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
BBC4; BBC2

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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge