Ready to rumble: Ali and Foreman in the famous 1974 fight. Photo: Getty
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Lords of the ring: reliving Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle”

A running commentary by Ricky Hatton and fellow boxers to mark the 40th anniversary of the super-fight, in what turned out to be a brilliantly conceived and delivered programme

 

Reliving the Rumble
BBC Radio 5 Live

“Eyes open – look! His eyes are always open, looking, looking . . .” Ricky Hatton is watching a film of Muhammad Ali’s and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” with his fellow boxers Carl Froch and David Haye, all giving a running commentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the super-fight, in what turned out to be a brilliantly conceived and delivered programme (30 October, 7.30pm).

We are all familiar with the rhythms and tones of this type of commentary – usually that most ubiquitous of extras on DVDs of everything from old movies to celebrated football matches. It’s sometimes a drag and sometimes interesting, if you can be arsed. (I think it’s never been better than when Jack Nicholson settles into critiquing a favourite role of his, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, evidently sinking deep into an armchair for the duration and lighting a massive cigar. “Excuse me, ma’am, can you tell me where . . .” goes the opening line on-screen. “First words,” comments Nicholson in that familiarly low-pulsed voice, bursting with pride.)

On BBC Radio 5 Live, unusually quickly it’s clear that it doesn’t matter remotely that it’s all voice and no image. To see Ali pasting a bewildered Foreman clear as day, you merely have to sit very still and listen. Easy to do, because the three men speaking are impeccable at filtering what they are looking at: meticulously descriptive, personal. Says Haye: “He throws his right hand almost as if it’s his left hand. I think to myself, why can’t I do that? Because I don’t have the speed.” Hatton is particularly good at the second-by-second sketch: “A quick one-two-bang-bang, then uses his forehand to just nudge him and then gets that right hand to one-two and then pushes with his palm to shift . . .” Froch is awed but always careful to explain why. “Yep, there it is, that shot. It makes you breathe heavy. It makes you tired. Suicide. Suicide mission going on here.” Riveting.

And what became clear is that boxing suits this sort of analysis possibly better than any other sport, even tennis, because it is all decisions, all choices – no ball randomly hitting a knee here and stopping the thinking. Powerfully smart stuff. I’d listen again in a flash. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution