Sunday, 26 February 2012

Red Plenty - Francis Spufford

If I told you that one of the dramatic highlights of Red Plenty is an upgrade to a Siberian viscose works, you might jump to the conclusion that it has niche appeal. But thanks to the literary wizardry of Francis Spufford this event is genuinely an enthralling plot point, and only one of many he uses to bring to life how Russian society operated in the Khrushchev era.

As if the subject wasn't risky enough, Spufford decided not to write the conventional history he was planning and instead made what he describes as a "Russian fairytale", a kind of heightened-reality novelisation of history. It may sound unappealingly quirky but it works brilliantly because it's a perfect fit for the story he's telling. It could easily have ended up like one of those TV history shows where actors prance about in period costume while a voiceover explains what's really going on, but it is much more immersive than that. There are real lives being lived here, albeit fairytale real lives.

This is a story about the whole of Russian society, from the Politburo to the collective farms, from the central planners to the maternity wards. But above all it is a story about the scientists and engineers who believed that they could make the planned economy work, and make the Soviet Union the richest country in the world, if only their cybernetic theories were put into practice. For a time it looked like they might get their chance, and Red Plenty charts how hopes rose that they really could overtake the West, as well as how their dream eventually unravelled.

Everything about this book is fascinating, up to and including the copious endnotes, where Spufford describes where he has deviated from reality and elaborates on the economic and mathematical ideas of the time. And to top it all, there are plenty of Soviet Jokes.

The Red Plenty website is at

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Bring back the stuffiness

It's not often that I still care about the FA Cup draw at this stage of the season so let me take this opportunity to rant about the decline of the draw itself.

Once upon a time it was just two old duffers drawing balls from a bag - and that was the way we liked it, dammit. Now, as the ever insightful Football Cliches points out, it's dominated by Jim Rosenthal's attempt to fit as much numerology as possible between each draw. But far worse than that, and I think a new phenomenon, is the creeping in of one of the greatest blights on modern football. Yes, there's now banter between the presenter and drawers.

Compare the FA Cup (With Budweiser) to the Wimbledon tennis championship. Wimbledon has kept all its ludicrously old-fashioned but much loved traditions, but underneath it all is a very slick operation. The FA, on the other hand, have dressed up their competition with tiresome razzmatazz but underneath it all their organisation is still stuck in the 19th century. As a trained banterer might say: SORT IT OUT FA.