Sometimes it’s impossible to part with the things we love the most…
Published on February 4th, this novel is billed as “Perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant and The Keeper of Lost Things, this exquisitely told, uplifting novel shows us that however hopeless things might feel, beauty can be found in the most unexpected of places.”
Personally, I can’t wait.
When Amy Ashton’s world came crashing down eleven years ago, she started a collection. Just a little collection, just a few keepsakes of happier times: some honeysuckle to remind herself of the boy she loved, a chipped china bird, an old terracotta pot . . . Things that others might throw away, but to Amy, represent a life that could have been.
Now her house is overflowing with the objects she loves – soon there’ll be no room for Amy at all. But when a family move in next door, a chance discovery unearths a mystery long buried, and Amy’s carefully curated life begins to unravel. If she can find the courage to face her past, might the future she thought she’d lost still be hers for the taking?
Detective Constable Bailey Morgan is back doing what she does best – working undercover.
This time she has to infiltrate the inner circle of a notorious underworld family. Posing as a fellow villain, she is on a one-woman mission to bring the family to their knees.
But things are never that simple. Bailey finds that she is forced to confront shadowy wraiths from her past and will come face-to-face with a set of devastating revelations that will shatter her world and threaten her very existence.
With only herself to trust, Bailey is on her own and the stakes are higher than ever.
Heart-stopping and gripping. Perfect for the fans of hit TV shows such as Line of Duty and Gangs of London.
Caro Savage is a new writer to me. I had missed her debut, Jailbird published in October 2019, but I liked the sound of her latest effort, Villain.
The fact that she has the best name for a crime writer since Karen Slaughter, only interested me further!
I am happy to report that she lives up to her name: this novel is top notch. Savage manages to sprinkle the consequences of her protagonist’s previous undercover exploits through the novel with a light touch as well create a plucky, highly skilled detective who you want to go on the ride with.
It is not often that we see the far reaching results of exposure to violence and the effect that has on those that undergo it. Here, Bailey is on beta-blockers after a diagnosis of PTSD courtesy of the horrors she has previous undergone.
A bugbear of mine in crime fiction is that convincing, flowing dialogue can often be the casualty of action but Savage manages the trick of making her characters distinct, recognisable and also realistic.
The other thing that Savage manages to do is ramp up the tension. Bailey’s interactions whilst undercover make your palms sweat as the threat of violence and trauma hangs over every encounter and keeps you hooked from first to last.
I have to be honest, the seam of black humour which runs through the novel – a severed arm torn asunder by a car bomb landing with a splat in front of a homeless man in the opening pages is a particular treat – keeps this novel from the potential of all thrillers to topple towards melodrama and is like a palate cleanser from the tension and thrills.
Caro Savage has announced her arrival as a writer to take note of with this thrilling follow up to her debut and I can’t wait to come across Bailey again.
Caro Savage knows all about bestselling thrillers having worked as a Waterstones bookseller for 12 years in a previous life. Now taking up the challenge personally and turning to hard-hitting crime thriller writing, Jailbird was published by Boldwood in October 2019.
Courtesy of Catherine Yaffe, PAJNewman is delighted to be able to bring you an exclusive extract of The Lie She Told – You can read a review of the novel here
All Kate wanted was a peaceful life.
All Ryan wanted to do was destroy it.
Kate and her son Joe have created a new life for themselves in the Highlands of Scotland and she couldn’t be happier. That is until she picks a stranger up from the side of the road that turns out to be a figure from her past. Will all her secrets be revealed?
“Ryan?” She asked, risking a glance sideways
“Haha, I wondered when it would dawn on you”
“What the hell..how..” Kate was speechless. She’d last seen Ryan on the final day of the court hearing, hanging around outside on the court steps. As memories slowly clicked into place she went through a series of emotions. Her hands started to shake, heart pounding she moved from recognition to anger in a split second.
She swerved violently and pulled haphazardly onto the side of the road.
“What the actual? What are you doing here?” she removed her seatbelt and despite the lashing rain opened the car door and got out.
“Get out of my car now!” she yelled above the cacophony noise that swirled around the hills of the Highlands.
Ryan leaned over into the driver seat and shouted something, but Kate could only see red as rage, shock and fear took over.
“I want you out of my car now!” she screamed again, shaking with anger.
Reluctantly Ryan did as she demanded and stepped into the monsoon,
“Kate, come on, don’t be like that”, he headed around the front of the car towards her.
She backed away,
“Oh no you don’t, stay away from me Ryan”
Ryan carried on forward, relentless, “Kate, what’s wrong with you?”
“Stop it Ryan, I don’t have to listen to anyone, anymore. I am not the same naive victim that you knew back then, and I will not listen to your bullshit”
Catherine Yaffe is a former freelance journalist, magazine editor and digital marketing agency owner. Catherine has previously written non-fiction books on Digital Marketing before following her passion for writing crime novels full time.
The Lie She Told is the first in a series of books that challenge the status quo of relationships and makes the reader question how well you know those around you.
Catherine lives in West Yorkshire with her husband Mark and their 2 cats Jenson & Button (she’s also a F1 fan!)
‘It got better, in time, though to be truthful it always felt more of a duty than a pleasure: a little like homework, satisfying when over, and done well, but never exactly enjoyable. But then nobody had ever suggested it could be otherwise.’
This was the view of Claudia Faraday, 1920s respectable wife and mother of three, on the subject of sex. That is until an unexpected turn of events shakes her out of her torpor and propels her back into the world revitalised and reawakened, where she discovers, as Marie Stopes might have said: Approached in the right way, even homework can be fun.
The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a delightful little novel which consistently confounds expectations. The cover, with its silhouetted protagonist could be for a new spy series, the pink writing could signal traditional “chick lit” (urgh – what a bind of a brand that is), the “Roaring Twenties” strap line makes it sound like a PG Wodehouse romp and the blurb description could be anything from a Jilly Cooper bonkbuster to a serious and measured study of the sexual awakening of upper middle class women in the early part of last century.
And, in the end, this rather sad, rather charming novel is a little of all of these things, (although spy thriller is a stretch. The only revelations here are of the human heart and mind, it is a little lacking in unmasked super villains to be fair.
It is sad. This is a quite and understated sadness of withering dreams and slipping youth. Claudia is a lovely protagonist. A gentle and well intentioned woman who, in her sixth decade, is only beginning to question her wants and desires.
Trench writes with such a penetrating pathos of the boredom of a newly empty nest that the reader’s heart aches for our heroine, so used is she to being of service to others that she is not even the lead character in her own story.
“And so the weeks passed, September into October, and no omnipotent author stepped in to liven up the shapeless plot that was Claudia’s life. She was back to counting the creaks as she ascended the stairs on her way to her bedroom.”
I spent a huge amount of time in the novel feeling desperately sad for Claudia. The Twenties were in distinct danger of not only failing to roar for her but also to go out with barely so much as a whimper.
It was clear that not only sex, but also any agency had been ground out of the character: by society; by men; by her friends; by her mother. This fundamentally sweet woman hadn’t noticed the hypocrisy of everyone else and so was facing the outgoing sands of time in baffled and barely articulated sorrow.
This gentle gloom is alleviated by the light touch, page turning writing skill and the assortment of charming oddities which surround her.
The loyal housemaid Lily – fairly consistently having to let her hand fly to her mouth after yet another misplaced observation of her mistress – is a cutie, old friend and occasional sparring partner Prue, seems to be made up of equal parts scandalous affairs in hot climates and terrible driving.
The absentee husband Gerald sounds what used to be called a perfect pill. Having ruined sex for her, then impregnated her three times scooting off overseas for archaeological digs, he could only make it to one of their children’s weddings.
The children themselves add colour and charm to the rather drab world of their mother. Jessica has a horsey laugh, a disordered house and is a flapper with a jolly husband with an alliterative name; Harriet is a Bohemian with a penchant for interior design and a wayward husband while the youngest daughter, Flora is all horse breeding and country air.
It is not a difficulty to spend time in the world of these delightful characters. It is especially easy when Claudia is making her slightly waspish observations such as:
“It was invariably the revolutionaries who managed to consume most of other people’s wine, and their food, while looking down on them from some lofty moral plinth upon which they had placed themselves.”
In conclusion, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a nice little novel filled with excellent characters, charming locations and the quiet desperation of some of our fellow citizens. I can’t wait to meet up with them again.
Patsy Trench lives a quiet and largely respectable life in north London. Claudia’s story shows a side of her normally shy and reserved nature that is little known, even to her friends and acquaintances. Her previous books, about her family’s history in Australia, are entertaining and informative accounts of that country’s early colonial beginnings. She began writing late, and in a previous life she was an actress, scriptwriter, playscout, founder of The Children’s Musical Theatre of London and lyricist. When not writing books she emerges from her shell to teach theatre and organise theatre trips for overseas students. She is the grateful mother of two clever and grown-up children, and she is addicted to rag rugging and, when current circumstances permit, fossicking on the Thames foreshore for ancient treasure.
I have always loved Nick Hornby. I fell in love with his prose when Fever Pitch came out and was suitably skewered by his analysis of insecure, introspective young men with High Fidelity. I was, of course, charmed by About a Boy.
And, although I feel like these are going to the three books on his tombstone, even his less well known/popular books are, at worst, always readable.
Love Across the Brexit Barricades
I can’t quite decide if this book is going to get him in trouble or not. It certainly tap dances into some pretty heated areas: this is a novel of love across Brexit barricades, splintering society, race. Not too many hot button issues for a white, middle class writer of a certain age to try and tackle.
Except it isn’t really. Because it’s Hornby and he’s just so good at what he does. In Joseph and Lucy he seems to have the only two people in the world prepared to admit that they don’t understand issues and don’t have all, or indeed any, of the answers.
Lucy is a divorcee in her early 40s with two kids. Head of English at a not particularly good north London comprehensive, she juggles a trying-to-reform alcoholic ex, a good group of friends and some fairly shambolic blind dates with good humour and a resignation that this might be what life has left in store for her.
Into this fairly acceptable world comes Joseph. A 22-year-old man who dreams of a making music while paying for himself through football coaching, a part time job in a leisure centre, a bit of babysitting and tutoring and a Saturday job in the butchers of Lucy’s gentrified area.
With the Brexit referendum looming in the background, these two magnetically attracted people must decide where they stand and whether their race, their income, their education and their very different worlds can be surmounted by love.
What the novel definitely does do is a fantastic job of demonstrating the divisions within which our society works now.
Joseph and Lucy inhabit different worlds, by dint of race, age and income but – crucially – the flow of information is literally different.
Joseph gets his information from Instagram, chasing rabbit holes of information inaccessible to Lucy.
However, her white, middle class privilege means that both characters are ensconced in their own unintentionally echo chambers. If not comfortably then at least unquestioningly for a big chunk of the novel.
Hornby’s description of Lucy’s awareness of the difference between her generation is very well done and, frankly, scalpel sharp:
“Lucy was beginning to suspect that he might be what the girls at her school would refer to as a ‘fuckboy’, a word she discouraged them from using because of its first four letters but which in all other ways seemed an entirely welcome neologism. There had always been tarts and slags and sluts, and now there were fuckboys, and the contempt with which the girls spat the word out gladdened her heart.”
And yet, possibly its most astonishing achievements as a piece of work devoted to the present is that this is a novel from which anger is absent for the most part.
In fact, possibly the weakest aspect for the reader is that Hornby chooses not to show the arguments even when they do happen. They are reported but we don’t hear the words, we are merely told the fall out and left to decide for ourselves.
For a novel in which race is an enormous factor and at this moment in history, that’s a phenomenal achievement.
Hornby is still the best and most accessible of modern observers. He is razor sharp on the gentrified areas of north London where one normally encounters his characters.
There’s a definite lineage between High Fidelity’s Rob and his DJ ambitions and 22-year-old Jospeh and his tracks. Of course, whereas Rob ran a slightly dilapidated record shop which his partner was a corporate lawyer, here we have a partner who is Head of English at a bog standard comprehensive and a young man with a portfolio career, scratching a living working multiple jobs.
The fact that this makes him better off than his peers at university is one of the quieter and depressing twists of Hornby’s knife.
Witness Joseph’s musical mentor and school friend. Zech.
“Americans used the dollar sign to look flash, but PoundMan sounded cheap, like Poundland. Zech meant it to sound cheap, too. It was, he said, a celebration of Haringey consumer culture.”
A Tale of Simple Things
Yet, at heart this is a novel of simple things. In a complicated world in which both characters come with baggage, make mistakes, there is a simple message.
“If you’d asked him…what made him happy, he wouldn’t really have understood the relevance of the question. Now he knew the answer: sleeping with Lucy, eating with Lucy, watching T.V. with Lucy. And maybe there was no future in it, but there was a present, and that’s what life consists of.”
Maybe that is something we can all, in this most heated and divided of times, get behind.
Okay, full disclosure – I thought this book was going to give me a dilemma. I like to keep things positive (there’s enough bad stuff in the real world, without moaning online.)
And I wasn’t absolutely certain I was going to like Who Killed Patrick by Syl Waters.
So, why review it?
Well, it was marketed to me as being about Tarah, a young woman with a life is going nowhere. Not disinteresting.
At the drop of a hat, she decides to junk the UK and head to Fuerteventura to start a new adventure.
She soon starts a job managing a hotel complex. However, a dead guest threatens to pull apart her hoped-for dream life.
So: I like a bit of a crime, I like of bit of sun and it sounded OK.
There was some bit about Tarah’s pet guinea pig, Mr Bob, who apparently has a knack for sniffing out trouble and suspects foul play.
Not really keen on supernatural talking animals but I thought, what’s to lose?
I am pleased to say my misgivings were dispelled on the second page.
Any book where the frustrated protagonist can respond to a patronising boss asking her how to open an email attachment with, ‘I can open it as well if you want?’ I asked in my most pleasant would-you-like-me-to-suck-your-cock-while-doing-the-splits personal assistant voice,’ is a winner in my book.
Who Killed Patrick? continues in the same vein. It is a charming read with a delightful, well-intentioned central character wholly and realistically out of her depth.
Who among us can’t relate to a lead character who feels like there is, ‘Always too much month and not enough money’?
I also like the dashes of crudity which make Tarah a realistic heroine. When she meets one character she says, ‘‘Coochi cooo, who are yoooooo?’ He says in a I’m-talking-to-a-little-baby-in-a-very-silly-but-very-cute-voice-which-makes-women’s-hearts-melt-and-them-feel-slightly-moist-between-their-legs,’ which is just splendid.
Likewise, one tires of amateur detectives wandering thorugh murder mysteries blithely immune to the stress and strains it would take on you. Not our Tarah.
I struggle to imagine Hercule Poirot in his climactic final get together of the suspects saying, ‘If I wasn’t going to have to go out and be the ring leader, I’d be laughing at this crazy scene. But as I have to be a part of this, I’m not. I’m shitting it. My stomach curls and I feel like my insides are about to explode into my pants. My intestines are twisting and cramping like they’re trying to perform a Trucker’s Hitch knot.’
I also appreciate Waters’ description of Fuerteventura, a place she makes sound like a sun soaked volcanic paradise – dead holiday maker and permanently sozzled ex-pat “locals” aside.
I was prepared to dislike a talking guinea pig with a nose for trouble. But, again, I had misjudged the quality of the writing and the story telling.
For those who are concerned – worry not.
Mr Bob is a charmer and I look forward to encountering him again in future adventures. Or so I hope!
Rarely have I been more pleased to be wrong about a book. Who Killed Patrick? by Syl Waters is a delightful read which zips by with charm and highly skilled writing. I can not wait for a sequel (please, please, please) and to read more of Waters’ work.
Sign up to Syl Waters newsletter receive a free copy of The Little Book Of Curiously Fascinating Facts about Guinea Pigs – http://www.sylwaters.com/
Author Bio – Most people know crazy cat ladies are a ‘thing’, but I’m a proud crazy guinea pig lady! I love fun in the sun and plenty of cocktails. My happy place is flip flops. I write stories to keep me company – my characters ensure I’m never lonely and always smiling (when I’m not tearing my hair out!)
The BBC have lucked out with getting the highlights back just in time for England’s hastily arranged series versus the West Indies.
West Indies cricket has always been about more than just cricket. Just look at Fire In Babylon (a documentary I touched on a couple of weeks ago) for an insight into how cricket is about independence, colonialism and national identities far beyond what the crowd at Lords really understand. Throw in a global pandemic and the horror of George Floyd and suddenly sport becomes irrelevant.
Except it doesn’t. Sport is always about more than bat and ball and that is especially true in cricket (see the 1980s rebel tours of South Africa and the fall out from that which still resonates.)
In this series, the spectators (socially distanced and at home naturally) have been lucky to be exposed to insights and impassioned rhetoric from some of the most articulate thinkers on the game currently working today.
Then, two of the people who had spoken to Dobell were given the space by Sky to talk at length about what was happening with the intersection between Black Lives Matters and their experience. Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent spoke from the heart and moved those who heard them, one hopes. The next day, Holding was even more open, reflecting upon the struggles of his own parents.
However, just as important were the people of colour just getting on with their jobs and being excellent. The mighty TMS had brought in Carlos Brathwaite as commentator and he was everything you would have hoped: insightful about the techniques, light-hearted and relaxed alongside his colleagues and a pleasure to listen to. He slipped in well, as did Sir Alistair Cook. I look forward to hearing them for the rest of the summer.
But best of all, was West Indies skipper Jason Holder. A 6ft 7in military medium allrounder sending the ball down at only (“only”) 80mph, his accuracy, movement off the seam and joy in his artistry was magnificent.
A small aside: I am not a betting man. I’m not claiming I never have a flutter but, for a number of reasons – fundamental innumeracy, catastrophic mismanagement of money (see previous point), poor decision making and an addictive personality to name but four – I don’t bet regularly. But if you do want a tip this is it: always bet against England in any sport.
For some reason, bookies always over promote England even when it’s a two horse race. To whit: the current West Indies cricket tour of the England. The West Indies were available at 12:1 in a two horse race.
Shannon Gabriel got the Man of the Match award for his tight five wicket haul which exposed the oft underbelly of the England team but in Holder, the Windies have a leader for our times.
The BBC have lucked out with getting the highlights back just in time for England’s hastily arranged series versus the West Indies and they may have just found a contest which will resonate for a long time to come.
With Leicester arriving in the news for the first time since that Premierleague triumph, why not revisit this trip from 2015? If nothing else it will remind you of all the stuff you’ll be able to see when they lift the lockdown…
‘ Let’s go to Leicester on holiday’ said no one, ever. Certainly not me, anyway. I’d never previously been to this compact Midlands city but, a friend’s wedding and the chance to explore a place my partner, Miss Pretty Shoes knows well, meant that I was delighted to be introduced to the myriad attractions of this under-rated destination.
The main attraction is that it is a vibrant city. Small enough to walk around comfortably, there are really only two main shopping streets, criss-crossed at regular intervals by lanes which gives it the feeling of Brighton without sea.
You can find all of the things we associate with modern Britain – Nandos, a plethora of Subway franchises, tanning shops, betting emporia and soulless chain drinking dens – but don’t be put off. Just around the corner will be a cutesy independent store selling original t-shirts, bookshops or antiques priced at a sensible level. And, in fairness, even one of the ghastly chain boozers is named The Last Plantagenet which is a quality pub name anywhere.
A replica of the skeleton of King RIchard III
The big attraction is definitely history and Richard III in particular. Since being rescued from the less than celebratory location of a city centre car park in 2012, the city has gone Dick mad. The King Richard III Visitor Centre (www.kriii.com) is spread over two floors and allows you to learn the basics of his reign before heading upstairs to cover the details of the discovery of his final resting place and the science behind it. It is a beautiful venue, all the more impressive that it opened only two years after the discovery. It caters to people of all ages, incorporating interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations and displays throughout. I was particularly taken with the archaeology dig pit filled with iron filings to allow you to uncover pieces found at the gravesite – but that’s because I’m a big child. You can also see the actual location of where the body was found and – if you must – walk on top of it, (I’m afraid I must. And I did.) The guides were friendly and knowledgeable and took the time to answer questions and debate historical events with Miss Pretty Shoes, which pleased us no end. The visitor centre isn’t cheap – around £25 for two adults and a gift book – but if you’re interested in this most maligned monarch then it is money well spent.
The tomb of the newly interred King RIchard III within Leicester Cathedral
Across the road – past the statue of the man himself wielding a crown and, as in popular mythology, presumably crying out for a horse – is the charming Leicester Cathedral (www.leicestercathedral.org). The day we visited was a Sunday so a distinct balancing act between people coming to engage in a normal service had to be offset by church officials against the large crowd of visitors looking to see the site of the newly interred monarch. The Cathedral is free, but donations are suggested and with the volunteers offering a guide to the building and the constant stream of visitors, the suggested £3 is not outrageous, if for no other reason than the upkeep of the fabric of the building. There has definitely been a bit of Dicky III fever in the city indeed, but almost all the cashing in seems to be in a vein of quiet, respectful bandwagon jumping, so good on them!
The outside of the compact, but cute, Leicester Cathedral.
We walked. Leicester is one of those small cities which just beg you to explore on foot. We walked up New Walk past beautiful architecture from the Georgian era, the Victorian Age as well as past the loveliest Art Deco-style fire station I’ve ever seen. Then we walked to the University of Leicester which Miss Pretty Shoes had previously graced with her presence. (www.le.ac.uk) The main attraction for her – then and now I reckon – was that Richard and David Attenborough had been brought up on the campus as their father – Frederick Attenborough – was the Principal of University College and instrumental in the conversion to University status with the award of the Royal charter in 1957. Their house remains on the grounds and a tower was built in his honour.
The Attenborough Tower at the University of Leicester
Leicester has one of the most multi-cultural populations in the UK and this is most abundantly clear in the wide variety of food available. Leicester’s Market (www.leicestermarket.co.uk) is a wonderful place to stroll around, packed with high quality fruit and veg (as well as t-shirts, DVDs and second hand TVs) including one Lineker’s stall which hosts beautiful strawberries and also produced a former England captain many will have heard of.
Kayal is an Indian restaurant specialising in healthy seafood with a South Indian origin. The food is delicate – superbly filling and has been promoted by guests such TVs The Hairy Bikers and The Times. The fish platter starter alone is enough for a main course and comes heaving with delicately battered calamari. The service is gentle, knowledgeable and considerate and it is a place I can no recommend highly enough for an evening meal. (www.kayalrestaurant.com)
On our last day, we stopped for lunch at the adorable Kuru Kuru Sushi (www.kuru-kuru-sushi.com) which offers a wide variety of sushi and sashimi at really affordable prices. The food is delicate and the service is kindly and efficient. It is not large – four seats at a breakfast-style bar – but the mint-infused tea and the quality of the fish should persuade you to go early. Take-away – both in person and over the phone – is available for those who don’t want to sit next to strangers.
A rocket at the National Space Centre
Our final destination was the National Space Centre (www.spacecentre.co.uk) which is situation two miles outside the town centre. Here you can visit the Patrick Moore Plantetarium and watch a documentary (aimed at children really) called We Are All Stars narrated by Andy Serkis. From here you can explore rockets, see real moon rock and lose yourself in a wide variety of activities covering pretty much everything to do with space. It’s an absolute knock out venue which, especially with children, I would heartily recommend.
So, that was my 48 hours in Leicester. A vibrant city of multi-cultural influences, gorgeous food and a surprisingly wide array of activities I never thought I’d find in the middle of England. ‘Let’s go to Leicester on holiday,’ said no one ever. Except me, next time, I reckon.
*Myself and Miss Pretty Shoes stayed at the Premier Inn Leicester City Centre. None of these venues knew I would be writing about them, nor paid for any endorsements.
Yes: sport is back. Well, some sport. For football fans in Europe that means tinny sounds of piped fake “crowd” noise and watching Bayern Munich sleep walk to another title like a schoolboy bully crowd surfing over cowed spectators.
At least in New Zealand they had full crowds for the rugby. Scant consolation to former Wales coach Warren Gatland who had the full backyard horror of being beaten by his son played out in the full glare of the media. Gatland Senior’s Chiefs were playing the Highlanders in Super Rugby and leading by two points as the clock wound down. However, baby Bryn – who hadn’t originally even been in the squad and was a late injury call up – popped over a drop goal with 90 seconds left to leave Daddy in disarray.
The Last Dance. I wrote about it here last week. The 97 Chicago Bulls; Michael Jordan – a sneaker-selling monster; Scottie Pippen the unsung hero with the best voice since James Earl Jones; Dennis Rodman the lunatic dating Carmen Electra and swanning off to Vegas to die his hair a luminous green patchwork and turning up to practice in a wedding dress. A 10-part tour de force, which teaches us about what it takes to win and how lonely it is at the top. Netflix
Hoop Dreams – Before the winning comes the work. This 1994 movie follows two African American high school students from Chicago at the same time as the city’s Bulls are tearing up the professional game. This epic movie shows what you have to do to move from an underfunded public school system to the professional game and the institutional barriers put in the way of young people. Moving, inspirational and frustrating all at the same time.
Living with the Lions 97 – The first rugby documentary: Rugby Union had only been professional for two years. A British and Irish Lions team headed to South Africa, then world champions and at their peak. But the Lions had a returning set of players from Rugby League looking to show what full time rugby looks like, pace and guile in a young Brian O’Driscoll, a leader etched from stone and broken bones in Martin Johnson and a coaching pair in Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer who knew what it took to make a Lions squad gel. Living with the Lions is by turns jaw dropping, hilarious, thought provoking and gloriously uncensored. Amazon Prime
All or Nothing – The All Blacks – A modern day Living with the Lions, this series got exclusive access to the dressing room of the mighty All Blacks for the first time in their history. The footage and the match play are second to none – every bone snapping tackle is seen and heard in high def – and the characters within the team are fascinating. It’s well worth watching, highly polished series, if a little sanitised and “official” in what is actually shown. Amazon Prime
An Impossible Job – Fancy watching an England manager screw up qualification for a World Cup, get compared to a root vegetable and upset that nice bloke off Match of the Day by substituting him for a doughy poor imitation called Smudger? Of course you do. Channel 4’s 1994 Cutting Edge documentary saw Graham Taylor’ career go the way of all things and is why so many documentaries now control access so tightly. YouTube
All or Nothing – Manchester City – In the same series as the All Blacks documentary, Amazon Prime were welcomed into the whole world of Manchester City’s locker room, their match day experience and behind the scenes of the Pep Guardiola briefings as the team steamroller their way through the Premier League in 2071/18. A bit soulless and corporate, but hugely enlivened by Benjamin Mendy who is a “lively” member of the team, some brilliant match day footage and Guardiola’s chicken dance dressing room motivational speech. Amazon Prime
Sunderland Till I Die – What does it do to a person to support a club like Sunderland? According to this, some sort of mental disorder. A town based on football where bishops pray for the club and people name their kids after the last time the team weren’t dross. Honestly has to be seen to be believed. Characterful. Netflix
The Test – I know cricket makes a lot of people roll their eyes. But Australia were at their lowest ebb – a coach, a captain and a vice-captain (who happened to be tow of their only world class players) are banned for heinous cheating. The Australian Prime Minister weighs in and suddenly, squeaky clean batting legend Justin Langer is thrown into the job needing to create a squad who can win matches and restore civic pride during a year featuring a one-day World Cup and an Ashes series. This is another Amazon behind the scenes, unprecedented access series but here the focus on institutional culture and what it takes to make a team tick transcends sport. Come for the bouncers and the blazing batting, stay for the quiet dignity of captain Tim Payne and the bromance between the coffee boys which would not have been allowed in previous cricketing eras. Amazon Prime
Fire in Babylon – Before The Test, before Black Lives Matters, before the Windrush scandal there was “Grovel”. 2010’s Fire in Babylon is the story of the most successful team in cricket and, arguably, all sport. If you have ever seen the West Indies pace attack of Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and, later, Malcolm Marshall then you know what a cricket ball can do to a human body when propelled at speed. What many people may be less aware of is the racism and barriers encountered by this team under the leadership of legend Clive Lloyd and gum chewing Black Consciousness figurehead Viv Richards. Fire in Babylon is the real deal. DVD
When We Were Kings – Lots of people know the story of the Rumble in the Jungle; or at least think they do. 1996’s Oscar winning When We Were Kings explains the politics behind the sport, the brutality of Zaire’s dictator President Mobutu contrasting with the brutality within the ring. George Foreman is all at sea; Muhammad Ali connecting with the people in a spiritual way. A towering achievement of a documentary which explains the boxing in as captivating a way as the politics behind the sporting spectacle. DVD
It feels like just me – and the rest of the world – have been enjoying Netflix and ESPN Films’ 10 part documentaryThe Last Dance.
It is, of course, difficult to know exactly how many people are watching, courtesy of Netflix’s notoriously secretive metrics for success, but 2,310,000,000 Google results added to less quantitative social media hype, does tend to imply that the series is doing OK. Especially impressive is that, in the UK, Basketball barely gets any coverage.
For those who don’t know, the programme follows the 1998 Chicago Bulls as they aim to win the NBA Championship for the third year in a row, and their sixth in eight years – the notorious and unprecedented “Three-peat”. It follows this journey intercutting with the backgrounds and stories of the disparate cast of characters which made up the playing, coaching and management staff at the Bulls in those days.
There is much to adore about the show: both personally and as a consumer. If, like me, you were playing basketball as a teenager in the 90s, the Bulls reigned supreme and Jordan especially. However, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen were hardly under the radar. I was never a good basketball player: too short, too tubby. But I could scrap like Rodman – even if I couldn’t pull off the hair.
Then there’s the merchandise: my Dad bought me a Jordan-sponsored Chicago Bulls black and red basketball which was constantly getting dribbled on the path outside the house. I only got rid of it when I moved my Mum out of that house a couple of years ago and, if I hadn’t been travelling on a plane, that ball would have made the trip back with me, smooth and ancient though it then was. It had to go in the skip. Now, both my father and the ball are gone and… What can you say: there’s the nostalgia.
However, in some ways, the thing I have enjoyed even more is the rabbit hole it’s sent me down. First, there was a podcast – The Dream Team Tapes with Jack McCallum which tells the story of the US Olympic basketball team from Barcelona 92. McCallum is a basketball Hall of Famer and has been with Sports illustrated for a very long time and his delivery and unravelling of the story behind this remarkable team is first class. Is it a shameless coattail ride on TLD? Yes, and for a book, The Dream Team, released in 2014 but now I have to read the damn thing. Oh, well sure I’ll cope.
Then there was this profile by Wright Thompson on ESPN from 2013 when Jordan turned 50. I got to it from The Ruffian, the newsletter of journalist and author Ian Leslie http://ian-leslie.com/about/ and it’s super. Top notch sports writing: revealing, emotional, inspiring – a little horrifying in places.
I know some people think that TLD is a puff piece but, if this is Jordan censored and touched up, then he may be an actual monster because I think the makers go for balance as much as possible. The scene where Jordan tearfully calls for a time out in an interview when he is asked if winning came at the expense of being a nice guy is heart-breaking and revealing.
I know it doesn’t address Craig Hodges However, Jordan’s hesitancy to speak out over issues of race (“Republicans buy sneakers too”) is addressed by no less an authority on these issues than former President Obama so, that’s not exactly ducking it.
What this programme does over 10 episodes is look at what it takes to win – what the fire and fuel it takes to dominate in any profession and it does it in a warts and all way. There’s lots of rabbit holes to go down with wider context and that’s a form of nostalgia I can enjoy.