A view of the Seven Sisters cliffs from Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, 1950s. Photo: Getty
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Dwarf rabbits, bee stings and inflamed buttocks: In the Approaches by Nicola Barker

The scene is set in 1984 but  it could be any time between 1934 and 2014 in this backwater of the East Sussex coastline far from Thatcher’s Britain.

In the Approaches
Nicola Barker
Fourth Estate, 512pp, £18.99

Nicola Barker is a comic writer in the English tradition and In the Approaches is her tenth novel. The scene is set in 1984 but apart from a reference to the Brighton bombing and the appearance of Mrs Meadows, who dresses like Pam Ewing in Dallas, it could be any time between 1934 and 2014. The various Irish travellers, lovesick dairy farmers, thickly accented Germans, shifty priests, eucalyptus-exuding spirits and mathematical poets populating this backwater of the East Sussex coastline are entirely disengaged from Thatcher’s Britain.

The events are told through the perspectives of the principal characters, Franklin D Huff, a bad-tempered journalist and collector of shrunken heads who has turned up in Pett Level for suspect reasons, and Carla Hahn, a bad-tempered former nurse and collector of Russian artefacts, who is Mr Huff’s landlady. Bit parts are given to a distressed parrot called Teobaldo (“WAAAAAHHHHH!”), a telephone-impersonating mynah bird and Clifford Bickerton, a former boyfriend of Miss Hahn’s.

A human haystack “with hands like pitchforks and feet like hams”, Bickerton, whom Mr Huff refers to as “Pemberton”, reveals himself in internal monologues to have a profound loathing of the “cow author” who he fears will dispense with his character in a freak accident: “It’s obvious (predictable! Even to a registered thicko like me) how this thing is going to pan out. It’s all about them isn’t it? It’s all about Carla and Franklin D.”

Miss Hahn and Mr Huff, as they call one another, carry on like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, so Bickerton, who indeed vanishes from the story, is right. Both are obsessed with a series of unfortunate events that took place in the village 13 years ago, when an Irish muralist called Bran, his half-Aboriginal wife, whose name was “Lonely”, and Orla Nor Cleary, their fanatically religious thalidomide-victim daughter, were living here.

Barker’s humour invests in small things: rural post offices, dwarf rabbits, surprise bee stings and inflamed buttocks (the buttocks, which belong to Mr Huff, have sealed together as a result of an excessively long walk to a monastery). The slapstick is of the Wodehousian variety but the inexhaustible exuberance of the sentences is entirely Barker’s own. It is impossible not to like her brand of British farce, with its bicycle accidents, overweight dogs and fatally over-tight sweaters. She gives us what we yearn for most – nostalgia.

Despite the representation of a warmer world and the homage to beloved humorists such as Chaucer, Jane Austen and Kingsley Amis, In the Approaches is a little like white-water rafting. The writing begins in full flow and maintains its buoyancy to the final word, even after navigating its way through a wildly precarious plot with a cargo of leaky characters.

Barker is less interested in her storyline than in practical jokes. The smell in Mr Huff’s cottage is caused by a rotting shark beneath his bed (put there by Miss Hahn, because he said her dog was fat); Miss Hahn’s bungalow breaks in half and falls into the sea (a fate predicted by Mr Huff, while they sat in her creaking sauna); wrongly assuming that her fat dog is dead, Miss Hahn buries him. He digs his way out of his grave and then dies anyway.

Weirdness is the currency but where the book gets seriously strange is in the miracle-performing Christianity of the missing Orla Nor, whose death in 1971 is at the heart of the story. At this point, to continue the white-water rafting metaphor, Barker loses her firm grip on the journey. The eccen­tricity of the project becomes mawkish. No one can think of Orla without weeping. Miss Hahn, employed by Bran to prevent his daughter from praying obsessively, is inconsolable when she remembers how the child’s arms were too short to allow her to place her hands together.

A shrine to Orla, festooned with teddy bears, suddenly blooms with flowers; eucalyptus – Orla’s favourite smell – can be sniffed everywhere; the pattern on Orla’s possum-skin coat is believed to contain the secrets of the universe; Orla’s divine mission on earth is seriously discussed by scientifically minded people; Mr Huff sees the spirit of love shining – literally shining – through a hole in Miss Hahn’s breast. Is Orla Nor going to pop up in a monologue of her own to complain at her treatment?

The book, like Miss Hahn’s bungalow, is built on a fault line. In the Approaches, which begins with some of the funniest writing I have read in years, ends in a crescendo of mystical visions that may conform to the farcical anti-realism of the whole, or may be quite serious in their invitation to join the Virgin Mary. Are we in the realms of authorial high jinks, or have we moved to High Church? Perhaps Clifford Bickerton knows what’s going on. Answer me, cow author!

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism