Rugby World Cup Lessons and Prospects

Add comment October 9th, 2011 02:10pm billmarshall

We’re now at the semi final stages of the Rugby World Cup. It’s been a strange tournament; engrossing at times but seldom spectacular. The weather may have played a large part in that – I’ve seldom seen so many kicks missed – but there seems to be something a bit apprehensive about much of the play, as if the worries of the home fans that everything could go wrong again have spread to the other teams too.

Some of the results have been a bit odd too. All of the teams that were in Scotland’s group, including England, are out. Ireland, who started so well with a victory against Australia and who have been playing some lovely stuff, are out. South Africa, who beat Wales in their group, are out.

France, who have looked disjointed and disinterested, who were hammered by New Zealand in their group, whose coach couldn’t even give away free beer to his players, are in. Australia, who seem to have lost their character, lost to Ireland, and were largely dominated by South Africa, are in. If you are a fan of either New Zealand or Wales then you’ll be feeling optimistic right now. Except that for the Kiwis there is the worry of whether any of their stand-in stand-offs can replace the injured Dan Carter.

What of Scotland?

The stats would suggest that Scotland had a bad tournament; after all this is the first time we’ve failed to make the quarter finals. We didn’t score heavily against either Romania or Georgia while our main rivals did. However it can be argued that we got them early when they were at their most determined and the weather was against high scoring or the game we wanted to play. Then there were the two games we lost. Argentina should have been beaten: only the referee seemed not to see one of the most blatant offsides at the crucial drop goal at the end of the game. We were in charge for most of the game and really should have put enough on the board to render their late try irrelevant but we failed to find that crucial finishing edge. Against England the final result was a travesty that was probably brought about by a failing optimism in the last few minutes that we could maintain enough of a winning margin to get the bonus point we needed. The fact was that despite bad luck in losing Jackson early and Evans at half time, and a couple of very dubious penalty awards that allowed England back within the magic margin, that we were again in control of the match for 70 minutes. Three times the excellent outside breaks of Ansbro were inches from escaping the last tackle (if only that had been Evans), Foden performed outstanding heroics in getting a hand to prevent Danielli scoring, and De Luca will still be having nightmares about the failed pickup with the line abegging.

So despite the results I’m optimistic about the forthcoming 6 nations and with England as the first game the players should be really fired up for it. I hope Paterson stays to provide both his experience and kicking ability for a little longer. I’d like to see Mike Blair back at his best as I think he’s still lacking a bit of his old sharpness, but Jackson is still developing very promisingly.

Semi final prospects

But back to the World Cup. Can New Zealand win without Carter? They’ve been the best team in the world for as long as I can remember yet they haven’t been World Cup winners for 24 years. It seem inconceivable that they can’t win on home turf. Yet their games against Australia often don’t go to form.

Can Wales re-emerge as a genuine world force and give their supporters some new legends to supplant the memories of the golden age of Barry John, Gareth Edwards, JPR, Gerald Davies et al. In Shane Williams they have a supreme finisher who would crown a fabulous career with a winner’s medal in what would probably be his last match. They seem to have come together as a team and have an inspirational captain. But you just never know what the French are likely to do next – they could be awful or they could be incredible.

I’d dearly like to see a New Zealand – Wales final full of running rugby instead of some of the boring finals decided by kicks that we’ve seen too often. And if that happens then the best team on the day will be worthy and popular winners.

The Spirit of Music

Add comment October 1st, 2011 01:30am billmarshall

I’ve just been watching a documentary on BBC 4 called Troubadors, the name taken from the Los Angeles club of that name and largely centred around James Taylor and Carole King but also featuring other luminaries of the time like Jackson Browne, Graham Crosby, Bonnie Rait and the band of LA guys who played on many of their albums.

It was a touching and well-handled programme and if it’s available on iPlayer then I recommend it – especially if you’re of my vintage and remember Tapestry and Sweet Baby James from when they came out. It brought back many lovely memories of times with my old friends John Sampson, Gordon Dougal, and Colin Craig when we played many of the songs and wrote others that were often inspired by them.

It also reminded me of something I sometimes forget in the bustle of making a living – that music, and the connections with friends through music, has given me my very happiest times. Though I’m a poor player of various instruments I have the musician’s ear, the ability to hear the communications that pass between musicians as they play, the little jokes that make us smile and baffle those who can’t hear them.

I’m lucky that I work in a couple of subjects – web design and SEO – that are creative and challenging and which I enjoy very much. But my happiest years were as a sound engineer, working with some wonderful musicians and actors, and creating moments of magic, moments that reach people’s hearts and make them feel something that lifts them above the boredom of their working lives.

It’s always a shock to see someone whose youthful album cover pictures you grew up with looking kinda old. Reminds you that you own face in the mirror isn’t getting any younger. Carole King is now white haired and could be any American Jewish grandmother if you passed her in the street, while James Taylor is bald and angular and stooping. But when they talk to each other the light shines in their eyes, and when they sing, particularly together, the years roll away and the vitality of youth is still there in their faces and voices. And you see the love and musical connection that passes between them and you know that for all the special vibes and communication that they are sending out to the adoring fans, that they are also sharing a far deeper level of connection through the music that even those of us that speak a little of the language can only guess at. It was lovely to watch and to listen to. A big ‘well done’ to the director and cameraman of the documentary.

And from me a big thank you to the musicians and friends who shared those times with me over the years.

Untying the Knot – launched today

4 comments August 30th, 2011 09:33pm billmarshall

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that Linda Gillard had a new book coming out and I hoped to be reviewing it. It comes out today and I’ve been working on a new set of web pages for it on her site – Untying the Knot.

Review

The book is perhaps the closest to a romance that Linda has yet written, but as always with her it’s so much more than that. Indeed if that were all it was I wouldn’t be finishing reading it let alone enjoying and reviewing it. She has the knack of creating characters that you can believe in as if you’d met them, and imbuing them with exactly the sort of flaws, errors and misconceptions, balanced by persistence and courage and refusal to give in, that signal something more akin to real life rather than fiction.

It tells the story of a family which is separated, indeed the two main characters have been divorced for 5 years. One (Fay) is a talented textile artist – something of a Gillard trademark from her first book Emotional Geology – while the other (Magnus) is a former bomb disposal expert. The other characters are Magnus’ mother Jessie, who Fay has stayed close to, their daughter Emily and her fiancĂ©, and Magnus’ girlfriend Nina. Despite this being a small group Gillard finds plenty of resources for characterisation and plot twists as we learn more about their history and about why Fay and Magnus can’t live together but can’t be happy apart.

What principally sets this book apart from the average romance and gives it its cutting edge is that much of the story focuses on the strains of living with the demons of mental illness – another theme which Gillard uses both frequently and with astonishing clarity and sympathy. Magnus suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has terrifying flashbacks – having been blown up in action. We see what it’s like to have to cope with such a dramatic and invasive problem and also what it means to be their partner and to try to cope with the stresses it causes. And in understanding it in these characters we learn to understand it in real life; and realise that it’s neither unusual or something to be frightened of.

The scene for much of the important action is a once ruined Scottish towerhouse which Magnus has rebuilt, and as events unfold and we get sections of past storyline – something that the author handles seamlessly and better than any other I’ve read – we gradually see her talent in using the house’s symbolism, connecting interwoven plotlines through it, and connecting it to the past events which have shaped the characters’ lives and brought them to where they are.

As is the case with all of her books, this one has a couple of unexpected twists which serve to absorb the reader ever more deeply in the story and to shed much more light on the characters than could have been done by any form of exposition. We come to understand them and appreciate the reasons for their mistakes even as we pray that they won’t make them. We feel their yearnings, we cry with them when things look black and impossible, and we feel the shiver running down our spine when the tension becomes unbearable. (You’ll know what I mean when you read it!)

This is storytelling of a high order. I can almost, but not quite, understand the inability of publishers to classify it (see my earlier post), because a simple explanation of the plot makes it sound like the sort of throwaway, read-once and forget, novel that fills airport rubbish bins the world over. But the ability to convey emotion and inner thoughts and the commitment to communicate difficult subjects, as well as the finely crafted writing, set this book far above that level. Like all Linda’s books you’ll want to read it again, and you won’t forget the characters.

It deserves to be available in paper form but I have no doubt that her growing legion of readers will snap it up in ebook form, wondering why it’s so cheap as they do so. Her last book, which was the first to be released as an ebook, has sold over 10,000 copies without the benefit of publisher’s advertising budget. I expect this one to do even better.

Old Tom at the Open again

Add comment July 16th, 2011 02:00am billmarshall

Regular readers of this blog (two men and a dog in Kazakhstan) may be surprised to know that I don’t play golf, though I’ve written about it quite a few times. So much to do and so little time. I do enjoy watching it though. It one of the few sports that you can be certain is clean and where there’s no cheating. But what I really like about it is that it’s such a visible match of man against the elements and it exposes all the good and bad points in the players’ personality – the confidence or lack of it, the nerves, the determination, the composure, the imagination, the ability to accept the rub of the green or the bounce of the fairway. On the golf course under the cameras there’s no place to hide.

So here we are at the Open again, and what a privilege it is to watch the play and the demeanour of Tom Watson. Two years ago Tom did something that was by all reasonable measure quite simply impossible. At 59 and having recently had a hip operation he gave the youngsters a lesson in links golf and led for most of the tournament and was a stroke ahead going to the last hole. Forget the fact that he missed the putt that everyone in the watching world except maybe Stewart Cink’s mother wanted him to hole and then lost the play off – he finished joint first in the Open at 59. That was simply unimaginable.

Now here he is again at 61 and still competing, and we have the lovely story of him playing alongside the very promising young amateur Tom Lewis (40 years younger) – who was actually named after him! Surely only in golf could such a thing be imaginable let alone actually happen. To any golf historian the very words Old Tom and Young Tom have an immediate resonance of course. And here again we seem to have the youngster taking over from the revered older man with a tournament-leading first round score.

But Watson has outlasted not just his contemporaries (and of course we tragically lost his old rival Seve recently) but many of the stars that came after him, with a swing that is the purest you could ever hope to see and has stood up to everything that his favourite links winds have thrown at him. Indeed there is the suspicion that if the winds had blown more over these first two days he might have been nearer the leaders than he is. The crowds everywhere love him, though up here in Scotland I sense there is maybe even more affection, as he seems to have been adopted as one of us, a man who plays golf as we feel it should be played. He handles himself with dignity and modesty and clearly enjoyed his young namesake’s play.

You’d think that would be all you could expect, with maybe making the cut as a bonus when ex-champions all around, not to mention the top two players in the world, were failing to do so. But no, this legend had one more present for the crowds – a 4 iron clipped perfectly at the 6th hole that never left the line of the flag and took one bounce before diving in for a hole in one. You really couldn’t make this stuff up because no-one would believe you. And once again he handled it with grace and charm. A truly special player and man.

The forecast for tomorrow is for bad weather – we may not have seen the last of Tom even yet.

Proof that all established publishers are nuts…

1 comment July 12th, 2011 09:18pm billmarshall

… and becoming increasingly irrelevant.

I’m lucky to be able to keep in touch with my old profession of books by having a couple of excellent authors as web design clients.

Theresa Breslin is one of the best children’s authors in the world and recently just missed out on a second prestigious Carnegie Medal for her latest novel – though she did win the nod from the children who were shadowing the official judges.

Linda Gillard is a writer who is a little harder to pin down – “intelligent romantic fiction” is maybe the nearest you could get to a short snappy description but really she has a lot more depth than that conveys. She started with the independent publisher Transita for her first two novels, the innovative Emotional Geology which took the brave step of having a heroine who was middle aged and was recovering from mental illness and which was set in South Uist, and the dark and challenging A Lifetime Burning, then moved on to Piatkus for the third, Star Gazing, a slightly more mainstream romance except that the heroine has been blind from birth while the male interest is from Skye and has the second sight. Translated into a number of different languages it has proved a popular and award winning book, but here things started to go wrong when the publisher demanded more of exactly the same and rejected the book she actually wrote next. Like most real writers she was not one to churn out formulaic stuff and wrote the ideas that came to her, and she was forced to part from them and seek alternative publishing.

In the meantime her popularity amongst the online book discussions and bloggers was really taking off – something that could have been easily researched by any publisher – but astonishingly her subsequent books have been consistently turned down by all the publishers they have been submitted to. As a result she decided to publish her most recent book – House of Silence – as an ebook. In that form it has done very well, and despite setting a low price she has done better from the sales so far than she would have done from a full price paperback.

Despite all this, a proven author who has lots of enthusiastic readers and online fans who are waiting impatiently for anything she writes, her latest book has again been turned down by a swathe of publishers. What on earth are they thinking??? A number of them praise the book but say they wouldn’t be able to market it – it seems it’s just not easily classifiable in to their standard categories. As an ex-bookseller my response is that most publishers couldn’t market free beer!

The fact is that many publishers even 30 years ago when I joined the trade had little idea of what readers wanted or how to market to them; it was the booksellers, mainly independent booksellers, that knew how to do that. Now the independents are all gone – forced out of business by the supermarkets and Amazon – and most books that don’t make the supermarket’s top 20, usually riddled with celebrity’s memoirs or the latest semi-literate Dan Brown imitator, have only Waterstones left to promote them, at a cost, or Amazon, at a large discount.

Such is the state of bookselling now that any publisher who wants to have their books succeed must be aware of online support and then make the most of it. Otherwise no-one is going to do their marketing for them and many good authors are going to be ignored. Since most of them don’t seem to have the required understanding it’s inevitable that many more authors will take the path that Linda has and publish themselves, and eventually publishers will become obsolete. And it’ll serve them right!

Last week I had the privilege of reading Linda’s latest book pre-publication so I can design a new page for it on her website, and as usual I found it a compelling read. It’s called Untying the Knot and will be coming out in September and if Linda ok’s it I’ll do a review of it here shortly.

Supporting Andy Murray et al

Add comment July 8th, 2011 01:07am billmarshall

Wimbledon is over for another year, lots of good tennis if maybe not a classic year, but thank heavens we can get a rest from the endless build-him-up, knock-him-down media frenzy about Andy Murray. When will we ever learn? When will we tell the media that they should get a life and be realistic about him, and for that matter about any of our other sportsmen and women, instead of following them like sheep and splitting into love/hate camps.

Some countries support their sports stars, nurture them, encourage them, help them to be better. Champions don’t spring forth fully formed, they have to learn, develop their skills, work on minimising their weaknesses, building their confidence and mental strength. We seem to demand instant results.

Did Seb Coe (still the most electrifying athlete I’ve ever seen, despite his politics) arrive on the scene winning senior medals from the word go? Of course not, he worked his way through the junior and student ranks and built up through early performances before blossoming into a wonderful runner. Did Stephen Hendry sweep all before him immediately? No, he was wonderfully good but he had to learn how to handle the pressures of the Crucible, and then how to beat Steve Davis before he started to dominate the snooker world. Did even as precocious a talent as Seve Ballesteros win straight away? No. Yet I recall listening with astonishment to a Radio 5 discussion when Andy Murray was about 19 that slagged him off for not having the right physique and basically writing him off before he’d hardly started his career. They compared his build unfavourably to Nadal, who was a very early developer physically and is now running into problems with ankles and knees because of the strain he puts on them. And of course Nadal is now talked about by many as being one of the all-time greats.

The fact is that Murray is a very good tennis player who has developed his game and skills over the last few years and has had great success. He’s won many tournaments and has reached the final of majors. He reached the semis at Wimbledon, which was exactly where his seeding and world ranking suggested he would reach. That’s not failure, that’s being beaten in the latter stages of a tournament by a player who is supposed to beat you as current form stands. If that was the Olympics he’d have got a medal and we’d be celebrating it, not bemoaning his loss and declaring he’ll never win a gold. Give him some encouragement and maybe he’ll win one.

This attitude runs throughout British sport these days, if you’re not the greatest ever then you’re a failure. It takes a seriously strong mental attitude to survive the pressures the media puts on our sports stars. We expect them to be winning machines instead of human beings, forgetting that the real glory of sport is often in dealing with our human weaknesses and overcoming seemingly impossible problems. Think of Danny McGrain who came back from a career-threatening fractured skull to be one of the best full-backs in the world, of the battles against depression of Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree or a couple of England test cricketers. Of Bob Champion and Aldaniti. Sport isn’t a black and white contrast of champs and chumps, it’s a continual striving to be the best you can be and any media pundit who forgets that does sportsmen and us all a great disservice.

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