Mamil stands for ‘middle aged man in lycra’ and the term was coined to describe er…middle aged men in lycra who ride bicycles. For some reason it has become a term of mockery and abuse and conjures up images of usually professional, fairly well-to-do, invariably overweight, married often with youngish children, men who crowd the roads at week-ends, buy lots of kit, meet for coffee, lie to their wives about how much they spend and generally bond with other like-minded souls in cycling clubs. But there are loads of sub-cultures, usually but not always comprising men – think of classic cars, motor-bikes, hi-fi (remember hi-fi?), sheds, model trains, gardening, golf, caravanning, rambling, woodwork, metalwork, airfix models, the list goes on – so why has the mamil garnered so much publicity and why does it attract such derision? Here are a few reasons:
  • Women love to laugh at their menfolk’s foibles and some of those women are journalists so it’s an ideal topic for an article in the Sunday supplements.
  • Mamils are highly visible; they’re on the road, usually at week-ends.
  • Fat blokes in shorts always look funny, whether lycra clad or not.
  • Groups of fat blokes gathered together stand out.
  • Most people hate cyclists and mamils are cyclists.
  • Social media (which let’s face it is to blame for most things)
  • Most mamils are white and well-off and they rule the world and so naturally everyone hates them
And now, the ultimate clubbed seal of approval, someone’s made a film about mamils. Mamil (directed by Nickolas Bird and Eleanor Sharp, narration by Phil Liggett), is an Australian documentary but with sections filmed in the US and the UK which seeks to describe, illustrate and explain the phenomenon. It is a well-made, beautifully filmed, often very funny, sometimes moving account of the mamil experience. It has a couple of faults. It is a bit too long and some of the interviewees’ stories are more interesting than others. There is also a bit too much on the charitable element. I’m all for giving to charity but the increasing trend for one’s charitable giving to be done in public is getting wearing. If you want to ride 50 miles, good for you. If you want to give to charity, good for you. But why do I have to give to a charity so that you can push yourself on a bike and fulfil your burning ambition? I don’t care that this is your ambition, I don’t need to see you weeping after you complete a 50 mile ride, I don’t care about your jersey and the charity that’s touched your heart; you don’t have to wear it on your sleeve. All of the interviewees are very similar – 50ish, white, professional, married (often to women), with children, oh, and fat. My own experience as a self-confessed mamil (although 62 is probably pushing the ‘middle-aged’ definition almost to breaking point) is that there are many mamils who are not professional, not 50 (often a lot older), not fat (or not fat any more) and nor are they all white. Could they not find any black cyclists? I know some, they’re not that rare. This may be because there are very few black mamils in Australia or the US but that is certainly not the case here in the UK. The film interviews some academics who speak about what it means to be a mamil and a man. What is it about a certain kind of academic that they feel the need to talk bollocks? My own view is that being a middle-aged cyclist says nothing about what it means to be a man, but it says an awful lot about the joys of riding a bicycle at a certain age. When you’re pushing 50 or 60 or even 70, running around on a football field with youngsters is virtually impossible. Likewise, for basketball, hockey, netball and as for cricket – standing in a field with a bunch of public school-boys while someone throws a rock at your head – seriously, why would you bother? Tennis is possible but unless you started young you’ll never be any good and that’s no fun. And swimming is boring beyond belief. And golf isn’t a sport – it’s a place where freemasons go to talk business when the bar is shut. But you can ride a bike and compete and race (and sometimes beat) people half or a quarter of your age. It’s exercise and, unlike running, it doesn’t fuck up your knees and there’s endless kit to buy and a history to learn, books to read, films to watch (A Sunday in Hell is wonderful), races on Eurosport virtually year-round and you’re out of the house, in the fresh air, away from the nagging kids and the nagging wife and your boss who hates you and your colleagues who despise you. Do you remember the opening lines of the greatest American novel – Joseph Heller’s Something Happened? “I get the willies when I see closed doors. Even at work…the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just plain nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes. My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange. I wonder why. “Something must have happened to me sometime.” If this is your life (and it is all of our lives at some time or another) wouldn’t you long for an escape, a release, a chance for a little bit of fresh air freedom with a bunch of guys who get it, because they’ve been there too? I know I would and I did and I still do. Remember that opening song from Cheers – ‘the place where everyone knows your name?’ Cycling is like that because you’re a part of a very special world that every other cyclist recognises, even if they know you by your bike and don’t even know your name. You don’t have to a be a man, of course, and I know some mamils who are women (mawils?) but not many and I wish there were more. Partly, it’s that still common, still traditional, divide between the sexes at the week-end – it’s the woman who does the kids and visits the elderly parents and does the washing and cooks the dinner while the man, done with his office duties, who feels that he deserves his couple of hours ‘with the lads’, his potter in the shed. Mamil captures this all very well and the funniest bits – raising rueful smiles and guffaws in the audience – are the women and their resigned but often pointed and bitter comments. The other aspect, well described and illustrated in the film, is the risk associated with cycling. Mamils are too old to join gangs, there aren’t many wild animals to battle in the suburbs, and apart from the odd breakdown when faced with a problem at the self-service tills in Sainsburys, there are few dangers to face. But cycling carries real risk. All cyclists know someone or of someone who’s been seriously injured or killed while cycling and there are few week-end rides that will pass without some mishap or other, or an altercation with a motorist in Biggin Hill. We know the risks, we don’t seek them out, but they are a price worth paying for the joy of being out on your bike. If you’re a mamil, go and see this film because it’s about you and your life. And if you’re not a mamil, see this film, get a bike and get out on the road – it will change your life.  

Ready Player One

Ready Player One (awful title) is set in the future where most of the world’s population (except the ones that are still starving presumably) spend their days playing a massive alternative reality video game called Oasis, devised by autistic recluse James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance. Halliday (is this a nod to the late French pop star Johnny Halliday?) has died and has created an Easter Egg in his game; the first person to unlock the clues will inherit his fortune and rule the Oasis world and … I’m bored already. The lead character is Wade Watts, a teenage orphan (they’re always orphans) boy who lives with his aunt and her no-good boy-friend (Ralph Ineson – Finchy in The Office – bloody good rep) in Columbus, Ohio. Tye Sheridan as Wade has had a charisma bypass – there’s more life in his avatar Parzifal (not as bad as it sounds) who, in the Oasis world, bears an uncanny resemblance to Chesney Hawkes, 80s one hit wonder. The baddies all resemble WWE wrestlers with the chief one – Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn, boss of the evil corporation IOI (corporations are always evil) – looking like Vince McMahon and the others all resembling one or other of those steroid fuelled fakers. Wade’s love interest in the film is an avatar called Artemis. You just knew that Olivia Cooke as Samantha/Artemis would turn out to be an under-stated slim-hipped beauty with only a deftly applied port-wine stain around her right eye marring her perfect looks. Why could she not be a 50 year old retired prison guard with a face like a discarded root vegetable and a body to beat up a lifer? If the whole world is playing this video game, presumably there are some ugly people playing too, why couldn’t she have been one of them? Her flawed beauty is beholden in her eye. ‘I’m not disappointed,’ says Wade, when he meets her in real life after falling in love with her avatar. I ached for her to say ‘well, I am,’ as she gazed upon his flat, dull, podgy featureless face. But she didn’t. With the enforced retirement of Kevin Spacey, Mark Rylance is arguably the finest actor of his generation and has become quite the Spielberg favourite. His performance lit up the otherwise boring Tom Hanks vehicle Bridge of Spies and he is easily the best thing about this film. Apart from an odd resemblance to Ben Moody’s Fagin in some of his scenes, he has an ability to portray a slightly other-worldly figure utterly convincingly and his measured, beautiful phrasing of some not very profound lines is wonderful to watch and hear. Easily the best and cleverest scene in the film is a homage to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece (albeit sans Jack Nicholson) and it is cleverly done, although its role in the plot is not entirely apparent. Spielberg is a fine director (although his last film – The Post – was dreary) but I struggled to detect any of his particular style or vision in this film. However, he is never one to let a moral slip out unbidden if there’s an opportunity to hit you over the head with it and here he takes the straightest route and just has his character say it at the end. I won’t spoil it for you; you have that particular joy to come. I don’t play video games; never did, never have, don’t now, have no plans to start so perhaps I wasn’t the best audience for this film. I suppose I can see why other people enjoy them; it’s just that I don’t quite get it. Maybe that’s why I find the title so pedestrian, uninvolving and unwelcoming – is this the best they could come up with? The other thing that annoyed me is that it is set in 2045 but everyone wears normal 2018 clothes – suits, ties, jeans, sneakers, bomber jackets, T shirts, etc – Spielberg obviously couldn’t be bothered to imagine how clothes might change in the future. And will surveillance really be conducted by drones carrying cameras? Even now there are satellites cris-crossing the earth that can see inside brief-cases and read number-plates from miles away – I know, I’ve seen Enemy of the State. And that damn De Lorean from Back to the Future crops up again. It strikes me that if De Lorean had sold as many cars as have ended up in films, he wouldn’t have gone broke quite so quickly and taken all that Northern Ireland development money with him. This film’s target audience is teenage boys and I said to my son (17) that most of them wouldn’t get many of the pop culture references – The Shining, Saturday Night Fever, Duran Duran, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, John Hughes, The Iron Giant. ‘Ah, maybe not,’ he said, ‘but you didn’t get all the video game references – Godzilla, Gundam, Mecha.’  Which I suspect is very true but how many people of my age (62) would see this film out of choice, no matter how much they might worship at the feet of Mark Rylance? It’s sort of enjoyable (although I looked at my watch 10 minutes in which is never a good sign) and it’s quite well made but, as usual, it’s too long and there’s a silly battle at the end which is just as boring as the ones in all the Transformer films – or is that deliberate and a pop culture reference? And the video game sequences are much better than the real life sequences, and like all Spielberg films it has a happy ending. So perhaps it has his stamp on it after all.  


Photographs from a trip to Prague with my daughter Rachel, in March 2018. P1100353 On Charles BridgeP1100333 On Charles BridgeP1100326DSCF7152DSCF7145 Royal PalaceP1100482P1100469 John Lennon wallIMG_4654 On Charles BridgeP1100529IMG_4674P1100577IMG_4724IMG_4720IMG_4707P1100558 P1100299P1100467P1100311 Royal PalaceDSCF7219DSCF7179 View from Old Town HallP1100637p1100650.jpg Old Jewish cemeteryDSCF7283P1100686P1100676 On Charles BridgeDSCF7566

Isle of Dogs

I want to live in Wes Anderson’s world. My world is grey and cold and it rains, and it’s dirty and grubby and many of the people aren’t very nice. There are things in my world that shouldn’t be there; it’s confusing and scary and there is darkness and sadness and a lack of order – there is no intelligent design in my world, despite what the creationists would have you believe. Wes Anderson’s world is controlled and ordered, there is nothing missing or nothing unnecessary added; what is there needs to be there. There is a sharpness to his world, it is clean and defined, not always explicit but it is a world you can drink in, a world you could live in, a world you want to be part of. Anderson has the clearest, most consistent vision of any film maker working today; you know a Wes Anderson film as soon as the first moments appear and then you are lost, sucked in, swallowed up by his unique ideas, absorbed by his supremely imaginative mind. Isle of Dogs is his latest and it is a truly wonderful film. All of his signature tropes are here. It is shot in stop motion (like Fantastic Mr Fox) which gives it a slight jerky quality but also hyper-realism – Toy Story and Monsters Inc. and the other Pixar films are beautifully made but you know that fundamentally it’s a cartoon and done primarily by a computer. Stop motion is done by a human being and it shows. I find the plasticene of Wallace and Grommit becomes a little wearing after a while, there is a tweeness to those films, a Britishness which can get tiring, but Isle of Dogs is timeless, set in Japan but really it’s Wes Anderson country and they do things differently there. There is a story – a fear of diseased dogs in the city of Megasaki leads to them being exiled to Trash Island, there to eke out their lonely existence without their masters, until a little boy – Atari – comes looking for his lost dog, Spots. The moral is simple and the ending uplifting but the story is secondary – this film is about visuals, about sounds, about a created world, about friendship and love, the triumph of good over evil, it’s about everything in every frame of the film being perfect and ordered and true and clean and just where it should be. Watch the stop motion fur ruffle in the stop motion breeze, listen to Scarlett Johannsen’s brief, breathy, sultry, achingly sexy vocals as Nutmeg, the former show-dog and burgeoning love interest for Chief, voiced by the wonderful Bryan Cranston; marvel at the Heath Robinsonesq machinery, the clumsy dog robots, the piles of gloriously rendered garbage, the furious Kodo drummers over the opening and end credits, the Kabuki dancing, the nod to The Usual Suspects in Kobayashi, the chief baddie. You can play ‘spot the vocal talents’ if you want – Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Yoko Ono, long-time Anderson collaborator Bill Murray – but this film isn’t about them and their talents, it’s about Anderson and his talent. Being set in Japan, all of the Japanese characters speak Japanese and there are no subtitles. But this just adds to the surreal other-worldly vision – you need to use your imagination to work out what they might be saying and this draws you ever-deeper into this strange but perfect world. I cannot think of a single criticism about this film, other than that when it is over you fall back into your own imperfect world and lose this masterful vision and a chance to share, albeit briefly, in Anderson’s perfect universe.

You Were Never Really Here

F Scott Fitzgerald’s last novella was The Last Tycoon, an unfinished thinly disguised portrait of Irving Thalberg, one of the great Hollywood producers of the pre-war years. Some years later (1976), this was made into a film by Elia Kazan from a script by Harold Pinter, starring a young Robert de Niro as Monroe Starr, the last tycoon, and Ingrid Boulting as Kathleen, his impossibly beautiful love interest. It was an interesting, if not great film, but de Niro, as usual, was mesmerising and the whole was beautifully shot. There is a key sequence in the film where Starr describes a series of vignettes, or scenes to a young couple. ‘And what happens then?’ one of them asks. ‘I don’t know,’ says Starr, ‘I was just making pictures.’ I was reminded of this sequence while watching Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which is an object lesson in making pictures, albeit one that is not, ultimately, a great picture. The story is flimsy; in fact so flimsy that ‘flimsy’ is too strong a word. What’s a word that means flimsier than flimsy? Gossamer thin, perhaps, delicate as Belgian lace, insubstantial, non-existent? Joe is a kind of bounty hunter who finds and brings home runaway or kidnapped children and metes out brutal justice to the bad guys with his preferred weapon – a hammer. He lives with his crippled, elderly mother and there are occasional, brief, unclear flashbacks to the events that may have brought him to his lonely, unhappy, violent existence. And then he is hired to rescue the runaway daughter of an aspiring US Senator and is sucked into a strange, dark, unknowing conspiracy where his hammer ends up being very busy. Er…that’s it. The film stands or falls on Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance as he is in 99% of the scenes and it is his brooding, avenging angel, violent presence and obscure back story which drives the film. And he doesn’t let Ramsay down. Joe/Phoenix is inarticulate, mumbling when he speaks at all, jowly, heavy-set, thickly, scraggly bearded with greasy, greying, pony-tailed locks and nondescript clothes. He is flabby but powerful and strong and his violence is sudden and over-whelming. Phoenix is a far cry from the Hollywood actor of Gladiator; he is like the major star who goes back to performing in some obscure play in a quiet, seaside town and his performance has method-acting written all over it – which is not a criticism; you believe totally in Joe. Ramsay has spent a lot of time at film school, mostly watching Citizen Kane; her film is stylized in the extreme, sometimes too much so and it was some 30 minutes into the film before a story started to develop. It borders on pretentious nonsense but manages (just) not to tip over the line. Ramsay likes her obscure camera angles, extreme close-ups, gaps and spaces in the story, silences, strange sounds (intriguing soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood), unexpected scenes, shocking violence (although more in the hinted at than in the doing), long tracking shots of Joe walking or driving or watching stuff. My son kept commenting on how short the film is (90 minutes) and I said that if they removed all the scenes of Joe walking or driving or looking broody, the film would be about 11 minutes long. Half the time you think the film doesn’t and isn’t going to work but ultimately it does. However, the ending is wrong. If I have one major criticism it is that the film ends two minutes later than it should – Ramsay turns a shocking, visceral but nonetheless apt and fully in keeping with the rest of the film ending, into a soppy, Hollywood happy ending. Monroe Starr would have known which one worked best.

Lady Bird

I was a teenager once, male not female, but still. And I was the father of a teenage daughter once and now I’m the father of a teenage son. I saw this film with my son. Maybe how you view this film depends on whether you’re a teenager (and/or a girl) and side with the teenager, or you’re a parent and side with the parent. Maybe interestingly, both my son and I thought the same thing – it’s a pretty good film, not special, not great, certainly not Oscar worthy (but then neither was The Post); it tells its rather slight story reasonably well, but never takes off, doesn’t fly, never soars above the clouds – it’s an Easyjet flight to an obscure French airport, it’s not Concorde to New York. The story is swiftly told. Set in 2002, for no particularly obvious reason, Lady Bird – real name Christine – heads back to Sacramento where she doesn’t want to be, on account of it being dullsville, with her mother – Laurie Metcalf – with whom she has a spiky relationship. And thus we follow a year or so in Lady Bird’s teenage life before she tries desperately to get into a New York college and thus escape her boring life and annoying mother. She goes to Catholic school, has a chubby (they’re always chubby) best friend, Julia, with whom she falls in and out of friendship, she auditions for the school musical, has a tentative romance with Danny (Lucas Hedges) which ends badly, unsatisfactorily loses her virginity to bad-boy musician Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), attends the prom, argues and fights with her mother who doesn’t understand or believe in her and has a sweet relationship with her weak, unemployed, good-hearted father (Tracy Letts) who doesn’t wear the trousers in this family. She has two ‘siblings’ (adopted, step, fostered, not sure), Miguel and Shelley, with whom she occasionally spars but the relationship between them is unclear and doesn’t go anywhere interesting. And then she gets in to college in New York (big surprise), goes back to using the name Christine and decides she loves her mother after all (even bigger surprise). Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird gives a good performance but not a great one. Laurie Metcalf is fine; where has she been all these years since Roseanne? Lucas Hedges seems to be the go to teenage actor de nos jours and reprises his performances from Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (both much better films). The music is good and well-chosen. If it sounds as if I’m struggling to think of things to say, it’s because I am. If you’re a teenager, you’re already living this story and if you’re the parent of a teenager you’ve either been through it, have it to look forward to, or grateful that it wasn’t you; if you’re neither a teenager nor a parent of one, it’s a decent enough drama but would you really care? We were all teenagers once or will be and teenage angst is teenage angst; Lady Bird’s angst is no more interesting than yours was or will be. At one point Lady Bird falls out with Julia and tells her, ‘Your Mom’s tits are so totally fake.’ ‘She made one mistake when she was 19,’ Julia replies. ‘Two mistakes!’ says Lady Bird. Now, this is quite a good line, if not particularly original but the trouble is that we have not met Julia’s mother nor seen her tits and nor has there been any previous reference to either of them (mother or tits). Which suggests that the screen-writer Greta Gerwig – who also directs – thought of this line and then had to find a way to shoe-horn it into the film, where it hangs suspended, faintly tittering but a propos of nothing. There are a few other good lines – ‘you’ll have plenty of time to have un-special sex,’ – Kyle tells her after their first fumble, but nothing that brings you up short with the depth of its insight or the power of its poetry. It’s a not-bad film which bows under the weight of expectation, like a ceiling when a pipe has burst. But at least the ceiling doesn’t collapse; it holds steady until a better film comes along.    

Los Cristianos, Tenerife

Tenerife is not a pretty place. The roads are busy, many drivers are inconsiderate, the traffic heavy, the road surface often rutted and pitted, the resorts are crowded and bloated, the beaches stony and the food bland. There is no culture, no history, no beauty, no style, no design, no interesting architecture, nothing twee, nothing cute. The land has been raped, deforested, ploughed and beaten, scratched and scarred like self-harmed arms. The roads go from A to B, the easiest and quickest route for the taxis to take the bargain loving Brits, Swedes, Germans and Russians to their little place in the sun. IMG_4403 The weather is what brings everyone to Tenerife. The sun usually shines, and the sky is blue, the few clouds are white and fluffy, and at most times of the year pale western skin has a chance to burn and blister and crack. IMG_4377 But Mt Teide is fabulous. Teide is Tenerife – a great volcanic, sprawling snow-capped mountain with flowing lower slopes. Escape the dreary, crowded seaside resorts (preferably by bicycle) and head up into the hills, away from the town, and everything changes. There is a kind of peace, although punctuated by tour buses, hire cars and quad bikes, but the air is clear and clean and sweet-smelling. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA On a bike you can climb from the seaside of Los Cristianos up, up and up to 7500 feet, through the remnants of the pine forests, above the clouds and around the lower slopes until you turn a corner and emerge into a bare volcanic landscape with the snow-capped majesty of the peak ahead of you. IMG_4247 You can’t cycle all the way up to the peak – that is another 1000 feet higher but there is a cable-car, although it wasn’t running while we were there. Up here, alone with the stars and the wind in this bare brown lunar landscape is the Parador de Canadas where the pro cycling teams stay for their training. IMG_4254 You can pause in their busy café and queue for cans of coke and ham and cheese baguettes which you will need after your climb. Then turn around and head into the buffeting, cruel, icy wind and down and down and down and down on sweeping fast-flowing roads with no need to stop until you reach the sea again. There is little attractive about the villages you ride through – San Miguel, Granadilla, Villaflor – no obvious historic heart, no pretty streets, no quaint shops selling perfume or local crafts. It is as though nothing existed on Tenerife until 60 years ago when Thomas Cook arrived to build the high-rises, the English pubs, the Highland Paddy karaoke bars, the Chinese with their emporiums of tat and the endless cafes and cheap restaurants selling full English breakfasts and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and chips with everything. Outside most of the restaurants stands a hard-faced man or woman, outwardly friendly and inwardly resentful who tries to press-gang you into visiting their establishment. ‘Hypnotist tonight,’ said one. ‘Don’t worry, he won’t make you lay eggs.’ ‘Comedy drag queen on in 15 minutes,’ said another. ‘Free weather forecast with every drink,’ said another, desperate for customers to join the two people murdering Ring of Fire on the karaoke machine. In Los Cristianos practically everyone is cruelly elderly, happily overweight, with heavy red paunches that hang over their belts like window boxes, sunburnt to the point of no return and many are on mobility scooters, some through necessity, many through choice. When it rains, which isn’t often although it rained while we were there, the town wears a coat of sadness, tired and damp, all joy washed away, and the awnings hang limply in the wet air, while the sun loungers and beach umbrellas lie empty and lonely on the dark, wet, imported sand. Bad attitude is everywhere. After one ride we returned along the coast through Playa Las Americas during rush-hour. The roads were packed with pushing, horn-sounding, hot, impatient sweaty commuters, and the diesel fumes mingled with the smell of frying chips in tired oil as we weaved through the traffic – it was like Elephant and Castle but without the charm. Go for the cycling on Mt Teide; leave everything else.

Wiggo’s wig slips but stays on – maybe

And so the whole sorry Sky saga staggers on with the publication of the Commons Select Committee report into doping in sport. Their investigation of British Cycling and Sky is only one part of the report, but it is the part that has garnered the most headlines. But one has to ask – why? What precisely is their criticism and what is it that Wiggo is supposed to have done? Our national hero, greatest living Olympian, inventor of the sideburn, 2012 Tour de France winner – what has he done that is so wrong? The committee accepts that he has done nothing illegal, and yet the headlines in the papers, the stories in the news, the Newsnight interviews, the comments of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, all seem to suggest that this man, this tallest of tall poppies, is to be brought low; our greatest ever champion is no longer the hero we thought he was and his feats are of clay. But are they really? The report suggests that Wiggins took Triamcinolone, under a TUE, when he wasn’t really ill and that this was a key factor in his wining the Tour de France. Wiggins accepts and admits that he has an asthma problem; so do a lot of cyclists, a lot of swimmers, a lot of professional sports people. Is he lying? Does he really have asthma? I don’t know, but I’m happy to believe that he does. Should he have taken Triamcinolone? Again, I don’t know; trust me, I’m not a doctor. He says that he consulted his doctor and it was prescribed. It can be used as a performance enhancer – one of the side effects is believed to be that it leads to weight loss with no loss of power. And there is no doubt that Wiggins at the Tour de France in 2012 was seriously deficient in weight but still capable of serious power. But is that a sign of taking Triamcinolone or is it a sign of serious training, up and down Mt Teide in Tenerife? I prefer to believe that it’s the latter. And in any case, the Triamcinolone was taken under a TUE, a Therapeutic Use Exemption, accepted and approved by the UCI. Again, Wiggins was not the only athlete or the only cyclist, then or since, to have a TUE. So, why the criticism? And what does it mean to say that he crossed an ethical boundary. The committee has no proof that he took Triamcinolone without being actually ill. There’s nothing unethical about having a TUE, there’s nothing unethical about taking a medicine that is going to assist his asthma, there’s nothing unethical in what Wiggins has done at all. If there is criticism to be made, and there is criticism to be made, it is of Team Sky and their lamentable record-keeping. Who can say why their record-keeping was so poor? Who can say why their governance procedures did nothing to check whether the elusive, reclusive, seriously unmemorable and un-remembering Dr Freeman – he of the stolen lap-top – prescribed the medicine that he did? (Well, the GMC may, but we’ll have to wait for them). He seems unable to have maintained the basic records and this may well be something that brings Sky down, and in some respects, it deserves to bring Sky down. Brailsford set up Sky on the basis that they would be a clean team, the first team that one could truly believe in, the first team one could truly trust. And yet over the years, there has been a litany of what can only be described as stupid, stupid, mistakes; and as the old Japanese proverb has it – once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time is enemy action. There have too many problems within the Team Sky set-up, but that doesn’t mean that an individual athlete, like Wiggins, is guilty of doping. What it means it that he worked for a team whose desire to win led to them, not necessarily cutting corners and doping their athletes, but cutting corners and not maintaining proper records, cutting corners in not having effective governance procedures, cutting corners in not checking on what their doctors were actually doing. Brailsford’s argument that this was in some way connected with medical confidentiality just doesn’t hold water and Brailsford himself, I’m afraid, has run his course. His achievements are legendary, what he did with British Cycling and what he did with Team Sky will always be remembered. But his performance now, his performance in front of the press, his performance in front of the committee, his performance when confronted with a difficult question by a journalist, is poor. It doesn’t mean that he’s lying, it doesn’t mean that he’s got something to hide, it just means that when it comes to doing a key part of his job, he falls short. Wiggins appeared on the BBC, expressing and maintaining his innocence of any wrong doing. Do I believe him? Yes, I do. Why has he got any reason to lie? (Actually, he has every reason to lie but let’s leave that there). If Wiggins has doped, his career is over, all of his achievements are as nothing, to be ground into dust like the ashes of Armstrong’s career. Now, I know that there are plenty of athletes who thought the risk was worth taking and it probably was, as they didn’t all get caught. But somehow, I don’t believe that Wiggins is one of them and I just hope I’m proved right. Only time will tell. The newspapers will have a field day, the newspapers have had a field day; the BBC interviewed Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, a man sacked by Team Sky for transgressing doping rules. Was this made clear when the BBC interviewed him? No, it wasn’t. And the usual suspects crop up. David Walsh, who did good work on Lance Armstrong, has always been suspicious of cycling, always believed that there is more to the story – but he’s a journalist, he wants there to be more to the story. If there is no more to the story – David Walsh, himself, is no more. He’s mined this particular vein in the Sunday Times for weeks after weeks of not very interesting journalism. Move on, David, find something new, there’s nothing to see here. Maybe there is something to see here, but we haven’t seen it yet. Maybe the real story is still to come out. But this, this Select Committee report, this isn’t it, it’s not the real story. Wiggins is not the real story. The Committee Chairman himself, Damian Collins, says on TV – he (Wiggins) did nothing wrong, but he crossed an ethical boundary. Well, MPs certainly know how to cross an ethical boundary; it takes one to know one. But it doesn’t mean that Wiggins has crossed that ethical boundary. The real problems for Sky, though, are yet to come. Wiggins, after all, never failed a drugs test. But Froome did.

The Shape of Water

‘Love is All Around Us’ sang Wet Wet Wet in that dreadful song which was number one forever all those years ago, and those are the twin themes of this film – love and water (and it’s all around us and it’s wet, wet, wet). Sally Hawkins – last seen playing the title role in Maudie as a crippled, backward, inarticulate, put-upon, abused naïve artist – here plays Elisa Esposito, a mute, lonely, unloved cleaner in a secretish US military facility in the early 1960s, in the early days of the Space race. She has two friends – her cheery fellow cleaner with the feckless husband, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer (so good in last year’s Hidden Figures) and a strange, failed artist neighbour Giles, played by Richard Jenkins and looking uncannily like Jim Broadbent. Into the secretish facility comes a strange, possibly alien, humanoid water monster, two arms, two legs, scaly body, vaguely human head, which (who?) has been captured and brought to the facility for tests. The monster is chained, brutalised by the evil Strickland (Michael Shannon) and kept in a tank of yes, water. (The whole facility with its long, echoing metal corridors, its heavy green doors, old fashioned machines and dials is beautifully realised). Elisa, who as a cleaner, is anonymous and invisible to the scientists and soldiers, while left alone with the monster, hands him (it?) an egg from her packed lunch, and thus begins an unlikely, touching, sad but ultimately uplifting love story. The monster can’t talk and nor can she and so she teaches him some rudimentary sign language. The message of the film is too obvious for words – she sees the tenderness beneath the monster’s scary carapace and the monster sees the inner beauty in the mute and unloved cleaner. It shouldn’t work – this beauty and the beast plot has been around forever, probably ever since not very attractive people dreamed of meeting someone who would see them as attractive – but it does, mainly because of Hawkins who is superb, as ever, but also because the monster remains unknowable, except to Hawkins. There are some minor sub-plots, largely there to pad out the story, and there are some scenes which I didn’t quite get. ‘Why was she masturbating?’ my son asked me, when we left the cinema. And I could only give him the obvious answer – because it was there. Was it to show that she too had sexual feelings, later to be opened for the monster? Maybe, and if so, it worked and she did open. Hawkins’ neighbour has an odd sub-plot – he used to be an artist, fired from his job for some unspecified reason and constantly trying to get his job back. He is unnecessarily revealed as homosexual in an unnecessary scene in a pie shop. Michael Shannon as the brutal, violent commander of the facility reprises his character from Boardwalk Empire rather too closely for my liking, and there is another minor sub-plot involving some Russian spies who seek to influence the Americans (where have we heard that before?) It does lead to the best line of the film though: ‘We need to learn from this monster,’ says one Russian spy to another. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘We need for the Americans not to learn.’ (And of course they don’t). I won’t reveal the ending; it won’t come as a great surprise although there were some elements I found unsatisfying. The Shape of Water, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is trite and hackneyed and rather obvious with a message that beats you over the head but there are stories which bear re-telling down the centuries and this is one of them.  As long as there are people on the margins, to whom the rest of the world turns a blind eye and laughs when they seek romance, there will be a place for their story to be told. And if it sometimes plays out like an episode of The Undateables – so what? That show, too, teaches us that everyone deserves a little love in their lives and that, yes, love is all around us – if we will only see it.

Cycling predictions for 2018

  1. Nacer Bouhani will garner a lot of publicity for his team without actually winning anything.
  2. Romain Bardet will do well at the Tour but he won’t win. Neither will Nibali or Pinot or Richie Porte.
  3. Tom Dumoulin won’t ride the Tour although he should. He will win the Giro again.
  4. Peter Sagan will win a monument.
  5. Marcel Kittel will regret moving to Katusha. The year’s top sprinters will be Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen and Viviani.
  6. Some riders on Italian teams you’ve never heard of will fail drugs test.
  7. Teams will use disc brakes and lots of commentators will say they’re no better than rim brakes and it’s just because the bike companies want to sell more bikes.
  8. People will start to ask who Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were.
  9. Ned Boulting and David Millar will lead ITV4’s coverage and do a good job.
  10. Chris Froome won’t win the Tour.
  11. Froome will get a 1 year ban, lose his Vuelta title and World Championship bronze medal and miss the Giro and the Tour.
  12. Somebody will have a career-ending injury.
  13. Podium girls will continue, at least for another year.
  14. Lots of people will ask whether Cav and Greipel are past it.
  15. Fernando Gaviria will win a monument – probably Milan San Remo.
  16. Alexandro Valverde will win Liege-Bastogne-Liege again.
  17. Sky won’t be as dominant as in previous years. There will be another scandal.
  18. Egan Bernal will win a Grand Tour but not yet.
  19. Mikel Landa will not be the force he was at Sky.
  20. Greg Van Avermaet won’t win Paris Roubaix. Neither will Philippe Gilbert.
  21. There will be a lot of talk about whether single-ring chain-sets, as used by Aqua Blue Sport on their 3T bikes, are the future. They’re not.
  22. This will be the last year that BMC are title sponsor for a team.
  23. One World Tour team will go broke.
  24. At least some of these predictions will come true.

Journey’s End

Few films about the First World War can match the bathos and comedic horror and plumb the depths of sadness quite as well as the last scene of Blackadder Goes Forth but Journey’s End comes close. It is a film of browns – brown hair and moustaches, brown uniforms, the brown wood shoring up the brown trenches, the endless brown mud squelching beneath the brown boot shod feet of the soldiers, the gloomy dark brown of the dug-out sheltered behind brown curtains, populated with brown rats and brown, oniony tea and brown cutlets that might or might not be liver, the brown funk that Captain Stanhope has fallen into, brown skies and brown eyes, brown sheets on brown beds. There are few splashes of colour. ‘What is this soup?’ one officer asks the cook (Toby Jones). ‘It’s yellow soup, sir,’ he replies. The film is directed by Saul Dibb, from a screenplay by Simon Reade, based on RC Sherriff’s play and novel. There is not much to the story. A group of soldiers are at the front line, counting down the days in a week in March, awaiting an anticipated German attack. There are the stoic tommies, the gruff but kindly Sergeant-Major and the officers – Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), nerves ajangle, succumbing to whiskey to blot out the horrors, kindly Captain Osborne, known as Uncle (Paul Bettany) with his pipe and glasses, bluff cockney Trotter (Stephen Graham), Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), suffering from shell-shock and pleading (in vain) to be sent back down the line, and wet behind the ears Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), just out of officer school, desperate for action who pleads with his uncle, the General, to be sent to the front to Captain Stanhope, beau of Raleigh’s sister, Margaret. The first half of the film didn’t really come alive for me – the dialogue seemed stilted and disconnected, I didn’t warm to the characters and it seemed like we had seen it all before. But this changed when 2 officers and 10 men were instructed to launch a (probably futile) raid (in daylight) to the German lines to ‘grab the first soldier’ and bring him back so that the Generals could gather further intelligence. The raid is beautifully handled – there is not much violence, it doesn’t last long but the explosions are deafening, the mud is deep and wet and brown, the confusion is clear and it perfectly captures how close the two sides were to each other – 60 yards.  As you’d expect, not all the soldiers and officers survive but I won’t spoil it by telling you who – you can probably work it out. And then on Thursday, the Germans launch their attack. The title of the film rather gives away the ending but it is no less shocking, surprising or sad when it comes and by this time I had developed a real feel and affection for the characters; unlike many films about the war this one has no happy ending, no triumphant return from the front, no leaping into the arms of the patient, weeping Margaret. Toby Jones steals the film and is simply superb as the world-weary cook Mason, toiling away making tea and yellow soup for the officers and keeping Stanhope plied with whiskey. The film gives away its stage origins but never in an obvious way; the music by Hildur Guonadottir and Natalie Holt is sombre and perfectly judged, the brown, claustrophobic, dead body filled trenches are perfectly realised and the film knows when and how and how soon to finish. And the senior officers are well-drawn; so often the senior officers and Generals in these films are shown as silly caricatures, blithely sending men to their deaths, but here they are shown as being trapped, as they are all trapped, in the fog and madness of the war, but still trying to do their jobs. ‘Hold the line, Stanhope,’ says the General. ‘Can I expect reinforcements Sir?’ ‘No.’ In this centenary year of the events depicted in the film, Journey’s End is a fine addition to the art of the war and a deeply moving portrait of men who gave their lives so that we could vote to get out of Europe.

The Post

Steven Spielberg is incapable of making a bad film, but he is certainly capable of making an average film and he’s achieved that with The Post. It’s maybe not his fault; he’s done the best with the material he’s been given but there are three key reasons not to be cheerful with this film. Meryl Streep Streep is easily the finest actress (and with the forced departure of Kevin Spacey, probably actor) of her generation but here, as Katherine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, her performance is irritating, strained, mannered, taut; much of the time she appears to be still channelling Margaret Thatcher – seldom a good move. Part of the problem is that she has little to do and not much in the way of interesting lines – does she publish, does she not publish, does she publish, does she not publish? (Spoiler alert; she publishes). It is hard to see why Streep took the role or why the role was created, unless it was to find a role for female actresses ‘d’un certain age’. She acts for all she’s worth (and she’s worth a lot) and she’s been nominated for an Oscar (as she is for practically every film she’s ever done) but it would be a travesty if she won and Frances McDormand (Three Billboards) didn’t. (Streep won’t win though – you read it here first). Tom Hanks Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee in Alan J Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men was superb – he acted Ben Bradlee. Here, Hanks is Tom Hanks acting Ben Bradley and his performance gets in the way of the character. He adopts an irritating, broken, growly voice with shades of Robert Peston which may or not be historically accurate but seeks to lend a depth and portentousness to lines which don’t deserve them. Again, he has little to do – will he stick to his principles, his belief in the first amendment and his dislike of Nixon and run with the story? Or will he cave to the pressure from the lawyers in suits (including Jesse Plemons – Todd from Breaking Bad coincidentally) and the threats of Nixon’s stooges and risk going to prison for contempt? The clock ticks towards the midnight deadline (it’s always midnight) when the mighty presses must roll while Graham and the men in suits argue the case. ‘My decision stands,’ she says, ‘and now I’m going to bed.’ (Spoiler alert: he makes the phone call). The story All the President’s Men came out in 1975 and depicted events (the investigation by Woodward and Bernstein – Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman – into the burglary at the Watergate centre) from a few years earlier; it was still recent history and told a story that needed to be told and was largely unknown. However, The Post is now old history – it depicts events from almost 50 years ago, another time, another place and the events are just not as interesting, and nor do they have the same resonance. For those of my age (61) who still remember the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War (including Spielberg, Hanks and Streep) there is a residual interest but there is little of interest to attract today’s audience. And in any case, young people (by which I mean anyone under 40) don’t read newspapers, have never seen a type-writer, would find the need to find a phone-box quaint and strange and probably don’t care much about the freedom of the press. And then, the times were different; simpler, clearer, cleaner. They had Daniel Ellsberg; we have Julian Assange. They had a villain in Nixon; we have a clown in Trump. They had Ben Bradlee, we have Piers Morgan, they had Kay Graham who believed in the freedom of the press, we have Rupert Murdoch who believes in the power of the press. The scenes of hard-drinking, hard-smoking journalists, type-writers being pounded by sweaty, flabby hacks, the paper being type-set, the rolling presses, the grinding, creaking machinery, the papers snatched from the line and checked by a unionised work-force, soon to be ruthlessly swept away (in this country at least) by Murdoch and Eddy Shah (whatever happened to him?) are lovingly pored over by Spielberg, but who now really cares? Spielberg does his best, but the film lacks any real tension or excitement and in any case the real story of the Pentagon Papers relates to the New York Times which first broke the story. Bob Odenkirk (of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul fame) as a diligent hack, tracks down the (not very) elusive leaker Daniel Ellsberg with a few phone calls and then knocks on his motel room door to find him surrounded by 4000 unnumbered pages which Odenkirk then flies back to Washington. But the excitement is fleeting. I suppose if you didn’t know anything about the times depicted you would learn something but it’s not enough. If you want to see a good film about the Washington Post and these times, watch All the President’s Men and if you want to see a good film about the press and its importance, watch State of Play, either the film with Russell Crowe or the original TV series with John Simm. I was going to avoid any Royal Mail jokes but I can’t resist; miss the post.

All the Money in the World

We need to talk about Kevin. Kevin Spacey is a fine actor who has been accused (accused, mind you) of some pretty unpleasant behaviour. As a consequence, he has become an un-person, an ex-actor, a non-celebrity, one of the disappeared; if you would seek his works, don’t look around you because you won’t find them. His role as Grandpa Getty has been erased, wiped, like a disgraced Politburo member in Stalin’s Russia, and replaced by Christopher Plummer. Unlike Spacey, who was about 30 years too young and required hours of make-up (like Gary Oldham as Churchill), Plummer is the right age (ancient), and has the advantage that he actually resembles Getty pere. However, there is an odd flashback scene set in Saudi Arabia in 1948 where Plummer looks exactly the same as he does in 1973 – I guess make-up artists can make young people look old but there ain’t nothing in the world can make an old person look young – just look at the passengers on any cruise. Leaving aside whether this re-shooting of history was entirely necessary or appropriate, it had the great advantage of generating massive publicity for what is really a pretty average film. The main trouble with the film is that there is no real tension. Anyone of a certain age will remember the Getty kidnap – it was a cause celebre at the time – and they will know that he survived, albeit sans ear. For those who are too young to remember, why should they care? Teenage boy is kidnapped, family pays ransom, gets boy back (sans ear) and er…that’s it. The difference, I suppose, is that they’re Gettys. ‘He is not just the richest man in the world,’ drools the voice-over, ‘he is the richest man in the history of the world.’ A claim that, although no doubt true at the time, now rings a little hollow in these times of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and the Waltons, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Pewdiepie, et al. ‘Oil money is old money, darling, it’s so passe.’ ‘The rich are different from you and I,’ said Scott Fitzgerald famously to Ernest Hemingway. ‘Yes,’ said Hemingway, ‘they have more money.’ And so the Gettys are just like us, but with more money; they are unpleasant and unlikeable, grasping and gasping, venal, drug-addled, fond of dogs, rude to servants, avaricious for its own sake, obsessed with money, aloof from the world except when it intrudes. Old man Getty has a phone box in his house so that guests who want to make a phone call have to use that instead of putting it on his bill. I remember that from the time; it’s one of the few things one remembers about the Getty’s – had money, founded museum, lost ear, all had the same name (never knew why), kept phone box in hall. And as none of the characters are sympathetic or likeable it’s hard to care too much about them or what happens to them. Mark Wahlberg has a curious role as Fletcher Chase (this is such an unlikely name that it must be true), a sort of fixer and deal-maker for Getty pere. Curious, as his character never comes to life, never seems to do much or say much or contribute much. For a few fleeting moments it seems that he and Abigail Getty, kidnapee Paul’s mother, estranged wife of wastrel J Paul Getty ll and daughter-in-law of old man Getty, will get it on but they don’t, and the relationship just peters out. As a curious aside, J Paul Getty ll (the wastrel) is played by Andrew Buchan, that bloke off Broadchurch, you know Danny’s father (the one who got murdered) – I mean Danny got murdered, not the father – if you follow. He does his best to look drunk, stoned and miserable for much of the time; easy if you know how. Charlie Plummer (uncoincidentally, no relation) as the kidnapped Paul doesn’t have a great deal to do except lie on his kidnap bed with matted hair and look miserable and then act the loss of his ear, which he does passably well. Michelle Williams as Abigail Getty also does her best but never really takes flight. And as for Plummer – well, you can’t see the join in the re-shot scenes, he does look like Getty and he plays the mean-spirited, avaricious miser as if he means it. It’s not a bad film; it moves along quite well, Ridley Scott knows what he’s doing; it’s just that it’s hard to see much of a reason for making it and it’s hardly up there among Scott’s canon of great films – Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner. Perhaps, ultimately, what it misses is Kevin Spacey and I think Scott knows that which is why he re-shot it with Plummer – without the Spacey scandal I wouldn’t have bothered to see it. And even with it, I’m not sure why I bothered.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

‘Anger begets anger,’ says 19-year-old Penelope in this wonderful film. Penelope is the new young girl-friend of wife-beater Charlie, estranged husband of Mildred Hayes, whose bitter anger over the rape and murder of their daughter – Angela – is the reason for the billboards. Ebbing (not a real place), Missouri (a real place) is like Manchester by the Sea, last year’s film about grief in small-town America and how it touches, impacts, destroys and sometimes heals the lives of those left behind. Angela’s death is unsolved and the local police – led by Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) – appear to Mildred to have abandoned hope and given up efforts to find her killer. Outside town, on a largely disused high-way are three enormous, abandoned and unused advertising billboards and Mildred sells Charlie’s trailer in order to raise the money to pay for her messages to be placed on them.
  • ‘Raped while dying’ – says the first
  • ‘Still no arrests’ – says the second
  • ‘How come Chief Willoughby?’ – says the third
Once up and once seen, the billboards and their message – with their giant black letters on a blood red background – shocks and polarises the town. The rest of the film charts the arc of Mildred’s grief, interspersed with moments of horrifying violence, some on her part, some on the part of others, including police officer Jason Dixon – a red-neck, racist, inarticulate bully-boy Mommy’s boy – until a strange kind of calm and catharsis falls on them all. Gratifyingly and unlike so many films, there is no pat and comfortable ending, no simple message that justice always prevails – you walk out into the night wondering whether, after such sorrow and anger, anything can ever (or should ever) be the same again. Not everyone makes it to the end of the film alive and it would be wrong to give away these secrets – death when it comes is horrifying and unexpected. The violence is shocking, visceral, in your face (often literally), but seldom achieves much other than to – as Penelope says – beget more anger. Unlike the cartoon violence in a 12a film like Dunkirk – where many people are killed but few are hurt – there is real hurt in this film, in more ways than one. Some describe the film as a black comedy and there are some wonderful funny lines but I did not see it as a comedy, black or otherwise. To me, it was a dissection of grief, the benefits and dis-benefits of anger, the under-currents and disputes of small-town America, the horror that lies just beneath the surface of this beautiful green state. Frances McDormand as Mildred is simply superb – washed out, grief-ridden, make-up free face, straggly lost interest hair, overalls and big boots, scraggy head-band, all boundaries and conventions torn away – the brutal, perhaps unnecessary, vicious tongue-lashing she gives the local priest who comes to offer advice is uncomfortable to watch, while the attack she launches against a couple of teenagers who throw a coke can at her car windscreen makes one flinch. Woody Harrelson’s role is not as large as one might expect but he is excellent while Sam Rockwell as the luckless, (almost) irredeemable Dixon is Oscar-worthy. Peter Dinklage as the only midget in town (their description, not mine), has a small but perfectly-formed role (no pun intended). The resemblance to Manchester by the Sea is further enhanced by the presence of Lucas Hedges in a small but crucial role as Mildred’s teenage son – a still, small voice of calm amongst the maelstrom of emotions of the others. Writer and Director Michael McDonagh also made ‘In Bruges’, the 2008 film about a couple of existentialist outcast gangsters holed up in the title town. This film also has much the same feel as the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, not just due to the presence of McDormand, but also the music by Carter Burwell, making full use of Townes Van Zandt’s mournful voice. Will there be a better film all year? It’s too early to make predictions but this will certainly run them close and (thank God) it’s got nothing to do with Brexit.