Monday, 28 May 2007

Anyone for tennis?

I'd like to pride myself on my arthouse credentials. I've sat in the Everyman cinema in Hampstead watching things like Last Year in Marienbad, thinking what on earth are they on about?

About the only thing I did get on the first viewing was the game with matchsticks that one of the dinner-suited protagonists played with an equally stiff-faced lady.

I've matured since then and I now, after buying the DVD and watching it a few more times, understand the subtleties of Alain Robbe-Grillet's screenplay and Alain Resnais' immaculate direction.

The Battle of Algiers is one of those films that swirled around in London every now and again while I was living there. And each time there was a chance of seeing it, I've thought about whether I really want to go out and view such lugubrious subject matter.

On one of my last Sundays in London before staying in Paris to cover the French tennis Open, I saw that the film was heading to the ICA. It would also be there on some days in June.

As the evening approached I began to waver. It seemed it would be such a balmy evening. Maybe I'd hang out with the colleagues for a few drinks.

As I'd be away from London until mid June, I phoned up the ICA to ask what dates the film would be playing that month.

The cinema receptionist who answered said that the ICA's June film schedule was out and there was no mention of the film in it.

"What does that mean?" I asked. But as I posed the question I realised I probably knew the answer.

"Well, if it's not listed, it usually means it's not going to be on," replied the receptionist.

He paused and then remarked that he too had noticed that the film was scheduled for days in June.

As both of us were keen to avoid a telephonic clin d'oeil to a Marienbad world of spoken unspokens, we both agreed it was best to seize the attainable.

I went to see the film. And I probably saw it at the right time. I emerged from the screening and, quoting one of the phrases Dr Reid came out with at university about Goethe's Faust, I proclaimed to myself: a film of life, for life.

I'd seen a piece about colonialism and insurrection in Algiers and it had Baghdad written all over it.

After my first day covering the tennis at Roland Garros, I was listening to BBC World Service and, lo and behold, a known unknown. Some American army colonel is on the air saying how the Batle of Algiers is being studied - probably by both sides - to see what mistakes to avoid and what advantages to exploit.

The organisers of the French Open started the tournament on a Sunday in 2006 and were very impressed by the response of the public who paid to see the likes of Roger Federer and the French number one Amelie Mauresmo. Federer said then he didn't like starting on a Sunday but in his nice guy way he intimated what do they [the organisers] care about the players?

So for 2007, the organisers scheduled 24 matches on six courts and the crowds came flooding in. Interestingly Mr Federer was not down for the Sunday start.

Sadly the rain gushed down and only seven of the matches were finished, six of them after a six hour rain delay.

And there's no compensation for the people who bought tickets in the belief that they would be seeing four matches for however much they forked out.

I'm only a vague student of market economics. But this really does not strike me as good PR.

I'm certainly not about to broach the arcane technicalities of the French Tennis Federation but it seems to me that if you pay, say 40 euros, to see four matches and three of them are called off due to bad weather you should be able to give 30 euros back to someone.

I know it's not the federation's fault that it rained but the lust for growth at the expense of the human reality does make you wonder just how much the executives really want to expand the appeal.

Ultimately as we all know it's about hearts and minds. Do the top suits and skirts really believe in their own advertising slogan: "Le tennis - un sport réservé à tous"?

Friday, 25 May 2007

It's only a game

My sister phoned from London to taunt me that Manchester United would beat Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final later that day.

These kind of calls had stopped while Chelsea were bulldozing their way to two Premiership titles. But in 2006-7 Chelsea had managed to make everyone love Manchester United. Even those who really, really used to hate them.

As I was on the verge of going out to the bank, I didn't rise to the bait. In fact, I thought she was probably right. United have been a free-scoring fantasy while Chelsea have been a dreary, politics-ridden fiasco.

I got to the radio station and watched on one of the sports channels Roger Federer fretting past the Spaniard Carlos Moya in the semi-finals of the Hamburg Masters.

The Swiss tennis maestro was a bundle of nervous backhands and ineffective shots on the German clay. It's easy to see why he's edgy once he gets to the French Open in Paris. They say the terre battue at Roland Garros is unforgiving.

But then Chelsea used to be like that.

I saw the first 20 minutes of the cup final before going to do the bulletin. I returned to find a colleague watching it. I lasted 10 minutes. I couldn't take it any more so I headed out with the papers to take a coffee break in the sun at a nearby cafe.

I returned with about eight or so minutes to go. Still 0-0. The colleague was slumped in front of the box fast asleep.

As for the tennis......Federer had squeezed past Moya to get to the final. Now it was the second semi-final and it was the former world number one Lleyton Hewitt against the clay court caesar Rafael Nadal.

Unvanquished in 80 consecutive matches on the surface, Nadal was struggling against the Aussie scrapper. Even lost a set. But the Spaniard won that one and Chelsea won the cup - courtesy of a Didier Drogba goal four minutes from the end of extra time.

My first reaction to Chelsea's victory was: Are you watching Shevchenko? Are you watching Shevchenko? My colleague who'd been jolted back into life said he had been. Likewise Michael Ballack - two star signings absent through injury. Hopefully they were looking at their future.

For Drogba was not a success in his first season back in 2004-5. True Chelsea won their first title in 50 years but people said £24 million? What a donkey. Fast forward 2006-7 and 33 goals in all competitions and no one mentions the price. Sheva and Micky you can come good. Glory awaits.

I'm preparing for my own tilt at greatness. The veterans team I've been playing with for the past three seasons is first in the league's second division.

My own part in this season's odyssey is intermittent. I've scored goals - I haven't kept the tally as I've been trying to knuckle down to the midfield role I've been assigned rather than pusing for the forward positions where I used to play.

However my status since returning from a calf injury has been little short of talismanic.

Coming on in the second half a few weeks ago, we were trailing two one and I was sent up front so as none of the midfielders wanted to go in attack. I scored the equaliser, had some part in the goal for 3-2 and then limped off with a thigh injury.

My next contribution was even more spectacular. Down 2-0 at half time, I came on and we scored two goals. I limped off and we didn't score again. Fortunately neither did the other side.

So with one game to go, a win is all that's needed. On June 2 we play the second from bottom team - the side that's conceded the most goals against the team with the most potent attack, which we've needed because in 19 games we've let in on average two goals a game.

The left thigh is being rebuilt through rest, cycling and swimming for the crunch.

If promotion happens, then the higher division will be a better standard and we'll probably get thrashed each week. But we might not. We might all get better and survive. However to use the old cliche: one game at a time. Focus. Perform.

Which is exactly what my computer stopped doing. The mother board is no more on the laptop.

After being given an estimated cost of repair my immediate reaction was: scrap it. But I'm feeling sentimental. This was my first laptop. We've travelled together many times. It's the first thing in my bag as I prepare for the weekly journey on the Eurostar. I'm reluctant to see it go when it could be repaired. What to do?

I love the Eurostar trip. And though I've been doing this voyage for nearly seven years, this one seems new as I'm experiencing it without the laptop. I sit and read the papers. The sports pages tell me that the FA Cup final was dull.

They also tell me that Federer is going through a seminal moment in his career as Roland Garros approaches. He hasn't conquered Nadal in their previous five meetings on clay. His progress at Hamburg doesn't lead anyone to think he can alter this and so master his internal demons.

The French papers recount Sgt Major Sarkozy's latest actions. They say he's going to be more involved than his predecessor as he ushers in an era of dynamism. The new world order will be powered by a PTT - président à tout terrain.

The person who came up with that line should get on their vélo à tout terrain.

Quizzical about the land I'll return to in a few days, I look out at the landscapes rushing by in a breeze of greens. I think almost as fast as I'm travelling.

Buy a new computer in London and get the old one repaired in Paris and give it to my computerless partner.

Thereby I forge into the technological future while keeping something familiar. This train of thought doesn't, like the Eurostar, stop at Ashford. It goes on. It's win, win, win.

And that's exactly what Federer does later that day. 6-0 in the final set. Nadal's record streak of 81 ended. The monkey off Federer's back and fresh heart for Roland Garros.

Well, at least Roger is jolly. My computer world is jeopardised when I'm back in Paris and told just how much repairing it will be.

London is the cheaper option on that score which reminds me, I wonder if I will on June 2.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

So far, Sarko

The result came through while I was in London working. Nicolas Sarkozy had achieved his ambition to be the top dog in France.

He's angled for it and thanks to a spectacularly useless Socialist party, he's got it.

Technically the Socialists should have waltzed their way into the Elysée Palace, the stasis of Jacques Chirac's 12 years at the helm energising their steps to power.

In the papers I was reading in England, it was reported that boys and girls on the left had started to wage their internal war once the defeat was known. Quite how all the brains from France's top schools didn't realise that the time to change was before the election lends an ironic credibility to Sarkozy's reformist zeal.

Well another five years out of power should invigorate somnolent minds. Yet if 12 years of impotence didn't do the trick, I'm not entirely convinced that another five will be any different.

In this betwixt the cities world I inhabit, it's unclear how Sarkozy's ascension will affect my life in Paris.

As I emerged from Chateau D'Eau metro station, Boulevard de Strasbourg was eerily quiet. Hardly any traffic, very few people. Even the hawkers for the hairdressing salons that line the boulevard from Strasbourg St Denis up to the Gare de L'Est had gone.

The fact that they're all African, I thought people are really running scared.

But the silence was probably attributable to the latest bank holiday uberweekend.

Since the holiday to celebrate the end of the second world war on May 8 fell on a Tuesday this year, and with the schools having their usual Wednesday off, clearly people had decided to get out.

While Sgt Major Sarko wants to get his horrible lot back to the basics of hard work by ending the 35 hour week, there's been no mention of reducing bank holidays and thus the intellectual ingenuity of organising "ponts" which combine the end of one week with the national holiday and a belated start to the following working week.

Arch masters of the art brag about their "viaducs". I've never been able to negotiate such channels of thought because I'm invariably being whisked by a Eurostar through my "tunnel" on a Sunday morning.

Were I to stay in France I'd probably be able to cash in on the joys of my brood. After having the third child last year and becoming a famille nombreuse, we've qualified for reductions on our utility bills, 50 per cent of metro journeys as well as 30 per cent off travel on SNCF. The pass for free swimming in municipal pools has offered me a new suppleness.

There are even reductions for the city's art galleries. But that's immaterial to me as I've already unlimited access via my press card (See CARD WORKS).

A lot of Sgt Major Sarko's vitriol has been directed at the bloated indolent. One wheeze is to withdraw benefits if a person spurns too many job offers. As the chopper glints, reducing tax always seems appealing but there comes a point when having extra money doesn't make that much difference.

I'm not likely to be able to go out and buy a bigger apartment or finance a more luxurious car. And if more money in my pocket correlates to a deterioration in public transport and schools, then I see no actual gain.

The trick will be to maintain the things like vaguely decent schools and hospitals while wealth increases across the board.

After all, as we've seen in Britain - which is held out by the Sgt Major's brigade as a model - we may be better at job creation but what good is being richer if you die from a superbug contracted in a dirty hospital ward?

Something like 730 cars were torched after the Sgt Major's anointment. Youths clashed with riot police at the Place de la Bastille. Oh please. Democracy? Bonjour.

The Socialists showed their collective ineptitude by taking a while to condemn the violence.

And so the suburbs seethe because the man who called yesteryear's rioters scum is president of the country.

I don't go to the suburbs. I travel past high rise estates and some rather genteel enclaves on the train when I go to play football on a Saturday morning. I find both standards unappealing because, for me, they're remote. But obviously it's easier to escape when you're affluent.

When I lived in paris 12 years ago I wrote an article for the music magazine Straight No Chaser about four films which concentrated on the lives in "la banlieue".

Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine was the most celebrated. But there were three others - Krim, Rai and Etat des Lieux - which all offered their visions. Gilles Favier, a photojournalist, had an exhibition of pictures taken while La Haine was being shot.

When I went to talk to him about his show, he told me about the postcode apartheid - rejection because of your area and the double whammy if your surname happens not to be Le Blanc.

During the latest presidential campaign I lived the loop. A TV crew ventured into one of the banlieue to speak to twentysomethings of North African descent.

And in 2007 they said....they couldn't get any jobs because of their address and, they suspected, their names.

While Tony Blair frets about his legacy to Britain after 10 years as prime minister, Chirac bequeaths his land the Sgt Major, a man who seems not to give a damn about those floundering in the social gulf.

The elite eat with the elite, it is true. But even the Old Etonian fibres within the Tory leader David Cameron sense that he has to reach out beyond his privileged post Oxbridge norms. So he goes and spends a week with a Muslim family in Birmingham. Ostentatious? Maybe. Condescending? Debatable. But he may have harvested a grain of insight.

No such clairvoyance here in France. Even after defeat the Socialists still demonise the Sgt Major and with him 25 million or so who voted for him.

But the next stop is obvious. Woo and engage. If the devil is into the detail of the country, then the self-styled gods had better descend from their ideological stratospheres and present a plausible reason for people to turn away from evil.

Why they can't see that leaves me baffled. But then I came to France to broaden my mind.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

card works

It was a girlfriend called Jean who introduced me to the phrase: "I've never paid for it in my life."

Declaimed with a northern accent to honour effervescent virility, it always struck me as amusing since it was Scottish girl doing a southern accent.

She'd always berate my pitiful efforts to use the flourish. It was probably her way of ensuring that I, as a Londoner, never attempted to recreate her Celtic tones.

Jean has long gone but her bravura lives on as the phrase - now with improved northern diction - has been appropriated into the Myers lexicon.

And it's been gaining extra currency of late. Nothing to do with my rampaging masculinity rather my approach to culture in Paris and London.

Press cards have furnished me with a healthy desire to see any old exhibition. And owning an apartment a five minute bus ride from the Pompidou Centre has been a treat on this score.

I came to live in Paris in 2000 armed with an English press card and I was soon advised to get a French one so that I could get a higher freelance rate. The French card eventually came after the bureaucratic hurdles of applying to a police statistics office in Nantes which then sent a letter verifying that I didn't have a criminal record in France.

As for my serial slasher days in the former GDR.......

Well two cards has always struck me as superfluous especially since the English one has never been refused at any gallery I've visited in France or Germany for that matter.

I did all the necessary paperwork for the 2007 French card back in early February so that a new one would be on my doorstep before the 2006 card expired at the end of March.

There was always the potential for a momentary void this year since the English one would also run out at the end of March after two years of sterling work. But for that I'd just have to wait for the new one to be delivered to the Guardian. Of course it was late.

And there was a hitch with the French press card so for the first time in 15 years, I faced the prospect of having to pay for my culture.

Well at times like this a man gets to wondering: just how deep is that ache? Does the easy availability inspire the yearning? Or is there a real need?

With the family in England on holiday I spent some days in Paris alone. At junctures like this I usually feast on the attractions. I've known myself to take in the Pompidou......the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in the Louvre...and the Musée d'art moderne en route to work at la Maison de la Radio in western Paris.

This time I had no such dynamism.

I didn't bother to hunt for excuses. It was simply that I would've had to pay. What's more I didn't know what I would've had to pay because I've never paid for it in my life.

When I went to rejoin my brood in London I duly picked up my delayed English press card.

Once back in Paris...the French press card was there.

Paradise restored.

To celebrate I headed with the boy to the David Lynch exhibition the Air is on Fire at the Fondation Cartier down in the 14th arrondissement.

It's wild at heart. Scrawls and squiggles from an imagination that's conjured up wacky TV series like Twin Peaks and ethereal chillers like Blue Velvet.

Lynch's titbits were intriguing especially the drawings on postcards etched from his earliest youth.

At a doorway to some of the pieces, there's a warning that they might not be suitable for young people.

This wasn't a particular problem as the boy was happily snoozing in his buggy. Actually I wasn't convinced that they were suitable for anyone.

But that was me being glib. Which is perhaps how I've become with all this easy access. I've lost my stickability — to use a phrase beloved of linguistically innovative English football managers.

I tend to go into exhibitions in a fairly breezy manner. Either because I'm lugging a dozing bairn around and so am poised to evacuate as soon as they wake up and start screaming or I'm with an as yet to be convinced child and am ready to head to the cafe for milk and biscuits once they're certain that the shapes and figures aren't that brilliant.

The boy, all 13 months of him, is already into the gallery groove, mostly with his five-year-old sister and so my stance hasn't essentially altered. Occasionally I realise I haven't been able to form an opinion of a show because I've been so distracted. What's the point of going in if you take nothing out?

The corinthian in me says it's the participation that counts.

And yet there have been times when a visit has met with instant approval. Since a primary school trip a few years ago to the Pompidou to reinforce the techniques of orientation, the eldest shuns the place — preferring now to stare at her verruca with the self-referential avidity of a modern artist. Maybe she did imbibe something from our jaunts. Anyway I well remember repeated trips there to see the Dubuffet retrospective as well as the Daniel Buren when she was younger.

The child's view informed my approach especially at the Buren when the structures and shadows seemed tailor made to an infant's curiosity and impulsiveness and that in turn allowed me to enter into the artist's world of playfulness.

It would have cost a minor fortune if I'd had to pay since we went at least half a dozen times on her Wednesdays off school during both runs.

And it would have been sad to have dampened the eagerness to see it due to cost.

I realise that I'm privileged to be able to take the children around some of the best art spaces in the world for free. And that opportunity should be extended to all parents with children under say 14 or so. It would certainly give them a place to go and make sure they wouldn't feel the need to stay in order to justify the financial outlay.

While not as flamboyant as our Jean's boast, "I've stopped paying for it" would become a welcome rejoinder in many a home.