Monday, October 24, 2016

John Behan - Past and Present

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 23 October 2016.

John Behan's fruitful and politically-engaged career started in 1960 when a bronze bull of his was accepted by the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. The cover of the catalogue for his latest exhibition features the Bull of Easter, showing that he is still mining that mythic source for his muscular and expressive sculptures. But there's lots more on offer in this rich and varied show that revisits old themes and explores new ones. The bronzes are accompanied by a series of acrylic drawings that served as preliminary studies. Lovers of W. B. Yeats are well catered for with a number of the pieces inspired by the poet. These include: Easter 1916, Horseman Pass By, Wild Swans at Coole, and even a spectral figure that evokes those famous lines "the ghost of Roger Casement is beating on the door". The most eye-catching work is his dramatic Death of Cuchulainn, with its ominous raven perched above the slain hero. There's a lot of death about, if you include his coffin ships and chunky war chariots. Death of a Dramatist - his homage to Brian Friel - shows a meticulously detailed wicker coffin being borne to the grave, the knees of those carrying it bent under their illustrious burden.

Solomon Gallery

Dublin 2



Monday, October 17, 2016

A Day at the Races

Yuften (in green) winning the Balmoral Handicap - Firmament on right.

I should preface this little story by saying that days like this are not the norm for your average bettor and that of course you never hear about a gambler's losses. But the foregoing does confirm that if you're going to bet you have a better chance if you stick to the good quality races where form can be taken seriously. I should also pay tribute to the Racing Post website where you can research in detail every race that every racehorse has ever run.

The flat season's last major event on Saturday was the Qipco Champions Day at Ascot. This features four Group 1 races and brings together all the best horses in Europe for one last joust. And it concludes with a high class handicap over a mile - my favourite distance for betting purposes. It's the kind of day where you can just watch and enjoy the quality of the beasts - or if you're like me you just have to have a bet. As usual I'm watching it on Channel 4 - going through its death throes as ITV waits in the wings to take over. It means that in future we'll be spared the jolly hockey sticks approach of Claire Balding, but will be denied the silkier talents of the fragrant Emma Spencer.

I did a little more studying than usual for this swan song to the flat season and came up with an each-way Yankee (6 doubles, 4 trebles and an accumulator) on Quest for More (12-1), Journey (8-1), Minding (5-2), and Yuften (12-1) - as well as individual bets on the same horses and a saver on Firmament at 8-1 in Yuften's race, plus a reverse forecast on Yuften and Firmament.

1.25 Ascot: Quest for More in the opening Long Distance race was up against an O'Brien hot shot who'd finished third in the Arc, but I reckoned he was the stouter stayer and at 12-1 was very good each wayvalue. I respect mightily his trainer Roger Charlton who stated he was clearly the second best horse on form. He ran his usual brave race, lying in second most of the way and looking like the winner as he battled for the lead a furlong out - but his exertions in Paris two weeks ago may have caught him out as the fresher Sheikhzayedroad stayed on better and beat him by half a length. O'Brien's horse never got into contention. So my Yankee got going with a decent priced placed horse.

2.00 Ascot: I ignored the next race which was a sprint, these horse keep beating each other depending on draw, going, a good start and other imponderables. Many serious bettors ignore sprints for this reason. It was won in good style by The Tin Man but I would never have picked him because of collateral form.

2.35 Ascot: O'Brien has another short priced favourite, Seventh Heaven, in the Fillies and Mares Stakes. However she's a three year old and I fancied the doughty John Gosden's more experienced four year old Journey - especially at the early morning price of 8-1. She had been second lastl year and I do like horses for courses - especially at Ascot. My girl lay up in second for most of the race and bounded clear in the final furlong to win by four lengths. Her starting price was 4-1 but I had my 8-1 in the bag.

3.10 Ascot: The Queen Elizabeth Stakes over a mile featured Minding, a dual classic winner for Aidan . She has been racing over 10 and 12 furlongs recently but nobody who saw her win the Guineas could doubt her prowess over a mile. The question really was could she maintain her consistency after a long hard season. They're were a number of fresher horse in the race and she was a filly racing against colts but she just seemed a class above the rest. There was a strong pace and she hit the front a furlong and a half out and just stayed on better than the rest. The yankee was now beginning to ripen nicely. Even a place in the fourth leg would yield me a decent pot.

3.45 Ascot: The Champion Stakes - I was initially going to back Found in this race but I felt that her heroic win in the Arc may have knocked the stuffing out of her. Also, she was up against Almanzor who had beaten her in the Irish Champion Stakes and who was a fresher horse having been laid out for this race. As it transpired the latter won comfortably with Found running a noble second.

4.25 Ascot: The Balmoral Handicap - this was a mile handicap with a large field but I had narrowed it down to Yuften and Firmament. In the end I went with Yuften in my Yankee because of a race in which he beat Sir Isaac Newton, a group horse trained by Aidan O'Brien, by four lengths. He seemed very well handicapped for a horse with that kind of form - although he had run a number of inexplicably bad races when trained in Ireland by Johnny Murtagh. Also, Roger Charlton's always informative web site had told me that he was going very well in his work. I backed Firmament because he keeps turning up in these competitive mile handicaps and just getting pipped. The race was the usual cavalry charge with Yuften getting a good position on the far rail. He went clear a furlong out and held on easily despite wandering across the track. Firmament had a more troubled passage on the near side and was just beaten for second place - spoiling my dual forecast. However, Yuften's win at 12-1 meant my Yankee and associated bets yielded a substantial four figure sum. We enjoyed a bottle of Sancerre with the chicken for dinner.





Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Mild Moan about The Siege of Jadotville


I watched this on Netflix last night and found it deeply unconvincing. I have no doubt about the historical heroics of A Company and about how badly they were treated by politicians and by their own senior staff. My reservations were mostly about tone, about historical accuracy and about the actual battle. In the opening scenes the soldiers' uniforms were the wrong shade of green - perhaps they took poetic license for aesthetic or cinematographic reasons. I also had a major issue with Commandant Quinlan's saluting technique. I grew up on a series of military barracks (including the Curragh and Collins Barracks, Cork) and never saw an Irish officer use that horizontal style - it was always more a diagonal (see image above). Back in those days also the hierarchies were very strictly observed and there would be no casual banter between ranks - nor would a junior officer speak to a senior one in the manner they did in the film. I don't know where they got that scene at the end where Quinlan strikes the general - that would have provoked a major scandal and a certain end to his career. The portrayal of Conor Cruise O'Brien was also unconvincing. He was far from the cynical and worldly careerist portrayed and in fact suffered from his idealism throughout his working life. But the most unconvincing aspect was probably the depiction of the battle. If they had been overwhelmed and outnumbered in the fashion depicted, how come there was not a single fatality. There were bullets flying everywhere and not a single one had a fatal outcome on the Irish side - despite the hundreds that perished amongst the rebels and mercenaries. It must have happened differently - unless that mass they went to earned them a miracle. I'd give it two out of five. But I'm not a fan of action movies so maybe I'm biased.