Monthly Archives: July 2012

God bless Danny Boyle: the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony

I wasn’t planning on watching the Olympic opening ceremony last night; Emma turned it on, which was unexpected as she’s been a vocal Olympic cynic for years now, pretty much since the day after it was announced, when the London bombings smashed the sense of celebration and positivism that should have resulted.

Living the best part of 200 miles from London, in a part of the country not really associated with sports, I’ve not felt the Olympic spirit. Earlier this year we visited the shopping centre that’s sprung up adjacent to the Olympic Park, and it felt like an awful, crass monument to capitalism, a soulless vacuum of a place. We spent a chunk of the evening in a casino, feeling miserable for the people who were throwing away money. I’ve not been expecting to feel impassioned or involved in what’s going on over the next two weeks at all.

Part of me suspects Emma wanted to watch it to be part of a shared spectacle, something which we’re both seemingly increasingly keen on, in our own funny ways, and which social media is aiding massively. On a Friday evening we’d normally stick a film on or watch aimless American comedy, crack open a bottle of wine, and mentally and physically unwind. Last night we sat on the sofa, drank water, watched a celebration of sport and culture, and tweeted with people from around the world who were all, as far as I could tell, feeling the same way we were.

It seems shallow, but I knew the Olympic Opening Ceremony was going to be… different… the moment that I recognised the sound of Surf Solar by Fuck Buttons soundtracking the introductory film. It wasn’t the Tory-friendly, establishment-reinforcing, monarchist approach I’d expected.

I wasn’t expecting much from Danny Boyle’s ceremony, but it blew me away. It wasn’t about corporations or politicians or even, bar one brief, grand, tongue-in-cheek entrance (as much about frolicking corgis as dutiful monarchs), about heads of state: it was about this little cluster of islands and countries, joined but different, and the people who live in them, and the culture we create together, and the sportsmen and sportswomen, who come from all conceivable backgrounds, and compete not for money or fame, but for glory, and for joy, and for each other.

I could write about everything in great detail and at great length, from the soundtrack, which was wonderful, or the historical references, or the cultural nods to TV, film, literature, or the moving tribute to people who should have been there but weren’t, or the celebration of the NHS, which our current government seem to want to do away with but which embodies the spirit and helps the people of this country far more than our political system or our monarchy or even our sports, but I wouldn’t do it justice. I regularly had tears in my eyes. Even this morning, reading last night’s tweets from all and sundry, or the reports in online papers, or seeing footage of our cycling team talking about riding for each other, I’m welling up again.

I don’t, as a rule, identify as a patriot, instead preferring to trot out a line about where you’re born being an accident, about how you should be proud of things you choose, not random things that happen to you. But actually, last night made me realise that being patriotic isn’t about loving the place you’re from. It’s about loving the people, and the crazy, insane, beautiful, compassionate, ludicrous and wonderful things they do.

God bless you, Danny Boyle, for making me feel humble and proud.

A hundred mile bike ride

Pete and I have been talking for a while about wanting to ride 100 miles in a day, for no other reason than to see if we could do it. Obviously I cycle quite a bit, and whilst Pete doesn’t ride as much as I do, he does run marathons, and has a requisite amount of bloody-minded determination.

My longest single ride previously was only 60 miles, but there have been many 40-50 milers, and many days where I’ve ridden that kind of distance consecutively. Pete’s ridden up to 80 miles in a day before whilst touring across France or Amsterdam.

So we spent the last couple of weeks waiting for the weather to break, and plotting what route we’d take. Yesterday was the day, and we set out from my house a little after 9am, just over a litre of fluids each in our bottle racks, Pete with jam sandwiches and me with flapjacks to spur us on. Nearly 9 hours later, just before 6pm, I locked my bike up back at home, after over 7 hours in the saddle.

We climbed three big hills in our first 50 miles, which registered in order as categories 4, 3, and 5 on the Tour de France scale: out of Exeter towards Dunsford; from Kingsteignton over Bishopsteignton to Teignmouth Golf Course; and over the back of Woodbury to Otterton. We wound our way through back lanes for much of the last 40 miles, doing our damndest to find shaded, flat routes where we could escape the heat of the afternoon sun on the hottest day of the year.

We followed the Teign valley and traversed both sides of the Exe estuary as we drew a huge figure-of-eight with the crossroads centred on Exeter, past Christow, Chudleigh, Dawlish, Exminster, Ottery St Mary, Feniton, Talaton, Broadclyst and more. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky all day.

Pete seemed to struggle a bit between about 45 and 60 miles, before finding the energy and determination to see it through. I found the last 18 miles or so difficult; into a headwind towards Turf Locks (89 miles in) I was almost ready to call it a day, but a pint of shandy and a bag of crisps and ten minutes standing up and stretching out of the saddle recuperated me.

The last 3-4 miles were spent doing crazed loops of Exeter city centre in rush hour traffic, trying to find an easy, quiet way to tick off the last few miles to get to 100. It got quite psychedelic at points, hanging off the bike, spinning pedals, time seeming to pass too slowly, brain not thinking, no energy to speak.

I’ve never felt as exhausted, mentally or physically, as I did when I got home. My head was spinning and I thought I might pass out for a split second. A can of coke, a banana, and a cold bath to relax my muscles helped. Remarkably, I almost feel like I could get back on the bike again today, although I doubt for more than 20 or 30 miles. I certainly wouldn’t want to do any hills.

You can see our route here, taken from Pete’s Garmin watch.

The Dark Knight Rises: disappointing?

Just so you know, there will be serious spoilers here if you haven’t seen this movie. But no more than there already are on Wikipedia.

Seven years ago, Christopher Nolan (don’t trust him; he doesn’t truncate his name) made Batman Begins, which was an unexpectedly stylish, believable, and satisfying resurrection (or reboot, or retelling, or whatever) of the Batman character and universe on the cinema screen. I went in with almost no expectations and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Three years later, we saw The Dark Knight at a preview screening, full of über-fans in Batman t-shirts and Heath-Ledger-as-Joker make-up and purple suits, and we were pretty much blown away. We saw it twice more (I think; certainly once more) in the cinema, and have subsequently watched it another half a dozen times at least on DVD. We’ve watched it so often that it’s become a standing joke to say to each other “should we watch that Batman film everyone’s talking about?” as if we’ve never seen it. I wrote about it at length on an old blog, and would happily call it one of my favourite films ever.

(I’m not a slavish fanboy, though; The Dark Knight had issues and things that could have been improved, but is more than the sum of its parts, both successes and failings.)

Last night we went to see The Dark Knight Rises, which we’ve essentially been waiting to do for either two or four years, depending how you look at it – since the last Batman instalment, or since Nolan’s between-Bats film, Inception. It’s fair to say that we were looking forward to it mightily.

Sadly, Em and I (she, if anything, likes Batman and Nolan’s interpretation thereof even more than I do) both left the cinema feeling a little deflated and disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about The Dark Knight Rises. No jump-the-shark moment. No poor performances. No, as far as I could tell from one viewing, bad cuts (there’s a doozy in The Dark Knight when Alfred is talking to Bruce as he stitches himself up; camera cuts to another angle of Bruce, his voice still talking but his mouth closed and still for a fraction of a second: it bugs me every time, especially given how often Nolan is described as “meticulous”). The Dark Knight Rises just didn’t quite grab us the way that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight did.

Here’s why.

Score and editing

For a start, I feel as though the pacing, editing, and score didn’t work together here as effectively as they did in The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was gifted with an extraordinary, avant-garde, tension building, rising single tone that pierced every scene the Joker graced and added a veneer of nervous apprehension regarding what the hell this crazed lunatic might do next. Smash a pencil through someone’s head? Set fire to a few million dollars in cash? Explode a hospital?

The Dark Knight used its score and its astonishingly taut editing to create a sense of unbearable, inexorable momentum, only losing its way a little with the citizens vs criminals face-off on the ferries. The Dark Knight Rises never seemed to quite build that synthesis of score and editing to ramp the tension up to maximum; it got close, but maybe Nolan and company had just done it so well before that matching or surpassing previous efforts becomes an impossible task.


Which leads to the next, sad point. Ledger’s death denied Nolan the use of a truly great screen villain for Batman. Bane just can’t compete – he isn’t a great baddy. Certainly he’s physically frightening (he, of course, literally breaks Batman across his knee, as Bane must do), and with his startling mask (which looks like hands trying to wrench his jaw apart) he resembles a muzzled fighting dog. Which is interesting: after Batman is bitten by a dog at the start of The Dark Knight, and the Joker iconically leans out of a police car window, lapping at the air like a happy dog later in that film, and barks like a dog in one of his video messages to the city (“LOOK AT ME”), I wonder if this is a deliberate theme for Nolan; villains as mad dogs.

Bane takes an entire city hostage for three months (which pass in mere seconds of screen time, and consequently don’t feel all that perilous or plausible), smashes the Batman to bits with his bare fists and throws him down a metaphorically bottomless pit, raids the stock exchange and destroys a football stadium full of people, but he never seems as unstoppable, as fascinatingly, charismatically crazy, or as dangerous, as the Joker. I didn’t think this would bother me – I know Bane’s schtick, his USP, his use in the comics, I knew what to expect – but unfortunately it did. Tom Hardy is a great actor, tremendously watchable and likable, and capable of imbuing total nutjob characters with great charisma (go and watch Bronson), but he’s literally like a muzzled dog here. Also, his voice really is a little silly, and, at times, incomprehensible; not just his muffled enunciations but also his strange accent.

Not enough is made of Bane’s motivation either; ‘evil man does evil things because he is evil’ is a rote and unsatisfying comic book baddy motivation which doesn’t really work in otherwise grown-up films; there’s a hint that Bane is motivated, right before he dies, by love (possibly inappropriate, given that he first knows her as a little girl when he’s a fully-grown man) for Talia al Ghul, but there’s nary a split second to ponder this before he’s kaput.

Talia al Ghul

Talia isn’t explored enough either; not enough is made of her relationship with Bruce in order to make her reveal at the climax emotionally satisfying. She’d also be much more satisfying, and plausible, if she wasn’t just slavishly following dead daddy’s plan. If she’d been something more than just a cypher villain, she could have been awesome. Also, Cotillard, though fantastic as Édith Piaf, is a strange screen presence in both Inception and here: glamorous but strangely hollow. Apparently Talia is the only character Batman has ever canonically slept with, though, Bat-nerds, so Nolan plays it according to the book here as well as with Bane smashing Batman’s vertebrae over his knee.


Why oh why is Catwoman dolled out in a lonely-fanboy-pleasing black rubber superhero suit? There’s no explanation as to why it exists, how she got it, or why she wears it, and given that she’s never referred to as “Catwoman”, it would seem more fitting if she just wore a regular black jumpsuit or something, like a real jewel thief might. I’m not opposed to characters arriving with no backstory (the Joker didn’t have one, and that worked fantastically), but there are ways to deal with it: “nothing in his pockets but knives and lint” is almost all you need.

I actually found Hathaway’s performance satisfying, sassy, and amusing, and a welcome spark of charm in an otherwise really quite exceptionally bleak film, which I didn’t really expect. But the catsuit was an annoyance that seemed at odds with the universe that’s been created over the films. When she jutted her arse in the air as she climbed astride the Bat-pod, it seemed like a nod too far to comicbook misogyny.

I’ve actually often had a problem with the way Nolan treats his female characters; they do seem to be very often simple Hollywood clichés, vehicles to inspire men to great things rather than there to achieve anything for themselves. Hell, in Inception Cotillard practically plays a MacGuffin. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s father imparts line after line of pastoral wisdom to his son, whilst his mother barely opens her mouth to speak before being gunned down.

Other stuff that left a disappointing taste

The Bat, Batman’s new helicopter-thing toy/vehicle, was a little problematic. Though generally utilised in a fine, plausible way, in the climactic scenes it suddenly weaves through Gotham, dodging bombs and missiles and then ferrying a nuclear bomb out to sea more like a spectacular, physics-defying creation from GI Joe or Transformers. It lacked the physicality of the Tumbler, Nolan’s interpretation of the Batmobile, and thus the realism that this trilogy been so satisfyingly grounded in.

Speaking of realism, once again you see nobody bleed, even when shot to ribbons by sub-machine guns or brutally smashed with massive fists. In fact, the only person you see bruised and battered is, again, Batman himself. Partly this is a nod to the unrealism of comicbooks, partly a concession to 12A / PG13 certification, and partly a device to demonstrate the physical as well as mental toll taken on Batman over the years. With The Dark Knight I felt that this was a great, clever, hyper-real move (Batman pummels the Joker’s head, and all that happens is his make-up comes off), but for some reason here I found it a little childish, mainly when Matthew Modine’s deputy police chief ended up shot to death with not a mark on him. Conversely, I’m happy that Bane breaks a lot of necks, but always off screen.

The opening plane hijack was a little disappointing, too, seeming like a cross between the audacious henchman-kill-henchman heist from The Dark Knight’s opening and the extraordinary, anti-gravity hotel corridor fight scene from Inception. Sadly it lacked the shocking novelty and audaciousness of either; possibly because shots from it had been glimpsed in the trailers.

The use of flashbacks to Batman Begins seemed a little strange too; the film started almost directly on from The Dark Knight, with no exposition or context, assuming that the viewer knew exactly what was happening and what was going on. After this tone setting, it seemed strange to then almost patronise the audience by not trusting them to remember what had gone before.

Batman himself doesn’t get to do very many Batman-esque things; there’s precious little detective work (except by Gordon-Levitt), and barely any crepuscular beatings of baddies, one of the most satisfying aspects of the previous two films for me – Batman is meant to move in the shadows, to scare the hell out of people, make villains afraid of the night; seeing him duke it out on the steps of city hall in broad daylight is just weird.

Finally, how does Bruce Wayne get back into Gotham, when a major plot point is that it’s impossible to get back into Gotham? I know he’s got mad skills, but I’d have liked at least some attempt at an explanation.

But still, Batman!

I probably sound, after 1,700 words of moaning, as if I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises, but that’s not true: I enjoyed it an awful lot, didn’t look at my watch once, and felt genuinely moved and satisfied by the closing scenes. Christian Bale turns in his best performance yet as Bruce/Batman, tying the two personas seamlessly into one damaged, sympathetic whole. Alfred, Gordon, and Lucius are all, though perhaps a little under-used, as charismatic and human as ever. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific, and the treatment of his character shows that Nolan can find a way to bring even the most potentially eye-rolling bits of comicbooks to plausible, satisfying life on celluloid (he’s Robin, if you didn’t guess, but sans tights, thank the lord).

It looks, as with all Nolan films from Memento onwards, absolutely sumptuous; not real but hyper-real, dream-like, comicbook like. I’d love to see him do straight sci-fi, create a world unlike ours rather than one so like it in almost every way as to be uncanny, which is what he’s done with Batman and what he did with Inception.

We’ll probably go and see The Dark Knight Rises again soon; as much as anything I have loyalty to two cinemas in town and feel guilty for going to one and not the other to see it! But also I want to assess how much I felt disappointed; did The Dark Knight Rises simple fail to live up to impossible, outrageous expectations, or did it actually fail me as a fan? I hope, and strongly suspect, that it was merely the former.

So what if Andy Murray cried

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a big tennis fan – I watch a few hours of Wimbledon every summer and keep up with who’s winning the majors almost by accident via 5Live, and that’s about the extent of my involvement.

But, ever since discovering that we share a birthday (15th of May – the same as Brian Eno) I’ve kept tabs on Andy Murray more than I ever have any other tennis player. The fact that he’s the ‘great British hope’ certainly makes that easier from a media coverage point of view.

I’ve never understood the antipathy, and seemingly outright hatred, that some English people have towards him, either because of his alleged dour, sullen, and miserable demeanour, or because of the fact that he said he’d never support England at football (which I always took as a deliberately provocative quip, anyway).

With regards the latter, why should he support England at football? He’s Scottish; the footballing rivalry between England and Scotland is deeply ingrained and fun. One can feel (and be) British and Scottish at the same time, and plenty of people do. You don’t change your nationality due to your circumstances. Unless you’re Greg Rusedski.

I find it even harder to understand why people claim not to like his personality. We don’t really know his personality, as tennis-viewers; we know how he responds when asked stupid questions by Gary Richardson (with more civility than I’d manage). Beyond that, we know he’s serious and focussed, which, in my experience, is what high-achieving sportspeople need to be in order to be successful. His job is to entertain us on the tennis court by winning.

Although, to be fair, there’s plenty of (very) dry humour in his comments; asked by Richardson (who is a pillock, let it be said) how his parents must be feeling after his semi-final win over Tsonga, he replied “I’ve no idea. I’m not really that bothered. It’s a lot harder for me, that’s for sure.”

Murray keeps a wall around himself because he has to if he wants to get where he’s going. When that wall chinked after Federer won yesterday, as it was bound to do (and as it did two and a half years ago when Federer beat Murray at the Australian Open final – “I can cry like Roger, I just can’t play like him” was Murray’s comment), I’m not ashamed to say that I had tears in my eyes too. Which isn’t uncommon these days at displays of irresistible, real human emotion, to be fair. Was it the “real” Murray we saw here? It was only as real as when he politely answers inane questions the second after walking off-court. Everything you do is part of who you are, not just the bits that other people decide are profound.

I’ve seen people say that Murray shouldn’t have cried yesterday, that he didn’t win because he just isn’t good enough, and that we shouldn’t celebrate a loser. I think that’s wrong. Murray’s getting better; his four major finals so far have been against Federer (3) and Djokovic (1). Federer is, everyone keeps saying, the greatest tennis player ever, and when Djokovic beat Murray he was in the midst of the single most successful season any male tennis player has ever played. But Federer’s first Major win came over Mark Philippoussis, who never won a Major. Nadal’s was over Mariano Puerto, who only ever reached that one final. Djokovic’s was over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who Murray’s beaten 6 times out of 7; they’re all relatively easy ways to win your first Major. Murray is good enough to win, and will get better. He’s also younger than all of them except Djokovic (who’s exactly a week younger than Murray), so he has the time to get better, too.

So if you’re crowing that Murray’s not good enough, give it time. If you’re crowing that he’s not personable enough, go and Sky+ Alan Carr shows. Murray’s the only person who’s ever made me cry over a game of tennis. (Except it’s not a game for him; it’s a lifetime of ambition and work and hope.)

Hats off too, to Jonathan Marray, who shouldn’t be forgotten in the fuss about his near-surnamesake.

Also, we shouldn’t forget the real last Britain to win Wimkbledon; Virginia Wade in 1977.

Chicken and chickpea kabsa recipe

20120707-121734.jpgI’m not quite obsessed with one-pot rice dishes, but I’m pretty close to it. Every country and culture seems to have one, all based around cooking rice in flavoured stock, usually with some combination of meat and vegetables. Typically they betray something of their creators’ national character – the indulgent, slightly finicky cheese-and-wine laden risotto; the communal, best-eaten-outdoors paella; the spicy hodge-podge of flavours that is a jambalaya; the delicately-flavoured, familial and celebratory biryani; the slightly stodgy, school-dinner-memory of rice pudding – I’ve cooked them all, most of them many, many times, in many variations; once you know the basic principles, it’s pretty easy to experiment. Personal favourites include a simple leek risotto and a big, yellow paella mixta with chicken, sausage, prawns, mussels, and a squeeze of lemon juice at the end to bring everything together. (And maybe a hideously indulgent chocolate-and-mascarpone rice pudding with Arborio rice.)

One variation that I’ve been fancying trying my hand at is kabsa, a Saudi / Gulf states variation. Typically it’s a similar base – fried onions, rice, stock, meat – that could become any of the dishes I’ve mentioned (except, obviously, rice pudding!), but a different flavour set provided by particular spices – black pepper, cloves, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay, and nutmeg – makes it quite a different experience. I made one last night, and it was stunning. Here’s how to do it.

• 1 onion
• 4 chicken thighs (skin-on, bone-in)
• 1 cup of rice (I used basmati, but just use your favourite)
• 1 litre of stock (I used one chicken stock pot and 2 teaspoons of Marigold Bouillon vegetable stock powder)
• 2 tomatoes (I used about half a dozen cherry tomatoes)
• 4 cloves of garlic
• 2 green chillies
• salt and black pepper
• a handful of sultanas or raisins
• juice of ½ a lemon and 1 lime
• good squeeze of tomato puree and 1 teaspoon of sundried tomato paste
• 1 can of chickpeas, drained
• 3 cloves
• 8 cardamom pods (split and emptied, with the outer husks thrown away)
• 2 bay leaves
• I kaffir lime leaf
• 6 or so strands of saffron
• 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
• ½ a teaspoon of ground nutmeg

I sliced the onion (some tiny diced bits, some larger top-to-bottom strips) and fried it in a large pan with a glug of olive oil, over a low heat until it softened and started to brown; I put the pan lid on for a few minutes every so often. While I was doing this, I soaked the basmati rice, changing the water every five minutes or so.

(Properly browning onions almost always takes longer than it says in cookery books – it can take half an hour or more, but is worth doing, because they become incredibly sweet.)

Then I added the garlic and chillies, both diced (if I’d had a stick of celery, I would’ve diced that and added it too), and turned the heat up, whilst keeping stirring constantly.

After a couple of minutes I added all the spices (having ground the cloves and cardamom seeds to powder in a pestle and mortar) and the bay and kaffir lime leaves, and kept stirring. I then added the chicken thighs, skin-side down initially to get them to brown a little against the base of the pan. After a couple minutes I turned the thighs over, squeezed over the lemon and lime juice, chopped the tomatoes and added them, and threw in the sultanas too.

I put the pan lid on, turned the heat down, and left the thighs skin-side down again to brown some more. The onions, garlic, etc almost got close to burning after a few minutes, but, as long as it doesn’t turn to charcoal and make everything bitter and harsh, this is OK – a bit of brown means things have caramelised and released sugars, making everything tastier.

When the chicken thighs were the colour I wanted (golden-brown skin, dark underside), I turned the heat up, added the hot stock and tomato puree and paste, and gave it all a good stir. I put the lid on, and let it simmer away furiously for a few minutes so the stock reduced a bit. I then added the drained rice and the chickpeas too, removed the chicken thighs, put the lid back on, and turned to a medium heat.

Once the rice is in and the lid is on, it should take between 10 and 20 minutes to cook. You’ll need to keep an eye on it, and maybe add more (boiling) water if there isn’t enough for the rice to go soft and fluffy before it goes dry. Alternatively, if it’s too wet, take the lid off and turn the heat right up and boil the excess liquid off.

While the rice was cooking, I stripped the meat off the chicken bones, cheekily ate the skin (Emma doesn’t like it), shredded the meat, and threw it back in the pot for the last 5 minutes or so.

Once the rice is done and there’s no excess liquid, it’s ready to eat. The whole process will probably take about 90 minutes, from starting to chop the onions to dishing-up. If I’d had any pine nuts or cashew nuts, I would’ve lightly toasted these and sprinkled them on top of the dished-up kabsa at the end.

I’ll definitely be making a kabsa again; despite being amazingly similar to a jambalaya in terms of method and bulk ingredients, it’s a completely different flavour set from the spices involved.

Chickpea rice recipe

I concocted this as a partner dish to Madhur Jaffry’s Trinidadian beef curry, which is intense, dark, and very, very hot. I wanted something nutritious and filling to go alongside it, but without going down the full-on rice & peas road.

• 1 onion
• 2 sticks of celery
• 1 cup of rice (whichever type you like best – I used basmati)
• 1 can of chickpeas
• Salt and pepper
• Pinch of turmeric
• Vegetable stock, just less than a litre

First of all, I soaked the uncooked rice for a couple of hours, changing the water several times. Apparently this gets rid of the starch and makes for fluffy rice. To be fair, the end result was dead fluffy, so there you are.

Then I diced the onion finely, and set it frying in a glug of olive oil and a little knob of butter, starting with a medium-high heat and stirring continuously for a few minutes, then turning the heat down and putting a lid on the pan to sweat them. I wanted the onion to be practically disintegrating and very sweet, as the plan was to make this rice as simple as possible, so I needed to extract all the flavour from it.

I then took the lid off the pan, maybe 15-20 minutes into cooking the onion, and added the diced celery. There’s no reason for the celery other than the fact that I understand it to take more calories to chew and digest than it imparts, so I try and use it to bulk out all kinds of rice dishes and stocks. I continued to fry the onion and celery, medium-low heat, lid on every so often, for another 10-15 minutes. Around about then I seasoned it pretty heavily with salt and pepper.

Then I added the rice, swirling it around in the pan and fully mixing it with the onion and celery. I fried the rice mixture dry for a couple of minutes, turned the heat up to high, and added the stock. The stock was, as usual, boiling water from the kettle with 2-3 heaped teaspoons of Marigold Bouillon stock powder and a pinch of turmeric powder for colour. Then I added the drained chickpeas, put the lid on, the heat low, and ten minutes or so later it was all done.

Amazingly, given how simple it was, this chickpea rice was amazingly tasty and moreish. So much so that I just had the leftovers on their own for lunch, and the only thing I would have wished for to go with it was more of the same.

Spain 2008-2012 – the greatest football team ever?

I love Spain. I love Spanish food. I love Spanish wine. Andalucía is my holiday destination of choice. And I love Spanish football. It’s a love founded on watching Barcelona on Eurosport with my dad in 1996 when I was 17, when Ronaldo, 20 years old, scored 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, was unstoppable, unplayable, as good a goalscorer as he’d ever be plus, pre-injuries and thickening-out of his physical frame, was as fast as a whippet and possessed of such sublime touch, poise, and balance that I didn’t think there’d ever be a better footballer. (A decade later, of course, Messi came along.)

So I was pleased last night when they won a third consecutive major international football tournament, and made history by doing so. And I was more than pleased – delighted, in fact – that they won it in such style, by a record margin, by sticking to their ideology, by playing football the best way there is to play it; the way my brother taught me to play when I was a kid, which is by repeating the same three words over and over again. “Pass and move, pass and move, pass and move.”

I’m fed-up of English football, of the hustle and bustle of the premiership, of the unfathomable amounts of cash lashed around on players’ wages, on TV rights, on tickets for games, on Bentleys and Range Rovers and Lamborghinis. I’m fed up of Steven Gerrard being our best footballer when he’s a one-dimensional presence on the pitch in terms of imagination, going for the match-winning “ego pass” every time, whether it’s appropriate or not, possession and control of a game sacrificed for the vaguest glimpse of a chance of personal glory.

I’m fed up of John Terry and Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney and all the other “role models” chasing after money, and models, and loose balls. Even the one young player we have who might point towards footballing sophistication, Jack Wilshere, is in danger of becoming a spitting, brawling thug. I’m fed up of the empty, worthless, hollow spectacle of it. I refuse to pay for it, and my engagement with it stops at Match of the Day and taking part in a fantasy football league for camaraderie’s sake at work. I’m fed up of the way the speed and “passion” and spectacle of the English premiership has infantilised its supporters to the extent that they accuse the Spanish team of being boring because they’re not running around like headless chickens.

Fabregas sums it up well: “Those people who think we are playing boring, in my opinion, don’t understand the game.” Possession is everything for the Spanish; it’s how they attack, how they defend, how they control a game. The way they probe an area and a set of players, looking for weaknesses, finding nothing to exploit right now, and move to another area and set of players, from rightwing to leftwing to the D and back again, until they do find something to exploit, until a chink appears in the armour, is fascinating and remarkable and betrays an understanding of the game that is so far above England’s that it makes us look like cavemen. No current English player would get in this Spanish squad. None of them would even get near it. We don’t understand what it is that they do, even though it’s incredibly simple and logical and obvious.

The Spanish achievement is remarkable, and pretty much cements their place as the greatest international football team the world has ever seen. I’ve researched the 1954 Hungarian team of Puskás and Kocsis and Bozsik and Hidegtuki, read books about them and watched as much footage as possible (I bought the 1960 Real Madrid European Cup final victory DVD, just so I could see Puskás play a full 90-minutes). I’ve watched huge amounts of footage of Cruyff’s Holland team from 1974 and the 1970 Brazil team. I remember the Germany of Brehme and Matthäus and Klinsmann. I watched France win the World cup in 1998 and then take Euro 2000, too, and thought that was incredible. But Spain eclipsed all of them last night.

Of course Italy were beset by bad luck: Chiellini looked like a terrific outlet for them for the first 20 minutes until he was injured; De Rossi has clearly been less than fit through the tournament; Cassano, with his awesome balance and touch and vision, is only a few months out from heart-surgery. When Motta pulled his hamstring within moments of coming on, and had to be carried off the pitch, unable to continue and leaving Italy a man down against the best team the world has ever seen, there was never going to be any way back. Italy actually played nearly as much football as Spain last night, it just wasn’t as good.

But let’s not forget that Spain won last night, and over the last three weeks, without Puyol, their greatest defender, or Villa, their record goalscorer, with Torres only just nearing the light at the end of a torrid two-year tunnel. If anyone mentions exhaustion on behalf of the Italians, the Spanish players have collectively played 17,000 more minutes of football this season than the Italians. But it’s always, always easier to run with the ball or for the ball than it is to run after it, which is what Spain make their opponents do.

The success of Spain’s “tiki-taka” approach to football, which Luis Aragonés arrived at as a pragmatic decision because his players weren’t physically strong enough to out-muscle opponents, is a massive tactical and ideological victory for the beautiful game as far as I’m concerned. English fans crow about passion and commitment and sacrifice as if Xavi and Ramos and their kin don’t care about playing for their country or about winning trophies, but thinking about what you’re doing and working out the best way to win suggests that, in fact, you care a great deal. Enough to do a job properly.

Seeing Italy and Germany move towards this approach, and the cusp of success, ought to suggest that we’re doing something wrong in this country. A complete re-evaluation of how we understand, coach, and play football is going to be necessary if England are going to challenge these nations seriously, because, clearly, just having committed, talented players who care enough to physically bleed for their country isn’t enough. We need them to be clever and skilful, too. In the meantime, I’ll continue to take more pleasure and joy in watching Spain win beautifully and intelligently, than in watching England haplessly falter.

¡Viva España!

Edit. Oh, and the useless, witless idiots in certain sections of the British media (generally those owned by Australians) who are crowing about how the Spanish success last night was down to premiership players, can go to hell.