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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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