Archive: Current affairs

Bobby Fischer Against the World cover

This year everyone has been talking about the Senna documentary, including me. But while praise for Senna has come from F1 fans and non-fans alike, I have been more impressed by another sport documentary from this year — Bobby Fischer Against the World.

Chess may seem like an unlikely game to take to the big screen. But chess comes alive in this riveting documentary about one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.

The term ‘flawed genius’ may be an overused cliche, but if it applies to anyone surely it is Bobby Fischer. The film tells the story of how a variety of factors contributed to a great man’s decline.

The centrepiece of the film is the famous 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The individual American took on the might of the Soviet chess system, which had dominated world chess for a quarter of century. This Cold War face-off had as much political significance as chess significance, as is cleverly illustrated through the use of archive news footage.

But the chess itself is never forgotten. The significant moments of the match are explained in a very vivid and accessible manner. I would guess that little or no chess knowledge is required in order to enjoy this film. The world’s most popular board game doesn’t have a sexy image, but after watching this film you wonder why.

But what stays with you is the tale of Fischer’s decline. This is where this film excels over Senna. It is a painfully honest assessment of the downsides of Bobby Fischer’s character. In the Senna hagiography, the driver’s flaws are only ever briefly brought up, and even then it is only to sweep them straight under the carpet.

In contrast, Bobby Fischer Against the World in unafraid to shine the torchlight on the enigma of the world’s greatest chess player who managed to alienate everyone he knew. At times it is painful and embarrassing to watch as a successful man becomes a delusional, anti-American, antisemitic and all-round offensive man.

In doing so, the film paints a genuinely complete picture of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures in sport. Senna, in contrast, only skims the surface.

I recently learned about a Twitter account that campaigns against Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee’s excellent culture hub in the centre of the city.

Typical tweets include:

[blackbirdpie id=”124581248428548096″]

[blackbirdpie id=”124933453421617152″]

I went to see Friends with Benefits a few weeks ago, and it was pretty awful. The highlight is one funny joke about iPads in the middle. The rest is just mush. No harm in that of course. But the great thing is that I saw it in Dundee, at the Odeon, which is about a ten minute drive away from the DCA.

It’s funny because I was only just thinking about how extraordinarily well-served by cinemas Dundee is. I live about a 40 minute walk away from three cinemas. Two are “mainstream”, and the other is the DCA, which usually shows films that the others wouldn’t. The DCA shows some films that I really like. While the two mainstream ones may not be in the “town centre”, at least they are there.

Where I used to live, in Kirkcaldy, no such luck. There is the Adam Smith Theatre, which shows a small selection of films that were on general release six months ago. Besides that, you had to go to Dunfermline, a half hour drive away, then drive to the outskirts of that to get to the nearest cinema.

Off the top of my head, I think I have seen six films at the cinema this year. Three of them were at the DCA; the other three were at the Odeon (one of these films was also shown at the DCA). Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe I’m just a snob. But the three I saw at the DCA were by far and away the better three.

I understand the arguments against the public subsidy for the DCA. But the idea that, if the DCA wasn’t there, a multiplex Odeon would magically sprout up in the city centre, is a tad fanciful.

Cinemas are rare beasts these days. It’s no conspiracy. It’s because commercially it doesn’t add up the way it used to because of changes in society (for the positive) over the past few decades. With this in mind, I have felt lucky to live somewhere with as many as three cinemas nearby.

After moving to Dundee a year ago, the DCA quickly became one of my favourite things about the city and I celebrate its existence. The great thing is that, for those who do not like what is shown at the DCA, there are two other cinemas that are just a stone’s throw away (even if they are not in the “town centre”).

I would hate for the most unique cinema of the three to go.

Today it was announced that the Asian rounds of Superleague Formula have been cancelled. This is on top of the earlier cancellation of the South American rounds. The original 2011 calendar also contained races in Russia, the middle east, Australia and New Zealand. None of these took place.

In the end, the only two races that took place were at Assen in the Netherlands and Zolder in Belgium. This means that the championship was decided way back in July — but we only learned that today!

It was already quite an effort for those two races to take place anyway. Superleague had seemed worryingly dormant over the winter, and many suspected that it was dead.

Following in the footsteps of A1GP

The parallels between Superleague and A1GP (another failed attempt at an ‘F1 alternative’) have always been striking. Both have core concepts that are slightly alien to motorsport.

A1GP described itself as the “World Cup of Motorsport”. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t even win races. Nations did.

Meanwhile, Superleague was designed as a cross between football and motor racing. Drivers didn’t win races. Teams didn’t win races. Football clubs did. Any football fans I ever spoke to about Superleague were not very interested in the series. For this reason, the format was always going to be a loser.

But on the plus side for both A1GP and Superleague, they both provided some quite entertaining racing. And it is on this basis that they both attracted a cult following — a small but loyal fanbase. But this clearly isn’t enough of a fanbase to sustain a series for more than a few years.

A1GP lasted for four years. Cunningly, the series was run over the winter. Not very traditional for a motorsport series, but this meant that they could draw in motorsport fans suffering from withdrawal symptoms. It was moderately successful, and it led to GP2 (the closest thing there is to an official feeder series to F1) creating a spin-off GP2 Asia series that was run in winter. (GP2 Asia has since also been wound up, having had a troubled 2010–2011 season of its own when it was affected by the unrest in Bahrain.)

Not a super formula

When A1GP closed down, Superleague opened up and has so far continued for three seasons. Superleague runs with the same type of car, with the same type of drivers on the same types of circuits. For want of a better phrase, these are a B-class car, with B-class drivers on largely B-class circuits.

I have nothing against this personally, and I personally enjoyed watching A1GP and Superleague whenever I got the chance. But you have to question whether it is a formula for success in terms of bringing in an audience.

Sad but true: the standard isn’t high enough

There are lots of brilliant series below Formula 1 that provide real appeal. It is a sad fact that the motor racing world revolves around Formula 1, and the most successful sub-F1 open-wheel series are all about finding the F1 stars of the future. GP2, World Series by Renault, GP3 and the many Formula 3 series all stake their claim as being a testing ground for the stars of the future.

But series like A1GP and Superleague Formula cannot make this claim. As a result, their appeal is sadly limited. A series like Superleague is populated by drivers who aren’t good enough to progress further up the ladder. Some drivers almost made it to F1, but didn’t quite have the last bit that was required. If you’re lucky, there might be the odd ex-F1 driver like Jos Verstappen. But the world isn’t exactly set alight by the prospect of a battle between Neel Jani and Craig Dolby.

It is true that A1GP has been a stomping ground for a few future F1 drivers like Nico Hülkenberg. But these drivers had to make their way through GP2 aftewards to get to F1.

Because let’s be fair here. It is generous to describe the drivers in Superleague as ‘B-class’. B-class open-wheel racers can be found in IndyCar. IndyCar struggles enough to survive as it is. But at least some of its drivers are household names like Dario Franchitti or Takuma Sato. Jobbing open-wheelers whose sights haven’t extended to IndyCar end up in a series like Superleague.

While I have always found the concept of Superleague Formula to be shaky, I do hope that it is able to survive this embarrassing season and come back stronger in 2012. But I sadly doubt it will be the case.

There are lots of great things about the railway, but the industry’s use of language is not one of them.

I have often been amazed by the linguistic tangles conductors often find themselves in when they try to “talk posh” during announcements. Clearly they are not trained about the importance of plain English. This problem was covered excellently by the Guardian’s Mind Your Langauge blog calling for railspeak to be terminated.

Another recent article on the BBC News website looked over some of the dodgy phrasing of railway delay excuses. The cryptic but common explanations include “tanking train toilet” (the loos won’t flush) and “poor railhead adhesion” (the track is slippery).

On the ubiquitous “signalling problems”, the article notes that this is usually caused by cable theft.

I don’t know why they don’t say ‘It’s because some so-and-so has stolen 150 yards of cable.’ That’s going to get people on-side.

This evening my eyebrows were raised by a tweet I spotted from the National Rail Enquiries ScotRail Twitter feed.

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This “DISRUPTION CLEARED” is a dead body. It can’t just be me that feels that there could be a more sensitive way of describing this than “DISRUPTION CLEARED”.

Standing at Hangar Straight

The morning of Saturday 20 August 2011 at Silverstone was warm and sunny. It was difficult to imagine that the weather would be a problem. As I was staying in a campsite just a stone’s throw away from the circuit, I thought nothing of just heading there in a t-shirt.

The morning was brilliant. As outlined in a previous post, I had a brilliant time wandering around the circuit and watching the qualifying sessions that were taking place.

The big race that I was looking forward to, the Formula Renault 3.5 race, was approaching. A breeze picked up, and it even began to rain. There was no way I could nip back to the campsite to pick up some warmer clothes. I had to sit it out, high up in a stand, with the bitter wind blowing right through me.

I didn’t actually feel too cold. The buzz of watching the race allowed me to ignore it more than I otherwise would. I did have a cold for about a week afterwards. But it was definitely worth it.

We opted to sit in the stand at Maggotts, where you can see the cars twice a lap. Early on in the race one driver dropped back significantly, so for almost the entire race there was always something to see.

I had worried about what it would be like trying to watch a race from the side of the track rather than the living room. Television has the obvious advantage of being able to follow the cars all the way round the track, rather than simply making do with them blasting past.

Of course, watching a race in the flesh is an exhilirating experience. But it requires a bit of skill. Sure, there are are the commentators on the public address system. But you can’t hear that when there are cars in the vicinity. So it’s a matter of taking the bits you can see with your eyes, and the shards of whatever you hear from the commentators, and piecing them together.

For Saturday’s Formula Renault 3.5 race I could almost never hear the commentators. My interest in the race did not wane though.

The main interest at the start of the race was watching Jean-Eric Vergne make his way back through the field. Vergne had to start from the pits after an apparent electrical problem on the grid. But his class was clear to see as he was able to make up several places during the race.

A clear top three emerged, with Robet Wickens, Alexander Rossi and Daniel Ricciardo opening a significant gap to the next small group of cars. For a couple of laps it looked like Rossi was capable of passing Wickens. But in the end, Ricciardo in fact got the better of Rossi, and the promising American had to make do with third.

I assumed that Wickens had won, because I couldn’t hear the commentators and we were nowhere near the finish line. I was only while I was walking round the circuit again after the race that I managed to find out for sure!

(I trudged back to the campsite to retrieve my jacket. Right on cue, the blazing sun came out again.)

It was a crushingly dominant weekend for Robert Wickens. He turned up late for Sunday qualifying after being stuck in traffic on the way to Silverstone, but that still didn’t stop him from taking pole and another win.

For Sunday’s race we opted to sit on the outside of Copse, opposite the sole television screen in the circuit. The idea was to get a fuller picture of what was going on in the race. This location has the added bonus of being at the pitlane exit, so we saw the moment when the weekend got from bad to worse for Jean-Eric Vergne!

Vergne breathes down Ricciardo's neck

The start of the race went well for him, as he was running in second place. But a wide range of different strategies were used by the drivers, and Vergne ended up behind Ricciardo after his pitstop. The pair had a pretty good battle, and Vergne had a good look at Ricciardo going into Copse.

They were so close that it was impossible to imagine any car separating them. So imagine the sensation when Nathanael Berthon emerged from the pits just in front of Vergne! From looking set for second, Vergne ended up in fifth! Definitely a weekend to forget for Vergne.

But a weekend to remember for Robert Wickens and his team, Carlin. They wrapped up the Teams’ Championship at Silverstone.

Formula Renault 3.5 wasn’t the only category to provide major excitement though. After our visit to the village, we emerged to see Mégane Trophy Eurocup cars completing their qualifying session. They were instantly captivating. For me, these cars were the surprise highlight of the racing action.

The championship may be crushingly dominated by one man, Stefano Comini, who has won 10 of the 12 races so far this season. But that doesn’t matter because these cars are so entertaining to watch. They look fantastic, but best of all they sound fantastic.

Later on in the day we watched race from Vale. Stefano Comini had a poor getaway but soon made his way up to second, behind his teammate Niccolò Nalio. The battle was hugely exciting to watch. Comini was clearly superior on the brakes, and I am sure at one point they even touched here at Vale.

Comini finally passes

It was only a matter of time before Comini would pass. In fact, I wondered if Comini’s advantage was only at Vale, because it was inconceivable that he could be so clearly superior, yet still unable to pass.

I later spoke to someone who watched the race from another part of the circuit, and he confirmed that Comini also looked stellar there as well. It just goes to show. Catching is one thing. Passing is another matter.

Comini did manage to pass Nalio in the end. A class act in the Méganes.

It is hard to believe that the 11 September attacks were ten years ago now, when I was only 15.

I was at school, waiting for my German Writing lesson to begin. It was probably my least favourite subject. As such, I didn’t especially mind the delay in the lesson beginning, thought it was quite odd.

My teacher kept on going between the classroom and the staff room. Eventually he wheeled a television through and told us we should watch this because it would have pretty big implications. If I remember correctly, we saw the second plane hit as it happened.

I thought I was pretty switched-on for my age in terms of knowing about politics and current affairs, but Islamic extremism of this nature was new to me. At the time, I mistakenly thought that the fact that the Pentagon had been hit was the biggest story. In isolation it would be bad enough.

But the resonance of the images of the World Trade Centre was incredible, and the scale of the loss of life was unimaginable. I seem to remember the news reports talking about the potential that tens of thousands of people may have been in the World Trade Centre at the time.

It was difficult to comprehend. There was one person in my class who had to have the concept of a suicide attack explained to him several times. We laughed at the time, but his attitude was right. Why would you do that?

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the rioting at looting that has been taking place in parts of the UK. But I fully support the sentiment behind Operation Cup Of Tea, the “Anti-Riot” that took place on Facebook and Twitter at 8.30pm today.

Stay positive and have a cup of tea.

Operation Cup of Tea

I have created the Ed Miliband random statement generator. It took some pretty extreme coding skills, so I’m quite proud of this.

For anyone who doesn’t know what this is about, check out this astonishing video:

What a tangle Formula 1 has found itself in, again. The sport has ended up on the front pages for the wrong reasons yet again.

The problems with rescheduling Bahrain

The reinstatement of the Bahrain Grand Prix is somewhat of a surprise. Clearly the situation in Bahrain is not the sort of circumstance where you can reasonably expect to hold a major international sporting event in complete security.

Employees of Pirelli were in Bahrain when trouble first flared up, when the GP2 Asia race had to be cancelled at the last minute. According to Adam Cooper, they are “not keen to return”.

Then there are the morals of holding the grand prix when the spotlight is on Bahrain’s human rights record. (Not that regularly holding grands prix in China seem to make many people bat an eyelid.) If Bahrain’s problems are temporary, as some maintain, then let them prove it and return next year.

If holding the grand prix will be a “unifying force” for Bahrain, as others claim, take a look at the planned “day of action” for 30 October, the rescheduled date for the grand prix.

30 October. That brings me on to the logistics of this. It is clear that holding the race even in a perfectly peaceful situation would involve a logistical mountain to climb. Not only does it involve moving the Bahrain Grand Prix. It also involves moving the inaugural Indian Grand Prix to the end of the year, which in turn stretches the length of the season to breaking point.

The teams are not happy about the prospect of racing just a couple of weeks before Christmas. By that time, their workers will be overdue a holiday. If the season gets much longer, teams would have to contemplate hiring extra staff. But with everyone involved in Formula 1 desperately trying to keep a lid on costs, this would be a painful step to take.

All of this makes me think, what is really going on here? Is it feasible? What is the real story?

Why move the Indian Grand Prix?

30 October was whispered as a potential date for a rescheduled Bahrain Grand Prix a few weeks ago. My very first thought was, “Why move the Indian Grand Prix?”

Last year there were high-profile troubles with the new Korea International Circuit. The circuit was barely finished in time, as it failed inspection after inspection. In the end, the race could be held — just. But it was marred by a dreadful spray problem in rainy conditions, which some attributed to the type of tarmac that had to be used to lay it in a hurry.

Fernando Alonso recently said, “It was completely dark and it was so wet. It was one hour delayed because of the wet. We could not follow the safety car because of the spray. There were so many things in one race that it remains quite shocking what we did in Korea.”

As far as I’m aware, there is no serious suggestion that the Buddh International Circuit in India is in danger of not being completed in time. But it is not complete yet, with just a few months before the original October slot.

Has the Indian Grand Prix been moved to give the circuit constructors a bit more breathing space to ensure that the circuit is completed properly? To have another Korea-style embarrassment for a second year running is clearly to be avoided.

Perhaps the main aim was to move the Indian Grand Prix, and use Bahrain as the pawn to do it. If the FIA decide that the Bahrain Grand Prix cannot be held after all, they will simply cancel it and keep India in its new 11 December slot.

What’s going on with the 2012 calendar?

On the same day, the provisional 2012 calendar was published. It also had a couple of surprises. Bahrain and India are both in the calendar in the positions you would expect, the same as the original 2011 calendar.

What is a surprise is that Turkey is included — albeit with one of those infamous asterisks. All previous indications were that the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix would be the last one.

With the addition of the United States Grand Prix, this nudges the calendar up to 21 grands prix. This has always been a big no-no. Even 20 races is pushing the limit of what the teams are in favour of. Bernie Ecclestone claims his aim is for a 20 race calendar. Jean Todt says that there will “absolutely not” be as many as 21 races next season, despite the provisional calendar.

So what’s going on? It seems to me like the powers that be are trying to cover all the bases. If Bahrain can’t take place next year, Turkey is ready to go and Bernie has his 20 races. Similarly, if India can’t take place, or the USA, or indeed any other race, the backup plan is there.

With one extra race in the calendar anyway, this looks like a way for Bernie Ecclestone to be sure that, after this year’s hiccups, 2012 will have 20 races.

Is this the greatest theme tune ever? And have you ever heard the full version of it?

I bet many don’t know about the guitar break in the middle!

I reckon you could probably tell how old someone is by what pictures they associate the boing with. For me, it is a snooker ball going down a pocket — or that goalkeeper’s handstand save. Sadly I haven’t been able to find either of these on YouTube.

Here are a few of the title sequences from over the years.

Grandstand really ought to still be on TV for the theme tune alone. If you ever wondered why it is no longer on TV, here is the answer. It was killed forever by a weedy remix. They even removed the boing!

The terrible music is bad enough. But what is incredible is that almost everyone in the video is doing anything apart from watching Grandstand. They are in the gym, drinking coffee, playing pool, and even doing the shopping. But they are not on the couch watching five hours of sport (apart from the young family at the end, but that is totally implausible).

Needless to say, the remix didn’t last.

It was a rocky path to recovery. This one from 2004 is bad in the opposite way. There is too much happening, but the classic montage style is gone. Worst of all, the theme tune is being spoken over!

Here is the beginning of the final episode of Grandstand, from 2007.