluminium capsule into your Nespresso machine, you’re instantly transported to the shores of Lake Como, where middle-aged sex gods George Clooney and Jean Dujardin are competing over that last Volluto capsule.

I’m no coffee connoisseur and I lack the refined palate and extraordinary descriptive powers of a Jilly Goolden, but I do know that a cup of freshly brewed Nespresso tastes darn good. To get the low-down on those Grand Cru capsules, I refer you to the Nespresso website, which reveals that Fortissio Lungo (one of my favourites) is “rich with cereal notes”, while the purple pleasure that is Arpeggio “has a strong character and intense body” (a bit like Jean Dujardin).

Nespresso would still be a highly desirable product even if it tasted like the lukewarm dishwater they serve up in Starbucks. That’s because the Nespresso website is the coffee equivalent of the United Colours of Benetton. From the rainbow shades of the Grand Crus to the tropical hues of the diminutive Nespresso Inissia (“Playful colours, Unique Pleasure”), this is a coffee experience to satisfy all the senses.

As you may have noticed, there’s plenty of scope for double entendres in Nespresso’s marketing. From that cheeky “How far would you go?” tagline to limited edition coffees (Milano and Palermo) that promise “a sensory exploration”, you might forget that they’re just flogging coffee and not prophylactics.

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I like my Arpeggio served in a vintage Masquerade coffee cup.

I hope Nespresso does have a sense of humour because that would help to offset the pretentiousness of its brochures and those intimidating London boutiques, where you can purchase your coffee capsules with a side order of contempt from its self-important “coffee experts”.

George Clooney and Jean Dujardin may be as smooth as a cup of Volluto but when it comes to advertising I prefer the tongue-in-cheek approach of the fondly remembered Brooke Bond Red Mountain advert. Coffee anyone?

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Alexander Skarsgard (pic by Nick Step) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Skarsgård (pic by Nick Step) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

As pre-teen back in the early 70s I used to kiss the posters of toothsome pop stars Donny Osmond and David Cassidy, which adorned the walls of my bedroom. Minnie, the 15-year-old heroine of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, has a less wholesome way of worshipping the Iggy Pop poster that hangs above her bed. Let’s just say that it involves something a good deal more lewd than a quick peck on the cheek .

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, adapted and directed by Marielle Heller from a ‘hybrid’ novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, takes us inside the mind and the bedroom of a bright, creative and sexually curious teenage girl, growing up in San Francisco in 1976. Bel Powley, who plays Minnie, is fearless and fantastic as the elder daughter of the rather chaotic Charlotte (played by Kristen Wiig).

As the film begins, Minnie is confessing to her diary that she’s just been deflowered by her mother’s studly boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård sporting a creepy 70s pornstache). There’s an elegantly composed flashback to the aftermath of this earth-shattering event, which Minnie captures on a polaroid so that she can study her own face for clues.

As this illicit affair progresses, Minnie discovers that far from being a passive schoolgirl she’s a sexually confident young woman, with all the dangers that entails. A pool-house tryst, drugs, a threesome, and a disastrous hook-up with Tabatha (Margarita Levieva) are all recounted with candour and varying degrees of explicitness. Meanwhile, her mum has lost her job and is beginning to suspect that Monroe’s interest in her daughter is not that of a surrogate father.

The reviews I’ve seen of The Diary of a Teenage Girl have praised its frankness and authenticity, arguing that it helps to redress the balance of years of crude American Pie-style comedies about horny teenage boys. The BBFC obviously found its depiction of burgeoning female sexuality way too dangerous, slapping the film with an unhelpful 18-certificate. (They’d probably have been much happier if Minnie had just run around San Francisco shooting people, like a female Clint Eastwood.)

Some of the most explicit sexual images in The Diary of a Teenage Girl are the beautifully rendered animated sequences that punctuate our diarist’s daydreams. Minnie is a talented cartoonist, who envisions herself as an Amazonian figure striding about the streets of the city or an iridescent half-woman/half-bird, hovering over her bedroom. Even more more visually arresting are the moments when she submerges herself in the bath, dark hair slowly pooling around head, trying to make sense of her newly unfettered libido.

The animated flowers and stars that fill the screen are like those doodles classmates would draw on the covers of their exercise books during particularly boring lessons. I hate to say this, but I was often bored and unengaged during The Diary of a Teenage Girl. I’ve seen three-and-a-half-hour Jacques Rivette films that held my attention more than this film did.

Bel Powley, who’s a Londoner, brings all the pouting intensity and intelligence of the young Christina Ricci to her role as the mixed-up, longing-to-be-loved Minnie. Skarsgård and Wiig offer good support as the hedonistic couple, with limited parenting skills. But the danger of having one protagonist’s point of view is that the other characters can feel rather thinly drawn. The combative, on/off friendship between childhood friends Anna Friel and Michelle Williams in Me Without You was explored in much more depth than any of the relationships here. The script of The Diary of a Teenage Girl lacks the zinging one-liners that made Juno so enjoyable. (Perhaps we could have done with a cameo from J.K. Simmons here.)

Despite the visual flourishes of the animation I found the cinematography here flat and grainy, with every shot apparently wreathed in smog or the carelessly exhaled smoke from a joint. I’m not expecting blue skies in every scene, but did it have to look quite so dull?

The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn’t a product of the Marvel Universe, which is something to be grateful for during another intellectually bankrupt summer of brainless blockbusters. It’s well-acted and well-intentioned and likely to boost the career of its star, Bel Powley. Perhaps I’m just too far beyond my teenage years to really get it.

U is for utopian: Ladybird by design

ladybird abc postcard

Ladybird by Design has landed at the House of Illustration, near King’s Cross station in London. This scaled-down version of the exhibition from earlier this year at the De La Warr Pavilion, celebrates the centenary of the educational imprint that gave us everything from Peter and Jane (aka the Key Words Reading Scheme), to books on science, history, fairy tales and the Bible.

As an atheist, I have no hesitation in labelling the Bible as the ultimate “Big Book of Fairy Tales”, but there’s no place for irreverent observations like that in the wonderfully wholesome World of Ladybird. This exhibition focuses on the imprint’s golden age – from 1958 to the early 70s – the mid-century period in which I grew up and began to discover the world through the brilliance of Ladybird illustrators like Robert Ayton, John Berry and Charles Tunnicliffe.

Though you won’t find the word “icon” in the meticulously rendered illustrations of the Ladybird abc, critics do tend to characterise some of the imprint’s most well-loved creations as iconic. Take Harry Wingfield’s gorgeous series of tableaux for Shopping with Mother (1958). Mummy, smartly dressed in hat and gloves, guides her rosy-cheeked offspring down an old-fashioned high street (butcher, baker, greengrocer) in those halycon days before Decimalisation, the Internet and the Tescofication of Britain.

In the real world those kids would have been throwing a wobbly, pilfering sweets or just demanding to be taken home immediately. But in Ladybirdland everything is serene and pristine, like Tunnicliffe’s beautiful renditions of the changing seasons in the What to Look for series.

I recommend the Ladybird by Design exhibition if you’re a Ladybird collector, or you’re interested in mid-century British illustration, or you’ve reached that (middle) age when you want to wallow in nostalgia for the childhood you never had.

If Ladybird is too squeaky clean for your tastes, the spoofers have also thrown up some gems, including the De La Warr Pavilion’s Ladybird Reworked exhibit and artist Miriam Elia’s controversial “We go to the gallery” book.

I was surprised to find that Ladybird did have an edgier side. I picked up a copy of man and his car, a Ladybird Leaders title from 1974 that presents the automobile in a distinctly dystopian light.

“Cars seem to be everywhere” declares author James Webster, before linking these four-wheeled menaces to a wide range of rude, antisocial and criminal behaviour.

Man and his car, Ladybird books

Man and his car, Ladybird books

Man and his car, Ladybird books


Note how the author tactfully omits to mention those big old guns that the police (in their “fast cars”) are firing at the thieves.

Well how else are you going to keep the utopia that is Ladybirdland safe for all the boys and girls?

Plastic fantastic!

Not blown away: my dandelion seed head from the 70s.

I can never walk past a dandelion head without thinking how much I’d like to spray it with Elnett, encase it in plastic and preserve it for posterity. That’s because some of my happiest afternoons in the 70s were spent getting high on the fumes from my Plasticraft set.

There must be thousands of fiftysomethings like me, who unwrapped a box of Plasticraft one Christmas during the mid-70s and became hooked on what the manufacturer, Turner Research, tantalisingly described as a “fascinating new educational hobby”.

Inside the box was a ceramic mould, a tin of plastic resin, some hardener and a rather intimidating set of instructions for how to “create fascinating castings”. The idea was that you could take small objects – shells, coins, small toys – encase them in plastic and create paperweights, key-rings or even items of jewellery.

With a little help from my Dad, I was soon making artistic arrangements of our pre-decimal currency, garnished with sprigs of fake seaweed (helpfully supplied by those nice people at Turner Research). Sometimes I tinted the final layer of plastic with one of the supplied colours, so the miniature sea shells appeared to float on an ocean-blue background that was straight out of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.


A youthful Queen Elizabeth preserved for posterity.

Plasticraft was great for churning out Christmas and birthday presents for your relatives, without making inroads into your pocket money. I duly obliged by producing a series of paperweights that graced the mantelpieces and shelves of my nearest and dearest for years to come.

The dandelion cubes were a particular favourite, as it seemed miraculous to be able to preserve something as delicate as a seed head, without turning it into a soggy mess. (The trick was to harden it first with some of my grandmother’s hairspray.) I didn’t keep any of the dandelions, so it was a welcome surprise when my Mum recently returned the one pictured above.

Plasticraft dates from an era when mums and dads up and down the country were keen get their kids hooked on Origami or turning out innovative craft products in their spare time.

We also had an Enamelcraft set (possibly a Turner Research product) that was used to customise matchboxes with swirly patterns, which we then presented to the heavy smokers in the family. The candlemaking set proved a bit of a let-down, though I did enjoy experimenting with the scented wax products.

But Plasticraft was my favourite and it was an obsession that lasted for about five years. I think I got my set for Christmas around 1973, and I was still using it in 1977 when I created a glittery gold-backed souvenir from the Rock Follies TV show.

The smell of the plastic resin was highly addictive, though I don’t remember anyone suggesting that I open the windows during my crafting sessions or refrain from sticking my nose too deep into the mixing beaker. Those were the heady days before every remotely hazardous activity came with a Government Health Warning or was outlawed by interfering EU bureaucrats.

There’s not much information out there about Turner Research (a Leeds-based company) or what happened to them. A Plasticraft set sold on eBay earlier this year for £16. That seems like a small price to pay for one of the classic toys of the 70s.

I’d love to get back into plastic casting but I fear my best work may be behind me.


When Glenn Close had the edge

Glenn Close (By Mingle Media TV [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Glenn Close (By Mingle Media TV)

Earlier this week an ex-colleague tweeted that Jagged Edge was on TV that night and that he’d suffered nightmares after “accidentally” watching it on video back in the mid-80s. I knew exactly where he was coming from because this expertly crafted thriller made a big impression on me when I first saw it 30 years ago. The two big ‘reveals’ – involving the misaligned ‘t’ on a vintage Corona typewriter and the peeling back of a ski mask – still give me a frisson, even though I’ve seen the film a few times.

Watching Jagged Edge again reminded me that I’ve developed a prejudice against 1980s films in recent years. A quick scan of my shelves reveals that Risky Business, Raging Bull and The Big Chill are among the few 80s classics to have made it into my DVD collection. I’m not sure whether it’s the hideous fashions – perms, mullets, leg warmers and monstrous padded shoulders – or the dated synthesizer scores that put me off, but I rarely experience a warm glow of nostalgia watching a movie from the Decade that Taste Forgot.

Jagged Edge is a hugely entertaining movie, and not just because it’s set in picturesque San Francisco and stars Jeff Bridges as glossy-haired newspaper magnate Jack Forrester, who is accused of slaying his wealthy wife and her maid so he can get his hands on her money. Joe Eszterhas wrote the screenplay and would go on to pen the gloriously trashy Basic Instinct and Showgirls. But it was Glenn Close who made the biggest impression as Jack’s defence attorney and love interest, Teddie Barnes.

Watching Close’s Teddie in her power suits running rings around her courtroom opponent Krasny (the splendidly named Peter Coyote), I couldn’t help flashing forward to her more recent TV role as the Rottweiler lawyer Pattie Hewes in Damages. I shudder to think of the scorn that the steely-hearted Pattie would heap on Teddie for allowing her emotions to cloud her judgment.

Teddie Barnes may be a tigress in court, but Close also brings warmth and humour to her secondary role as the hard-working single mom to two cute kids. She’d already proved convincing as the smart, well-rounded soccer mom, Dr Sarah Cooper, in 1983’s The Big Chill. Other than her gut-wrenching sobbing in the shower scene, this isn’t one of Close’s showier roles from the period. Sarah and on-screen husband Harold (played by Kevin Kline) are the emotional support to a bunch of neurotic, boozing, pill-popping narcissists in Lawrence Kasdan’s well-observed mid-life crisis drama.

Bad news through the grapevine. Glenn Close in The Big Chill.

She heard it through the grapevine. Glenn Close gets bad news in The Big Chill.

Jagged Edge might be a nightmare-inducing movie for kids but it’s positively U-certificate stuff compared with the full-on, knife-wielding horror that was 1987’s Fatal Attraction. A lesser actress than Glenn Close might have found herself typecast as a “bunny boiler” after playing the unhinged Alex Forrest, who refuses to let Michael Douglas’s Dan Gallagher off the hook after a brief affair: “I’m not going to be ignored, Dan!”

I must admit that I haven’t watched Fatal Attraction for years. In its day it was the ultimate, Friday-night, edge-of-the-seat movie experience, from which you were likely to emerge shaken and with ear-drums still ringing from all the screaming – both on- and off-screen. But it’s also manipulative, misogynistic and nasty (did we really need to see the dead bunny?), with characterisation subordinated to the needs of the wildly over-the-top plot.

For memorable endings I far prefer one of Glenn Close’s greatest roles, as the scheming, predatory Marquise de Merteuil in 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons. Opinion was divided about whether John Malkovich was miscast as the priapic Valmont, the ex-lover she goads into seducing and destroying Michelle Pfeiffer’s virtuous Madame de Tourvel. But Close is magnificent and terrifying as the amoral aristocrat whose uses her intellect solely for the purpose of avenging herself on a man who jilted her.

With her heaving bosom, scarlet lips and deathly pale complexion, Close’s Marquise delivers her barbed dialogue with the precision of a cut-throat razor. At the climax of her bitter final encounter with Valmont, she chooses “war” over capitulation to his sexual demands. Has any woman ever injected so much venom into a three-letter word?

The wordless final scene of Dangerous Liaisons is an even better example of what made Glenn Close such a powerful, charismatic presence in 80s cinema. Valmont is dead and the Marquise is now a pariah after her machinations have been exposed. She sits in front of her mirror, scrubbing off her make-up in a fruitless attempt to cleanse herself; a single tear rolls down her face. It’s quietly devastating.

Adios Rafa?

Nadal wins in Paris in 2014 (pic By François GOGLINS (Own work)

‘Thank you very much’: Rafael Nadal conquers Paris in 2014 (pic by François GOGLINS (Own work)

Journalist and tennis fan William Skidelsky has written a book called Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession, which will be published next week. I don’t think I’ll bother reading it because I’m a Rafael Nadal fan, and life is just too short to waste time reading about some middle-aged guy’s obsession with the sporting superhero I like to call the Federator.

While you Fed fans are reading about Skidelsky’s desire to ‘luxuriate in the silky wondrousness of [Roger’s] play’, I’ll be mulling over the dimming prospects of ever getting my Rafael Nadal book off the ground. Can the tennis book market really stand a second volume of memoirs about a long-distance love affair with one of the game’s superstars? I fear that Skidelsky has stolen my thunder, just as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and just about every other player of note has stolen the Spaniard’s thunder during his inglorious clay court campaign of 2015.

Skidelsky writes that ‘it wasn’t love at first sight’ when he first clapped eyes on the wondrous Roger Federer back in 2003. I can’t say I’m surprised because back then Rog was still sporting that ponytail and stubble, which made him look like a total dork (albeit one with great racket skills).

By contrast, I was totally smitten when I first saw Rafa on TV in 2006 playing at Roland Garros. It was the year he scooped his second French Open title (defeating Federer in the final) and he went on to lose in the Wimbledon final to (you guessed it) the imperious Monsieur Federer.

What was it about the young Spaniard that captured my imagination and has continued to do so during a decade of triumphs, disasters, debilitating injuries and fruitless attempts to get control of his sweaty underwear? I’ve got to be honest, it was the combination of his perma-tanned pirate look and his take-no-prisoners style of tennis.

With his biceps busting out of those day-glo sleeveless tops and flowing headbands worn with the same panache as the great Suzanne Lenglen, Rafa cut quite a dash as he topspin forehanded his way across the clay courts of Europe. Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Paris were all conquered as he rose to Number 2 in the rankings and then, in 2008, defeated King Roger in the gathering gloom on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Some called it the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played. Others were dismayed that this tennis barbarian had brought down the Federator.

Other things I love about Rafa include his lack of facility with the English language. His interviews have never been as polished and articulate as those of Federer or Djokovic. He stumbles over his sentences and resorts almost as frequently to his stock phrase – ‘Thank you very much’ – as he does to running round his backhand or fiddling with his shorts.

Rafa’s never going to win any prizes for making victory speeches in fluent French either. It may bother the snooty crowds at Roland Garros, but I couldn’t care less. You don’t need words, witticisms or faux wisdom when you have the most expressive eyebrows in the history of tennis (during interviews they’re permanently at a downward angle of 45 degrees).

Talking of angles, commentators have spent an inordinate amount of time analysing how Nadal positions his drink bottles at the side of the court. They’ve dissected the growing number of tics that make up his lengthy pre-service routine and speculated on whether his game would implode if someone kicked over the bottles or gave him a time-violation warning.

Yes, Rafa Nadal is more than a little obsessive-compulsive. If he’d spent less time towelling off over the past decade I might actually have written that long-delayed novel or found time to learn another language. He’s not perfect and neither are his knees, back or wrist – any or all of which may bring his career to a premature end.

Sadly, it’s not just Rafa’s eyebrows that have been heading the wrong way lately. His ranking has plummeted (he’s currently 7 in the world) and his recent string of defeats has attracted even more analysis than Labour’s recent meltdown in the 2015 General Election. If he loses his French Open crown this fortnight will it be the beginning of the end for this Spanish superstar?

Timing is everything – both for sports stars and their fans. In hindsight I wish I’d gone out at the top and ‘retired’ from tennis fandom when Rafa won his ninth French Open crown in 2014. But I lingered too long and now the rot has set in for both of us. I’d love to be proved wrong but I can’t see him emerging victorious from a potential quarter-final dust-up with Novak Djokovic. That’s assuming he even gets to the second week.

I’ll spare myself more afternoons of sweaty-palmed misery watching him lose on the courts where he has reigned supreme for so long.

Adios Rafa and thanks for rocking my world.

TV lawyers – the real superheroes

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

In “Hero”, the latest episode of the new Netflix drama Better Call Saul, lawyer Jimmy McGill turns superhero as he rescues a worker dangling precariously from a giant advertising hoarding. The sweaty-palmed drama is just a stunt; Jimmy (better known to Breaking Bad fans as Saul Goodman) is after some free publicity in his ongoing battle with deep-pocketed rivals HHM. “Compared to them I’m just a kiddie lemonade stand trying to compete with Walmart,” he admits to some potential clients.

It’s great to see the brilliant Bob Odenkirk getting top billing in a show that explores the origins of the lugubrious attorney who became so integral to the criminal enterprises of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. On the evidence of four episodes, I think I’m going to enjoy this show more than its over-hyped predecessor.

With his ingenuity, self-deprecating humour and ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey (handy when Tuco is threatening to snip off his digits) Jimmy is a relatable figure for the average viewer who knows nothing about the law. It’s his innate likeability, combined with his down-at-heel appearance, that makes him the antithesis of most TV attorneys, who look as though they’ve been gelled, waxed and groomed to within an inch of their lives.

Despite Jimmy’s episode 4 heroics in Better Call Saul, TV’s law practitioners are not usually renowned for their acts of derring-do.  Even more versatile than the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman, they spin a web of arguments, run rings around the opposition (in court) and destroy evil corporations through their intricate knowledge of the legal system.

Since I was a teenager I’ve loved TV legal dramas, with their irresistible of combination of expensive tailoring, high-stakes cases and verbal pyrotechnics. It all started in the late 70s with The Paper Chase, which followed the trials and tribulations of a bunch of Harvard law students.

James T Hart (James Stephens) and his fellow students were desperate to impress the intimidating, patrician Professor Kingsfield (played by the equally intimidating John Houseman). All I remember now is the Seals and Crofts theme song and the references to Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co – a contract case that came up during my own legal studies a few years later.

I was a law student at Bristol University in the mid-80s, but by 1986 I had opted for a career in the glamorous and low-paid world of book publishing. That was just around the time that Steven Bochco’s blockbuster legal drama, L.A. Law, was beginning its eight-year run.

The shoulder-pads, big hair and criminal over-use of blusher now seem as over the top as some of the cases tackled by the firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak. (I remember one episode – “On the Toad Again” – that focused on the narcotic secretions of a cane toad.)

I couldn’t get enough of L.A. Law’s resident Lothario/raging egotist Arnold Becker (Corbin Bersen) or the never-ending love triangle involving power-suited Michael (Harry Hamlin) and Victor (Jimmy Smits) and the lovely Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey).

In the 90s I was hooked This Life, the BBC series about a bunch of young London lawyers and barristers, who had to fit law in around their endless bickering, drinking, shagging and drug-taking.  

I can’t remember much law being practised in This Life, but I did love those movie-themed episode titles – “The Bi Who Came in From the Cold”, “Diet Hard”, “Apocalypse Wow!”. The talented but tempestuous Anna (Daniela Nardini) was one of the best female characters on TV in that decade.

When The Good Wife began in 2009 I wasn’t that excited. As Alicia Florrick, the humiliated spouse returning to her legal roots, Julianna Margulies just seemed to be giving us a slight variation on aloof nurse Carol Hathaway from ER (another show set in Cook County, Chicago). She’d swapped the philandering Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) for the philandering and disgraced State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth).

But over the course of five seasons (I’ve just started watching season 6 on More4) The Good Wife has just got better and better. Creators Michelle King and Robert King have succeeded in balancing internecine warfare within Lockhart & Gardner with courtroom shenanigans (quirky judges and salacious cases involving Colin Sweeney), and the “ripped from the headlines” topicality of that NSA storyline from season 5.

All that wit and cleverness would be less satisfying if The Good Wife didn’t also have real emotional depth and complexity. Much of that is down to the nuanced performance of Julianna Margulies, who I had totally underestimated as an actress. Adroitly switching between managing her teenage kids, sparring with her estranged husband and setting up a new law firm, Alicia has become a superwoman who is mistress of her intellect and (most of the time) her emotions.

Just three weeks ago I belatedly started watching Suits on Netflix. Nine days later I’d watched all of the first two series and I’m about to order season 3, though I’ve heard it’s a bit of let-down.

Suits stars Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter, the ferociously ambitious corporate lawyer and “closer” of deals at the Manhattan firm of Pearson Hardman. Harvey reveres vinyl (records not furniture), collects sports memorabilia and wears more hair product than all those other TV lawyers put together. Less well-groomed is his young associate, Mike Ross (Patrick J Adams), who has an eidetic memory but no law degree.

Much as I love The Good Wife, I think Suits might be the ultimate TV show for viewers who enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching lawyers with an almost superhuman ability to argue their way out of any situation.

Suits also boasts Gina Torres as the imperious Jessica Pearson and one of the great comic creations of 21st-century TV in the monstrous but lovable Louis Litt (played with relish by Rick Hoffman).

If the TV gods ever bring Harvey Specter and Alicia Florrick together their offspring would be a lawyer of truly superheroic proportions.

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve)

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

On the shelf again

My parents first met in a library in North London in the 1950s. In the following decades they acquired a house filled with hundreds of books and three well-read children. The fact that my mother values antiquarian volumes more than antique jewellery may go some way to explaining why I’m a bibliophile with a love of all things mid-century.

Though many traditional libraries in the UK are in danger of becoming little more than superannuated wi-fi hotspots, I still think of them as places you go to enjoy peace, quiet and the written word.

I like order on my shelves, which is one reason why moving home last autumn was such a trauma. Over the past six months, the bulk of my book collection went from this neat arrangement:


. . . to this semi-ordered chaos.

Finally, this week I have some custom-made shelves in my attic/study room.


The bad news? Picture three doesn’t show any of my film, architecture or sports books, or some the colourful volumes featured at the Taft Hotel. They remain scattered around my flat in various corners and on non-matching shelves.

Earlier this week, The Guardian reported on a decline in the market for tablets like Apple’s ubiquitous iPad. According to Apple’s Tim Cook, one of the reasons for this worrying drop in our appetite for slim ‘n’ shiny gadgets is that “the upgrade cycle is longer”. All that means is that consumers aren’t ditching their tablets every 12-18 months, along with their smartphones.

That’s one of the reasons that I love my books. They may get a little bent or dusty over the years, or be superseded by film and TV tie-in versions or digital downloads, but they’ll never succumb to an obsolete battery or the lure of a higher resolution screen.

Books are for life. So next time you think about upgrading your phone, why not invest time and money in paper and ink instead. Treat your book collection to some decent shelving.

Happy reading!