Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Melvyn Bragg, Edward St Aubyn and Arthur Phillips.

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg's ode to the King James Bible, on its 400th anniversary, is "elegant, accessible and passionately argued" writes Peter Stanford in The Independent. The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible "tells the history of the King James with the vigour and pace of a storyteller rather than the dry precision of an academic," he writes. Stanford urges even the "most militant non-believers" to read this book, though notes "Bragg devotes a chapter to a devastating attack on Richard Dawkins".

Writing in the FT, John Cornwell suggests that of the many scholars who have celebrated the Bible's birthday with a book "it is left to Melvyn Bragg to claim far-reaching social and political consequences from the KJB in an unabashedly Whiggish class of his own". Though Bragg attributes much British "social and political beneficence" to the influence of the King James, Cornwell imagines he "may not convince all his readers". But for the reviewer's part he is "inclined to accept [Bragg's] final word: that the KJB's impact 'has been immeasurable and it's not over yet'".

At Last by Edward St Aubyn

At Last is the final installment of Edward St Aubyn's sequence on the life of Patrick Melrose: a protagonist who, born to a wealthy family "tettering on the edge of immense wealth... has spent most of his time dealing with the fallout". "A novel of exquisite observation which conveys a movement towards peace" writes Phillip Womack for The Telegraph. "We have reached the pinnacle of a series that has plunged into darkness and risen towards light." Womack applauds St Aubyn's novels for being "uncommonly well controlled", noting as a result "their impact is all for the more powerful". Leyla Sanai for The Independent remarks "St Aubyn is still deliciously wicked in his satire". "The blend of acid wit, intellect and compassion" for which St Aubyn is famed is "plaited through At Last", she writes. It is a novel which alone "enthralls... but in sequence their power is synergistic".

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Stephen Greenblatt for The New York Times declares Arthur Phillips's faux-Shakespearian tale a "splendidly devious novel". Constructed around a five-act play "entitled 'The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare'... we are dealing not with parody but with something else: fraud. This is a full length fake. It is a surprisingly good fake, too". Greenblatt praises both Phillips's "fictional memoir" which serves as the introduction, and the "forged play" itself which "leaves the reader not with resentment at having been tricked but rather with gratitude for the gift of feigned wonder".

David L Ulin, writing for the LA Times, confesses though he's "not much of a Shakespearean, [he'd] say Phillips pulls it off". For Ulin the question of whether the Shakespeare is authentic is "almost entirely beside the point. What's essential, rather, is the saga that surrounds it, a family drama involving (yes) Arthur Phillips, who both is and isn't the author of this book".

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times