In search of cricket on the BBC: shall I rend my garments now, or later?

Howzat! Kerry Packer's War and Horizon: the Truth About Personality.

Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War;
Horizon: the Truth About Personality

This column is about misery and happiness. First, the misery. I don’t have Sky and the Ashes series has now begun. Putting aside the glory that is Test Match Special – if you want my opinion, that programme is to the BBC what the ravens are to the Tower of London – when it comes to television, I am going to have to make do with a daily hour of sweaty old Mark Nicholas on Channel 5. So, tell me: shall I rend my garments now or later?

All the BBC appears to have on offer, cricket-wise, is Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (8 and 15 July, 9pm), a somewhat dusty twopart Australian series about Packer’s battle to establish World Series Cricket, starring Lachy Hulme as the somewhat pugnacious media mogul. (The story goes – and I’ve no reason to disbelieve it – that when Packer first asked the Australian Cricket Board if he could buy the rights to televise the sport, his opening gambit was: “There is a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentlemen. What is your price?”)

Is it any good? It’s not bad – though it’s unlikely to be the ratings hit here that it was in Oz. Howzat! is strictly one for the nerds, because half of the fun of any biopic lies in goggling at all the remarkable lookalikes and if you don’t know that Mike Procter, the South African fast bowler, resembled a podgy choirboy and that John Snow, the “Abominable Snowman” of Sussex and England, had the hair of a Romantic poet, you will miss out on this particular pleasure.

You probably remember Packer’s charming visage but if for some reason you don’t, all I can say is: picture a really spiteful porpoise in a Brylcreem-ed wig and you’re close. Hulme, who puts in a truly fantastic performance in this series, looks just like him – and you might want to watch him for ten minutes, even if cricket bores you to sobs.

Now for the happiness, which comes via Michael Mosley, the man who brought us the bestseller The Fast Diet, and his latest, potentially life-changing Horizon programme (10 July, 9pm). This time, his film was about personality and how we might adjust it, the better to increase our happiness and health (optimists apparently live up to seven years longer than the rest of us). Mosley claimed to be a catastrophist at heart, always expecting the worst, and the scientists he met agreed with him (though, if you ask me, starving yourself for two days of every week is unlikely to improve anyone’s mood).

Apparently, his “baseline arousal” is higher than many people’s, which sounds saucy but in reality just means that he is prone to anxiety and stress. What to do about this state of affairs? Eschewing what I call “cognitive chocolate modification” – in essence, scoff a bag of Minstrels and you’ll feel much better – Mosley instead plumped for cognitive bias modification (CBM), with a little mindfulness meditation on the side. The CBM involved him clicking his computer mouse on a happy face among a sea of cross faces for ten minutes every day; the meditation required him to close his eyes and breathe deeply. And what do you know? Seven weeks later, he was a good deal cheerier.

If you missed Mosley’s documentary, I recommend you watch it: he is a natural communicator and the science surrounding happiness is interesting, even if one can’t help but fear how some of the latest discoveries might be used against women. (To sum up: baby rats who are not licked often enough by their mothers tend to be more sickly and dysfunctional than some other rodents . . . You can see where this is leading.) But if you want a much less tedious and time-consuming means of improving your mood – I speak from experience, for I, too, am a catastrophist – then why not try the old trick of counting your blessings?

Seriously. At the end of every day, I write down three good things that have happened. Sometimes, I have something quite big to put on the list: some praise from an editor, say, or a wonderful new commission. And sometimes, it’s something small: a delicious cup of coffee I drank, the sun coming out during my walk from the Tube. Either way, it works. It’s almost as cheering as the teatime chunter of the Test Match Special commentary team – the quotidian stuff of life becoming, once you take the trouble to notice it, a weird kind of epiphany.

Field of dreams: Lachy Hulme as Kerry Packer (right). Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror