A Sporting Digression

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Go to your happy place…

I started this trip just before the Rugby World Cup kicked off. Back then, there wasn’t a huge amount of hope for Irish glory, after a run of defeats in friendly games. However, as I managed to sneak Internet access across Asia, I heard about a string of victories instead: a hard-fought win over the U.S., an almighty upset against Australia, and a competent demolition of Russia. When I finally got to see them play, in a British pub in Los Angeles, I watched one of their most solid performances in years as they first ground down and then broke Italy to claim top spot in their qualifying group.

Then last night I watched the quarterfinal against Wales in Wellington. Ouch.

The immediate reaction among the pundits seemed to be that Ireland had played well but had come up against a superior Welsh side. True as far as it goes, but one suspects that the team won’t find much solace in that notion. There may not have been any disastrous performances on the Irish side, but the tactics employed didn’t make a massive amount of sense.

In the first half, apart from Shane Williams’ 3rd-minute try, Ireland seemed to be intent on keeping a Wales side who were dangerous with ball in hand from ever getting that ball. And it worked: Ireland looked by far the most likely team to score, threatening the Welsh line several times. You could argue that O’Gara should have kicked for goal a few more times, but he took the one kick that was a nailed-on certainty. Going in at half time 10-3 down but in control, what was needed was patience. Instead, the second half saw a reversion to bad habits.

Keith Earls sneaked in for a try early on, and O’Gara added the conversion to level the scores. However, with Ireland opting to kick and chase, rarely with any hope of challenging for the resulting ball, Wales had plenty of possession, and they were all too keen to use it. After Mike Phillips copied Earls with a try in the corner to put Wales ahead again, Ireland looked momentarily panicked and rushed, with the normally solid O’Driscoll and Healy making errors. In the end, another try put the result beyond reach, and all the pressure that Ireland applied went nowhere.

All credit to Wales for executing an intelligent plan with passion and determination, earning a deserved win. Ireland, though, will know that they could have done much better. For many in the team, it was their last shot at a World Cup, and to miss out at the quarterfinals again will hurt badly. It may not have been what those stalwarts deserved, but the sad thing about sport is that what you get is not so much what you deserve as what you earn.

(Oh, and I’m not going to comment on England getting dumped out by the perennially surprising French other than to say that the All Blacks will be none too happy to see their regular World Cup nemeses showing signs of life once more…)

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Relics of Empire

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I kept stopping the car every five minutes to take shots like this.

Back near the start of this journey, I spent a day in the Hermitage, the former Winter Palace of the Romanov Tsars, now a treasure house dedicated to the packrat tendencies of those imperial rulers. Two trends were pretty clear: the desire to build as imposing a dwelling place as possible and the need to fill it with art and ornamentation of the very finest quality. After all, those who rule have to awe those who lack the resources to live in similar splendour.

Yesterday, I spent a few hours in the palace of a latter-day emperor: media mogul William Randolph Hearst. His castle at San Simeon is similarly awe-inspiring, perched on a hill overlooking the California coast and strewn with treasures and artworks of the very finest quality. And yet, it was hard not to notice that all of those artworks and treasures were either antiques at least several centuries old or copies in antique style. Whatever their failings, the Romanovs followed the tradition among the powerful and rich of acting as patrons to the artists of their day. I don’t know if Hearst did the same, but there was little that was new about the Castle at San Simeon, apart from the earthquake-proof reinforced concrete structure.

All very different from my experience at the Los Angeles County Art Museum a couple of days before. Whatever your feelings about modern art trends, there’s something admirable about the desire to try new things and see what works, and LACMA is a fine showcase for some fascinating modern pieces.

However, there’s art and then there’s nature, and not much has captivated me on this trip as much as the vistas on the Pacific Coast Highway between San Simeon and Carmel. The drive would have been much shorter had it not been for the constant desire to get out and admire the view every few minutes.

That’s why there’s a photo of the view from the road above rather than of Hearst’s Castle at San Simeon. Well, that and the fact that they have to give written permission before you can publish photos and I forgot to ask.

September Reviews

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David Hasslehoff: not pictured.

It’s amazing how many dodgy movies you can watch on a trans-Pacific flight. Especially when you really should be sleeping. that’s why there’s a bit more substance to this month’s reviews than I had expected. A pleasant surprise, though few of the movies in question were.

Movies

Green Lantern: A superhero film with a split personality, Green Lantern is half space-based, exposition-heavy mythology and half Earth-based “coming to terms with your past” hero creation. The film deliberately goes for an epic feel, but a script that insists on explaining every point bogs it down, and the grand spectacle of the ultimate enemy loses any emotional weight in the welter of unconvincing CGI. In the other half of the story, Ryan Reynolds struggles to avoid equating “overconfident” with “asshole” while the remainder of the cast fail to stand out much.

Super 8: JJ Abrams’ homage to the Spielberg movies of the ‘80s, Super 8 throws a bunch of kids into an encounter with an alien that’s a little bit ET and a little bit Cloverfield. The kids themselves are well cast, as are the adults that surround them, and the ‘80s setting is meticulously replicated, but there’s a certain hollow feeling, as though the surface but not the heart of the original films has been recreated. This is particularly notable in the level of gore in the film, which is somewhat surprising in a film ostensibly aimed at a family audience.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Johnny Depp returns as Jack Sparrow in the latest in the money-spinning series of films from Disney, breaking free from the convoluted story of the original trilogy into a more straightforward search for the Fountain of Youth. Several familiar faces return, and new ones are provided in the form of Ian McShane’s Blackbeard and Penelope Cruz as his daughter, but despite an Orlando Bloom replacement, the focus is entirely on Depp this time, and his prancing, mascara-laden character may well be one we’ve seen quite enough of already. It’s a decent enough action film and an improvement on the overblown messes that the previous two films in the series were, but the profit-driven motive behind spending money on this and not on something a little more original is wearying.

Books

The Inimitable Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse: Gentle, superbly crafted and almost guaranteed to raise a smile, Wodehouse’s tales of the genial wastrel Bertie Wooster and his efficient, all-knowing butler Jeeves are not so much literature as a pick-me-up in literary form. The episodic stories are a little repetitive, with Bertie struggling with problems caused by his troublesome relatives and friends until Jeeves devises a solution, but the reason it all works so well is Wodehouse’s masterly command of the English language and his creation of an idealised world of fools and cads. Delightful to step into at any time, this is an ephemeral confection that even those with no time for the idle rich will find it hard to resist.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman: As an author, Neil Gaiman excels in creating worlds that the reader would love to visit, no matter how many villains inhabit them, because they run on beautifully logical fairytale versions of the everyday world’s cause and effect. Neverwhere, a novelisation of the BBC series of the same name, presents a version of London in which a shadowy underworld exists, based on the names and geography of the upper world, extended literally and metaphorically as deep as they will go. A classic hero’s tale, populated by some of the most appealing and quirky characters Gaiman has ever invented, it’s a story that’s over far too quick for all it promises to contain.

The Warmest of Welcomes

My very first night in LA and I get this welcome.

LA arranged this sunset just for me. Plus a rainbow on the other side of the sky. Nice.

Americans get a bad rap sometimes, with the stereotype of them being loud, obnoxious and culturally insensitive. Sure, I’ve met some Americans who fit that bill, but I’ve also met plenty of Irish who do too, and a fair scattering among other nationalities. In terms of ratios, I suspect that not too much changes wherever you go: there are always assholes. The vast majority of Americans that I’ve known have been some of the warmest, friendliest people it’s been my pleasure to encounter.

Los Angeles provides a case in point. This is the first time on my tour since I left London that I’ve been in the company of a friend, and she and her family couldn’t have been more welcoming to a weary, time zone-addled traveller. Getting to see Los Angeles laid out in front of me at sunset from the rear of their house was a pretty special experience too.

Los Angeles itself is a city I’ve never been to before, though I’ve bracketed it with visits to San Diego and San Francisco. There’s an odd feeling of familiarity about it that comes from place names that show up regularly on television and film: Mulholland Drive, Venice Beach, Rodeo Drive and, of course, Sunset Boulevard. I haven’t visited them all and I probably won’t before I leave, but I have ventured across the city by car and lived to tell the tale. So at least some of my navigational abilities remain intact.

Next up, a trip along the coast, northwards towards San Francisco by way of the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s all rather unplanned from here on in, save a few stops along the way to see friends, but after the scheduled mania of the trip so far, it’s nice to just take it as it comes.