Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The steeplechaser, the pretend cannibal, the glory-seeking footballer and the glory-seeking politician

I'm not really a believer in foundation stories. It strikes me as unlikely that anybody actually invented the sandwich, let alone the nocturnal gambler, the Earl of that ilk. Years ago, somebody once spun me a story about mayonnaise being named for the Balearic city of Mahón (which may be the case, although the Larousse Gastronomique thinks otherwise), and that Mahón was named for an Irishman named Mahon (it's probably named for a Carthaginian named Mago, as it happens). But the stories stick, like mayonnaise to a spoon, and we seem to like them, if not need them. Mercifully, nobody says the steeplechase is named for Mick Steeple. But it's claimed to be a product of the Irish genius, all the same. In 1752, one Edward Blake raced a Mr. O'Callaghan on horseback from Buttevant church in Co. Cork to the steeple of the church in Doneraile, four and a half miles away. The DIB says that the church is named for St. Leger, but I think it's actually St. Mary's, Viscount St. Leger having built it. One notable feature of the church as pictured: no steeple. Apparently, it blew down in 1825. I'm not sure that I believe that Mr. Blake was responsible for the steeplechase: it seems obvious that people would race towards a well-known place that all knew, and that a village church is an obvious choice. But there's a plaque for Blake and O'Callaghan in Buttevant; who am I to argue with lapidary history?

Colin Blakely, from Bangor, Co. Down, was an actor of the highest order. I was watching him the other night in Billy Wilder's late film, The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes, in which Blakely played Watson to Robert Stephens' Holmes (and Christopher Lee's Mycroft). It's an uneven film, partly because of studio interference - there are legends about missing footage that are probably, sadly, untrue. But the best parts are wonderful, and one of the very best is the visit of Holmes and Watson to the Russian Ballet, where Watson/Blakely, unleashed by the nearness of so many beautiful women in the corps de ballet, slowly realizes that Holmes, to avoid an unwelcome proposition, has circulated the story that the two of them are a couple. Blakley's performance as the male dancers close in on him, pushing past the gorgeous, disabused, departing danseuses, is a gem of comic rage. I saw him twice in one of his finest stage roles, in a Barry Collins play called Judgement, a three-hour solo piece in which Blakely played a Russian military officer abandoned in a cellar for two months who turns to cannibalism and addresses the audience as his judges. I was about 17 and was so impressed by his performance at the ICA theatre in London that I went to see it again when it transferred to the Old Vic, which was then home to the National Theatre. I used to buy the cheapest tickets back then - I think they were only 40 pence - so found myself down in the front row of the Vic with my friend Neil Haines. Neil was - and is - a wonderful man, but not, shall we say, a lover of heavy theatre. As Blakely worked his way through his - for me - mesemerizing performance (there was no interval) on a bare stage with just one prop, a human bone, Neil fell asleep. (We were in the front row, remember.) After a while, he began to snore. I was mortified, but also in a crisis. If I nudged Neil, I was worried he'd wake with a start, maybe let out a bellow. So I elbowed him gently, disturbing him just enough to stem the noise. I shouldn't have worried. I read that some time later, somebody had a heart attack during a performance. Blakely saw it, jumped off the stage, gave the man CPR, waited for the ambulance to arrive, then climbed back on and resumed his discourse on cannibalism. I'm pretty sure I also saw Blakely play Christ in Dennis Potter's Son of Man on the BBC in 1969, a rough-hewn, demotic Messiah. As I say, he was a wonderful actor.

The least of Danny Blanchflower's achievements was the 10 months he spent managing my team, Chelsea, in 1978-79. It was an abject time for the club, with poor players and no money, and Blanchflower probably did no worse than anybody else would have with the same raw material. His playing career, notably winning the championship and couple double with Tottenham Hotspur in 1961, was just before my time, and distinguished: 56 caps for Northern Ireland, playing in the 1958 World Cup quarter finals, twice footballer of the year. As the DIB puts it, his philosophy was that "football was about glory and that the game should be about beating the other team with style rather than boring them to death." That's still the big issue in Irish football (soccer): how to play well and win? After his playing days, he was a good football journalist, on television and in print. His brother Jackie was also a top-flight player, 12 international caps and one of the legendary Busby Babes of Manchester United that were all but wiped out in the terrible Munich plane crash of 1958 (Jackie received the last rites on the airport runway but survived, his career shattered.)

Our paths have already crossed a couple of times with that of the politican Neil Blaney: his fellow party-member Frank Aiken excoriated the business-friendly cronyism that Blaney championed. And the civil servant Peter Berry blew the whistle on Blaney's efforts to run arms to Northern Ireland in the early years of the Troubles. Blaney was an extraordinary politician, who built a political machine in Donegal - based on that started by his father, Neal - that was so successful that he was able to detach it from his own party and run it independently for several years. Patrick Maume's entry on Blaney in the DIB is quite magisterial - maybe the best I've read so far. His summation is marvellous, writing of "the ruthless authoritarianism which marked his career ... [t]he volatile mixture of calculation, resentment, sophistication, provincialism, ruthlessness, and nostalgia which he displayed is reminiscent of other political figures of his intermediate generation: he might well have become taoiseach but instead became a catalyst for the formation of the Provisional IRA." It convincingly establishes the need for a full biography of Blaney.

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