Writing Portfolio


Take me out to the ball game

Many years ago my university tutor, who happened to be American, made a comment about how, despite having lived in England for many years, he couldn’t understand cricket. As a tail-end batsman in the university’s second XI, I couldn’t resist responding by pointing out that none of us Brits had a clue about baseball.

“But baseball’s easy!” countered Professor Wheeler. The short discussion that followed, which naturally had nothing to do with the lecture topic, ended with us agreeing to disagree about which country has the best bat-and-ball game. If you’re brought up on one of them, your chances of understanding the other are slim. Just about the only thing we were able to establish is that both sports have a great appeal to fans who are interested in a lot of statistics.

For years, most of what I knew about baseball came from Ed Smith’s book Playing Hard Ball, which is a great read for people who’ve been brought up on cricket and want to try to understand this other summer game that keeps getting talked about in American movies and sitcoms. A professional cricketer-turned-writer, Ed Smith is one of few people to have attempted to bridge this cultural gap in either direction without resorting to feeble jokes at the other sport’s expense (case in point: Bill Bryson).

What surprises me is how much baseball terminology has crept into the language, even in a country that doesn’t understand the sport. Stepping up to the plate, ballpark figures, three strikes, covering all your bases, switch-hitting (a baseball thing long before Kevin Pietersen tried it on the cricket pitch) and coming out of left field are all baseball phrases. Plus, of course, there’s the baseball cap.

I started watching baseball on the TV when I started going to Canada during the summer months, and although it puzzled me at first I did manage to pick up a few things. Until my last visit in May of this year, though, I had never been to a game. On previous visits to Toronto, I had been to BMO Fields (home of Toronto FC) and the Air Canada Centre (where the Leafs play) but I had not been to see the Blue Jays.

They play at the SkyDome (a.k.a. the Rogers Centre) which is located right in the centre of Toronto – not so much in the shadow of the CN Tower but right next to it. Built in the 1980s, it is the first sports stadium to have a fully retractable roof, although as it wasn’t raining when we went this was open to the elements. It seats around 45,000 – although for most Jays games it’s barely half full. At one side is a hotel where some of the rooms have a view out onto the field – although it’s something of a standing joke that if you want to watch a baseball game in your hotel, it’s much cheaper to just get a room that has a TV.

Outside, touts mingled with the guys manning the hotdog stands and somehow managed to evade the attention of the cops who appeared to be more interested in buying hotdogs than anything else.

Inside, the ground was half-full as the Jays took on the Atlanta Braves, a team whose fans are well-known for their ‘tomahawk chop’ celebratory gesture. Years ago, a Jays player used this gesture when they beat the Braves, which caused a bit of friction between the two teams.

In baseball, both teams have nine innings, each one ending after three batters (not batsmen) are out. So there’s quite the turnaround, and the first-time matchgoer is advised to stay alert if he wants to follow the game properly.

Throughout the game, attendants wandered the stands selling cans of beer, although it is in fact cheaper if you get up and go to the bar yourself. It really is just a question of whether or not you want to pay the extra money to not miss anything! Other vendors sold peanuts and Cracker Jack. One guy tried to boost sales by balancing his tray on his head. He got some applause but little extra trade. “Oh come on, guys,” he shouted at us, “I’m trying to pay for college here!” We opted to get some fries instead.

On the pitch, there appeared to be a lot of fly-balls (hits that go behind and so aren’t scoring shots – same sort of thing as dot-balls, I guess), and the fielding was generally excellent. Part of the scoreboard told me that the pitcher was pitching at speeds of over 80 mph.

Of the players, the only one who really stood out (albeit for the wrong reasons) was Toronto’s Brett Lawrie, who distinguished himself by pulling a hamstring muscle while stealing a base when he didn’t really need to do so (he got blasted by the baseball correspondent of the Globe & Mail the following day).

A break of sorts came with the seventh innings stretch, when crowd are encouraged to, well, stretch – the cheerleaders put on a dance routine which resembled a work-out video, and quite a few of the spectators joined in. Quite a few people got up to get food, and it was at this point that sales of beer ended.

By the time Edwin Encarnacion hit a three-run homer at the bottom of the seventh (for the uninitiated, that constitutes a Very Good Thing), it was obvious that the Jays were going to win convincingly. But a ‘never say never’ attitude pervaded among the crowd, most probably because of the way the Leafs had managed to crash out of the NHL play-offs the previous week (losing the deciding game after being 4-1 up with ten minutes to go). Even when they’re in a seemingly unassailable lead, supporting sports teams from Toronto is no easy task.

I am pleased to report that lightning did not strike twice, and in the end the Jays won 9-3 without having to bat the last innings. I am also happy to report that this cricket fan really enjoyed his trip to see the other bat-and-ball game.

Back home, I found that ESPN America shows baseball games, so when summer comes round again I have the option of continuing to learn more about the old ball game.


Scotch woodcock

Recently, I came into possession of a copy of the St Michael All Colour Cookery Book, a tome from the Seventies that has quite a few old-school recipes. I thought it might be fun to have a go at making one of these for lunch, and after a little perusing I chanced upon Scotch woodcock.

Despite the name, Scotch woodcock contains neither Scotch nor woodcock (although, in the case of the former, it’s ‘Scotch’ as in ‘Scottish’) but is a dish consisting of scrambled egg and anchovies, much in the same way that Welsh rarebit doesn’t have rabbit in it. It is not a creation of the Seventies but goes back to Victorian times – a recipe that’s a bit more complicated can be found in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – when it was served as an end-of-meal savoury. However, as my St Michael book notes, “in these less formal times it is more likely to be served as a snack”.

Now, we like anchovies in our house, but usually as a means of adding subtle flavouring rather than as the main attraction – and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of adding them to scrambled egg. Scotch woodcock, though, brings anchovies to the fore in a big way. Indeed, the recipe required a whole (small) jar of the things, more or less. The other ingredients are pretty much the ingredients for scrambled eggs on toast.

The dish was more labour-intensive that I’d thought – the anchovies had to be soaked in milk before half of them were mixed with most of the butter to make the anchovy butter. The book recommended using a mortal and pestle (which is which?) for this; I gave it a go and decided that the simpler expedient of mashing it with a fork worked better. Thus can I now claim to have made a basic version of Gentlemen’s Relish.

This was spread on some toast while I got on with scrambling the eggs. The St Michael book advises that milk should be mixed in with the eggs, which is something I disagree with – and here, I’ve got the word of Delia Smith to back me up (still, could’ve been worse; the recipe for Scotch woodcock in the Mrs Beeton book instructs you to separate the eggs and add a quarter of a pint of cream to the yolks).

Once scrambled, the eggs went atop the anchovy-buttered toast and then the final part could begin. The remaining anchovies were sliced lengthways so that they could be arranged in a lattice pattern on top of the scrambled eggs.

The result was, quite frankly, overpowering. The anchovies are in the butter and on top of the eggs, and the strong flavour dominates this dish. That’s too much for me; with anchovies, the approach really should be something along the lines of ‘less is more’.

I’ll just stick to good old scrambled eggs in future, I think.


Biographies of war heroes

My latest post concerns two books that I’ve read over the past few months – both of which happen to be biographies of men who, among other things, were war heroes.

First of all, I’d been looking forward to reading Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper (2012), as the subject is one of my favourite writers – although it is true that his prose is a little too purple for some tastes (I, for example, am glad that I didn’t stumble across him until I was in my late twenties; had I started reading him when I was younger, I don’t think I’d have appreciated it as much). There is much that is of interest in the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), or ‘Paddy’ as he was universally known. Here, after all, was a man who walked across Europe before he turned twenty, served in the Special Operations Executive during the war (most famously abducting a German general in Crete in 1944), and after it designed his own house in Greece, could sing folk-songs in at least eight languages, mingled with lords as easily as he mingled with vagrants and swam the Hellespont when he was 70. Oh, and he wrote some of the finest works of non-fiction of the twentieth century, specifically his accounts of that youthful walk, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

There’s no way a biography of him would ever be dull, although there is always the chance that such a work could never live up to the man’s own prose (as was the case with a biography of Norman Lewis that I read last year). But what Artemis Cooper – who knew him well – does is to bring to light his unpublished diaries, allowing us to see the man behind the prose, as it were. Another side to the man comes through; the often-penniless Paddy was quite the freeloader (the original couch-surfer, maybe?) and an habitual womaniser (to the extent that his wife would even give him money in case he needed to visit a brothel). Despite this, Paddy still comes across as a highly likeable sort – a prodigious networker (as a biographer, Cooper is nothing if not a name-dropper), always curious about exploring new places and wanting to learn new things. He was never, ever dull or boring.

A couple of things I’d always wanted to know about Paddy are explained; for example, why, aside from an uncharacteristically staid report for the Imperial War Museum (which can be read in the Paddy-anthology Words of Mercury), Paddy didn’t write his own account of the kidnapping of the general – something he left to his comrade-in-arms, Billy Moss, whose account, Ill Met by Moonlight, was made into a film in which Paddy was portrayed by Dirk Bogarde. The reasons for this lack are explained in detail; Paddy being Paddy, a blood-feud is among them (which also explains why he didn’t return to Crete for many years after the war). The question of why the long-awaited third volume of his youthful journey was never completed is also explained; Paddy was a notorious perfectionist who took ages over his writing, and in this context, perhaps the most revealing thing in the book is the reproduction of a page of one of Paddy’s drafts – written in longhand (for years, and I for one find this rather shocking, he never learned to use a typewriter) and replete with all sorts of corrections and crossings-out, it was used by his long-suffering publisher whenever anyone asked when Paddy’s next book was coming out! Which brings us to Cooper’s next project; along with Colin Thubron, she’s been editing Paddy’s journals, notes and drafts to bring said third volume to publication. The Broken Road has just been published, and is due out in paperback next year. I can’t wait.

As far as I can tell, Paddy did not cross paths with Airey Neave (1916-1979); the latter, whose name I first encountered in Major P.R. Reid’s The Colditz Story, certainly doesn’t crop up in the pages of Cooper’s biography which at the very least mentions in passing a large number of well-known people who Paddy met over the course of his long life. There are a few similarities between the two men; both visited Germany as young men shortly after the Nazis came to power, and both fought in the Second World War with distinction, being awarded the DSO. But there the similarities would appear to end.

This brings me to the second biography, Public Servant, Secret Agent: The Elusive Life and Violent Death of Airey Neave by Paul Routledge (2003). This is an at-times fascinating biography about a relatively minor and now largely forgotten politician, albeit one whose career did not end in failure but was tragically cut short by an INLA car-bomb at the Palace of Westminster in 1979. The most interesting part relates to what he did in the Second World War, and Neave’s war was most certainly adventurous – after being taken prisoner at Calais in 1940, he ended up in Colditz Castle – from which he escaped by dressing up in a home-made imitation of a Wehrmacht officer’s uniform and subsequently travelling to Switzerland – before going on to work for MI9 (the wartime secret service responsible for escape and evasion) and playing a role in the Nuremberg trials. These parts of Routledge’s book are very good indeed.

Sadly, the book flags once we get to Neave’s post-war career as a Conservative MP; to make up for the relative lack of excitement as Neave tries to climb the greasy pole and doesn’t do particularly well, the author tries to make something of Neave retaining his links to the secret services but there’s not much to go on here, and Routledge gets bogged down chasing shadows as he attempts to link Neave to various conspiracy theories about right-wing groups trying to overthrow the Wilson government. Even Neave’s greatest political achievement – his central role in Mrs Thatcher’s campaign in the 1975 Tory leadership election – appears somewhat rushed here (Routledge, I think, overlooks Ted Heath’s failure to engage with his own backbenchers while overplaying Neave’s apparent deviousness). Of Neave’s subsequent career as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, there isn’t really a lot that can be said, as he was shadowing one of the most effective holders of that office, and did not live to put any of his own policies into action – he was killed days after the vote of no confidence that brought down Jim Callaghan. After the account of Neave’s murder, the conspiracy theories, and there are quite a few relating to who exactly would have wanted him dead, take over again – the effect being that rather too much time is given over to the musings of Ken Livingstone and Enoch Powell, and that surely cannot be a good thing.

Much more substantial is the author’s story of how he got to speak to some veteran Irish republican terrorists about the all-too-real conspiracy to murder Neave himself. For sheer guts in his pursuit of this side of the story, Routledge deserves much credit.

To conclude, I’d say that both of these books are worth a read, although both do have a rather limited appeal. The Neave one will probably appeal more to politics-junkies than anyone else, while the Paddy biography is perhaps best tried after a dose of Paddy’s own inimitable prose.