james debate
james debate

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

It is an even numbered year, and if you are an American that can mean only one certain thing: it's election season. But Donald Trump is not on the ballot this year. No, these are the Congressional Midterms, which will determine the makeup of the legislature for the next two years, profoundly shaping the remainder of Donald Trump's term in office. Everything that we have seen over the past two years have led to one inescapable conclusion: this is a high stakes election, and it is utterly imperative that we get out and vote for the Democratic Party.

2018 us midterm congress election house senate trump clinton democrat republican

Why vote?
It is fair to say that the average voter considers midterm elections to be of less importance than Presidential elections. The President is the most powerful person in the world after all (or used to be anyway), whereas only 1 in 3 Americans can even name their Congressional representative. It may be time to reconsider that mindset.

The past two years have shown us just how important Congress really is. It is Congress who passes the laws, and determines whether you get to keep your healthcare. It is Congress who confirms Supreme Court appointments, and blocks unfit nominees. Perhaps most importantly, it is Congress who holds the power to investigate all of Washington's corruption or choose to cover it up. The average person on the street who doesn't care about politics may not be particularly affected in their day-to-day life by what goes on in Washington, but they sure as heck will be affected by rising healthcare premiums, cuts to social security, and draconian courts striking down the rights of women, minorities and the LGBT community.

Suffice it to say, those are things that affect everyone, and this election is your opportunity to have a say. If you've had enough of the liars and crooks, the violent thugs and misogynist assholes that seem to wield disproportionate power in this country, this is your one opportunity to say "enough is enough".

Why vote Democrat?
Now ordinarily the focus of a post like this would be to consider the policy differences between candidates and parties, and evaluate who's got the best ideas. But these are extraordinary times, and such a traditional analysis is going to be difficult to do this year. But let's be clear, there is no comparison between the two parties' platforms.

Democratic economic policy under Obama brought us record low unemployment, record high markets, and decreased the budget deficit for the first time since, well, the last Democratic President Bill Clinton. Republican economic policy brought our economy to ruin under Bush, and Trump seems dead set on starting a trade war that will send consumer prices sky rocketing.

Democratic healthcare policy expanded healthcare coverage to tens of millions of Americans, and significantly slowed the growth in premiums. Republican healthcare policy is non-existent beyond "Obama did it, ergo it is bad".

Democrats have an ambitious proposal for renewable energy investment and pollution control, Republicans don't even acknowledge that climate change is a thing, even as scientists warn that we are mere decades away from global disaster.

Democratic foreign policy brought admiration and respect, kept domestic terrorism at bay, and helped keep global geopolitics stable. Trump's laissez-faire foreign policy has allowed for a surge in state-sponsored murders, dictators running roughshod over the Middle East and Asia, and then he went and sanctioned Iran just for the hell of it. That's without even mentioning the ridiculous photo-op with Kim Jong-Un which accomplished nothing.

Marriage inequality, women's rights, anti-racism. The two parties' records speak for themselves.

Ideally, this policy focus would form the core of an endorsement post such as this, but as I say these are extraordinary times. I've long had my issues with the Republican Party. I felt they were embarrassingly dishonest during the Obama years, opposing him not on policy grounds, but simply out of partisanship. The Senate Republicans refusing to vote on a Supreme Court nominee for over a year remains one of the most shamefully partisan acts that Washington has ever seen, while their continued obsession with taking away access to healthcare, simply for the sake of scoring points, is an affront to the value of human life.

You absolutely need to have different sides and ideological debate in a functioning democracy, but that requires both sides to engage with one another in good faith, and that simply has not been the case. The modern Republican Party has increasingly taken advantage of voters' fear and ignorance, and stoked our darker instincts. This makes a policy comparison a pointless exercise. There are no Republican policies, only politics.

At the time I chalked this up to an act of desperation after the failure of President Bush, and the landslide victories of Obama and the Democrats left the Republican Party teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. But if that were the case, you would have expected them to revert to some level of moderation and decorum upon taking power, and that has not happened. Instead they've gone even deeper into the swamp.

The new party of Trump
Over the past two years we've seen Republicans vote on a behemoth tax cut for the wealthy without even reading the bill (an ungodly mess of a bill that the IRS have spent the past year unspooling). We've seen them engage in shamelessly obvious cover-ups and political games. We've seen them rush through an alleged sexual offender to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court without allowing for any investigation of his offences, even after his own hearing was marred by apparent dishonesty, brazen partisanship, and a temperament that was so clearly insufficient for the Supreme Court that the American Bar Association withdrew its endorsement.

This is no longer a party of serious ideological conservatives. It's a party of bumbling shysters, of Lindsey Graham retching and mewling for the cameras, and Nikki Haley doing her best John Wayne impression and "taking names" at the UN. Politicians have always been performers and grand-standers to an extent, but this Republican Party is taking things to a cynical new low.

This is all before even mentioning the man in charge of the party. During the 2016 election The Ephemeric reported on Donald Trump's corruption and scandals, which, let's face it, turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg - this was before the extent of Trump's Russia connection was known, before his years of tax evasion became public knowledge, and before his own lawyer named him as an unindicted co-conspirator in a variety of federal crimes. Even then, no one could have predicted his moral turpitude, his shameless disregard for reality, and his abject corruption.

So yes, the swamp is swampier than ever. No fewer than a dozen Republican officials have been convicted of crimes in the past two years, and one expects that number would be even higher if they were not trying their hardest to block any investigation into their activity.

The Republican war on democracy
And you know what? Everything that's been written above is a perfectly good reason to vote Democrat, but it's not the reason why this year is so important. Those are all terrible things being done by terrible people, but there's so much more at stake.

We've seen an unprecedented assault on free speech and justice these past years, whether it's inciting violence against the "enemy of the people" journalists, politicising the justice department, and firing disobedient police chiefs. Republicans have declared war on reality, and now simply dismiss any inconvenient information as "fake news". Donald Trump has openly stated that Republican politicians should not be charged with crimes because it harms their election chances. He also fired the head of the FBI, in his own words, because of "the Russia thing". This is not the conduct of a modern, legitimate Government, it's the behaviour of a lawless mafia state.

Basic democratic rights are under threat, with Republicans seemingly dead set on disenfranchising as many voters as possible, and gerrymandering the country into a grotesque and unrepresentative shape (more on that to come in a later blog post). Here's a fun fact, Republicans have won a majority of the popular vote just once in thirty years. Our current President was elected by a minority of the people, our House was elected by a minority of the people, and our Senate majority represents a minority of the people. At some point you have to ask yourself, in what kind of democracy does the fewest number of votes win, and not just once, but consistently?

We are never going to agree on everything, but all Americans can agree that speech should be free, that elections should be fair, and that no one is above the law. Democracy relies on the ability to scrutinise those in power, the unbiased application of justice, and the universal right to vote and have that vote count.

I have written above why I would vote for the Democratic Party, but frankly those usual considerations seem trivial in comparison this year. The Republican Party has taken clear, no longer merely hypothetical, concrete steps to undermine the basic tenets of democracy. This goes far beyond politics and partisanship, this simply can not be tolerated regardless of your political persuasion. For these reasons, it is absolutely imperative that we vote Democrat this November. Whether you're liberal, conservative, or independent, a message needs to be sent to the Republican Party.

And it's not just those on the left who are saying this. Long time Republican officials and strategists including Steve Schmidt, David Frum, and Max Boot have all similarly called for a fresh start. Even conservative newspapers like the Des Moines Register. Intellectually honest conservatives and people of all ideologies who put country before politics are all coming to this conclusion.

As difficult as it is in this hyper-partisan age to turn your back on your "team", a bipartisan consensus is forming that the Republican Party needs to be torn down and we need to start over. They need to receive such a shock, such devastation, that they are forced back into sanity, and only then can we return to some form of functional Government.

The unfortunate truth is that the reason bad people get away with doing bad things is because we let them. Elections are the opportunity we have to shape the world around us, and I fear that through a combination of apathy and the ill-judged instinct to false equivalency there's a real risk that this country will just sleepwalk into some kind of a Russia-style authoritarian hybrid democracy. I appreciate that it sounds hyperbolic, but considering the brazenly anti-democratic practices going on this country already, you can argue that we're already well on our way.

Authoritarianism is an insidious thing, and we have seen all too often throughout history what happens if left unchecked. It can not be allowed to fester in this country any longer, it needs to be cut off immediately and it needs to be made clear that Americans will not stand for it. I encourage everyone to vote Democrat this November, not just because their policy is what's best for America, not just so that the corrupt and criminal can finally be held to account, but because our shared principles of decency and human rights are under attack. This is not a normal election, nothing less than American democracy is on the ballot. Let's put an end to this nonsense.

Monday, 15 October 2018

The Royal Academy of Arts has generally received little fanfare relative to some of its more glamorous London museum rivals, but over the past 12 months this gallery has quietly been undergoing a significant transformation. I was recently fortunate enough to attend a preview of Oceania, the first major exhibition of this new era, and the difference was quite remarkable.

oceania royal academy of arts

Let me preface by saying that I have been going to exhibitions at this Piccadilly-based institution since I was a child. From blockbuster Hockney to niche Living Bridges, and everything else from Sensations to Apocalypse. There have been a lot of memorable shows at the RA, but in a general holistic sense very little has changed during that time. Burlington House is a grand old building, but one whose stodgy interiors have been in need of refurbishment for years. And while many highly regarded artists have been represented, few exhibitions have really shown the creative flair to try and do more than simply display their works on a wall. So coming from that perspective, the changes that have taken place over the past 12 months seem quite dramatic.

It begins with the expansion between the two previously disparate galleries of Burlington House and Burlington Gardens. The connections between these two awkward islands were previously little more than utilitarian office corridors, closed off and hidden from the public. Now these have been opened up, and developed into a quite lovely additional wing to display permanent items and RA history. This unification into one grand Royal Academy provides additional galleries, completely redone interiors, and new facilities for lectures and workshops. Additional space and modernisation is always appreciated, but it's the quality and style of the refurbishment that most impresses. The RA no longer looks like a run-down secondary school, it truly looks a top class institution.

Which brings us to Oceania, a showcase of south Pacific art, and the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom for several decades. As a flagship exhibition to celebrate this new-look RA it is everything that could have been hoped for.

The pieces are varied and impressive. Large, ornate canoes and ceremonial tools. Small but highly detailed sculptures and statues. One room contains a bizarre but dazzling grand piano carved with the finery of Pacific tribes, another uses an entire wall to project a giant scrolling video depicting the history of the Island tribes. It all makes for a visually splendid, and strangely immersive tour through a culture and history that is at once alien, but with a surprising historical influence over our own art landscape

But as important as the quality and depth of the content is how it's presented here. In the past, whether it's been Picasso or Ai Weiwei, little has differed in the look of the gallery itself. For Oceania the curatorial team has put in a great deal of time and effort into helping the exhibition space complement the artefacts. One room uses re-painted walls and clever ripple lighting effects to convey a sense of being underwater, another is adorned with silk sheets to evoke flowing water. The design of this exhibition shows creativity and boldness that is well beyond anything I can remember seeing at the RA.

I came away from this evening very intrigued. In Oceania the RA have put together a striking and gorgeously assembled showpiece to herald in a new era, one which firmly establishes the RA among London's leading attractions. This is a must see for fans of museums and culture.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Welcome back football fans.  I hope everyone had a great summer, but now that we've had our approximately ten days per year of sun it is time to get back to business. A new season of Premier League football is approaching, and once again it looks like a corker, promising fake drama, real tears, and hopefully some good football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.

premier league 2018/19 preview

Premier League 2018/19 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester City
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham
Relegated: Brighton, Southampton, Huddersfield
Golden Boot winner: Harry Kane (Tottenham)
Golden Glove winner: Ederson (Manchester City)
Player to watch: Mo Salah (Liverpool)
New signing to watch: Richarlison (Everton)
Young player to watch: Ruben Neves (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
First manager to get the sack: Mark Hughes (Southampton)
Shock of the season: No Chelsea striker's goal tally will hit double digits

Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Position last season: 6th
Manager: Unai Emery

Terra incognita for Arsenal. It's no secret that the past twenty years have not been awash with glory for the club, and as I (controversially) predicted this time last year it appears that long-time manager Arsene Wenger has finally had enough. To unoriginally call it the "end of an era" would be an understatement; there is after all an entire generation of adult Arsenal fans who have never known any manager other than Wenger. For all his highs and lows, even rival fans would have to begrudge the man a special place in the history of English football. It's no exaggeration to call him a landmark figure in the genesis of modern football, and he will no doubt be remembered with great affection.

The new man shows promise. Unai Emery offers a combination of experience and youth in the dugout, with top level experience in his armory from two years at PSG, not to mention an unprecedented hat-trick of consecutive Europe League titles with Sevilla. He'll have his work cut out for him to turn Arsenal back into a club capable of competing with the league's big hitters. He inherits a lopsided squad littered with expensive underperformers. The mercurial talents of players like Aubameyang, Xhaka, Ozil and Ramsey have proven all too intermittent over the years, and instead much of the attacking heft may rest upon last year's star signing Alexandre Lacazette. Meanwhile the squad has long been plagued by an unconvincing defensive lineup that is increasingly dependant on an ageing Petr Cech in goal.

Emery has bolstered his squad with a not insignificant £80 million in new players, with no fewer than nine new faces joining the squad, a few of whom admittedly are expected to go into the youth and reserves sides rather than the first team. Of the new boys, only Matteo Guendouzi looks set to really shake up the side, and at just £7 million he could end up being one of the bargains of the season.

Key Signing: Matteo Guendouzi
Key Man: Alexandre Lacazette
Verdict: A fresh start brings optimism and the expectation of improvement, but they have got a long way to go to break back into the top four.

Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Capacity: 11,700
Last season: 12th
Manager: Eddie Howe

Bournemouth are having a good run in the Premier League at the moment, and last season secured another comfortable mid-table finish. Great credit has to go to manager Eddie Howe for his constant drive to exceed expectations. Now the question is, where can they go from here? Our bet is for another season of stability and consolidation.

Their meteoric rise through the leagues (League One just six years ago!) is only part of the feel-good story surrounding the club right now. Progress has been made on a new stadium, while their summer's transfer activity has been typically astute. That left back Diego Rico passed on a move to Dortmund in order to join the Cherries is something of a coup for the club.

Equally, they have done a good job in retaining their key players from last year with a fine core of players like Nathan Aké, Lewis Cook, and Callum Wilson. It's not the league's deepest squad, but they are well stocked in the midfield and up front. However serious concerns remain in defence, where Bournemouth recorded the fewest clean sheets of any team last season. There is no doubting the difficulty of what lies ahead, but Eddie Howe is a good manager and on paper they don't look worse off than last year.

Key Signing: Diego Rico
Key Man: Lewis Cook
Verdict: We're going for a solid mid-table finish.

Nickname: The Seagulls
Ground: Falmer Stadium
Capacity: 30,750
Last season: 15th
Manager: Chris Hughton

It was an impressively spirited debut in the top flight for Brighton, but a year later and the spectre of the dreaded second season syndrome looms tall in everyone's mind. A considerable £60 million has been spent on reinforcements to ensure a year of consolidation for the league's freshest faces, but a difficult challenge still awaits.

The squad is not awash with proven top level talent, so it is fortunate that they have in Chris Hughton a manager well-versed in the ways of shoe-string Premier League survival. He'll be relying on key players like Pascal Groß and Lewis Dunk, while being hopeful of a return to fitness and form for Anthony Knockaert. Hughton has made some shrewd signings in the form of Bernardo, and Eredevisie top scorer Jahanbakhsh, the latter of whom is a potential game winner if he hits the ground running.

The Seagulls understandably begin the season on a wave of enthusiasm, but they know they face an uphill struggle in order to survive. Away fans best enjoy the opportunity for football trips to the beach while they can.

Key Signing: Alireza Jahanbakhsh
Key Man: Lewis Dunk
Verdict: No pushovers by any means, but among the favourites for the drop.

Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Capacity: 21,800
Last season: 7th
Manager: Sean Dyche

Last season's most remarkable success story. A side that had been tipped by many for the drop, but instead ended up qualifying for Europe. I said this time last year that Dyche could push this team onto something special, but their performance exceeded any reasonable expectation. There's an argument to be made that lightning can't strike twice, or that Dyche may now have outgrown this club. For the time being though, it's full steam ahead, and fans will just be hoping for more of the same.

Burnley's playing squad boasts a surprising amount of quality, including the likes of Ashley Barnes, Chris Wood, Jack Cork, and underrated defender Ben Mee. If Steve Defour can recover some fitness and consistency, so much the better. Dyche has made some decent additions this season as well, including Ben Gibson, Joe Hart and in particular Matej Vydra.

But it's not just on the pitch that Burnley are showing their ambitions. Significant investments have been made over the past few years in infrastructure and training facilities, and the aim is now very much on establishing themselves as a top flight side, and building from there. It's a tough ask, but so was qualifying for Europe.

Key Signing: Matej Vydra
Key Man: Ashley Barnes
Verdict: Surely a repeat of last season is too much to ask, but a safe mid-table finish seems likely.

Nickname: The Bluebirds
Ground: Cardiff City Stadium
Capacity: 33,280
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Neil Warnock

It's been a bizarrely turbulent period for Cardiff since being acquired by Vincent Tan. First the billionaire investor attempted to change the club's colours from blue to red, and the club crest from the traditional bluebird to a Welsh dragon, all for the sake of marketing. Following a fan outrage of biblical proportions, some sense of normalcy has returned to the club. Then Tan appointed Neil Warnock.

Warnock is quite the character, but to his credit he did manage to achieve Tan's long-held ambition and win promotion to the Premier League. Now that they're here, there's the temptation to believe that they will walk the same path as other billionaire-owned clubs to glory but make no mistake, they are a real relegation risk.

It's not that the club hasn't invested this summer, it's that the new recruits have done little to plug the depth and quality problems faced by the club. Sean Morrison and Junior Hoilett are crucial to their survival hopes, while new man Bobby Reid will fit straight into the side, but it's hard to see where the goals will come from, or who will hold the defence together if key players get injured. This is a squad with major holes for such a high level, and it may cost them.

Key Signing: Bobby Reid
Key Man: Sean Morrison
Verdict: Tough battle for survival.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Capacity: 41,837
Last season: 5th
Manager: Maurizio Sarri

The second of last year's controversial predictions concerned the team that had been tipped by many to win the league. I was called silly by more than a few people for predicting a Chelsea finish outside the top four, and yet that turned out to be eerily prescient, right down to the detail of how it would play out. Unfortunately for Chelsea fans I don't see anything this year to indicate a significant or sustained revival.

Let's not dance around the elephant in the room. Chelsea have replaced a manager who has decades of top level football experience and who has in two seasons brought the club a league title and an FA Cup with a not-exactly-young banker-turned football manager who has never won anything in his career. A manager who has neither potential nor experience on his side and has proven nothing. If it sounds like the latest in a series of absurd decisions made by the club, that's because it is.

On top of this, Chelsea have failed to plug the significant holes in their squad, and begin the season without a dependable first choice striker and with no cover in the defensive midfield role. With Sarri set to switch to a flat back four, that lack of central defensive coverage leaves the team looking very vulnerable down the middle of the pitch. But the most terrifying tactical blunder heading into the season is Sarri's return to the high defensive line last attempted at Chelsea by Andre Villa Boas. We all saw how that turned out. This is a Chelsea side with the potential to concede a massive amount of goals, and as the season wears on and opponents start to figure out this manager's tactics, they could find themselves in a world of trouble.

The silver-lining for Chelsea fans is a number of actually pretty decent last minute transfers, including the surprise coup of snatching Jorginho out from under Manchester City's noses, the world record fee paid for goalkeeper Kepa, and the very promising Kovacic on loan from Real Madrid.

Key Signing: Jorginho
Key Man: Eden Hazard
Verdict: A tactically questionable manager and a thin squad peppered with genuine quality. Unlikely top four hopes will depend on their rivals slipping up.

Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Capacity: 25,456
Last season: 11th
Manager: Roy Hodgson

Stability has been tricky to come by for Crystal Palace in recent times, through a slew of managerial changes and squad upheaval. Yet under Roy Hodgson the club enters the season with an air of positivity. The team didn't make much of a going in the early stages of last season, but the managerial change seemed to bring about a renewed vigour, ending the season a very impressive side. Now entering their sixth consecutive season in the top flight there is the hope that the club is starting to be seen as a Premier League mainstay, rather than one concerned with mere survival.

Indeed there is much to like about this Palace side, from the attacking threats of Andros Townsend and Christian Benteke, to the excellent fullback pairing of Patrick can Aanholt and Aaron-Wan Bissaka, but the clear star of the side is Wilfried Zaha, courted by many and arguably the league's best player outside of the top six.

If there is a note of caution to be raised, it is in the summer's somewhat subdued transfer activity, particularly in light of the numerous departures, most notably that of midfield stalwart Yohan Cabaye. But while the club may not have brought in as many new faces as fans would have hoped, the ones that have arrived at Selhurst may prove to be shrewd moves, in particular the free transfer of Max Meyer, who it is hoped will slot in for the aforementioned departed Cabaye.

Key Signing: Max Meyer
Key Man: Wilfried Zaha
Verdict: This is not the season to begin a push for Europe, but should see Palace achieve another comfortable mid-table finish.

Nickname: Toffees
Ground: Goodison Park
Capacity: 40,170
Last season: 8th
Manager: Marco Silva

It's been a few seasons of uncharacteristic turbulence for Everton. Following the disastrous tenure of manager Ronald Koeman, and the brief stop-gap appointment of Sam Allardyce, Marco Silva will become the fifth man to coach this Everton side in just two years.

This turbulent era extends to the playing staff, with many of last season's big money flops being moved out, and a general clean up of the wage bill well underway. Last season's top scorer Wayne Rooney has been moved on to the MLS after just one season, presumably as part of this effort of financial prudence. But if you think that Everton's disastrous first foray into the world of 2010s Premier League cash-splashing will induce a retreat into purse-pinching ways, think again. The club raised a few eyebrows in its decision to drop a club record £50 million on the still rather unproven Richarlison (though early performances indicate that he may yet live up to this price tag), and an additional £50 million was spent between Barcelona defenders Lucas Digne and Yerry Mina.

So what does all this mean for the season ahead? Hopefully the start of a more stable era. They're a good side, and one of the strongest squads outside the top four with the likes of Pickford, Keane and Sigurðsson, while the new defensive additions should stand them in good stead. There is an absence of players who can offer real penetration, particularly among their extended squad, and of course they miss a frontman of true proven quality. They'll make a good showing of it, but unlikely to trouble the top four this season.

Key Signing: Richarlison
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Verdict: Probably looking at a similar finish to last year, just outside the top six.

Nickname: The Cottagers
Ground: Craven Cottage
Capacity: 25,700
Last season: Promoted (Playoffs)
Manager: Slaviša Jokanović

Welcome back to the Premier League for everyone's least hated club, and bring on the away days at the country's most delightful ground in Craven Cottage. But Fulham are not just here to make up the numbers. Jokanović has built a side with a real buzz about them, and spent a frankly astonishing £100 million on strengthening further. This is unsurprisingly a record for a newly promoted side.

In Ryan Sessegnon Fulham boast one of the most exciting and buzzed about young talents in the Premier League this season, while playmaker Tom Cairney forms the beating heart of a productive midfield. Their extravagant summer spending has added well and added broadly with the headline signings of Seri and Mitrović joined by loan moves for the likes of Calum Chambers, Tomothy Fosu-Mensa, and André Schürrle. American owner Shahid Khan has matched his ambitious talk by promising unlimited funds, but stressed that such funds would need to be spent wisely and in the right way. As a result, Fulham now have the makings of a very decent Premier League side.

Expectations are high for a newly promoted side, but so too is the pressure. If Fulham get off to a rocky start, there's a good chance that Jokanović could find himself among the early season casualties. There's a hype about this team right now, but these things take time, and I wouldn't be surprised if they fell short of expectations this season.

Key Signing: Jean Michel Seri
Key Man: Ryan Sessegnon
Verdict: Should survive, but likely to fall short of expectations in the table's bottom half.

Nickname: The Terriers
Ground: John Smith's Stadium
Capacity: 24,500
Last season: 16th
Manager: David Wagner

Everyone expected Huddersfield to go down last season (for the record The Ephemeri predicted otherwise) and yet they ended up confounding critics and putting in a decent showing in the top flight. But second season syndrome is a thing, and the question has to be have Huddersfield done enough to consolidate their position in this league?

Terence Kongolo and Erik Durm are impressive defensive signings, but otherwise there is a notable lack of proven Premier League quality throughout the squad. Despite that, in Hogg they have excellent defensive cover through the midfield, and in Christopher Schindler a rock in defence. This is going to be as tough a side to beat as any. Unfortunately as I look around at their rivals for survival I'm not convinced they have the match winning players to compete. A lot of pressure will be on Alex Pritchard to deliver, and if Town are going to stay up, he will have a vital part to play.

David Wagner knows the challenge he faces, but team spirit and tenacity can only carry a team so far. At some point Huddersfield are going to have to show they have the quality for the top flight, and at the moment, I'm not seeing it.

Key Signing: Terrence Kongolo
Key Man: Alex Pritchard
Verdict: A genuine risk for relegation.

Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Capacity: 32,315
Last season: 9th
Manager: Claude Puel

It's been a rough ride for Leicester since their still hard to believe title triumph a few years back. A few managerial changes and some pretty mixed performances. Now another of their title winning stars Riyad Mahrez has left, leaving even fewer of the old guard left to keep them afloat. But things are not as dark as they seem.

For all the doubters, Leicester still managed to finish a respectable 9th last season. Puel has built a solid team around the key players like Vardy and Maguire. They've spent ambitiously over the summer too, and in particular Ricardo Pereira and James Maddison look like very shrewd additions. The latter in particular starts the season with something of a mystique about him after turning heads with his performances in the Championship. It will be interesting to see how the the youngster adapts to life in the top flight, but this could prove to be a remarkable signing.

So what are their prospects, really? They're not top four challengers, but if they can achieve greater consistency than they did last year they could really be a force among the next best teams. A place in Europa League qualification is certainly not out of the question.

Key Signing: James Maddison
Key Man: Jamie Vardy
Verdict: Safe mid-table for sure, with a possible push into the top seven.

Nickname: Reds
Ground: Anfield
Capacity: 54,074
Last season: 4th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp

Last season saw another year of marked improvement for Liverpool, and a 4th place finish belies the fact that they ended the season as one of the form teams in the league. Add to that an impressive Champions League challenge and an unbelievable run of form for Mo Salah, and there's a real buzz in the air that this could be a big year, and perhaps even a title contending one. But is the hype premature? After all this team did just finish 4th last season, and only by a whisker at that. It's been decades since Liverpool last won a league title, and yet every season they get tipped for potential glory, undeniably due in part to the huge ex-Liverpool presence in the media. Could this season really be different?

All the buzz is naturally about Salah, but really the entire frontline was immense last season, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané's contribution being hugely underappreciated. A solid midfield of Henderson and Milner has added the steel of Naby Keita, and at the back they have spent a significant sum on the (briefly) world record goalkeeper Alisson. Goalkeeper was undoubtedly their weak spot last season, especially with a decent backline taking shape in Robertson, Van Dijk, Gomez, and the exciting youngster Alexander-Arnold. This signing could be the final piece of the puzzle.

So what's in store for this season? They've spent massively over a number of seasons, and have the top class squad to show for it. It's hard to pick glaring weaknesses in this side, and you'd have to say that on their day they could be a match for any other in the league. Manchester City start the season as heavy favourites, but maybe Liverpool shouldn't be counted out so soon.

Key Signing: Alisson
Key Man: Mo Salah
Verdict: Title contenders, but still very much underdogs compared to City.

Nickname: Blues
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Capacity: 55,097
Last season: Champions
Manager: Pep Guardiola

After a rocky start to his City career, the pressure was truly on for Pep last season. He duly delivered the league title, proving once again that there is nothing this manager can not accomplish given several years and a billion pounds in new players. It's certainly quite the comeback story after several years of disappointment at Bayern and City. But regardless of what anyone thinks of the man, there is no question that in terms of playing staff this Manchester City side is up there with the best football teams in the world today.

The question now is whether they can become the first team to retain the league title since 2008, and they begin the season as heavy favourites to do just that. Unlike each of Chelsea's last two disastrous title defences, City do not appear to be resting on their laurels, and have opened the checkbook once again to sign Riyad Mahrez. A smashing player for sure, but one really has to wonder where he's going to fit into a starting XI that already includes the midfield depth of De Bruyne, Sterling, Gundogan, Silvas both David and Bernardo and Fernandinho. That Man City show no compunction in spending a cool £60 million on what in all likelihood will be a substitute player sums up perfectly how they have managed to reach such a high level, and how far their rivals need to go in order to bridge the gap.

But while this is a squad blessed with an embarrassment of riches and exciting recent signings, the main man remains veteran Sergio Agüero, now entering his eighth season in the Premier League, and with more than 140 goals in the competition he has surely got to be recognized as one of the greatest ever strikers to play in this country.

Key Signing: Riyad Mahrez
Key Man: Sergio Agüero
Verdict: A title favourite, anything less would be a failure.

Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Capacity: 75, 643
Last season: 2nd
Manager: Jose Mourinho

Manchester City's closest rivals last season, finishing as runners up in the Premier League, their highest finish since the departure of Alex Ferguson. It was Mourinho's United side that pushed Pep the hardest last season and has the smallest gap to bridge. So then why does it seem like everyone is writing them off? Why is all the hype about Liverpool who finished 4th? Why does Jose Mourinho look like he's on the verge of a meltdown even before the season starts?

These are questions that should be weighing on United fan's minds as the season begins. But is all the doom and gloom justified? Jose has been having a sulk for not being active enough in the transfer market, despite the fact that a solid £70 million was spent on the likes of Fred and Dalot. And of course it's still otherwise the same squad that ground out their way to runner up last season. Lukaku remains a formidable force up front, while Paul Pogba looks set to ride his impressive World Cup form into the new season. Mata brings creativity aplenty, while in David de Gea they have probably still the best goalkeeper in the world currently.

Ultimately I suspect the negative atmosphere is a bit overblown. I wouldn't make them title favourites, but still heavily favoured for Champions League qualification. Their early season form has been a bit rocky, but as we've seen so many times before it doesn't always matter who comes flying out of the blocks. Consistency is key and Mourinho has built a career in consistently churning out points.

Key Signing: Fred
Key Man: David de Gea
Verdict: Top four finish.

Nickname: The Magpies, Toon
Ground: St James' Park
Capacity: 52,354
Last season: 10th
Manager: Rafa Benitez

The Newcastle rollercoaster ride is as ubiquitous to English football as the twin towers of Wembley and Des Lynam's moustache. Under Rafa Benitez there appears to be a hint of stability about the club at long last, but is it all destined to end in tears?

To achieve a top ten finish with what even the hardcore fans would have to admit is a somewhat limited squad is no small accomplishment for the Spanish veteran, but an outlay of some £20 million this summer is frankly minuscule by today's standards (newly promoted Fulham spent £100 million for comparison). The lack of financial backing from a notoriously thrifty Mike Ashley is creating a clear tension behind the scenes, and there's a real question of whether the manager will still be here next season.

For the time being though, Rafa has a unit that works. Jamaal Lascelles has been impressive at the back, and is rightly turning the heads of a few bigger clubs. Meanwhile the loan of Robert Kenedy for a second year running will be a boon on the left flank. Mo Diamé and Matt Ritchie make add to what is a decent top flight spine, but there's not much depth beyond that. More troubling, it's not clear where the goals are going to come from. Early fixtures have seen Rafa rotating among the four available strikers suggests he does not yet have full confidence in any one, and it's an area that needs attention. Otherwise it could be a tough season.

Key Signing: Kenedy
Key Man: Jamaal Lascelles
Verdict: Good enough to survive, but could find themselves in a relegation battle if they're not careful.

Nickname: Saints
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Capacity: 32,690
Last season: 17th
Manager: Mark Hughes

It's been a rough couple of years for Southampton. A meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the Premier League was duly met with a scavenging of the club's most prized assets (mostly by Liverpool). They've generated a lot of revenue from those sales, and yet somehow it appears to have been squandered. Add to that a number of managerial changes and a general air of instability, and Southampton ultimately found themselves just barely clinging to top flight football. If Mark Hughes is not able to steady the ship they could be in for another difficult season.

While the golden boys may have moved on, there's still plenty to like in this team: the width offered from the back by Cédric on the right and Ryan Bertrand on the left (quite possibly the form left back in the league over the last few seasons), the mercurial talents of Redmond and Lemina, and the forward graft of Charlie Austin among them. The addition of Danny Ings to the squad will give them a little more up front, joined by Mo Elyounoussi of Basel who fans are hoping will turn out to be the offensive midfield option that Boufal was supposed to be last year.

But this is a very vulnerable team, especially against opponents playing through the middle of the pitch. Depth is also a problem, especially given the last few seasons of flop signings. This is a squad in need of major rebuilding, and they just did not achieve that this summer. It could be a long season for the Saints.

Key Signing: Danny Ings
Key Man: Ryan Bertrand
Verdict: A real risk for relegation this year.

Nickname: Spurs
Ground: Wembley
Capacity: 90,000
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino

There's not much more than needs to be said about manager Mauricio Pochettino. The man was a phenomenal success at Southampton and he has carried that midas touch on to Tottenham. Last season was a remarkable feat, and another year of Champions League football awaits.

With their top four status consolidated, one might have suspected that Tottenham would leap on the opportunity to build and finally mount that long muted challenge for the title. Yet this summer we have seen a strangely unambitious Tottenham, the first in Premier League history not to make any signings. The good news is that they have managed to keep ahold of all their key players. As such, their lack of activity may not necessarily be a problem, after all this was a very fine team last year and retains the same depth of quality as before.

The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with the likes of Lloris, Dier, and Christian Eriksen all performers of the highest quality. Also keep an eye on Lucas Moura, signed last January to much fanfare, but eased slowly into the team. Now that Pochettino has had a good look at him we expect to see him become more involved, and if he can reclaim the potential shown at PSG he could be as good as a new signing. But the keys to this team undoubtedly belong to Dele Alli and Harry Kane. Picking one out of the two of them as a key man for this team is a difficult task, so central are they both to the way this club plays. With a squad this good, and still largely intact from last season, anything really is possible.

Key Signing: N/A
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: Will be right up there, top four and outside title contenders.

Nickname: Hornets
Ground: Vicarage Road
Capacity: 21,577
Last season: 14th
Manager: Javi Gracia

Another year, and yet again the bookies and pundits alike are all tipping Watford for the drop, and I just can't see a justification for it. We've seen what happens with Watford, they come flying out of the gates, wow the pundits, and then burn out by Christmas. For sure, they have a second half of the season problem, but despite that they haven't looked like a team with a real threat of relegation for a couple of years now, and I don't see that changing.

Certainly it's not all candy and roses for the club. The constant managerial merry-go-round has led to a sense of constant upheaval, and the loss of the talismanic Richarlison to Everton comes as a blow. But they have reinvested those proceeds well, and I'm particularly excited to see Deulofeu and Masina, while Ben Foster marks an upgrade on the ageing Gomes. It's really a pretty decent squad, with a strong midfield of Capoue, Doucouré, Hughes and Pereyra, not to mention Chalobah. Troy Deeney is always a threat up front. Question marks do remain over the defence, making this very much an offence-minded team, but that's a liability that will no doubt cause problems as the season unfolds.

They're certainly not going to uproot any top ten trees, but this just doesn't look like a team in a relegation battle, there are other squads with bigger and more numerous problems. On paper they should be a safe mid-table side, they just need greater consistency.

Key Signing: Gerard Deulofeu
Key Man: Will Hughes
Verdict: Lower half of the table but should be safe.

Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: London Stadium
Capacity: 60,000
Last season: 13th
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini

Always a pundits' favourite. The golden age romanticism of the ex-football brigade is always dying for a West Ham resurgence, but it never quite clicks for them. One season they'll look on the verge of a big leap, only to slump to a safe mid-table finish the next. At their worst, they find themselves dragged in and around the foot of the table. So it is again, and with the Pellegrini hype in full swing, there's real talk of a top ten finish and maybe even a push for the Europa League. But such things seldom happen over night, and Hammers fans would do well to strike a tone of caution.

On paper they should do well, they've spent big this summer after all. Yarmolenko, Diop and Felipe Anderson are the headline new signings (the latter two both breaking the club transfer record), but Fabianski and Wilshere could prove equally significant additions. The spine of the team remains Arnautović and Noble, while there are high hopes for youngster Declan Rice, but one wonders if there's really enough here to mount a credible push into the top half of the table.

Expect a slow bedding period for a side with this many changes, but if they can gel, and if they can bring a fresh attacking impetus to their game, then they can do well this season. There's not a whole lot between the teams in the middle of the table, and you could see West Ham finishing anywhere from 8th to 15th or so. Based on their form at the end of last season, their pre-season, and the general state of the squad, I think they could have a tricky start and never really get into momentum.

Key Signing: Felipe Anderson
Key Man: Marko Arnautović
Verdict: Lower mid-table finish.

Nickname: Wolves
Ground: Molineux Stadium
Capacity: 31,700
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

The gap between the Premier League and lower divisions is wide, and newly promoted clubs often have the odds stacked firmly against them. Backed by new riches of Fosun International however, Wolves have seen something of a revolution, spending big, signing big. The capture last year of Porto youngster Ruben Neves was a stunner, and the Championship was ultimately won at a canter with Neves a particular highlight.

This year they have impressed in the markets again, and the signings of Diogo Jota, Moutinho, and Rui Patricio are remarkable signs of ambition for a newly promoted side. So the season begins with Wolves tipped for some quite lofty targets, a top half finish and maybe even a push for Europe.

This is a team with exciting prospects and new faces for the English top flight. In Neves they boast arguably the young player to watch this season. But this is still their first appearance in the Premier League for six years, and the top level of English football is a harsh mistress. For all the hype and excitement, there will inevitably be a learning curve. This is a squad with huge potential over the coming years, particularly if the financial backing continues, but this table I think they will be quite content just to stay clear of the relegation battle and eke out a safe mid-table position.

Key Signing: Diogo Jota
Key Man: Ruben Neves
Verdict: Safe mid-table finish on the cards.

Predicted table:
1. Manchester City
2. Liverpool
3. Manchester United
4. Tottenham
5. Arsenal
6. Chelsea
7. Everton
8. Crystal Palace
9. Leicester City
10. Wolverhampton Wanderers
11. Burnley
12. Bournemouth
13. Watford
14. West Ham
15. Fulham
16. Newcastle United
17. Cardiff
18. Brighton
19. Southampton
20. Huddersfield

Footnote: How did we do last year?

premier league 2018/19 preview

Not too bad actually. Only five teams ended up >3 positions off from our predictions, six were predicted exactly right, and five were just one position off. More than half the league table was predicted to within one place of their actual position. Really only four teams: Southampton, West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace were significantly off. By comparison, the Guardian's predictions contained only two correct picks, and more than half were at least three places off their actual finish. A reminder then, that most pundits literally just write nonsense.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by Adapted by Ben Power from the Stefano Massini book
Starring Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles
Theatre National

lehman brothers trilogy massini power national theatre simon russell beale adam godley ben miles

When you tell someone that you are going to see a play about the founders of the eponymous Lehman Brothers, one of history's most prominent financial services firms and a central player in the market turmoil of 2008, most people form a certain picture in their mind of what they expect that play to be. Something dry, heady and inaccessible for mainstream audiences, perhaps, like reading the Financial Times. That the original adaptation of Stefano Massini's book stands at some five hours long only serves to further put off all but those with a deep burning interest in finance and business.

Those people would be missing out, because The Lehman Trilogy is an energetic marvel of biographical theatre that enthusiastically traces the 150 year history of modern finance, and in doing so provides a deeply relevant parable on capitalism and ambition. A key reason for this success is the new adaptation by Ben Power, whose script expertly strikes the balance between entertainment and education, embracing the tenuous excitement of runaway capitalism without ever feeling too preachy as to its dangers.

At its essence a family drama charting the journey from the initial dream of American opportunity to the inevitable and catastrophic downfall. There's a naked ambition that runs through each successive generation which seeks to build on what came before, not so much out of greed as a dynastic pressure driving them to stay one step ahead, lest the entire family legacy come crashing down. It's a drive that transforms a small weaving operation into a global financial powerhouse, which ultimately grows so bloated that it ends up imploding in on itself. It's a sprawling generational tale with a lot of historical context behind it, and yet it never feels overbearing or drawn out. Much of this is thanks to the smart decision to scale back the production, with Powers' script shortened to a relatively lean three and a half hours, and a formerly vast cast of players reduced to just three performers.

And what performers they are. Legendary stage actor Simon Russell Beale is joined by Ben Miles of Coupling and The Crown, and Adam Godley, a renowned Olivier and Tony nominated stage actor who will be recognisable to most casual viewers for roles in films like Love ActuallyTheory of Everything and Elizabeth. The three performers turn in an acting masterclass of the highest calibre, transforming into a variety of characters. Beale displays a breadth we have never seen before, playing in one scene a prodigious young child, in another a flirty divorcee, and in other a doddering old rabbi. But it's Godley who impresses most of all. His are the best line-readings, his characters steal every scene. One set-piece in particular was so impressive it caused a rare mid-scene eruption of applause from the audience. This is some of the finest acting I've seen in a long time.

It's not a perfect production. The final act feels rushed, particularly when it came time to discuss the recent financial crisis. That the script would brush over an event of such relevance in a slapdash fashion after taking us through 150 years of history in painstaking detail seems strangely jarring. In addition while the script's attempt at humour lands effectively for the most part, an over-reliance on repetition can occasionally go too far and get quite grating for the audience.

But these are fairly minor issues that do little to detract from what is overall a riotous and memorable evening. The Lehman Trilogy is essential theatre that I have no hesitation in recommending. For director Sam Mendes this represents another notch of accomplishment since his return to the stage, and one which manages to even exceed his other highly acclaimed recent works. I dare say this may be the play to see in 2018.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Head Chef Nuno Mendes
Style Experimental
Location Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, London
Telephone Secret

new london restaurant maos chiltern firehouse nuno mendes viajante michelin

What happens when London’s hottest chef decides to open an intimate supper club? Something quite special as it turns out.

Nuno Mendes has been the toast of the London foodie scene for a number of years now, first becoming known for the Michelin starred Viajante, before striking gold with the Chiltern Firehouse. More recently he has opened Portuguese tapas place Taberna do Mercado in Spitalfields.

While the runaway success of the Firehouse has no doubt proven to be a nice little bread-winner, its safe and unvarying menu was always going to be a restless fit for a chef best known for his experimental style. So to complement, or perhaps as a respite from, his day job, Nuno Mendes decided to get the band back together and reopen Viajante, albeit in a more central location. After his crowdfunding campaign failed to raise the required capital, Nuno and his team ultimately decided to try something a bit more small scale. The result is the bizarre and wonderful social experiment that is Mãos.

Everything about the experience is surreal. There lies a cloak of secrecy over the whole event. The website is practically empty, with no menu, pictures or even contact details, just a reservation submission form. The address isn’t even provided until the day of the reservation (although it can be found on Google maps). You arrive at this unmarked, non-descript door in Shoredtich and buzz up, praying that you’re at the right place, only to be greeted by a beaming Nuno Mendes. From the moment you arrive, it’s clear that this is going to be something quite unique.

Mãos typically holds its one and only seating at 7pm, however during the summer months the team is experimenting with a Saturday matinee which commences earlier at 3pm, and ends with a post-meal drink on the roof terrace. Deciding to make the most of this heatwave, we opt for the matinee, and as it turns out we are the first group of patrons to do so.

The establishment itself is suitably idiosyncratic. Just three rooms (excluding roof terrace): a kitchen, a wine room, and a small dining room with a single communal table (Mãos takes in just 14 guests each day). Walls of exposed plaster, furniture of rustic wood, and crockery that looks (and as it turns out, was) sculpted by hand within these very walls. This quirky, unmarked building turns out to be a collection of artist studios and workshops, one of the tenants of which is the producer of many of the decorations and utensils of Mãos.

Guests are quickly ushered into the kitchen. Nuno and his kitchen team mill about like bees preparing snacks and apertifs, while staff and patrons alike hang around sharing a drink and getting to know one another. This is the first key thing to know about Mãos: it really is less of a restaurant and more of a supper club. It’s a little awkward at first, but trust me it does all come together. By the end of the evening you will know the staff and other diners quite well, thanks in large part to the incredible staff who do a great job of welcoming you in and making you feel like an old friend. This is the ethos of Mãos. You don’t feel like a customer being served at a restaurant, rather that you have been invited into someone’s home for a dinner party. It permeates every aspect of the evening. Guests are not required to spend the entire meal seated at the table and indeed are encouraged to get up and explore the venue, and take the meal in another room if they so please. Conversations with the staff are casual and frank, happy to talk about the business itself and the new ideas they're trying out.

It’s clear that everyone in the room adores food, foodie culture, talking about food. The staff relish in the secrecy, delight in surprising and entertaining. As such I would be loathe to spoil too much about the dinner itself, but suffice it to say the food is quite outstanding. Particular highlights from the evening that I will mention include the grilled short rib wrapped in a wasabi leaf and covered with yeast paste, the smoked wagyu beef with sweet peas and chive flowers, and Nuno's twist on a chawanmushi, which ultimately tasted like a chicken broth pudding. The dessert of roasted cherry stone ice cream also needs a mention. It's clear throughout the meal that even though the recipes are all quite creative and unique, they utilise a lot of familiar, homely flavours, adding to the whole home-cooked vibe. There are also vegetarian alternatives for those who so require. Of course it bears noting that the menu at this point is very much in flux, and so it is entirely likely that you might be served something completely different.

And so the evening unfolds over 4+ hours, a precession of bite-sized dishes (about 20 in total) that never overwhelms due to the expert pacing and diminutive portions. There is no wine-pairing per se, though an abundant selection is available both by bottle and glass. There is also a pleasing variety of non-alcoholic beverages - I myself spent much of the evening drinking a sweet potato and Sichuan pepper iced tea which was both tasty and refreshing. The group of diners is a diverse bunch: a young girl with her mother, a pair of young pharmaceutical executives, a 40-something couple and small business owner, and a solo food-lover among them. Everyone gets very much into the spirit of the occasion, eats, drinks, laughs.

At the end of the meal, the staff take us up to the roof-terrace by way of an artist's studio - amusingly, the stairway up to said terrace is itself an artist's creation, a bizarre hanging sculpture of copper, with guests provided slippers so that they do no fall on the way up. Once up top, Nuno brings up a plate of fresh almond cakes. There's never any sense of urgency or a rush for guests to leave. We continue to hang out another hour or so, chatting and having a few drinks of their special dessert wine. Even after we leave, several other guests remain.

Dining at Mãos is not cheap, but it's a remarkable and unique experience. There's nowhere else where you can have such an exquisite meal in such a relaxed and homely setting, not to mention the thrill of just hanging out with one of London's most prominent chefs. It's intoxicating, and in spite of the steep price I guarantee you'll want to go back before long. In fact as it turns out, a whopping 6 out of the 14 diners in our group were repeat visitors. I think that says it all.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on a great season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric I'd like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades.

Manchester City champions 2018
This season has been the story of an indomitable Manchester City team, proving once and for all that there is nothing Pep Guardiola can't accomplish when he has unlimited funds at his disposal (except apparently winning the Champions League with a team that doesn't include Lionel Messi). Still there can be no doubt that this City side is up there with the very best the Premier League has seen, the likes of Fergie's treble winning Manchester United, Wenger's invincible Arsenal, and Mourinho's record-breaking Chelsea. The experienced David Silva looks better than ever, while Sergio Aguero is still a goalscoring force with which to be reckoned. But the real highlight for City is the youthful talents of Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, and Leroy Sane, the three of whom could well dominate the Premier League for years to come.

Elsewhere among the league's top contenders we saw a Manchester United side much improved under Jose Mourinho, and the continued consistency of Pochettino's excellent Tottenham team. Perhaps most exciting has been Jurgen Klopp's swashbuckling Liverpool, bolstered in particular by the astonishing form of attackers Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino. Any of those three sides could easily mount a title challenge next year, and we expect a good open race.

Bringing up the rear of the top six are Chelsea who, as predicted, paid the price for a poor summer of preparations, and an increasingly irrelevant and predictable Arsenal. Even the "shock" departure of Arsene Wenger was, in the end, not so shocking, as The Ephemeric's prediction of this outcome back in August can attest. It's particularly grim viewing for Chelsea fans who saw three of the four teams above them being led by ex Chelsea youngsters. Serious questions need to be asked of the longterm strategy of a club that did not have the vision to hang on to a front three of Salah, De Bruyne and Lukaku.

Even outside the top clubs this was a season filled with fascinating drama. Sean Dyche has delivered an incredible result for Burnley, who began the season as most pundits' favourites for relegation (a view The Ephemeric did not share), but ended the season qualifying for Europe. This was also a season that saw the stock of Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson rise considerably, the latter of whom in particular must be due great credit for managing to turn around Crystal Palace's season.

But someone had to go down, and this year that burden falls to Swansea and Stoke sides that went into the season with glaring vulnerabilities and duly struggled, and somewhat more surprisingly to Tony Pulis' West Brom, who performed well under expectations.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2017:

Winners: Manchester City- Not just a comfortable win, but an intimidating one. No other team was even close to City this year, and unlike the last few Champions Chelsea, Leicester and Chelsea again, there is no hint of an impending downturn. City as a club appears to have the resources and the consistency of vision their rivals lack, and they have to be considered favourites again next season.

Relegated: Swansea, Stoke, West Brom - Swansea and Stoke entered the season with serious questions about their ability to survive the season, but West Brom in particular have had a disappointing season. Bouncing back next year will be no easy task.

Player of the Year: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) - It's been an astounding season for Mo Salah that is (perhaps slightly prematurely) seeing him compared to Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the world's best. Whatever the case, if he can maintain this form it will make Liverpool a force to be reckoned with for years to come.

U-21 Player of the Year: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) - A mainstay of this impressive Liverpool side through more unintended circumstance than intention, Trent Alexander-Arnold has nevertheless taken his opportunity and finds himself rightly praised as one of the season's standout youngsters and a place in the World Cup.

Best Goalkeeper: Davide de Gea (Manchester United) - The best part of the Man U team this season has once again been de Gea. In a team with few standout individuals, de Gea has to be seen as a key reason for the consistency that has seen them rise to second in the league.

Manager of the Year: Sean Dyche (Burnley) - A tough call. Pep's City team have been formidable, but taking a relegation-tipped side to European qualification is simply a more impressive accomplishment. Dyche's team this year have been remarkable to watch and fully deserve their success.

Top Scorer: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) (32) - Salah has used his pace to devastating effect this season. A goal tally in excess of 30 is remarkable for any player, let alone one who previously hadn't really be thought of as a stiker.

Most Assists: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) (16) - Another top class season for City's great creative force. Even more incredible when you consider that the league's top four assist-makers this season are all City players.

Overachievers: Burnley - A great accomplishment that no one saw coming. Many had tipped Burnley for relegation (The Ephemeric was one of the few outlets to disagree with this view at the start of the season), and now they find themselves in the Europa League next season.

Underachievers: Arsenal - Another unremarkable and trophiless season for a club that hasn't shown any noticeable improvement in a number of years. The lack of progress is especially damning given the vast sums spent by the club on players (some £400 million over the last 5 years). Maybe a new direction under a new manager will do them some good.

Best signing of the season: Mohamed Salah (Liverpool) - As above.

Worst signing of the season: Tiemoue Bakayoko (Chelsea) - A bit harsh perhaps, but it has been a very poor first season for a player who cost a good £40 million to sign. It's a folly made all the more embarrassing when one considers the talent who made way to accommodate this signing: the experienced Nemanja Matic who has been excellent for Manchester United, and Academy product Ruben Loftus Cheek, who has been one of the revelations of the season on loan at Crystal Palace, and rightly earned a place in the England World Cup squad.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2017:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2018

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Created by Ryan Murphy, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Network FX
Starring Darren Criss, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin, Penelope Cruz
Genre True crime
Running Time Varies

american crime story horror glee OJ simpson assassination gianni versace best show 2018

In its first season, American Crime Story tackled what is arguably the most famous criminal trial of all time, the People v. O.J. Simpson. As the first major dramatic depiction of one of the defining events of modern times, that first season generated a great deal of interest, and went on to garner widespread critical acclaim and a litany of awards. Now the question must be: how do you top the trial of the century?

For newcomers, American Crime Story is the brainchild of Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee and American Horror Story. Much like the latter, ACS is an anthology series, with each season focusing on a completely separate true-crime story, with a different cast and production crew.

The great success of those earlier series has established Murphy as genuine TV royalty, but it's fair to say he is not to everyone's taste. Murphy is known for a very specific style, one that is generally camp and flashy. Whether it’s the high-school musical antics of Glee, or the teen-slasher pastiche of American Horror story and Scream Queens, his shows can often feel like something of a guilty pleasure. It’s a style he brought with him to the first season of ACS, capturing the absurd circus and cartoon characters of the O.J. Simpson trial with typically ostentatious aplomb. But for the show’s sophomore season, ACS is going for a new, darker tone, one that is quite different to any of Murphy’s previous work.

Despite the name on the title-card, season 2 is the story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan and his violent rampage that lasted three months, culminating in the murder of fashion icon Gianni Versace. Unlike O.J., the story here is not the trial or the larger than life personas that turned a crime into a pop culture sensation. This season is about the killer and his story. It’s about unravelling the sequence of events that would lead an intelligent, charismatic, and otherwise unassuming kid to perpetrate such horrific acts. Anyone expecting something light and fluffy like the first season may be disappointed. What follows is a far more serious and considered exploration of events.

The new tone of the second season is apparent from the start with its stunningly shot opening sequence. Cameras pan across a sumptuous Miami sunset, where an obviously pained Cunanan howls at the sea, scars all over his legs, and a gun in his backpack. This contrasts with Versace’s luxuriant lifestyle, taking breakfast by the pool of his mansion, more Venetian palace than Floridian boardwalk. The two move wordlessly through their respective preparations against a backing of Adagio in G minor until coming together in a cruel symphony of violent fate.

Immediately the production quality stands out. This is a visually striking show with great attention to detail and cinematography that can often be jaw-dropping. The direction is as stylistically bold as one would expect from a Ryan Murphy show, and uses music and other sensory inputs to great effect (a particularly terrifying scene featuring Phil Collins' Easy Lover stands out). It's clear that a great deal of artistry has gone into the crafting of these episodes.

From this introduction the season works backwards, each episode revealing a little more of the events that led to the previous episode. I can imagine that such non-linear storytelling can be off-putting for some, but in this case it works brilliantly. Each episode really feels like peeling another layer from an onion, constantly challenging any preconceived notions you may have formed about Cunanan. One’s first impression might be of an unstoppable Patrick Bateman-esque psychopath, but you’ll soon come to see Cunanan as a jilted lover, an outcast, and a desperate fantasist.

As with the first season there’s a clear focus on the social pressures surrounding the tragedy. In OJ, it was about the racial tensions and how that played into the course of events. In Versace, it’s the stigma regarding homosexuality. ACS never tries to excuse or justify Cunanan’s actions, but by the time you get to the final episode you will at least understand how someone could pushed to the point of breaking. Indeed you might find the Andrew Cunanan story is one of sadness more than revulsion.

And all of this is held together by the career-making performance of Darren Criss. To be brutally honest, I would never have had him pegged for such a good actor, but in Versace he delivers a performance that has blown the critics away. Simultaneously charming and terrifying, monstrous and strangely sympathetic. It is no hyperbole to say that it's one of the best depictions of a serial killer in recent memory, and Criss will almost certainly find himself a frontrunner for this year's awards season.

The second season of ACS is quite remarkable. A more serious and mature affair than what one might expect following the debut season, with a bold narrative structure that explores the mind of a serial killer better than most TV series ever have. It may not have the name brand recognition of OJ Simpson, but marks a step up from the first season in nearly every way.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Created by Seth MacFarlane
Network Fox
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Adrianne Palicki, Scott Grimes, Halston Sage
Genre Science Fiction
Running Time 43 minutes

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As my readers will recall, we have already discussed The Orville here on The Ephemeric, awarding it our prized Debbie Award for best new TV show of 2017. Yet despite our obvious enjoyment of the series, due to scheduling issues we were not able to submit a full review at the time. With the news percolating across the Internet that a second season has begun filming, and following our recent review of Star Trek's mixed bag of a new series, the time feels right to revisit.

To get to the point: this is the series you should be watching. If you are a fan of classic Star Trek, you'll appreciate this show. If you are a fan of science fiction which has more to say about the world in which we live than "he with the biggest laser gun wins", you'll appreciate this show. I'm as shocked as anyone about this one. Ordinarily I find myself broadly agreeing with the critical consensus, and Fox's The Orville, a passion project of comedian Seth Macfarlane, has been critically panned almost universally. Yet despite the critical response, The Orville has been widely acclaimed by viewers (particularly Star Trek fans who feel jilted by the new series) and is among the highest rated TV shows of the last fall. I'm sorry, but in this case I am with the latter camp. The critics are just plain wrong.

Forbes' Erik Kain put it best. The Orville was billed as akin to a TV version of cult classic Galaxy Quest, essentially a spoof of the old Star Trek series. Subsequently critics have obsessed about forcing the show into neat boxes as either too silly for a drama, or too serious for a comedy. Such arguments miss the point entirely. The Orville does not aspire to be a "comedy Star Trek" at all, it is in actual fact a near spot-on homage. People forget just how light the older Star Trek shows often were, and The Orville nails the tone of its forbears. But most importantly the stories are just as rich and relevant as ever.

The Orville, as with Star Trek, is an example of allegorical science fiction. Each episode imparts its own social commentary, and most are very astute. But The Orville offers more than mere nostalgia, and most excels when it attempts to combine the soul of classic Trek with the modern flourish of the Netflix age. One episode in particular, commenting on the group-think and mob mentality of social media, almost feels more like an episode of Black Mirror than Star Trek.

These are episodes of high quality too, particularly for a debut season. We like to look back at old seasons of Star Trek and pick out the best episodes, imagining that the entire series was that good. In reality, even the best seasons of Star Trek were 25 episodes, at least 40% of which was largely filler. This season is ten episodes, and none of it feels wasted (except maybe the first episode).

It's not perfect by any means. Not all the jokes land, and sometimes Seth's more low-brow style of Family Guy humour can creep into the script (although to be perfectly honest, not as often as you would think). Some of the plot-direction can be a bit wonky, particularly in early episodes, and occasionally the quality of the production shows cracks - for example certain alien characters' prosthetic makeup changing during the show because the crew couldn't decide what to do with it. These are all minor issues, and once the season builds momentum, the quality becomes much more consistent.

Ultimately, The Orville is a show that feels very timely for the age in which we live. It brings back a style of episodic storytelling that is very much out of fashion on TV today, and presents us with well thought out commentaries which riff on everything from politics to identity and pop culture. If you were a fan of The Next Generation or Voyager, this is a no-brainer. Even if you weren't, this is just high quality, sincere sci-fi. A strong debut.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Donald Trump has been President for a little more than one year, and regardless of your political persuasion you would have to concede that it's been an eventful year. From Russia to infighting and porn star hush-money, this regime has been a constant swirl of scandal and melodrama. Pundits are falling over themselves to put out their first-year retrospectives, many of which read more like an Oliver Stone script than reality.

While The Ephemeric could devote an entire series of blog posts to scrutinising the scarcely believable happenings of the past twelve months, I have decided that sometimes images do speak louder than words. So rather than make you sit through an essay of analysis and opinion, The Ephemeric is documenting a year of President Trump in pictures, running through the most striking and iconic images that encapsulate the nation that we have become. We will let the images speak for themselves with only light captioning, so that you can form your own opinion on Trump's America.

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Low attendance at Trump's inauguration (right) compared to Obama's eight years earlier (left). Trump's Press Secretary Sean Spicer would then inexplicably claim that Trump had "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period".

trump travel ban crying child
A mother consoles her child as Trump's travel ban takes effect and leaves thousands unable to return home.

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Lawyers pull all-night shifts at the airport providing pro-bono assistance to stranded families.

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FBI Director James Comey (back, centre) claims he was attempting to blend in with the curtains in order to avoid Trump following his demand for a "loyalty pledge".

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In his first Cabinet meeting, Trump has his ministers go around the table heaping fawning praise upon him. Actual quotes include "We thank you for the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda".

trump drives a big truck
"I love trucks".

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Radical white supremacist extremists march on Charlottesville chanting "Jews will not replace us". Trump would later praise them as "very fine people".

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A white supremacist drives his car into a group of peaceful protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Trump condemned "both sides" for the terror attack.

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Students rise and turn their backs to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in protest. DeVos is a longtime Republican donor with no experience in education. She would later praise the concept of black-only schools.

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Trump on a diplomatic mission to the Saudi royal family.

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The day after Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, in his own words to stop "The Russia thing" he invites Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak, known as the "Spymaster" for a closed-doors meeting in the Oval Office. Only Russian state media are allowed entry.

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A visibly flustered Jeff Sessions becomes the first sitting Attorney General to be questioned in a criminal investigation.

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Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort (left) attends hearing after being indicted for "Conspiracy against the United States".

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Melania Trump brings the first year to a close by personally designing the White House Christmas decorations.

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