Book review: Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid

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Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona vs Real Madrid by Sid Lowe

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: Sid Lowe, the Guardian’s Spanish football expert, takes a look at one of football’s fieriest rivalries through the lenses of the history of modern Spain.

In Depth: Published in 2013, arguably at its recent and super-charged height, Sid Lowe charts the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona from its deep beginnings in early 20th century Spain.

The book starts with a short history of the clubs and Spain. It identifies the widespread assumption that Real Madrid represent the centralised Spanish State. This comes from its Royal (so therefore Real) patronage as well as its historical association with the Francoist dictatorship. On the other side of the rivalry stands Barcelona, the chief outpost of the Republic and victim of the Spanish Civil War, with its passionately defended Catalonian identity. Although instantly recognisable, and the basis of this book, Lowe quickly challenges this distinction and argues persuasively that the Spanish Civil War was a much more complex conflict, particularly in its relation to these two clubs.

Challenging the historiography of the period, something you wouldn’t expect of a book primarily about football, Lowe outlines how the city of Madrid, as much as Barcelona, suffered at the hands of the Spanish Civil War. Presenting the conflict as Franco/Spain vs the Republic/Catalonia, and ergo Madrid vs Barca, is therefore too simplistic. This is also a product of decades of bitter rivalry between these clubs, where these identifies have been both imposed by rivals as well as acted up to.

After this chapters are chronologically ordered and focus on individual players or teams from the clubs overlapping histories. Highlights include; the politics behind Barcelona’s signing of their first post civil war star László Kubala; the deep history of controversial referees in El Clásico matches, one ref was beaten up by Madrid players after a defeat to Barca; the management of Barcelona by the English coach Vic Buckingham, who also managed Ajax and helped to indoctrinate a young Johan Cruyff into the virtues of the ‘total football’ philosophy; the shocking but widespread use of bonuses by the rivals to motivate smaller clubs when facing their rivals, an extreme example was when Madrid could have won the league on the last day of the 1991-2 season away to Tenerife but lost 3-2 after Barca had offered Tenerife a sizeable bonus to win; the ‘dream team’ of early ’90s Barca with Cruyff as manager and the talents of Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário who won four consecutive league titles and the clubs first European cup at Wembley in 1992; the initial success, but then intrigued political downfall, of Louis Van Gaal during his first Barca spell; the extravagant but disastrous Galácticos policy of Florentino Pérez in the early 2000s; and the rise of the Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and it’s superstar Lionel Messi. The final chapter brings the rivalry up to the titanic, but exhausting, battles between Guardiola and Mourinho.

One particularly interesting chapter looks at the Real legend Alfredo Di Stéfano. Signing for, and very almost spending his career at Barca, Di Stéfano was controversially stole at the last minute by Madrid, supposedly with the help of the regime. Here the book is very much a true history book, focusing on archive materials uncovered by Lowe of Francoist reports on Di Stéfano and his suitability for Real rather than Barca. Lowe comments that this signing, and how it happened and was perceived, secured the early image of Barca as the victim of the centralised Madrid. Lowe then looks at the famous five consecutive European Cups Madrid won in the 1950s, largely driven by Di Stéfano’s genius. This is pinpointed as central to Madrid’s identity and shows why the European Cup remains Madrid’s obsession today. One great passage from the night of Madrid’s fifth consecutive European Cup final at Hampden Park, with some 127,621 in attendance, where Santiago Bernabéu told his players that “Man has five senses and five fingers on each hand … You have four European cups.” Madrid duly went on to win 7-3 against Eintracht Frankfurt in a match so brilliant BBC Scotland continued to show it every year at Christmas.

In the interest of balance one final chapter of note looks at Helenio Herrera, Barca manager from 1958-1960, who won back to back La Liga titles in a turbulent reign during Madrid’s period of European dominance. Lowe brilliantly compares Herrera’s arrival at Barca to José Mourinho’s at Madrid in 2010: the worlds most famous manager, who (initially) had the media eating out of the palm of his hands and who employed a direct & physical tactical approach to overcome his rival’s technical gifts. Aside from this there are hilarious, but quite worrying, anecdotes of how Herrera hired a man to sleep with the girlfriend of a player who was too besotted about her to effectively concentrate on football. And also how “amid countless rumours, Barcelona’s doctor was forced to deny that the ‘sugar’ supplements that Herrera handed out were something else altogether … [as] players complained that they couldn’t sleep after games.”

Overall this book is a wonder for any football fan. Lowe’s interviews with past players from Madrid and Barca are a particular highlight as they include all of the star players and coaches mentioned, demonstrating the respect he is held in in Spain.

Best quote: “We creat ballon d’ors, others buy them.” Joan Laporta, former Barcelona President.

Have you read any books on football which rival this one? Please leave your comments below.

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Review: Waterloo

Waterloo: The history of four days, three armies and three battles by Bernard Cornwell.

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: An enjoyable and gripping account of one of the most famous battles of the Napoleonic era, which reads so much like a thriller it is at times easy to forget this was Cornwell’s first non-fiction book.

In-depth: The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament is adorned with two giant paintings which depict two major moments in British history and the Napoleonic Wars: the death of Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar and the meeting of the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshall Blücher at the battle of Waterloo. Although I’m late to the bi-centenary anniversary of the battle, it was on June 18 last year, it was after a long look at the latter painting one lunchtime last autumn that I decided I needed to catch up and read an account of this most famous battle. I’ve finally got round to doing so.

Considering many readers will be aware of the battle’s result and its historical consequences, Cornwell still manages to instil an overwhelming sense of drama into this account. The author explains this: “No matter how often I read accounts of that day, the ending is still full of suspense … We might know how it ends, but like all good stories it bears repetition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly from the author of the adventures of Sharpe, Cornwell dramatically charts the proceeding days build up to Waterloo, and the entire battle itself, including the many times where victory seemed so close for l’Empereur.

Cornwell brilliantly brings the historical characters to life. Be that the generals of the armies or the soldiers fighting on the battlefield through their private correspondences. The battle is presented by Cornwell as the first meeting of Europe’s two finest soldiers, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon. These figures are wonderfully brought to life through tales such as, “He (the Duke) could be sharply witty; long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. “Don’t worry, Madame,” the Duke said, “I’ve seen their backs before.” Also the leader of the Prussian army, whose eventual arrival on Napoleon’s right flank was central to the outcome of the battle, is introduced as the 72 year old Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who was famously prone to “bouts of mental illness during which he believed himself pregnant with an elephant fathered by a French infantryman.” Fortunately this delusions did not inflict him on the day.

With Cornwell’s deep military knowledge there is naturally plenty here for military buffs. He makes much of the importance of the geography of the battlefield to its outcome, particularly how it was scouted months before by the Duke of Wellington. The northern, deceptively steep, ridge which the British led forces held throughout the day enabled the Duke to station most of his infantry just behind the top of the hill, thereby shielding them from the murderous artillery of Napoleon’s ‘Grand Battery.’ These were known as Napoleon’s “beautiful daughters” and the sound of their barrages going overhead were wonderfully described by one solider as “being like the noise of a heavy barrel of ale being rolled across a wooden floor above his head.”

The nature of the square formations of Anglo-Dutch infantry is also brought to life in a chapter covering the disastrous mid-afternoon cavalry charges by the French. By forming a square, with sides four men deep, the infantry was able to have a square of bayonets filled with reloading and firing troops which “spat musketry” at the terrified horses. This decimated the French cavalry, which struggled massively in the deep mud caused from the previous evenings heavy rain, for almost no gain and is largely told through the violent memoirs of the soldiers.

In conclusion Cornwell charts the race against time that the battle ultimately became. Napoleon’s forces came remarkably close to overwhelming the British line, victory and winning the road to Brussels but needed to do so by the time the reinforcing Prussian armies fully arrived. The desperate last throw of the dice by Napoleon was to order the advance of his famous Imperial Guard, who were rumoured to never have been defeated and were thus known as ‘the Immortals’, against the supposedly ‘Unbreakables’ which was Wellington’s infantry, whose reputation Napoleon had arrogantly dismissed early in the day. Although these extremes are extenuated by Cornwell this final section, like most of this book, is a real page turner.

Best Quote: “… long after the wars were over some French officers pointedly turned their backs on him (The Duke of Wellington) in Paris, for which rudeness a woman apologised. ‘Don’t worry, Madame,’ the Duke said, ‘I’ve seen their backs before.'”

Have you ever read an account of the Napoleonic Wars? If you have you may also like my review of Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great.

Please leave your comments below.

Review: The Rent Trap

41IAfQCUzlL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The Rent Trap: How We Fell Into It And How We Get Out Of It by Rose Walker and Samir Jeraj

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The current London Mayoral election campaigns have unsurprisingly centred around the Capital’s dire housing crisis. This book is a welcome intervention into the debate and focusses on the private rented sector, which has boomed in recent decades to now include some 11 million private renters across the UK.

It explains the reasons and interests driving the sky high rents experienced by so many tenants today and how the interests of landlords are fiercely protected by lobby groups in Parliament. If you’re interested in the intricacies of All Party Parliamentary Groups or Private Members’ Bills, as I strangely am, then these parts are certainly for you.

The picture painted of the private rented sector is a dark one. The simple inability of many to save for a deposit, the upheaval of no fault evictions, the scandal of manufactured letting agents fees as well as the often criminal actions of landlords who do not think many areas of the law apply to them or that their tenants deserve privacy, are all covered in detail. More widely with buy to let mortgages further overheating the property market and therefore pricing out many of every buying their own home, it is now common for tenants to be paying, via their high rents, either the mortgage(s) of their landlords or into their pension, which has the obvious long term affects of denying these assets to younger generations of tenants.

One of this books chief merits, drawn out by its many varying case studies, is the moral case against this current market situation and its social and generational injustices. When interviewed and pushed by the authors over whether they feel the rental arrangements they have are moral or defendable, it is clear the vast majority of landlords are aware of the ridiculous levels of unfairness they are contributing to but quickly choose to ignore it or defend it as merely the way of the market.

This now default viewpoint is dug into with a concise history of post war UK housing policy, which accurately pinpoints the source of many of the market’s problems today as originating from the policies of the Thatcher Governments. These set the market loose from any rent controls, drained councils resources and housing stocks and has led to housing now being seen much like other commodities, as a vehicle to solely make profit, and not to provide safe, fair and secure shelter for human beings. It is clear the authors are uncomfortable with this designation and after reading this book it is difficult not to share these sentiments.

The one drawback of this book is that it doesn’t really seem to offer conclusive answers to the vast problem(s) it outlines. Considering the book’s full title, The Rent Gap: How we fell into it and How we get out it, this is disappointing and the only real alternatives offered are piecemeal initiatives such as cooperative housing, community land trusts and the increasing number of Londoners who choose to live on canal boats on the capital’s many now defunct waterways. However these options provide merely a tiny fraction of housing in the UK compared to full property ownership, the private rented sector or even social housing. They do not seem feasible options for a new fourth sector.

However the lack of answers is not really a criticism of the authors, or the book, but merely a indication of the depth of the problems. Also to be fair the regulation of private rented sectors in Europe, particularly in cities such as Paris and Berlin, is carefully considered and seems to offer the most obvious potential answer. Here tenants are allowed much more time, compared to the remarkably short 6 to 12 months afforded in the UK, to stay in their properties if they have done nothing wrong. However this would appear to require a wider transition from the short term desire for steep profits, which dominates many areas of British society, towards a private rented sector offering a more stable, cheaper and longer term option for tenants.

Review: Stalin’s Englishman

stalin copy-xlargeMy rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: A biography of Guy Burgess, a central member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring of the mid 20th century. Lownie charts Burgess’ education at Eton and Cambridge and recruitment as a spy for the Soviet Union, through his turbulent career at the BBC, Parliament, the Foreign Office and eventually his flight and lonely exile in the Soviet Union.

In-depth: The title immediately grabbed my attention, although I found it a little misleading as there was actually no personal meeting(s) between Stalin and Guy Burgess as the title hinted at some sense of relationship which I naively grasped to.

Overall Lownie’s account is entertaining as it’s subject was on the surface such a extravagant character. Highly intelligent, charming, often visibly drunk and a homosexual sex addict, Burgess certainly generated a lot of private anecdotes and correspondence which form the backbone of this book.

One of the best is a delightful passage where the careless and presumably drunk Burgess meets his Moscow Centre contact in a London pub to share highly sensitive documents in 1945. Burgess dropped the documents on the floor of the pub, stuffed the dirty papers back into his suitcase and tied it up with string only to drop them again in front of his contact in the lavatory.

However, like the man himself, this book largely centres around English high society gossip about him and whilst his career was certainly interesting in how much of the British Establishment he managed to infiltrate and report back to his Communist masters, very little is dedicated to the most interesting question of why he decided to betray his country. Naturally this question has dominated most accounts of the Cambridge spy circle but seems a little lost in this one which prefers to focus on slightly over emphasising Burgess’ centrality to world events instead.

Indeed some of the most interesting passages of the book are on Burgess’ elite education in England, which with the benefit of hindsight are able to highlight many of the, at the time seemingly innocent, political experimentations with arguments from the Left. It was from this social background and the many connections it afforded Burgess that his destiny was formed. The sheer wealth of the powerful individuals he met, and charmed, is nothing short of breathtaking and includes Winston Churchill, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Isaiah Berlin.

The national scandal of Burgess and Maclean’s fleeing from Britain to the USSR in 1951 is also well sketched out by Lownie. Also Burgess’ exile in Soviet Russia is made out to be just as it was, largely unpleasant for a man who loved the theories of communism but found little comfort in its everyday life or the people who were striving to achieve it. The penultimate chapter is entitled by a Burgess quote of ‘I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!’

It appears Burgess was a highly intelligent, both intellectually and socially, individual who was desperately looking for a higher cause to be able to work towards or achieve. Growing up in the 1930s, before the crimes of Stalinism became widely documented/admitted, he found solace in Communism which satisfied an almost quasi religious desire for a (preferably secret) mission to drive his life. It appears Burgess and his Cambridge spy allies genuinely believed the world was going the way of international-Soviet led communism and wanted to be on the winning side away from the declining British Empire.

Overall Burgess’ life was almost ironically tragic. After betraying his country he ended up living out an existence which was far from the career and social opportunities afforded to him by London and an England he soon longed for again. Expecting a hero’s welcome in Moscow he was instead met with a distinct distancing from power by the authorities and constant surveillance. Towards the end of his life Burgess admitted “My life ended when I left London.”

Perhaps this was fitting for a man whose attitudes to almost every institution of the British establishment was merely that it was there for his convenience and (ab)use. He wasted a life on what now seems, with the benefit of hindsight away from the great struggles of the Second World War and the Cold War, for not all that much.

Review: The Night Manager

By John le Carré. My rating: ★★★★★

*Warning this post contains storyline spoilers*

night managerThe Basics: Jonathan Pine, a night manger of luxurious hotels, becomes involved in the dangerous underworld of the illegal arms trade and it’s shadowy links to Western intelligence services. After losing the woman he loves, Jonathan is driven into the arms of the British intelligence operative Leonard Burr who designates him the mission of bringing down his obsession of “the worst man in the world,” the fabulously wealthy arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper.

In-depth: I was vaguely aware a couple of weeks ago of a new upcoming BBC adaption of a John le Carré novel. Whilst browsing in a book store in Trafalgar Square it was the front cover of the edition depicted to the left which grabbed my attention. It will surely soon be republished to reflect the upcoming BBC series with its delicious cast of Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Elizabeth Debicki. However only after being informed by a member of staff that she was “really glad you are buying that book” and beginning to read it did I realise it was the novel soon to air. Strangely it is only the books of John le Carré which I tend to have read before watching the TV/big screen adaptions of them and this was a happy accident to continue that trend.

The Night Manager was le Carré’s first post Cold War novel published in 1993. It follows the former British soldier Jonathan Pine from his hotel night shifts and his first encounter with Roper, a charismatic but shady British businessman, his beautiful girlfriend Jed and the rest of Roper’s entourage, back through his heartbreak in Cairo after a brief love affair with a Middle-Eastern gun runner’s mistress is cut short by a savage beating and murder. This forces Pine to ‘volunteer’ for recruitment by the British Intelligence services, as much torn apart by intrigue and mistrust as Pine himself, represented by the delightful, Whitehall moulded animals of Leonard Burr and Rex Goodhew. Interestingly in the Beeb’s adaption Burr’s character is to become a woman played by the excellent Olivia Colman.

Informed of his mission to trace Roper down and infiltrate his inner circle, Pine is driven by his natural tendency to fight the good fight but also now by a growing inner rage and need for revenge for the earlier loss of his love Sophie.

The story follows Pine’s development of a ‘shadow’, le Carré/spy talk for a believable cover or back story. This takes him to the quaint but apparently murderous villages of Cornwall, to another brief fling in Quebec whilst deploying his hotelier skills and to working on luxury yachts in the Caribbean where he is crowbarred back into the life of Roper and his crew.

The scene, and the intrigue behind it, which achieves this crowbarring is a wonder. I can only imagine the fun and credit to be done to it by the BBC and Hiddlestone. A staged robbery and kidnapping of Roper’s young son leads to the chance for Pine, now working quietly under board in the kitchen with his shadowed alias, to spring to action and save the day. The inner rage built up from a lifetime of trying to do the ‘right’ thing but often having the opposite effect bursts with Pine giving an overly convincing but violent performance which saves the day, the boy and most importantly Roper’s trust.

The book then turns to the Bahamas, Roper’s glorious island home and the world of selling “toys” or advanced grade weaponry to the highest bidder. Pine’s mission leads him around the dangers of Roper’s wonderfully suspicious lieutenant Corcoran and his seemingly blissfully ignorant girlfriend Jed. This ignorance is not all that it first appears.

Aided by an American planted lawyer called Apostoll who manages to convince Roper that his chief lieutenant, Corcoran, may not be as trustworthy as he seems, Pine is instead recruited into helping pull off the biggest arms and drug exchange Roper has ever attempted with a powerful Columbian drug cartel. Reporting back to Burr the details of the deal and Roper’s world, not including his stealing of Jed’s love, Pine’s operation appears briefly to be going as smoothly as Roper’s luxurious daily life seems to.

However corrupt elements within the political and intelligence classes in America and the UK, who profit off illegal arms sales threaten the operation against Roper. After the Cartel lawyer Apostoll ends up with a Columbian neck tie, Pine’s real intentions and loyalties are betrayed to Roper.

A period of imprisonment and torture within Roper’s superyacht for Pine runs parallel to battles of survival, operative and personal, fought by Burr and Goodhew in the equally dangerous world of Whitehall.

This novel revolves around the fight by people who are presented as genuinely good, Pine, Jed, Burr and Goodhew etc, struggling in a world turn asunder from the apparent moral certainties of the Cold War and the opportunities this new world was affording to individuals with more flexible morals.

Pine’s determination not to betray his mission and Jed, driven by his endless love for Sophie who did not betray him in Cairo even when faced with violence, is eventually rewarded. He and Jed retire to a quiet life in England. However the ending is more ambiguous for the other players. Roper’s Columbian deal appears to succeed thereby rendering Burr’s operation and reputation seemingly in tatters.

Now all there is to do is wait for the first episode to air on BBC 2 on 21st Feb. If past BBC adaptions of le Carré’s works and the cast are anything to go by it is going to be a belter. You can watch the trailer here.

Napoleon the Great

51+Py0MgnYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_My rating: ★★★★☆

Roberts’ account centres on a romantic account of Napoleon, from modest backgrounds to Emperor, who represented the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, progress and meritocracy. Whilst remarkably realist in painting Napoleon as the socially conservative, middle class, army man that he was, it also takes a positive view of the individual genius that possessed him which briefly awed all of Europe. Another of Roberts’ central points throughout is that many of the legal, cultural and administrative policies of Napoleon, particularly the Napoleonic Code, have endured and long outlived him.

Whilst Roberts’ account of Napoleon as the embodiment of enlightenment ideals is what you would expect from this book’s title, it is often at it’s best when demonstrating the Machiavellian flexibilities Napoleon was capable of.

This is first visible in his acceptance and embracing of the power of France over his native Corsica. His family’s connections to the native Corsican insurgency, from his upbringing in Ajaccio, briefly appears as the most obvious avenue to him, but eventually pales into insignificance against the opportunity afforded to his ambitions by the meritocratic atmosphere of the French Revolution & the chaos of the revolutionary wars.

The book largely centres on Roberts’ painstakingly meticulous analysis of the vast archives of letters that Napoleon produced during his career; and there is also plenty for military buffs with in-depth military studies of each of Napoleons battles and campaigns, something you’d expect from a grand history project such as this. Roberts gives engaging accounts of the near constant wars of the Napoleonic era, demonstrating Napoleons’ often-genuine reluctance for war, but ultimately his own firm belief in his abilities to pull off increasingly audacious victories.

Roberts also excellently captures the many personal relationships Napoleon enjoyed and endured through his life. The most interesting is that between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia, which verges on looking like a 19th century blueprint for the ruthless games between US President Frank Underwood and his Russian counterpart in series three of House of Cards.

Immediately taken in by the Tsar’s first words of “I shall be your second against England,” Napoleon forever clung to the idea of a possible truce with Russia through out his many battles with her. After a brief friendship forged from the grand summit of Tilsit, and a later attempt by Napoleon to marry into the Romanov bloodline, the Tsar’s appetite for alliance soured dramatically. Roberts pinpoints this largely to Napoleon’s trade-strangling Continental system and his Machiavellian tactics of fostering local support in the East by encouraging a nascent Polish nationalism.

Tsar Alexander I’s biding of time to destroy Napoleon hangs over much of the book and early glimpses of the hubris upon which most popular interpretations on Napoleon are built upon begin to appear. The most obvious comes with the French Emperor’s statement in a letter that French armies could surely overcome any climate or arduous environment, noted during an early pursuit of the Duke of Wellington in the mountains of northern Spain.

Although what is most interesting about Roberts’ account is it’s definitive break with the common mode of interpreting Napoleon as an absolutist ruler with a hubristic ego.

The infamous 1812 Russian campaign is the best example as it receives analysis that goes much further than merely painting the Emperor as hell bent on invading the known world, but is presented as a logical reaction to a long chain of events and influences, many of which were beyond Napoleons’ control. The horrific nature of the campaign, through its never ending marches, murderous weather, ravaging diseases are also masterly captured, culminating in the grand spectacle of the burning of Moscow by it’s inhabitants to snatch it from Napoleon’s grasp, from which his fortunes do not really recover.

Ultimately then this book is a traditional addition to the ‘great man’ canon of history but manages to achieve a remarkable amount of balance. Whilst clearly having a positive view of Napoleon’s un-doubtable achievements and legacy, Roberts’ is obviously not blind to his massive shortcomings. The most central are a lack of appreciation of naval power, particularly after the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar, fed by a self-centred belief in the prestige of land armies and battles. This, coupled with the continental system he constructed from the Baltic States around the European Continent’s coastlines to the border of the Ottoman Empire, formed the master plan for a French dominated Europe which strangely ignored the naval, commercial and economic might of his gravest foe against the channel.

It is this balance that makes this book a must, although very long, read for anyone interested in moving their understanding of such an important historical figure like Napoleon beyond the understandably popular bias of him merely as a crazed dictator as well the central point of Roberts’ admiration for Napoleon: that his dramatic rise, fall and legacy demonstrate the ability one individual can have upon history.