Gareth Southgate

So, the England football lads are off to the World Cup, and for once it doesn't feel like an immediate humiliation. It's partly the dire record of the past, which has helped discourage the sillier predictions of the media. It's partly the performances of the team which have - admittedly against some fairly ordinary opposition - produced good results and moments of decent football, accurate passing at pace, along the ground, sometimes resulting in goals.

But a lot of this is down to Gareth Southgate who, in the hardest job in the english-speaking world, seems not to have put a foot wrong. He's set down a way of playing within which his players seemed comfortable. He's taken some tough selection deicsiions, always backing quality against reputation, and often youth against experience. And he's created a sane, communal atmosphere in which the players seems happy and the media have so far failed to wreck. (But give them time, give them time...) So far then, really hopeful, and such a refreshing change from the nonsense of previous years. We might even bear to watch while England are still in with a chance.    

A Very English Scandal

You're never quite sure what they'll do. Even though there's considerable talents involved (Russell T.Davies writing, Stephen Frears directing) big names can still produce turkeys. But not this time. A Very English Scandal has been a total treat.

At first sight, I wasn't sure. Jaunty music, chirpy camerawork, as though the whole thing were a spiffing wheeze, when it's also a dark parable about the corruption of class and power. I needn't have worried. Those aspects were fully, intelligently explored, but with a tone of laughs on the way, and some terrific acting - Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings. All three were given clever things to do and say, so it was always entertaining, but for those of us who remember that time, it was also chillingly recognisable - yes, that's exactly how Thorpe spoke and behaved, that tempting mixture of charm and arrogance. and the level of deceit and self deceit - about homosexuality, and power, and morality - was almost incredible.

Except that - thanks to the cussedness of Tom Mangold, a nosey reporter who didn't accept the Director General's advice that his documentary should be ditched, we have the conclusive evidence of his film, buried at the time because of the surprise acquittal - virtually demanded by the judge - which got Thorpe off and added to the further humiliation of Norman Scott. some things have got better. 

The House of Mirth

So you're just out of hospital, not in massive pain but not moving around much either. What do you need? Books to read, and plenty of them. I've got a ton of books, some of which have sat on my shelves for longer than I'd like to think, so maybe this is a good opportunity to see what I've been missing...

Oh boy. The House of Mirth is just fabulous. It's a detailed, lively portrait of a society, light years away from ours but totally convincing. And it's utterly readable. I'd had a suspicion that we might be in Henry James territory here, very wordy and careful, but a taking longer than you really want to spend. Not a bit of it. It's witty, clear, direct, and a pleasure to read. I zipped through it in no time.

Above all, it's a portrait of a woman. Lily Bart is not ideal. She's selfish and short-sighted, and in some respects deserves what she gets. But we follow her though her changes of mood and attitude, and each time they seem convincing - of course, that's how she would feel, would think, would act. and so as the spiral downwards steepens, we understand it and suffer with her, while savouring the intelligence at work. Just brilliant. 

The End of the Road

When I got called in for my knee op on Wednesday (earlier than expected) I was delighted, but worried that I might still be in hospital on the Saturday, and thus miss the Premier rugby final in the afternoon and the European Cup final in the evening. i needn't have worried. I was released, to go back home to the safe luxury of BT sport and wall-to-wall finals.

So many times I've sat down for such events, and it's actually been an anti-climax. Last week's cup Final, for instance, was dire. But that was Jose Mourinho, so often grumpy and defensive, as his team serve up yet another so-so performance. But this is the ebullient Jurgen Klopp, lively, energetic, promising "pressing from another planet". and for twenty minutes it was, Real Madrid in increasing disarray as Liverpool tore round them, got the ball of them, threatened to score a goal.  

Too good to last, alas. Mo Salah off and a wonder goal from Bale, but the difference between the two teams was two goals - and two massive blunders from the Liverpool goalkeeper Karius. He apologises afterwards on social media, because that's what you do, but where is there he can go? Will be play again for Liverpool? Will anyone else want to sign him? Will his name ever come up, without someone saying - "Oh yes, Kiev in May 2018." There is nowhere to hide. 

Manchester Hate

It's a year on from the Manchester bombing, so there'll be some looking back, to see what's happened since. If it's all as good as tonight's documentary, we'll be fine. Most of it was really heartening, with the community determined to hold together, heal the wounds, insist on a multi-cultural community which would not be torn apart by fanatics. The efforts of the police and the imams, often working together (to their own surprise) were heart-warming.

The downside was the gangs of feral kids, some of them 10 or 12, who feel they now have the licence to shout at, spit at and attack anyone who might possibly be Muslim. The problem is taken seriously, and again the police are working their socks off to try to tackle it, but when they get the kids into custody centuries of resentment kick in. "What's your name?" No comment. "Why did you kick her?" No comment. "How do you think she feels?" No comment. it's a pointless, mindless ritual which says "Don't bother. You're not dealing with anything rational here. I just hate them, and I'm not going to change." Huge problem. But a good programme.   

The Split

Oh boy. I've always been a fan of the playwright Abi Morgan - loved Sex Trafficking, though less keen on The Hour (which pinched its central situation from the film Broadcast News, without sustaining its power). But The Split is a real treat. A bit glossy, sure, and unashamedly feminist - big family drama, with Mum and three daughters, right? But it's so intelligent, and the fact that they're almost all divorce lawyers gives the scope for all kinds of exploration into middle-aged marriage/fidelity/honesty/cowardice/boredom. Beautifully done and acted, with tonight's climax a dinner party scene where lone rebel Nina decides this is the right moment to tall the rest of the family where they're going wrong - in detail,. and one at a time. They can all see it coming, knows she's had too much to drink, try to talk her out of it - but no. She wants this scene, so here it comes. Just wonderful. 

Only Connect

It's not a new contrast, but it's still apotent one. On the front page of todays Guardian are two photographs. On the left, a smiling, immaculately groomed Ivanka Trump is opening the new US embassy in Jersualem. On the right, a couple of grubby, desperate Palestinians are carrying yet another victim of Israeli gunfire. Not a new story, but all the more depressing because it's unlikely that the american president makes the connection between the two. Indeed, he's offered himself as a broker, should the two sides wish to get together for a peace deal. He doesn't get it. There is no will among the Israelis in power to make any kind of concession to the people whose land they have stolen. Why should anything in this lousy situation improve? I don't like to be despondent, and I remember the tenacious optimism of Edward Said, but right at the moment chinks of light are hard to find.     

Wenlock Poetry Festival

Two years ago, I had an amazing three days as poet in Residence at the Wenlock Poetry Festival. There hasn't been one since, and a lot of us have missed it, so this year's one-day event was very definitely the next best thing. As usual, the WPF inspires small numbers of saints into huge amounts of work to contrive memorable events. Liz Lefroy has always been the presiding spirit of the busk, intelligent, witty and welcoming, tactfully steering huge numbers of performers through a series of five minute slots. This one went on for three hours, had little tastes of music in between, and featured a mouth-watering succession of performers, all of whom kept to time. Just amazing. Plus, it was at Priory Hall, next to the Church Green, with all doors open on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Carol Ann Duffy's gorgeous, corny line about "Wenlock is the perfect place for poetry" has never been more true.     

The End of an Era

So it's not going to happen. Arsene Wenger will not end his managerial career by lifting the Europa Cup. sad, but fairly predictable, given the way things have gone this season. They actually didn't play too badly, pressed atletico into mistakes, created some fluent passing moves, and had more possession than the home team. But they didn't really penetrate, didn't take any of the half-chances that came their way, and they contrived to produce a defensive blunder that undermined all their good work. Again.

Watching Martin Keown analyse Arsena's defensive lapses has become a kind of regular penance, the price faithful Gooners must pay for following this elusive Grail.  Patiently he goes through what they did, what they should have done, and you wonder - why isn't he there at training, showing them how not to give goals away. Steve Bold is there, hads a similar defesnive background, but somehow the Wenger gospel of beautiful creation doesn't extend to keeping a clean sheet. So it's been an eventful ride, and excitingly successful in the early years, but - although Arsene clearly doesn't agree - it's definitely time for a change. 

Alfie Evans

Generally, I plan to keep up with the news, but there are some stories i just can't bear to follow. The current one is Alfie Evans, the terminally ill baby whose parents are desperate to keep him alive, against the considered opinion of medical professionals. It's a desperate situation for everyone, but what makes it unbearable is the hysteria of those who seek to exploit it. the Christian missionary Christine Broesamle, for instance, proudly proclaims that "Alder Hey hospital really hates me because I've worked so hard for Alfie's defence." Presumably she thinks that they haven't, that the hospital is part of the attack on Alfie, so the more anger and rage that can be generated against hospital workers, the better it is for Alfie's side. It's so blinkered, intolerant and sure of its own rectitude. I don't know what should happen. But I do know that it's complicated and good people are working hard to try to resolve it. Pretending that it's a kind of Star Wars battle between good and evil isn't any kind of answer. 

Stephen Lawrence

Amazing how some names retain their potency for years. just those two words, and the images flood back - five stroppy youths, looking for a fight with an angry crowd. the three part TV series did a good job of tracking over the ground, and incidentally threw up a wonderful contrast in police attitudes. the hardened professional, who'd worked in the Met for over twenty years, and just knew it wasn't racist - so all that evidence, analysis, and thought just wasted. throw it down the drain. But then there was the real hero of the piece, a slightly fussy, very old-fashioned guy who didn't seem to be anything special but actually made all the difference, by a meticulous search for and analysis of the evidence that the earlier inquiry had so blatantly mishandled. some things do get better, if only a bit at a time. 

The perils of a three-goal lead

Phew! three wonderful nights of football. Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Arsenal all go into their respective games with a three-goal lead. So they think it's all over? Hardly.

Man City totally dominate Liverpool, score an early goal, and then have another wrongly disallowed. You can feel the air oozing out of their ballloon. So I cleverly switch channels, in time to catch Roma conjuring the impossible escape, scoring three goals against Barcelona without reply, so that the magic away goal they scored in losing at Barcelona the previous week becomes the magic key to the semi-finals. On Wednesday it's deja vu all over again, as another cocky favourite, Real Madrid, gradually concede three goals without managing one of their own. they do eventually get a dramatic last-minute penalty, the legendary Buffon is sent off for harassing the ref, and Ronaldo preictably puts the penalty away - but it was close. So what chance Arsenal, my beloved, heart-breaking team, doing things the easy way? Not a hope. They defend disastroulsy, give the ball away, lose endless 50:50 clashes, and only escape by the skin of their teeth. Football can be an amazing game, the away goal rule does have an uncanny kind of magic, and I'm so relieved that I signed up to BT Sport. (Yes, guys. You may use that in the adverts.)  

Litvinenko moment

A nasty little nugget, retrieved from the acres of Skripal coverage. when Litvinenko was murdered in London, his dad Walter was in Italy, furious at the Putin regime which had ordered the killing. But years later Walter's back in Russia, sitting on a sofa in a TV studio with Lugovoi, one of the men responsible. they're chatting amiably, and shaking hands, so that the Russian viewers can clearly see that the whole thing was a nasty plot, made up by the West to smear the motherland. (Remind you of any recent coverage?). So what exactly went on to persuade Walter to change his mind? We may never know, but all the guesses are deeply unpleasant. There are no restrictions or limits to get in the way of the main objective - making Putin look good. 

Feel Free

Just at the moment, waking up in the morning is a supreme pleasure. I get up, go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and settle back into Zadie Smith's latest collection of prose pieces - "Feel Free." It doesn't matter what she's writing about - dancing, hip hop, movies, book reviews, her own novels. Whatever the subject matter, the approach is lively, intelligent and honest, down to earth but never stupid, and often hilarious. She feels and sounds like a warm human being, but there's always something to set you thinking, a fresh insight that hadn't occurred to you before she actually put it into words. This book isn't going to last for ever, but I'm going to miss it when I actually get to the end.  

The Joy of Teaching

No, not a phrase you hear a lot. I've just caught up with a long interview from Saturday's Guardian, in which Andria Zafirakou talks about her work as an art teacher in a Brent community secondary school. the kids are diverse and challenging - speak 35 languages, and many of them come from seriously deprived homes. But that's part of the attraction - she likes learning bits of their languages, trying to get them motivated, helping them overcome the obstacles they face. Great stuff, and familiar - I knew lots of teachers like that. She's not into lecturing them about their deficiencies - build up their confidence, make them feel some pride and enthusiasm, and then they'll be ready to learn. 

And why is she in the news? Oh yes. She's just won an international award for Teacher of the Year. These are the attitudes, the approaches, that people all over the world value in their teachers. Theresa May and government ministers have of course but running to congratulate her, despite the fact that she's the direct opposite of the kind of teaching that they encourage. It would be nice to think that her example might change their minds, but don't hold your breath.  

Quality football

Nothing special about that, except that it's the England team I'm talking about, and that hasn't been true for a while. so much thoughtful stroking the ball about at the back, from side to side unless somebody approaches, when we send it back to the goalkeeper, who boots it upfield to the opposition...so now we have john Stones sliding through precision passes which get movement going; Harry Maguire not seeing an opening for a good pass, so advancing with an intelligent, threatening, controlled dribble...Not to mention Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems to have had a really good reason for leaving Arsenal to go to Liverpool. As an Arsenal fan it hurts to say this, but within months he's a different player.

So, yes, England are in the process of transfrmation. All credit to Gareth Southgate for having a plan, and for picking young players skilful and brave enough to carry it out. OK, so the Netherlands were pretty poor, and other teams will provide a tougher test, but this was still a more enjoyable England game to watch than any I can remember for quite a while. 

Early Man

So I wanted to see the latest nick Park, but because it's animation they have it down as a kids' film, and aren't showing it in the evening. I dutifully turn up at 3.30 on a Thursday afternoon at the Bridgnorth cinema - and i'm the onl person there. OK by me. i'm used to watching films on my own, and though there are very few films with as many laughs to the minute as this one, I'm quite content to chuckle in solitude. It's a weird sort of mixture of Brexit politics and old-style English affection, with some shrewd satirical nudges for football aficionados along the way (just as Chicken Run drew powerfully on all those war movies we watched as kids). Oh yes, and there's a light dash of feminist assertion, but the whole thing is just a glorious celebrations of daftness fused with intelligence. Not to mention wonderful cast, with Rob Brydon talking to himself as two football pundits. I came out feeling much better about the state of the world, and not many movies do that.  

Loveless

There's a ton of good films around at the moment, and it was a buzz following the Oscar chat thinking "yup, seen that...and that..and that." But then along comes Loveless, and it's a completely different game. This is Russian in every sense - bleak, uncompromising, wintry settings and lives under pressure. It's a portrait of a couple splitting up, the separate affairs that they have, their spite towards each other and their son, who literally gets lost between them - wanders off, and isn't found. It sounds grim, and it is, but it's beautifully done, with a series of stunning still shots that are like a sequence of Breughels. It helps that we don't know the actors, we just think that they "are" these people, but they are totally convincing, both in their passionate love affairs and in their grubby little arguments. Oh yes, things can be this bad. Not a feelgood movie, and i know a lot of people who wouldn't and shouldn't go near it - but in a year rich with films this was a special, different experience. 

Unpredictable Trump

What will he come up with next? There just is no telling, not even in the White House. From the sound of it, nobody was expecting the latest bombshell - cosy talks between Donald and Kim, nestling up together, all thoughts of "rocket man" insults cheerily discarded for the sake of a headline - and the shock value of catching everyone on the hop.

By next day, of course, the tweets head in a different direction, and there's all sorts of assurances that of course no talks will take place without North Korea solemnly committing themselves to...who knows? It's certainly not diplomacy as we know it, and even if it achieved some kind of temporary truce, who knows how long that will last? volatile is the name of the game, and it'll stay that way for as long as Trump lasts.

Russians Again

Pesky lot, the Russians. Just as you're starting to feel some sympathy, they kick you in the teeth. A TV documentary on Putin the other night featured a contrite Jack Straw, saying that the West had misread the risings in Georgia and Ukraine, and contributed to Putin's paranoia by trying to hijack local resistance into an East/West split. Absolutely right, and you can see the defensive "us against the world" syndrome clicking in all the time. On the other hand, the doping stuff is totally unacceptable, and has to be fought every inch of the way. ditto Litvinenko. And ditto - it seems very likely - Sunday's nerve agent attack on Skripal and his daughter. Easy to predict the rhetoric and the outrage. Much harder to say what we'll actually do. Having a few officials not turn up to the world Cup won't make a blind bit of difference. boycotting it - and getting other European nations to do the same - would seriously injure Russian prestige, but it's not going to happen.