The resistance, Islington 

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The champ

ali my book revIn The Times, my review of Jonathan Eig’s compelling, thoroughly researched biography of Muhammad Ali. Definitely a candidate for sports book of the year.

An American journalist whose previous books include a study of the black baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, Eig guides us through the many improbable twists and turns. He doesn’t give us the vivid prose of The Fight, Norman Mailer’s account of the Foreman bout, and there isn’t the sense of intimacy to be found in George Plimpton’s encounters with The Greatest in his classic collection, Shadow Box. But Eig’s book is a crisper read that Thomas Hauser’s conscientious oral biography of 1991, even though it is roughly the same length. Above all, it delivers a portrait of a hero that does not ignore his all too human flaws. Along the way, Eig suggests that Ali may have suffered cognitive damage as early as the first of his three bludgeoning bouts against Frazier. The challenger’s ringside doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, claims that he saw the warning signs after that defeat and advised him to retire. Why did Ali refuse? Pride and ego are sufficient reasons. But Pacheco adds another: “There is no f***ing cure to quick money.”

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A new voice

Meeting Elida Almeida was one of the highlights of my trip to Cape Verde earlier this year. You can hear more from her on “Kebrada”, my world music album of the week in the Sunday Times.


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I wanted to ask him  if he was writing, Was he finding the time? For years, as a busy physician, I’d struggled to find the time to write. I wanted to tell him that a famous writer, commiserating about this eternal problem, once said to me: “If I were a neurosurgeon and I announced I had to leave my guests to go in for an emergency craniotomy, no one would say a word. But if I said I needed to leave the guests in the living room to go upstairs to write…” I wondered if Paul would have found this funny. After all, he could actually say he was going to do a craniotomy! It was plausible! And then he could go write instead.

Abraham Verghese, foreword to “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.

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Rain, Sunday morning 

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[I posted this at The Times’ First Edition Facebook page]

Andrew Bacevich, an academic with a rare insider’s understanding of the American army (he was a senior officer and lost a son in the Iraq war) has written a good piece on fiction and the military. I’ve been trying to think of British equivalents of the books he mentions. I know Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” Trilogy ought to be on the list, but I’ve never actually been able to finish it. One work that really surprised me was Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea”, which I only got round to reading a few years ago: a terrific novel which doesn’t deserve to be overshadowed by the 1950s film adaptation. Any other suggestions? I can think of lots of memoirs, but not novels. There must be plenty more. On the American side, I’d add two well-known contenders: Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” and Gore Vidal’s “Williwaw”.

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Modern times

 Another little gem by Paul Noth,  the man who gave us the best Trump cartoon of 2016.

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All of the documents through 1938 that survive among Gould’s papers give his surname as “Gold”, but beginning at least as early as June 1939 the family name was almost always printed “Gould” in newspapers, programmes, and other sources… Xenophobia was among the less admirable by-products of Toronto’s homogeneity, and the city was notorious for anti-Semitism between the wars. Jews counted as the largest non-British population in Toronto, and Jewish immigrants were widely perceived as “foreigners” and sources of unrest. After the First World War their numbers were curbed by a new immigration policy that observed a strict racial hierarchy, a response to overt lobbying to “keep Canada British” by not “polluting” the indigenous stock. By the 1930s Jewish immigration had slowed to a trickle. The Depression offered a convenient pretext for scapegoating Jews, and anti-Semitism gew alarmingly… After Hitler came to power in 1933,a more malignant strain of Judenhass could be detected in Toronto in the increase in hate literature, pro-Fascist groups, and harrassment of Jews. In the Beach, where, Robert Fullford recalled, a petition was taken on his street during the war to keep a Jewish family from purchasing a house, bigotry was often disguised as a concern for order and propriety. Jews, it was said, had loud parties and littered and changed clothes in their cars when they picnicked at the beach. Locals recoiled at this want of Anglo-Saxon reserve, and restrictive signs – “ONLY GENTILE BUSINESS SOLICITED”, or, more pointedly, “NO JEWS OR DOGS ALLOWED” – appeared on the eastern beaches. In the summer of 1933, youthful “swastika clubs” in the Beach provoked anti-Semitic incidents that culminated, the night of August 16-17, in one of Toronto’s worst riots. Morover, of the Western democracies Canada had by far the worst record for giving sanctuary to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. In early 1945, a senior Canadian official, asked how many Jews would be admitted after the war, notoriously replied, “None is too many.”

Kevin Bazzana, “Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould”.

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The immortal Thelonious Monk

He was born a hundred years ago today. “Evidence” still sounds timeless.


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On the bench

For the last few days I’ve been reading “Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories”, a biography of sorts of one of the most celebrated defence lawyers of the last century.  (He’s still  alive, and turned 102 this year.) One chapter is devoted to the Lady Chatterley Trial, in which Hutchinson represented Penguin Books. (I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read the novel – I don’t remember getting past the first couple of chapters, but I’m now determined  to have another go.)  Apart from all the sparring over the number of four-letter words, one of the weirdest passages is devoted to a courtroom convention that I had no idea existed: the judge, a devout Catholic who was thought to be very much on the side of the prosecution, actually had his wife sitting next to him.

To modern eyes, it is an extraordinary fact that Byrne was joined on the bench by his wife, Lady Byrne, who remained there throughout the trial. Jeremy explains that it was at the time unremarkable for judges to be sometimes accompanied by their wives, or even on occasion a friend, though it is baffling that this judge should want to subject his wife to the salacious material that the trial would inevitably rake over. Perhaps Mr Justice Byrne hoped that no jury would dare acquit in the face of her moral authority. Jeremy remembers Lady Byrne, seated beside her husband with her arms crossed, glaring down at him, a grim and disapproving spectator.

We tend to assume, looking back, that the verdict was a foregone conclusion. That wasn’t how it looked at the time, apparently. Quite a few observers – Sylvia Plath and Philip (“1963”) Larkin among them – thought Penguin were going to lose. The judge certainly wasn’t pleased with the way it went:

There was applause and cheering in the public gallery when the verdict was announced: “Not guilty!” The judge, his icy composure undisturbed, expressed his displeasure  by refusing, without giving reasons, Gardiner’s application for costs on behalf of Penguin. At the end of a trial it is usual for the judge to express his gratitude to the jury for their patience and attention. As he and Lady Byrne left the court he merely stared at them.

There’s more on the famous duel between the prosecution and Richard Hoggart, over at Robert Sharp’s blog.

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