Monday, January 27, 2014

Dans la merde

As politically incorrect as it is to endorse cultural stereotyping as a source of comedy, the French really don't make it easy on themselves.

I'm not talking about the cheese-quaffing, onion string-wearing, berét-adorned 'Allo, 'Allo view of the Gallic nation which Brits still see as prevalent in France. No - and thankfully - this concerns the reputation for apparent rabbit-strength bedroom hopping.

Nowhere has this ever been more amusingly depicted than in A Shot In The Dark, the second Blake Edwards comedy to feature Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. It opens with a brilliant, almost-single tracking shot of various members and associates of a French millionaire's household sneaking about in the middle of the night to carry out furtive assignations with other members of the household.

The first full scene of the film then goes on to perpetuate the apparent regularity of marital infidelity in French society by the hilarious gag of Herbert Lom - as Chief Inspector Dreyfus - on the phone saying: "Yes my darling. Give my love to the children. I will be round later with some cheese and wine" only to be interrupted by an aide saying "Your wife's on the other line".

Cue, then, the public exposure of President François Hollande and his somewhat comic trysts via scooter in the appropriately named Rue de Cirque, which is so close to the Elysées Palace, he could have crept over there in his pyjamas and slippers and not been spotted.

The conventional wisdom is that the French are largely indifferent towards the whole affair, and that the only indignation is over how the story was exposed by Closer magazine, rather than the president's moped-borne shags with the actress Julie Gayet.

We Anglo-Saxons have even been accused of getting more excited about the entire soap opera than even the locals. But even the most blasé French person must have felt the slight tinge of embarrassment as the presidential bedroom arrangements turned into a farce leading up to last weekend, as rumours circulated of the volatile Valerie Trierweiler's reactions to the revelations. These include the allegation (later denied) that she smashed a Eur 2.5 million vase from the national heritage collection, that she'd overdosed on pills, and that she was holed up in a presidential property in Versailles, holding out for compensation or some sort of formal settlement between her and her former partner, a president invariably characterised as resembling "a suburban dentist".

So, spring forward to Saturday. More farce. Rumours flew around Paris that Hollande was to announce the official separation of himself from Trierweiler. These rumours were consistently denied by the president's people. Until the president himself, "speaking in a personal capacity", called the AFP news agency to declare: "I am making it known that I have put an end to my shared life with Valerie Trierweiler."

Coming on the eve of Trierweiler - in an official capacity as the suddenly now ex-First Lady - jetting off to India for a charity trip, Hollande appeared to be taking charge of the situation for the first time since Closer published that picture of the blue raincoat-clad French president disguised only with a scooter helmet that made him look like a reserve member of Daft Punk.

Hollande may have hoped that his 18-word statement to the AFP would been an end to the fuss. After all, France has worse to worry about than on which bedpost its president plants his chewing gum overnight. But there is a sense here that Trierweiler hasn't even begun to extract her pound of flesh from the situation, and that claims for some sort of legal compensation could drag on for months, distracting Hollande further from the weightier task of addressing spiralling unemployment and the  economic quagmire that is enveloping France.

But, at least, after his apparent dithering over ending the relationship with Trierweiler added to national perceptions that Hollande is floundering, politically, as president, the mood has turned since his announcement on Saturday evening.

Political commentators have even suggested that this could prove a turning point in his presidency, that despite the intrusive perception abroad about his love life, he does, after all, have the cajones to tackle the French malaise.

Just don't bring up the subject of whether he has delivered on his election promise to run a reputationally "exemplary" presidency. Because there, some might very well find fault.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

As a Mata of fact

I'm fairly confident that when Joni Mitchell wrote her ode to urban development, Big Yellow Taxi, she gave the minimum consideration to the possibility that the line "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/Til it's gone" would end up in a piffling blog post about a football transfer. it has.

Anyway, the matter of Juan Mata has prompted something of an existential crisis amongst Chelsea fans: is the club paving paradise and putting up a parking lot by selling the the 25-year-old creative midfielder?

News that Manchester United is to pay a club record £37 million for the Spaniard has prompted the inevitable collective swallowing of objects hard and jagged amongst the Chelsea faithful (who, according to the London Evening Standard "reacted furiously").

Just what logic lies behind selling a gifted player to an arch-enemy that is merely down on its luck? One newspaper columnist has even suggested on Twitter that Chelsea should, instead, be applying even more boot pressure to United's throat, rather than potentially easing it with Mata's sale. After all, this won't be like loaning Lukaku to Everton and allowing him to do all the damage he can to everyone but his parent club.

Rational, slow-breathing logic says otherwise. In fact, more considered opinion says that Chelsea is taking a morally superior position by breaking one of the taboos of high-end football in selling top talent to a top rival. There is something decidedly gentlemanly about it, with the 'new' conciliatory José Mourinho doing a professional favour for David Moyes. I doubt the snarling, conspiratorially-spooked Mourinho would have been capable of sanctioning such a sale during his first spell in charge at Chelsea.

"We are not afraid of his going there to do very well for United. We want him to go there and be happy to do very well for United," Mourinho said on Friday. "We hope he does well. We are convinced he's going to do well. Obviously, when we play him, we're going to try to win and he'll do the same, but the reality is that everybody in this club, the owner to the last man, wish him the very best."

Yes, you did read that. And, yes, Mourinho did say that. Scholars will spend decades trying to figure out whether this was more Mourinho doublethink.

It has been clear, however, that Mata would never be an easy fit in Mourinho's system at Chelsea. Which is a shame. His 2011 signing from Valencia gave the club the sort of creative ingenuity not seen since Gianfranco Zola hung up his No.25 shirt. In fact, if I was to be honest, Chelsea had been somewhat starved of such mercurial guile in the original Mourinho era, and in the subsequent attempts by various managers to ply the sort of sexy, Catalan football Roman Abramovich so coveted (and indeed coveted Barcelona's former manager to do so).

Mata's arrival, under the Villas-Boas regime, may have been intended to give Fernando Torres much needed delivery, and from a compatriot too. But it soon became apparent that he was more than just Jeeves to Torres' Wooster. Making his debut against Norwich in a late August fixture, he came on as a substitute for the uninterested Florent Malouda and scored Chelsea's third goal in stoppage time.

Such heroics tend to seal your reputation with fans. We still sing of Zola's substitute appearance in the 1998 Cup Winner's Cup Final, coming off the bench and scoring within 30 seconds. Come to think of it, we still sing of Dennis Wise equalising against Milan in the San Siro. We'll take our pleasures as they come.

The fickle nature of football fans is well known. We take pity on the most unlikely of causes, while ignoring more obvious - or even worthy - candidates for our affection. Mata didn't take long to demonstrate his appeal. He had Zola's footballing wit, to some degree he had Zola's personality. He's an intelligent player, whose blog posts and Facebook videos have showcased a counter-cultural footballer who engaged himself in London life in a manner more endearing than just bouncing off the walls of Chinawhite whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Mata confirmed his status at Chelsea by being named Player of the Year by fans at the end of his first season. Indeed, nine days after receiving the award he underlined his popularity by providing the vital assist that allowed Didier Drogba to score the goal that won Chelsea the Champions League. He won the same award for the 2012-13 season, adding the Players' Player of the Year award into the process.

And then came Mourinho. Quite what it was that placed Mourinho and Mata so far apart from the beginning is still not clear. There is some strong suggestion - from Mourinho himself - that Mata's weakness is his inability or willingness to cover as much of the park as Oscar, who replaced him as the go-to-guy for central midfield attack.

There's no glossing over the fact that Mata - by all accounts just a genuinely likeable character - has been unhappy warming the bench as the outsider of Mourinho's preferred midfield triumvirate of Oscar, Hazard and Willian. The uncharacteristic flounce when substituted against Southampton on New Year's Day said it all (though, to be fair, he hadn't been having the best of games). Even seeing him warming up on the Stamford Bridge touchline last Sunday during the Manchester United game had a 'What's the point? I'm not going to get a game anyway...' shrug about it.

But from this Chelsea fan, at least, good luck to him. Usually there is nothing worse than an out-of-favour player bitching and moaning from the sidelines about a lack of opportunities. Usually they're sidelined because, simply, they're crap, have become crap, or are Winston Bogarde. Mata isn't any of those things. Moreover, he has kept his dignity and remained professional.

Recognition of that professionalism has been rewarded by a gentlemanly, though clearly lucrative (for Chelsea) transfer to David Moyes' moribund-looking team.

It's a win-win-win-win situation: football gets to see a top talent playing regularly again, Mata gets the spotlight for his World Cup ambitions, Manchester United get a player who might spark those around him to play more like champions, and Chelsea can sit atop the moral high ground, banking the money.

True, Chelsea have handed over a brilliant player who could have become essential to Mourinho's plans, but for now he's in charge of a team over-blessed with midfielders, ironically, much like Manchester United was some years ago when they were branded 'Midfield United'. Clearly, Chelsea can afford to lose one. It remains to be seen whether Mata is the right one.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Manchester can one day become the city of David

"We want you to stay," sang the Matthew Harding Stand ironists, "David Moyes - we want you to stay."

As if the Manchester United manager didn't have enough to contend with, he now had Stamford Bridge's resident smartarses mocking the likelihood of a dejected Moyes throwing in the towel. The same wags who, 12 months ago, were leading the calls of "You're just a fat Spanish waiter" towards Rafa Benitez.

For Moyes you can't help but feeling sorry. Not an easy sentence to write that, after my years of recriminative bile aimed at Manchester United and the puce Scotsman who did his level best to annoy all around him, while leading the club to an unprecedented 22 league titles.

Bereft of the troubled Wayne Rooney and the motivationally questionable Robin van Persie, and with club captain Nemanja Vidic and the similarly relative veteran Patrice Evra ageing before our very eyes, it is clear what ails Manchester United this season. You could see it in Vidic's half-hearted efforts to gee up his colleagues in the United backline, as Chelsea's quixotic midfielders, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Willian ran rings around them, while Samuel Eto'o - himself a shadow of the once breathtaking talent at Barcelona - pulled off a hat-trick of audacious cheek.

But perhaps the greatest insult to Moyes' pride came four minutes before Phil Dowd blew his whistle for a final time, when José Mourinho, who had clearly seen enough, headed for the tunnel with a jaunty skip, not before throwing a consoling arm around his opposite number's slumping shoulder.

Chelsea's defeats at the hands of Manchester United have left a long and stinging tail. My teeth still grind at the memory of 1994’s 4-0 FA Cup Final humiliation, one I had to endure twice - once at the old Wembley Stadium, and again when I turned up for a night shift at Teletext to find the day shift editor I was taking over from was a rampant Manchester United fan, patently beside himself with glee as I walked up the steps to the mezzanine-level newsroom.

But there was something weird and pale in the victory this afternoon at Stamford Bridge. This wasn't the capricious Manchester United of old, but a misshapen collective lacking cohesion in some places, experience in others, and the sort of bag of tricks that Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to refresh whenever the fancy took him.

Many have scratched their heads over how SAF could lead more or less the same team to their 22nd title at a canter and yet barely eight months later they are looking ragged. But let's entertain the ridiculous here: Fergie spent much of his final couple of seasons resolutely maintaining that he wouldn't be retiring just yet. And then he just did. Is it just possible that the wily old git saw the end coming for the squad he'd evolved? All good things come to an end - just ask Liverpool at the beginning of the 1990s. And even the juggernaut that has been Manchester United, winning titles and outspending its rivals on the biggest and the best, can't go on forever.

Not that it's over. But with Manchester City scoring goals for fun, Arsenal defying expectations and hanging on to the Premier League top spot, and the wily Mourinho underpinning a pragmatic Chelsea that is maintaining pace with the league leaders, while Liverpool are at least keeping in touch with Champions League places, the playing field has been leveled this season, with Manchester United reduced to mere competitors, as opposed to swaggering champions-elect.

Talk of David Moyes getting the sack is, quite frankly, ludicrous. He"ll do fine, I'm sure. But, first, he needs to spend to replace the aged legs, instill the self-confidence and cohesive discipline so obviously lacking, and find a way to nurture the junior talent that could be the core of Manchester United's next golden generation.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

I remember Agincourt...

Jerry had his Tom. Sherlock had (or has...?) his Moriarty. Batman, his Joker, Superman his Lex Luthor. And England has France.

Only one of them, of course, has enjoyed an extended period of detente. But lurking beneath the apparent veneer of co-existence between neighbours separated by the thinnest ribbons of sea is a stream of bubbling magma that periodically, and usually at the slightest provocation, bursts through the cultural fissures that do exist between these two countries.

The latest eruption concerns work. More specifically, how much we do. Or, put another way, who does more and where.

The trouble began last week when Allister Heath, the editor of City AM, a free business newspaper for London, ran an uncompromising editorial in which he branded France a "failed socialist experiment". Having now lived in Paris for three years I would argue that the buses and trains run on time, the streets are washed almost every night, and the rubbish is collected every two days. Which basically makes this country Cuba but with better cars.

However: "France’s economic sickness," wrote Heath, "is primarily due to its overbearing state, horrendously high tax levels, insane regulations, absurd levels of inefficient public spending and generalised hatred of commerce, capitalism, success and hard work."

Fans of The Goon Show might consider this the reverse fixture of The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill On Sea). Whether Heath was merely making the point that France is rapidly turning into Europe's biggest economic basket case (strong argument that it is, to be fair) or was simply kicking off the first full working week of 2014 with a bit of neighbour baiting is unclear.

Either way, France's representative to the Court of St. James was somewhat "n'était pas amusé". In reposte, the French embassy issued a thunderous list of the Top Ten reasons why Heath got it wrong, refuting his claims about the French economy ("Even if one might hope to see faster growth, a little homework would have revealed that France’s economy is not in fact 'shrinking at an accelerating rate'."), that economic growth forecasts were notoriously ropey ("the national statistical agency, and Banque de France have had a better track record and both point to an economic rebound in the last quarter of 2013"), that the French state and tax system is overbearing and horrendously high, and knocking back other claims related to the French national political, economic and social culture.

But what raised the collective French handbag highest was Heath's assertion that, well, the French simply do not work as hard as the British, and that any multinational thinking of opening up a branch in France would be wise to think again.

"A very simple data search reveals that France’s labour productivity stands at a healthy €45.4 per hour worked according to Eurostat." harrumphed the embassy. "This is well ahead of the EU-27 average of €32.1 (source: Eurostat 2012). Furthermore, the OECD reports that the average usual number of hours per week worked in France stood at 38 hours for 2011, compared to 36.4 in the UK and 35.5 in Germany (source: OECD 2011). Hard work indeed!"

Well, that told us. The timing, however, couldn't have been worse, coming amid the vaudeville farce surrounding the shagging arrangements of le président de la République, and Scooterman's attempts to reacquire the national news agenda for his strategic national purpose.

As a Brit working in Paris, last week's brouhaha has both put me in an awkward position, as well as in a position of unique perspective. To address both, let's bring the two offending children to the front of the class.

We can quibble all night long on whose economy is in better shape, but to suggest that either country works harder is, to me a moot point. In fact, all those convenient economic indicators about legally-defined working hours, average wages and contribution to GDP are, while well recognised for their statistical importance, utter bollocks when you're pulling another all-nighter in a London bank, or in the office in Paris on a Saturday afternoon, just because that's the only time the boss can see you.

My experience, after working in France for three years, is that people work as hard as I've ever seen, if I take into account the people in my company, and indeed the behaviour of office workers in buildings around Paris. The two-hour lunch break, which was by no means a myth, is more or less no more. And while it's true that France enjoys more public holidays and longer summer holidays than anywhere else in Europe, I've yet to see any let up in people working like mad to get things done before they go away.

I am, though, a manager. I'm therefore not required to clock in and clock off in quite the same manner as French employees working to the country's criticised 35-hour week. But, then, this is where generalisation is a dangerous animal. Just because I'm working in a company that has downsized dramatically and is, by its own admission, in recovery from financial struggle is clearly not going to be the touchstone for every other worker in France.

Is the UK any less or any more a diligent worker? I doubt it. And I don't think you can deliver such a cultural verdict anyway. You will find on both sides of the English Channel the dedicated and the hardworking, as well as the dysfunctional and the feckless.

But is there any major distinction, really, between the two countries' economies? Yes, France may be struggling to emerge from recession, and yes, it does suffer from its own adhesion to high taxes and an equally high level of flexibility-crushing bureaucracy, but the UK - currently - is no better. Have the Bullingdon Boys really turned the corner and transformed Britain into Europe's economic miracle?

Which means that all this mudslinging should be chortled at, but nothing more. As any rudimentary history scholar will know, spats between Britain and France have been part of the rough and tumble of our neighbourly co-existence ever since the British Isles cast off its moorings and positioned itself 21 miles off the French Coast.

For every dull British comedian's jibes about cheese and deodorant I can assure you that there are equal barbs about binge drinking and romantic incapability in the UK. We do enjoy a good wind-up of our nearest and closest: I had a teacher at school who threatened to devote an entire lesson to Agincourt should I attempt to bring my French exchange student into class. I also have an aunt who refuses to buy French Golden Delicious apples - on principle.

The upshot is that the margin of difference between the nations is, I can vouch, is thin. Indeed, as thin as that slither of water that keeps these two nations apart. Sort of. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Who's The Boss? Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes

There is a poetic circularity in that WWDBD?’s maiden voyage of 2014 should feature one of the highlights of 2013.

Seeing Bruce Springsteen at the Stade De France, one delightfully balmy night last summer, was the fulfilment of a unfilled curiosity desire to see just what all the fuss was all about.

Was he really capable of pulling off marathon, four-hour sessions of such messianic fervour that he had the crowd quite literally out of the palm of his hand? Was it possible that the artist, would keep his side of the bargain and be the infectious, rock’n’roll fanboy his reputation pertained to? And could he possibly carry off a major stage show without the presence of ‘The Big Man’ himself, Clarence Clemmons?

The answer, of course, was yes to all of those questions. And, frankly, there shouldn’t have been any doubt to begin with.

Springsteen is a full-on presence in the rock firmament. There are no half-measures. And, for the last decade or so, he has been pushing an incredible momentum of recording and touring that would shame acts half his age.

As an artist so wedded, image-wise, to America’s industrious heartland, Springsteen has always been a tireless toiler. But even by his own standards, the last half decade has seen a noticeable uptick in productivity, with Devils & Dust, The Seeger Sessions, Magic, Working On A Dream and 2012’s Wrecking Ball coming along in quick succession.

Much like Paul Weller, another exponent of applying work ethic to an abundance of creativity, whose own purple patch has yielded a similar rate of return, Springsteen doesn’t seem to want to stand still, even as he heads for his 65th year. "It's that old story, the light from the oncoming train focuses the mind," he recently told Rolling Stone.

It was, then, only somewhat of a surprise when, in November, he announced that there would be another album early in the new year. Except that it is only sort of a new album: High Hopes brings together 12 songs that have either lain around on shelves, or have been included in the live shows, and adds new arrangements and Rage Against The Machine alumnus Tom Morello, who appears to have become Springsteen’s latest BFF.

Appearing on eight of High Hopes’ tracks, Morello’s heaving guitar - and vocals - certainly adds a different texture. Springsteen has never been one to let his sound stagnate and even when attempts to freshen it up don’t quite work - as on a couple of Wrecking Ball’s tracks - you still have to thrust your hat skywards at his endeavour.

So is High Hopes, as a sort-of-new album, and therefore only sort-of Springsteen’s 18th studio recording, any good? Well, it’s a Springsteen album, which gives it an instant bye to the top half of rock's Premier League. But, as Manchester United are finding this season, a history of unrelenting glory doesn’t always mean another trophy is immediately on the cards.

Thus High Hopes does have a feeling of being a patchwork lacking the narrative that threaded through Wrecking Ball's tirade against the modern human condition, and The Rising's angry tilt at 9/11. Perhaps that may have something to do with some of the tracks being recorded in transit during the Wrecking Ball tour in studios as far flung as New Jersey, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and even Australia. On top of that, E-Street stalwarts Clemmons, who died in 2011, and pianist Danny Federici, who died in 2008, both appear posthumously on various tracks, giving it all the air of a garage project that has been chipped away at over time, rather than in one concerted effort.

That isn't the case, though, but Springsteen recognises that High Hopes is a collection of original songs and a couple of covers, material that has been aired on the road but never committed to the studio, and stuff that has been lying around in bits and incomplete pieces, waiting for the dust to be blown off them.

Despite the unevenness, High Hopes is unmistakably Springsteen. This is no vanity project; this isn't Sting on some mad flight of fancy turning German baroque choral cantatas into jazz lite; and this is certainly isn't the inevitable “can’t be arsed to come up with anything new, so let’s do a covers album” limp offering. It’s a collection of Bruce Springsteen songs by Bruce Springsteen - what more could you want?

It starts off brightly enough, with the title track - a cover of a twenty-year-old song by LA’s Havalinas - launching with a drum machine snare riff that could have been the intro of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love. In Springsteen and Morello’s hands, it’s a poppy, Latin-infused bouncer that, while losing the energy it had live during the Wrecking Ball tour, sounds like its been in the Springsteen canon forever.

But from there we switch to Harry’s Place which should have been on either an early 80s Don Henley album, or the featured track in a Miami Vice episode. Not that it's's just that it lacks some of the vitality that made Wrecking Ball a mostly excellent album.

More of this pop sensibility lurks in the first formal recording of American Skin (41 Shots), the controversial and acerbic shot at police brutality that built to anthemic proportions in the live set last summer, carrying more of Springsteen's Spectorish wall of sound, rather than the somewhat anaemic treatment here.

I am, of course, being a little picky, but then that is the critic's right. Luckily, next door, Just Like Fire Would restores things to where they should be, with a song - originally recorded by Australian rockers The Saints - that in Springsteen's hands uncannily resembles John Cougar Mellencamp's Small Town, though that, I suspect, is simply from being a product of the same homespun, blue collar ethic.

The Ghost of Tom Joad, is another live stomper, which gets a new recorded treatmentin which Morello duets with Springsteen. Springsteen himself says that while Joad may have been a favourite live, "it was among the best of my writing and deserved a proper studio recording". On record, Joad takes on a heavier feel than live, when the entire E-Street Band get to spread out. Here it feels compressed, with Morello's guitar growling heavily underneath and his vocals - strongly reminiscent of the great Warren Zeavon - providing a dryer contrast to Springsteen's trademark rasp.

If there's one thread that does run through High Hopes, it is that the album moves through the gears to arrive at the Springsteen register die-hard fans prefer. Not for them Dancing In The Dark, with its trite Top 40 cheese, but instead the colder, sparser likes of The Wall, the playfulness of Frankie Fell In Love or the rustic charm of Hunter Of Invisible Game.

High Hopes will, I'm sure, disappoint those hoping, wanting or even demanding that the glut of vital new Springsteen material continues at the pace it has done this last half-decade. And although you can't help but feel that this is a rummage through the odds and sods of songs written or prepared during various eras going back over 30 or even 40 years, there is just enough to satisfy the appetite. That said, we have to assume - and I'd say safely so - that Springsteen's next outing won't be a polishing of unglued items in a scrapbook, but a record with the singularity of purpose and story of Wrecking Ball.