BRILIANT ORANGE [By David Winner]. Not sure if this is a book about Holland or about Dutch football: both probably but neither are subjects that I am particularly interested in. Perhaps once upon a time, when I was younger. I am old enough to remember Ajax and Johan Cruyff, whom even I could see was a born genius that could turn the most average of teams into something special but what this book does is explore how the Ajax team could only have flourished in a country like Holland, sharing as it does the same national values and the same contradictions in society, a quintessentially Dutch combination of collaboration, team-spirit, ill-discipline, complacency, and lack of will [or nerve]. The Dutch seem to have an allergy to authority, leadership and collective discipline.
Patterns of self-destruction . . .
A large section in the middle of the book is devoted to why Holland lost the final of the 1974 World Cup to Germany. A game that is still seared on the consciousness of many Dutch, even fifty-years later. All the stars played in that game, the virtuosos: Cruyff, Rep, Neeskens and they were regarded by everyone in sport at the time [even South Americans] as not only the best team in the world, but with their attacking style known as totalfootball, the most noble, elegant and skilled.
Years of self-analysis as to why they lost to the Germans, echoes of the Second World War and Holland’s suffering after the May 1940 invasion have all been considered part of this failure, but the author writes:
This football hatred has existed for only ten or twenty years and has nothing to do with the war. Did you ever go to Auschwitz? It is very interesting: every country has its own barracks where it tells its own history. If you want to hear all the lies a nation tells about itself, you should go there: Holland is the most tolerant nation . . . they have a long history of tolerance; Austria was the first victim of the Nazis; Yugoslavia liberated itself; Poland won the Second World War.
The Dutch were a finer, nobler team and should have won. The Germans were more journeymen footballers. After the war, in Holland there was a great deal of anti-German feeling, but a lot of it was guilt. The Dutch knew there had been a lot of collaboration, so they were keen to show how much they hated the Germans. Holland had the highest proportion of citizens to join the Waffen SS of any occupied country, and the Dutch economy assisted the Nazi war effort. Most troublingly, within the Dutch services were a frighteningly high number of supporters actively helping the Nazis murder Holland’s Jews quietly and efficiently. These are issues the Dutch still prefer not to examine too closely.
It has tremendous reviews and if you are at all interested in football or in Holland you should give it a go.
THE HUMAN FACTOR [By Graham Greene]. Another terrific book I seem to be on something of a roll at the moment and incidentally, another one that features an older man married to a much younger woman although the relationship has no bearing upon the plot.
Never read anything by Greene before, at least not anything that has stuck in my memory. This is a Classic and to be honest, I don’t usually get along with classics that I didn’t read at the time: they date. This is a spy story a bit like Tinker Taylor, which is one of my all-time top ten novels insofar as it is all about the malfunction of the inner cogs of the upper middle-class and in particular the British Secret Service: defections and double agents. And white men. God knows what would happen if you sent the first three chapters of this to a Literary Agent today with its Pall Mall men’s clubs, grouse-shooting weekends, endless lunches and double whiskies. The rejection letters not for me would flow thick and fast.
But it is totally gripping. The scene where he is at home by himself waiting for the doorbell to ring is a masterclass in how to build tension; utterly compelling. Colm Toibin has written a Foreword to this Vintage Classics edition and in it he remarks of Castle, the protagonist:
Castle moves with care; Greene offers him no flourishes or colour. The step he took while posted in South Africa, and deeply in love with a black woman, was his single defining step.
Yes, nailed in a sentence.
THE TIN MEN [By Michael Frayn]. I own a first edition of this  and recently re-read it.
I had always regarded it as the funniest book I have ever read although that title passed to Restraint of Beasts, Magnus Mills’ 2010 masterpiece, in this decade.
Here are some of the comments on the cover of this edition:
‘Goes straight into the Evelyn Waugh class’
‘As brilliant as all Michael Frayn’s work’ – P G Wodehouse [!]
‘Outrageous . . . continuously funny’ – Anthony Burgess[!!]
It’s about computers and despite the fact that it was written in 1965, is remarkably prophetic. It is set in a kind of University Campus/Think Tank where researchers are toying with the uses that computers might be put to. For example, one researcher is trying to create a robot with a moral sense and to this end places the robot on a sinking raft in the water with something or someone else on board and sets up its programming so that it will sacrifice itself to save another. The robot throws itself off the raft no matter who or what is the second passenger. This sequence is one of the funniest in the novel. Another researcher is programming newspaper stories that write themselves from a card-index system:
‘’Have you checked ‘Paralysed Girl Determined to Dance Again’ yet?’’ asked Nobbs.
‘’Not yet,’’ said Golwasser.
‘’Well don’t blame me when we’re a week behind schedule at the end of the month,’’ said Nobbs. ‘’And what about ‘I plan to Give Away My Baby, Says Mother-to-be’?
‘’I’ll look at that now,’’ said Goldwasser. He turned to the ‘I plan to Give Away My Baby, Says Mother-to-be’ file. ‘’Difficulty here,’’ said the researcher’s report. ‘’Frequency of once a month, but in fifty-three cuttings examined there are no variables at all. Even name of mother-to-be the same. May possibly involve fifty-three different foetuses, but no way of telling from cuttings. Can we use story with no variables?’’
Golwasser put it to one side.
In yet another corner of the campus a professor is writing a novel, except he begins by writing the reviews first.
Some of it is hilarious, real laugh-out-loud stuff. It was his first ever published book and although it took him fifteen years before he wrote his famous farce, Noises Off you can see the early sense of slapstick humour in parts of this and how comedy can be created out of misunderstandings.
If you haven’t read it I would definitely recommend it. There are several recent reviews on Amazon that say it still stands the test of time.