Monday, 27 December 2010

The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

Borden and Angier as portrayed by Christian Bale (left) and
Hugh Jackman.
Well, first of all, let's start with the fact that I bought Priest's The Prestige a long time ago, probably not long after it published in 1995; but, for whatever reason, I didn't read it – or rather I started and then put it down. It remained on my bookshelf for many years and is still there now, the difference being that, as of 26 December 2010, it has been read and, I must say, it's up there with the very best of all the books I've read. Why? Because of the way it was written, the fact that it was well-researched – or at least I assume it was – and because the characterisation is so rich and the story so authentically told. For a book set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but written in the late twentieth century, it manages the conceal its youthful nature through the style of the writing, a lot of which is in diary form and conveys the thoughts of the two main characters – that of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier – both of whom are magicians, one who calls himself the Professor de Magie and the other, The Great Danton.

In essence, the book documents the rivalry between the two men and how they each attempt, on numerous occasions, to sabotage the other's act. In fact, that word 'attempt' is misleading as Borden, more so than Angier, manages successfully to sabotage Angier's act and, in the process, causes him great harm. One of Borden's early attempts results in the loss of Angier's unborn child, although later he inadvertently saves Angier from drowning when one of his illusions goes wrong.

The main theme of the book, however, is the quest of both men to discover the secrets of each other's main illusion, that of teleportation from one location to another. In Borden's case we discover that body doubles are involved in his New Transported Man, something Angier finds hard to believe (although it turns out to be true). Subterfuge is involved when Angier's wife defects to the 'other side' by working for Borden, initially to find out his secrets, but ultimately she falls in love with him and sends Angier a false lead after admitting her original intentions to Borden.

Angier receives a note from his wife informing him that the secret of Borden's act lies in the work of a Professor Tesla who is experimenting with alternating current in Colorado. Angier travels to the USA and asks Tesla to manufacture a machine that will enable him to transport himself from one place to another – in other words, not an illusion but a reality: a machine that literally transports matter from one location to another. Angier pays a hefty sum for the equipment and, for a while, appears to have been ripped off until he discovers that the paid-for equipment had been shipped and was probably languishing in a dockyard somewhere in the UK.

Once retrieved and assembled, the equipment does its job and Angier discovers that, without the aid of a body double – a method he does employ prior to meeting Tesla – he can transport himself from the stage to the circle seats of any theatre as long as it has electrical power. He manages to wow audiences the length and breadth of the country and becomes very rich in the process, but his great nemesis, Borden, is always lurking in the audience, trying to sabotage the act.

On one occasion he manages to somehow switch off the power of Tesla's appartus at a crucial moment in the act when Angier has passed the point of no return. The end result is that two Angiers spring into existence, one being his original self and the other his part-transported self – a ghost-like wraith who decides that enough is enough and that he must kill Borden. But when push comes to shove, he can't do it. The 'other' Angier, the one that initially entered the Tesla machine, becomes ill and eventually dies.

It is important to remember, however, that Angier is also part of the aristocracy and so has two identities: one being Rupert Angier (The Great Danton) and the other Lord Colderdale of Derbyshire. With the Great Danton dead – and so, by default, Lord Colderdale, only the wraith-like Angier is left and he decides to end it all by using the Tesla equipment once more to re-unite himself with the other Angier who is now in the Colderdale mausoleum.

While most of the book is set in the mid-18th Century and early twentieth, the first and last parts are set in modern times. The book starts with a reporter – an unknowing descendant of Borden – visiting a descendant of Angier and explaining how he always feels he has an identical twin somewhere in the world. These feelings are strongest during his time in the Colderdale stately home and it is not until the end of the book, when the reader is back in the present day, that story reaches its rather eerie and frightening conclusion.

I loved this book and was elated to discover that my son Max had a DVD of the movie, which I sat down and watched last night (Boxing Day 2010) having finished the novel that morning. Sadly, although understandably, considering the novel's intricacies, the movie was considerably different from the book and nowhere near as good. Borden is portrayed as some kind of plucky cockney magician – not how I imagined him at all – and he and Angier see a darn sight more of one another than they do in the book (where most of their encounters are during acts of sabotage). The movie has Borden accidentally killing Angier's wife, when in the book he kills their unborn child. Unless I missed it, Borden is not shot by Angier and Borden is never in prison awaiting hanging. What's more the modern-day element of the story is completely ignored as is the eerie climax to the novel. All in all, while the book was one of the most impressive I've read in a long time, it was let down by the movie – but only, I'd imagine, for those, like me, who had read the book. Coming to the movie in isolation, it's a good film.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Cycling and running boom shows appetite for sports participation

 New participation figures published by Sport England paint a mixed picture of progress in grassroots sport, with strong growth in running and cycling but a decline in other major sports, including football and swimming.  
Cycling has experienced strong growth in terms of participation,
claims Sport England
Overall, the slow but steady increase in participation numbers seen over the past five years continues, with 6,938,000 people now taking part in sport at least three times a week. Today’s Active People Survey results show that regular participation is now 123,000 closer to the Government’s aim to get one million people playing more sport by 2012/13.

Weekly participation in athletics (including running) has swelled by over 263,000 over the past two years, buoyed by a growing network of informal running groups across the country. Over the same period, cycling’s numbers are up by almost 100,000. British Cycling’s Chief Executive, Ian Drake, said:

“We put great stock on trying to ensure our participation initiatives truly meet the needs of those we’re hoping to get involved in our sport. Indeed, we can partly put the continued success of Sky Ride down to the fact that we listen to participants and adapt our offerings based on the feedback we receive. We’re committed to getting more people on their bikes and importantly, keeping them cycling. What is particularly exciting for us is that we’re confident there’s plenty more to come and throughout 2011 we will be launching more new initiatives to help get more people cycling more regularly.”

Netball’s participant numbers are up by over 26,000, an increase of a fifth in the size of the sport in two years. Much of this success comes from the Back to Netball programme, which tempts women to return to the sport with a fun and flexible offer.

This is just one of the initiatives that have contributed to a recovery in women’s participation in 2010, but the gender gap in sport remains a challenge.

Of real concern, however, is the continued under-performance of five of the top seven participation sports, including the only sports with more than two million weekly participants - swimming and football. Their size means that this decline has a major impact on the overall growth of grassroots sport.

For these two – and other sports such as cricket and rugby – the challenge is to arrest the drop in participation outside the club structures where they have traditionally focused most of their attention.

The past 12 months have also been a tough period for sports that are costly and time-consuming such as golf, sailing and skiing. There has been a marked drop in participation in these activities among men aged between 35 and 44, a key period of economic productivity in most people’s lives.

Sport England ’s Chief Executive, Jennie Price, said:

“It would be fair to describe today’s results as a mixed bag. It’s good to see a wide range of sports – from individual pursuits like running to small team sports like lacrosse - demonstrating that, with the right approach, increasing grassroots participation is a realistic ambition.

“What is concerning, however, is that a number of major sports have yet to deliver, despite significant levels of investment. They now urgently need to demonstrate their ability to grow participation in their sport and prove they can make a significant contribution to sport at the grassroots level.”

The Minister for Sport and the Olympics, Hugh Robertson MP, said:

“During the comprehensive spending review we fought hard to get a good settlement for sport, keeping the Whole Sport plans in place. Now it is vital to see a return from the investment sports get from the public purse. I want every pound that national governing bodies spend on the grassroots to count.

“Our recently launched ‘Places People Play’ strategy will help get more people participating but we also need sports governing bodies to step up to the plate and deliver. Some sports are making progress such as athletics and netball and we need to learn lessons from them to get growth across the board.”

Me and Martin 'Wolfie' Adams, the darts player...

Martin 'Wolfie' Adams and yours truly, Evesham, December 14th 2010.
Alright, I know, I'm a friend of the stars. Here I am in Evesham at a social club with darts legend, Martin 'Wolfie' Adams. I had a really tiring day as I journeyed down to Evesham by train, getting in at around 7.15pm, then I hiked over to the club, interviewed Wolfie and a few others, got back to the hotel, checked in around 10.30pm, had dinner (it was a great hotel, the Riverside, Evesham, right on the Avon and great staff, clean rooms etc) and then, up to the room to start writing the feature. Finished it at 0130hrs, emailed it to David, the designer, then went to bed. Got up at 0630, had a Full English at 0700hrs, went back to the room, wrote the products pages (this is Club Mirror magazine, by the way) then jumped in a cab to Evesham station, discovered that a bridge had collapsed so spent £40 on a taxi to Warwick Parkway and then over £30 on a ticket to Marylebone. Got home, had a Marmite sarnie, drove over to David's, passed the issue and got back home again at 6pm. Then, at 10.30pm went out to pick up Max from Gipsy Hill, not a very salubrious place to be on foot at night. Got to bed around 11.30pm.

The great thing about Martin Adams was that he, like me, was born and bred in Sutton, Surrey. We had a good old chinwag about Sutton pubs, what a great bloke!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Smithy, the John Smith's No Nonsense racehorse – and me!!!

Here I am, yours truly, with Smithy, the John Smith's No Nonsense racehorse.
I was at the stables of Ginger and Donald McCain, both accomplished racehorse
trainers. Ginger, who turned 80 recently, trained the famous Red Rum. This shot
was taken on the first day of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, which was rained off.
What a great-looking racehorse – and, come to think of it, I don't look too bad either!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Leprosy, lager and psychics

I appear to have the knack of attracting some extraordinary people whenever I’m out and about. Once, on a train to London from Manchester, I sat opposite a woman who was reading, not Elle or Cosmopolitan but Leprosy Review. With two cans of Stella inside of me, and nothing like a book or newspaper to occupy my time, (that’s why I bought the lager) I found myself in fits of laughter – as a lone traveller, it never looks good – as I considered asking her if I could borrow her copy. It was the whole idea of being that desperate for something to do on the train journey that I was prepared to resort to reading a magazine about leprosy.

The woman noticed my shoulders shaking uncontrollably and, looking distastefully at the two crushed cans of Stella on the table in front of me, she asked me what I found so funny. With great difficulty, I told her and she let me read her magazine. It turned out that she was a doctor, but no ordinary GP. She was – and probably still is – the foremost authority on leprosy in the United Kingdom.

This week, I was in Northampton, of all places, on business, and I decided to walk back to the station rather than order a taxi from the office block I had been sitting in for the past hour. The walk was uninspiring and, as it was lunchtime, I thought I would find a tearoom or restaurant for a bite to eat.
Near the station there is a pub called The Black Lion, which, as a blackboard outside announced, was under new management. Having been editor of Pub Food magazine for six years, I can sniff out ‘pub grub’ from 100 yards and this was the sort of place, I figured, with a menu based around frozen chips and bar snacks and where ham, egg and chips was considered a delicacy. I played safe and ordered a ham sandwich.

I ended up in the pub because of Bruce’s Coffee Shop next door, which I hadn’t associated with the boozer. They were, I discovered, one and the same, which, in itself, was slightly odd: a coffee shop, a kind of independent version of Starbuck’s or Caffe Nero, inside a pub.

I stopped for a cappuccino and then walked through to the pub where I stayed for a beer because I liked the licensee. He was a decent sort of chap, ex-services, had been in the first Gulf War and was now the pub’s licensee. My sandwich was fine and I considered ordering another, but the crisps and salad accompanying my order sufficed and I survived on three pints of St Austell Tribute, one of three real ales available, the others being Spitfire and London Pride.

A man walked in and ordered a pint of Guinness. I had been chatting to the licensee about this and that and it transpired that his girlfriend worked in the local hospital, which I assumed was something like ‘Northampton General’. The man with the Guinness made a deliberate noise of disgruntlement at hearing this, and it turned out that he had spent six months there being treated for serious brain damage. He had been thrown off a nearby railway bridge by a group of Asian men in what the licensee described as a racist attack. Had a passer-by not spotted the man, he would have died.

The man was now on medication as a result of the attack and was only permitted a maximum of two pints of Guinness by the licensee. He only stayed for one. Apparently, the unprovoked attack had stirred up ill feeling among local hard men and revenge attacks had taken place.

The pub had recently been re-opened and the licensee told me that it dated back hundreds of years and had close associations with the impressive St Peter’s church next door.

The three pints of Tribute inspired me to take a closer look at the church. Prior to leaving my rather comfortable position at the bar, where I had been quietly writing an article about the Wye Valley Brewery on my laptop, I had noticed a man talking to the licensee. When I reached the church, there he was again taking photographs.

“I’ve got over 600 photographs of churches on my computer,” he told me, proudly, as we stood together in the churchyard while he continued to snap away. He produced his business card and, to my surprise, he was a paranormal investigator doing a bit of footwork for a psychic and medium called Susan Mock.
That surname bothered me. Mock. Mock not, but he said she was good and told me about a forthcoming meeting somewhere in Northampton. I loitered around the church for a while, admiring its inner beauty before boarding a train back to London.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Birthday cake for my daughter, aged 11

I must take after my mum, a dab hand at making cakes ever since I can remember. Perhaps it's because I've stood in the kitchen watching her, waiting to lick the bowl, or it might be that I have the cake gene, which means I can always make a decent sponge or whatever. I should have been a baker.

Anyway, I'm rambling. My daughter was 11 on the 7th January 2010 and because I simply wasn't prepared to fork out loads of cash for a ready-made Waitrose cake, which, to be honest isn't the same as baking one at home, I decided to do just that. Here's the recipe:-

Matthew's Birthday Cake


8oz self raising flour
8oz butter or margarine
8oz sugar
4 eggs

Butter icing

4oz butter or margarine
8oz icing sugar
A drop of vanilla essence


1. Mix all of the ingredients together until a smooth mix is achieved and then spoon the mixture into two sponge tins, making sure that both tins are lined with grease-proof paper.

2. Bake in the oven for approximately 20 minutes until both sponges rise. You'll know when it's ready, but keep an eye on the oven.

3. When ready, leave to stand for around 30 minutes and then prepare the sponges to be joined together. This might mean slicing a piece off the top of one of the sponges to make it flat. Then spread jam over the flat surface of one of the sponges and butter icing over the other one. Sandwich them both together and hey presto, a sponge cake!

Tip: I sprinkled the top of my cake with icing sugar. Put a small amount into something like a tea strainer and then just tap gently over the surface of the cake.

Walking from Sanderstead to Caterham in the snow

Pix from the top: the top of Tithepit Shaw Lane, Warlingham; Sir William Jones park in Warlingham; the gates of Sir William Jones park; more shots of people sledging in Sir William Jones park; and a shot of Kenley airfield. All very bleak, but I enjoyed a nice pint or two in the Wattenden Arms.

"Don't venture out unless it's absolutely necessary!" And what did I do? I ventured out! In fact, I walked 12 miles from Sanderstead to Caterham and back to see David Foster and hand over some copy for a magazine entitled Club Report 2010. On Tithepit Shaw Lane, a very steep downward descent towards Whyteleafe from Warlingham, I slipped over twice, once in front of a couple of girls – how humiliating! Two hours later I reached my destination, had a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit and then headed home via Kenley and a pub called the Wattenden Arms where I met Geoff Althoff, the illustrious illustrator.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Tell us another one...

As gritters lay rock salt on our roads, Matthew Moggridge wonders whether the nation as a whole should be taking large pinches of the stuff whenever it reads the newspapers or listens to the politicians.
Let me start by saying that I’m not a psychic, I don’t have a third sense and I can’t see dead people. I am a normal person with, it has to be said, a rightly suspicious mind.

Way back at the beginning of 2003 when plans were afoot to invade Iraq, my brow was furrowed as I listened to media reports about resolution 1441, the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ – which WAS dodgy – and all that stuff about how we, the citizens of the UK, were just 45 minutes away from being blown to bits by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

I remember all the trips Hans Blix and a gaggle of IAEA inspectors made to Iraq to try and find nuclear weapons that simply weren’t there and, of course, I recall the very suspicious (and, in my opinion, still unresolved) David Kelly affair. In short, it didn’t add up, but the impression we, the public, were being given was that everybody was trying their level best to avoid military intervention. This, of course, was a huge lie.

I remember saying to people at the time when military action was first being mooted that it was a foregone conclusion. I just had a hunch that everything else was mere posturing to make it look as if we really tried our best to avoid an invasion of Iraq but in the end we simply had to go in to protect the UK. And then, to add insult to injury, to double-bluff the public, we heard afterwards that our intelligence services were simply not very intelligent and that was why we accidentally invaded sovereign territory. But, oh dear, it was too late to go back by then so we’d better get on with it.

I’m still amazed at how people actually believe it. I won’t mention names, but people very close to me have what can only be called blind faith in Government.

And now, of course, the truth is coming out, thanks to the Chilcott investigation, and we hear that Blair really was Bush’s poodle. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: Blair is not going to be punished in anyway for his role in what amounted to an illegal invasion of another country. If I recall correctly, Blair has been appointed Middle East Envoy. But hold on a minute, isn't that like giving Nick Griffin a job with the Commission for Racial Equality?

In fact, judging by the way things work in this country, he’ll probably be rewarded for his role in creating a climate of fear in the UK that had a knock-on effect elsewhere and, of course, lead to other people being given awards when, perhaps, they should have been overlooked. Cresida Dick, the woman in charge of the police investigation that led to an innocent Brazilian being mistaken for a terrorist and shot dead on Stockwell tube station was recently awarded the Queen’s Medal.

Sadly, the message here is that you simply cannot trust anybody in this world, certainly not the Government, whether it’s Labour, Conservative or Liberal. Never trust or believe in what you read in the newspapers or hear on the television and always bear in mind that somewhere there’s a hidden agenda – especially where the bigger, longer running stories are concerned. Invariably, somewhere along the line, you will find that your suspicions were, to some degree, right.

The reason I have decided to put pen to paper is a newspaper report on the so-called swine flu pandemic that, at one stage, was going to be infecting a ridiculously large number of people in the UK. I think it was supposed to be something like 100,000 people per day! I remember thinking that this would mean that I was definitely going to be infected at some stage. I bought zinc from my local health food shop, started eating loads of navel oranges and making a point of keeping well away from anybody with the slightest sniffle. I began envisaging days off work, Lemsips and everything else one associates with the flu – like the Jeremy Kyle Show – and, secretly, I hoped that if I was struck down I would not be one of those who died from the disease.

The Government was predicting 64,000 deaths. The climate of fear created and fuelled by the media had, to a degree, worked – until I started thinking, hold on, 100,000 people per day, surely I will know somebody with swine flu? Oddly, nobody I know has caught the disease – absolutely nobody.

The so-called ‘swine flu’ pandemic was great for the work shy. All they had to do was call a helpline and spell out, to an indifferent telephonist,a few symptoms and they would be sent some Tamiflu and signed off of work for a week – job done (or not in this case). Anybody could do it and nobody was going to ask any questions.

In the same way that the credit crunch gave businesses carte blanche to sack people without a decent reason, swine flu provided skivers with the equivalent of a Get Out of Jail Free card.

And now the truth might be floating to the surface. I use the word ‘might’ because the report I read this morning was in a tabloid newspaper, an area of the media where the phrase ‘economical with the truth’ is definitely an understatement – although hats off to the Sun for a great headline when swine flu was welcomed into the UK; it led with ‘Pig’s ‘ere’.

It is being claimed, not in the Sun, that the head of health at the Council of Europe, Mr Wolfgang Wodarg (there’s probably an anagram there somewhere) believes that the World Health Organisation’s swine flu pandemic was, in fact, completely false and driven by the drug companies who stood to make billions out of convincing us that it was for real. Surely not!

The Council of Europe has passed a resolution, proposed by Mr Wodarg, calling for an investigation into the role of the drug companies involved in the scandal and this at a time when it has emerged that the British government is trying to offload a huge consignment of Tamiflu that it ordered at the height of the scare. Not another case of faulty intelligence, surely?

But there is a big problem here. If we stormed into Iraq for no reason, if swine flu was a sham, then what about climate change? We’re all busy trying to reduce our carbon footprint while putting up with the fact that China and America are producing more greenhouse gasses than the lot of us put together – it all begs the question, what the hell is going on?

It’s all a matter of trust and I for one will continue to take everything I’m told with an extremely large bag of salt – even if it is true that the UK diet contains more salt than any other country in the world. Perhaps that’s not true either.