To Absent Neighbours…

It’s no exaggeration to say that there was a point in my life where nearly everything I knew about Australia, I’d learned from Neighbours. For my first fourteen years, Australia had always seemed unobtainably exotic; otherworldly, even. An upside-down place where our night was their day and our winter was their summer, literally half a world away.

To those of us who loved sport, particularly cricket and rugby league, it was also the place where touring England and GB sides would meet their nemesis in front of unforgiving locals, under unremitting sunshine, via an unsympathetic media. There was, of course the famous bridge, the opera house and (ahem) “Ayers Rock” – don’t @ me; this was still the mid-80s. Beyond that? Not so much, but let’s peer through the mists of time and have a look…

Monty Python, true to form, had been early to the ‘Straya’ culture party. So early, in fact that their two most passed-down Australian skits haven’t aged quite as well as their other Greatest Hits. The Australian Table Wines monologue pokes fun at “Cuvée…Wogga Wogga”, with another example being “compared favourably to a Welsh claret” but in reality, Australia was already becaming a major wine exporter, with Victoria’s Yarra Valley now as well-regarded as Napa Valley in California. The other sketch, about the Bruces of the Philosophy Department at the (fictitious) ‘University of Woolloomooloo’, would certainly now be prefaced with an “outdated references” warning, as you might expect for a script that, in 1970, lampooned the coarseness of certain Australians’ views towards minorities.

My own memory of “Down Under” references probably began with Down Under, the 1983 novelty hit by Men at Work, which ticked all the necessary stereotypes required to explain its popularity. Dame Edna Everage was a UK chat show favourite, albeit one where the ‘joke’ here was as much about female impersonation as the cutting satire about Australian attitudes. We’d had Mad Max but mostly, we’d struggled to separate its well-constructed dystopia from our naive presumptions of contemporary reality. And then there was the largely dull daytime saga, The Sullivans, a 1940s period piece that, for all we knew, might as well have been set in the (then) present-day.

Thanks to Attenborough et al., we knew about the kangaroos and the koalas and, of course, our light entertainers were all over the hats-with-corks imagery but thereafter, (and I’m having to say this), it was left to Rolf Harris to fill in the remaining gaps with his didgeridoo and evocative 4-inch brush paintings to give texture to UK audiences. Australia seemed to us a land of mostly comic stereotypes where even the real people behaved more like cartoon characters – I refer you to Merv Hughes or Angus Young. Beyond all this sideshow stuff, the rest of the country (the real bit) might as well have been a parallel universe.

Introduced to the UK in October 1986, Neighbours quickly became something of a cult daytime TV show; a mid-day ritual for your friends’ mums who didn’t work. It took another 14 months – and, reportedly, the daughter of BBC1’s Controller Michael Grade – before the day’s repeat showing was moved to the more teen-friendly 5:35pm slot. It was January 4th 1988, Angela Rippon’s Masterteam had been binned off and, finally, in that perfect slot between children’s telly and your Dad wanting the news on over tea, we had our chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Yes it was cheesy, yes the sets were as lightweight as the storylines and yes it was parochial and suburban. None of that mattered. In fact, this cocktail probably helped to make it so legendary. Suddenly, we saw a slice of what we considered to be ‘real’ Aussie life, neither historic nor futuristic; stripped of all the glossy tourist sights and scary wildlife. The weather might have been better than here and these neighbours looked nicer than ours but apart from that, it was, well, normal. And for that, with all its universal themes of boy-meets-girl, sibling rivalries and garden-fence-peering, we loved it.

It also furnished us with an extended vocabulary of dismissive terms. “Rack off!” was a classroom favourite, its raffish exoticism rather overshadowing any logical conclusion that it could only be a pre-watershed pseudo-curse rather than a synonym for the thing that we all knew it sounded a bit like. I’d hesitate to add the more authentic Aussie term “flamin’ galaah” on the grounds that it was more famously popularised by ‘Alf Stewart’ in the vastly inferior Home and Away.

Almost immediately, this tear in the zeitgeist unleashed a flurry of Antipodean soap stars upon our pop charts. First, Kylie, then Jason, then Stefan Dennis, then Craig MacLachlan, then Dannii, Natalie, and so on, and so on. It also seemed to fuel a boom in Aussie lager, as first Fosters and then Castlemaine XXXX adverts kept returning to the well of ‘outback’ stereotypes to shift their “amber nectar” onto the willing British palate. Equally incongruously, actual Australian favourite drinks like ‘VB’ and Toohey’s somehow managed not to cross the hemispheric divide.

Back in the world of ‘proper’ culture, Clive James, Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson were all gaining screen time, imprinting themselves further on our national consciousness. Even the self-parodying Crocodile Dundee was proof that, for the first time outside a sports ground, it was necessary for the rest of the world to start taking Australians seriously.

By November 1988, the month of ‘Scott’ & ‘Charlene’s wedding, the whole UK seemed to be enchanted by their fairytale – even with its idiosyncratic Aussie soundtrack, provided by Angry Anderson. To many of us, this ‘water-cooler’ moment (although I don’t think we called it that, then) was peak Neighbours. Our two young lovers, having got hitched, promptly “moved up to Brisbane”, where Kylie & Jason could more conveniently continue their pop careers. ‘Mike’ had also got it together, with “Plain Jane Superbrain”, so all the carefully-built will-they-won’t-they jeopardy was lost. The cycle of character development had to start again with some new neighbours…

As my education moved from school, to college, to university, there was still more ‘Australiana’ to be gained from Melbourne’s greatest cultural export. I was still watching Neighbours, but “ironically” by now – obviously. Okay, I admit, not always ironically. The same was true of my viewing late-night re-runs of its harder-hitting Reg Grundy predecessor, Prisoner: Cell Block H. Even amongst all this ‘irony’, it was still easy to embrace the fandom. Ian Smith (‘Harold Bishop’ on Ramsay Street) had been a producer, writer and even ‘Ted Douglas’, Head of “The Department” [of Correction] in Prisoner. Elspeth Ballantyne, who’d played ‘Meg Morris’ (the “screw” with a heart) in “Priz” then turned up in ‘Erinsborough’ as ‘Cathy Alessi’ in the early 90s. As students and therefore twice-daily Neighbours viewers who considered ourselves immune to all its tweeness, we couldn’t have been more thrilled!

The 90s also saw the beginnings of the web, an explosion of TV channels and a general re-framing of our perceptions of Australia, as part of ‘our universe’. Or, as Michael Hutchence would have put it, “Two worlds collided”. In 1993, I spent a raucous evening with a bunch of real-life Aussies: jubilant cricket fans in a pub in Leeds, after a(nother) disappointing day supporting England, at Headingley. The following year, I hard-wired my bedroom TV to the living room satellite box so I could watch overnight coverage of the Boxing Day Ashes Test, live from the MCG, while in bed. Suddenly, the world seemed much smaller and more connected. The distance remained but the power of the new information super-highway to link the whole planet meant the ‘parallel universe’ was no more.

As the 90s wore on, Kylie became a superstar, Jason not quite so much. Guy Pearce (‘Mike Young’) started appearing in cult films – and later began to appear in bigger films. It felt like the continuing presence of the old ‘Ramsay Street’ gang would be like a reassuring blanket as we all headed towards respectable adulthood, away from the street itself.

I was fortunate to meet and befriend a few Aussies around this time, learning more about the country, understanding the many differences between life in Queensland and Victoria. I remember thinking how unsophisticated it would be to ask “do you watch Neighbours?”, so I didn’t – although secretly, I always wanted to. With each Ashes tour (cricket and rugby league), I amassed a little more knowledge, to the point where an insubstantial soap opera from a Melbourne suburb ceased to be a necessary source of information about this intriguing country that was also, somehow, described as a continent.

At the dawn of the millennium, Australia laid down a marker by having not quite the first but certainly the best of the New Year celebrations. In Sydney Harbour, there was a perfect, iconic backdrop for this young, 212 year-old nation to captivate the whole planet. Sydney was also months away from hosting the Olympic Games and it was clear that the opportunity to demand the world’s attention was not going to be missed. Thanks to rolling news channels, the ‘SYD|NYE’ celebrations have subsequently become a highlight of New Year’s Eve: truly ‘appointment television’ – at 1pm every December 31st if you’re in the UK.

With an ever-increasing roster of live TV coverage from the place (NRL matches, Big Bash League, news throws to Australian Correspondents, even I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!), it became easier to work out the time differences and transpose the seasons. For years, I’d taught myself: New York – five hours behind; California – eight. To that I could add: Sydney – nine hours ahead in our summer, eleven in winter. Melbourne – same; Brisbane – forget the daylight saving; Adelaide – half an hour behind Melbourne; Perth – three hours behind Sydney.

By now, the fact of simply knowing people who lived there seemed to make the concept of Australia as accessible in the mind as other, closer countries. And there was a growing number of them: emigrating friends, business contacts, returning visitors. With the rise of social media, the divide was narrowing further still. When we saw headlines of flooding in Queensland or wildfires in New South Wales, it was no longer abstract; it meant something to someone you know – often potentially life-threatening.

And so, when the opportunity arose for us to make our own Grand Tour of this beguiling place, it was impossible to resist. It’s never not a big deal to go that far so we felt we needed to tick some serious bucket-list stuff. We went in December 2017, timed perfectly to take in (you’ve guessed it) a Boxing Day Ashes Test in Melbourne, a New Year in Sydney Harbour and a bit of snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. It was an unbelievable two-and-a-half weeks, perfectly deserving of the description “once-in-a-lifetime” – although I do hope that proves to be inaccurate.

What made it even more special was the connection I now had with the place that the 14 year-old me could never have imagined possible. It’s a wonderful thing to realise daydreams and experience sights that were once so seemingly unreachable. It’s quite another when the place itself is not so alien or remote. Melbourne is now amongst my favourite cities and the MCG is every bit as awesome as I wanted it to be but it ‘feels’ infinitely more connected to me because we’re fortunate to have friends who live there. Being greeted at a faraway airport by a familiar face was a memory just as special as everything we’d planned to do. Similarly, Sydney may be jaw-droppingly beautiful but the same sense of connection is also there, thanks to just being able to arrange a meal out with friends in Darling Harbour – or to simply ‘pop in’ to see other friends in the Blue Mountains.

We did as much as, I think, it was possible to do in those 17 days and, inevitably, there’s so much left to see. Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Uluru, Tasmania, Bondi Beach are all on the still-to-do list, as is one other glaring omission…

Disclaimer: You have to remember we had only five days in Melbourne and hadn’t hired a car. We landed on 23rd December and half that day was written off with jet-lag (if you know…you know!). The next day, Christmas Eve, was spent walking around the city. We’d obviously made plans for Christmas Day and we soaked up the summer sunshine of the (to Northern hemisphere eyes) counter-intuitive Australian Christmas. Boxing Day was spent at the “G”, with 90-odd thousand others, watching cricket. Our final morning was spent mooching about central Melbourne: the Sea Life Centre and the Eureka Tower, before we caught the train at Flinders Street Station, to Frankston, to meet up with our old adopted-Melburnian mate, who’d offered to drive us to Phillip Island, to see the Penguin Parade – something you simply have to do if you’re ever in Melbourne!

Have you spotted our omission yet? Sadly, we didn’t have time to venture out to Pin Oak Court – the real life name of ‘Ramsay Street’ – situated about eight miles east of the city centre. The closest I got to considering it was as we looked out over the sprawling suburbs from the top of the Eureka Tower. If I’m honest, I’d ‘moved on’ from Neighbours, years ago. It had served its purpose, both as adolescent entertainment and as a portal to another world. Thanks, in no small part, to the 1980s residents of ‘Erinsborough’, I was there, looking at it – sort of – from 975 feet up.

Looking eastwards from the top of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower. In the foreground is the MCG (with Day 2 of an Ashes Test being played). Beyond that, among Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, is Pin Oak Court – or ‘Ramsay Street’.

For many years, I loved watching Neighbours and I was so pleased to see all the old sentiments stirred in its final episode – there was no way I was going to miss that! I felt it was precisely the ‘victory lap’ that the show deserved. What became more important was the real legacy it left me – the door it opened to a fascinating land. And, thanks to the march of time and the increasing ability to connect every part the planet, even people on the other side of the world can be as much a part of your life as those who live in the same street.

That’s when good friends feel like close neighbours…

An album of our trip to Australia, via Singapore, can be found on my flickr page.

If It’s Not All Right, It’s Not The End

My email to Simon Mayo & Mark Kermode on the occasion of their last ‘Wittertainment’ film review show on BBC 5Live…

Dear “Goodnight From Me” and “Goodnight From Him”,

I like to think of myself as a LTL (approx. 13 years) but, this being a church, I’m aware that there will always be those, ‘holier-than-thou’ sorts in the front pews who would claim that such a figure makes me, at best, an MTL johnny-come-lately.  Irrespective of that, I’d like to thank you for well over a decade of film-based entertainment and belonging that I’ve rarely experienced in all my years as a consumer of content elsewhere.

I must admit that, as a film-review-curious listener in the late noughties, I’d once decided I couldn’t listen to the analysis of a Contributor who was prone to outrageously self-aggrandising phrases like “there are other opinions – but they’re all wrong”. Someone who, it was suggested, looked like both Mark Lamarr and Jesse Birdsall but who seemed to have even less of Lamarr’s accessible warmth or, indeed, Birdsall’s easy charm.  Even though the show’s Presenter was that vanilla guy from Radio 1 and ToTP, this show felt like it could only add disharmony and discontent to an already perfectly lovely Friday afternoon.

I’m not sure what was the cause of my Damascene conversion but when it came, I quickly found myself utterly hooked.  Perhaps it was the regular in-jokes, combined with a healthy irreverence towards corporate mainstream cinema – ‘Matthew Mahogany’ and ‘Orloomdo Bland’ were notable examples of the genre.  Undoubtedly, the reaction and involvement of the audience (complete with their impressive qualifications) established this as a club worth joining.  Increasingly, I began to download and save podcasts for long drives – much to the regular consternation of The Good Lady National Accounts Manager ‘Er Indoors.  

Over many subsequent years, this addiction has allowed me to discover that the appeal of a good movie show was not simply about citing obscure, nerdy trivia or making fatuous comparisons, beguiling as all that can be.  I learned about the importance of the ‘Five Laugh Rule’ – which became adjusted for inflation to the ‘Six Laugh Rule’ – and I learned to listen to films as much as watch them, to find their references and metaphors in all the places beyond merely the dialogue. 

I’d like to thank you for giving me the notion of analysing “the heart” of a film, for explaining how science fiction is designed to be a lens through which to examine the most fundamental aspects of humanity and for instilling the appreciation that an ambitious idea that falters is far better than a safe one that succeeds.  In all instances, these lessons apply not just to stories played out on film, but to life itself.  

Kermode & Mayo on the BBC – for the last time

Along the way, I’ve become unable to watch most Harry Potter films without interjecting a “Hello!” (code-compliantly) whenever Mr. Isaacs appears on screen, I’ve become much more sensitive to the avoidance of spoilers (even ghosts and sledges) and I believe I’ve learned more about ‘The Exorcist’ than I will ever need to know.  

I’d also like to thank you, belatedly, for the most enjoyable lawn-mowing session of all time – as fate decreed that mowing the lawn was what I would be doing when I pressed ‘Play’ on that most hallowed Kermodian rant: the review of ‘Transformers 2’ in June 2013.  Like the assassination of JFK, all who experienced it will forever remember where they were when it happened.

And so, as this particular story comes to the end of its Second (or possibly First) Act, the time has come for me to have to refer to my fruit-based device to see how and where I may find the next port of call of the cruise liner that is the Good Ship Wittertainment.  I’m sorry that it will not be on Five Live.  Even if it was an Itch that occasionally needed scratching, It seems that Crossing The Streams was indeed as “bad” as we were warned it would be, by another Good Doctor, all those years ago.

The last 13 years of being a Wittertainee have flown by but, at risk of achieving total protonic reversal, I must say that, thanks to you both (and all the supply teachers and producers)  I have enjoyed myself – and I see that it is, indeed, later than I think.

Tinkety-Tonk etc,

Paul Bentham

BSc. (Hons), [Marketing], orange belt [karate] 

PS I was always with Mark on the ‘WTF’ feature.

To Russia, With Love

31 years ago today, I boarded an Aeroflot plane to Moscow, which was then still the capital city of the USSR. Over the next two weeks, I came to understand Russia, her people, history, culture & politics, far beyond the constraints of my Cold War-era preconceptions.

I’d grown up as a child of my time, watching American (and British) films which always seemed to depict “the Russkies” as ‘the bad guys’. I’d seen many news stories about this mysterious place and its lack of freedom and visibility in a world where technological advances were making everywhere else increasingly available. I’d watched sporting contests involving well-drilled, serious-looking athletes, all with ‘CCCP’ on their chests – except when they weren’t boycotting them for reasons I didn’t fully understand.

As a 9 year-old, I’d watched – horrified – ‘QED – A Guide to Armageddon’ (about the expected effects of a nuclear strike on British soil) the night that the BBC had transmitted it on prime time TV. I was so affected by it that, when the USSR beat England 2-0 at Wembley a year or so later, I’d concluded that it was probably for the best that we’d let them win. Out of fascination with this other-world, I’d bought ‘Nikita’ by Elton John – and then bought into the narrative of ‘Rocky IV’ that, despite the state-funded cheating of Ivan Drago’s boxing team, “If I can change…and you can change…everybody can change!

My 1991 trip was part of a Winstanley College student exchange programme – the second-ever British exchange of its type, we were told. I stayed with “Mike” in his family’s apartment in a Moscow suburb of neat apartment blocks and tree-lined public spaces. His mum was lovely. She must have queued for far longer than I’ll ever know to buy some Earl Grey tea for me, thinking it was what any English person would prefer (I’d never had it in my life and committed the cardinal sin of taking it with milk). His dad was quiet but kindly – looking back, both his parents would have been curious about the ways I, a “Westerner” would have challenged the preconceptions of their generation who’d grown up in Stalin’s Soviet Union. His sister was lovely and her husband gave me the jacket from his Russian army uniform.

Muscovite life was like that of any other city: bustling, energetic and fast-paced. More than anywhere else I’ve been, I found it a very physical place. People physically barged each other in crowds and you had to be most careful of little old women with sharp elbows – as I learned to my discomfort one afternoon. Like New Yorkers, Parisians and Londoners, they were both dismissive of their city’s iconic sites and proud to see the reactions they elicited in others.

We visited the Kremlin, Star City, Leningrad (as it was then), a cavalcade of churches and ‘Summer Residences’. We went to the Moscow State Circus (which, disturbingly, featured a 9-foot trained bear) and the Opera House (to see Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’). We stood in Red Square, marvelled at St. Basil’s Cathedral, wandered through the GUM shopping arcade, drove past the Bolshoi ballet, saw the queues around the square at McDonald’s and watched wedding photos at the point where the road rises above the Moscow river, opposite the 1980 Olympic stadium, with the cityscape in the background. In Leningrad, we visited the Hermitage, drove down Nevsky Prospect, crossed the Neva and admired the gleaming spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

We were liberated teenagers in the land the world associated least with freedom: we had house parties, hotel room parties and sleeper train carriage parties. We bribed Leningrad hotel staff with small amounts of US dollars for whole cases of Russian champagne and stored the bottles in a bath, full of cold water. At the age of 17, it was a true rite-of-passage experience.

At the time, Gorbachev was still in power, firmly within the era of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. Six months later, the old Union would crumble under the falling iron curtain and Boris Yeltsin would lead a new Russia into democracy – a change that will have scared many of the people I met, who’d grown up under the old certainties of life under communism. Sadly the transition also represented an opportunity for corruption that no stable democracy would ever tolerate and, with Yeltsin’s passing, a new generation of oligarchs (no-one ever mentions that the word is from the Latin for ‘few rulers’) had already claimed the vast resources of the Russian state.

At the centre of this web of deception was Putin, the ex-KGB bureaucrat who’d ingratiated his way into Yeltsin’s circle. He appropriated the ‘will of the people’, rigging elections, altering limits on constitutional powers, controlling the media and reverting Russia to totalitarian rule while being a democracy in name only. Only this was never about ideology: any kind of vision, however misguided, of how Russia should be; this was only about enrichment. Unimaginable self-enrichment, the rewarding of his tame oligarchs to maintain his own position, and the wholesale, industrial theft of the resources of the largest country in the world from its own people. And now, sadly, the same deluded actions of a ruthless dictator that we all thought we’d left in the past.

I think about Mike every day. His family, friends, the others I met in March 1991. Some will have been duped into supporting Putin, others will be quietly hoping for another revolution. I wish them all well – they’re all Putin’s victims, whether they know and accept it or not.

Five or six years ago, I was in a café in southern France and ordered a ‘thé au lait’. The waitress told me that they had no English breakfast tea left – but they did have Earl Grey. Remembering my personal connection, I ordered it – without the milk – and was instantly transported back over a quarter of a century and half a continent away to the last time I’d had it. I don’t have Earl Grey very often, but when I do, I’m always reminded of Mike’s welcoming home.

Today, I’m thinking about Mike’s mum and everyone else I met in Russia, wishing all those under Putin’s control the strength and happiness they deserve. Whether Russian, Ukrainian or Westerner, we’re all being plunged into the same fears and uncertainties of a time we’d all thought was locked in the past. Until Putin is removed and a new era of ‘glasnost’ is allowed, Russians will once again be denied the sight of two dozen British teens, drunk on ‘champansky’ – which doesn’t often sound like much of a loss but it was once a symptom of a much friendlier, more optimistic world.

I wish I could find the pictures I have of that visit – or the army jacket that was too small for me even then. I only have one, terrible photo of me in Red Square to prove that I was ever there, which you may have seen in my ‘Message to Russian Friends‘ post. I wish I could believe this is a short-term fracturing of the West’s relationship with Russia. I wish I was able to make plans to go back there one day. I wish I could offer Russians more support than this blogpost, clouded, as it is, by the grey mist of time and the red mist of anger.

Just know that I’m raising a cup of Earl Grey to you all. Спасибо.

Сообщение для русских друзей


Надеюсь, вы понимаете это. Одна из немногих фраз на русском языке, которую я помню из своего визита в Москву и Санкт-Петербург в 1991 году, это «Мой русский очень плохой». Сегодня мой русский так же плох, но у меня есть Google, чтобы помочь мне перевести.

Красная площадь, март 1991 г.

События на Украине волнуют весь мир. Я уверен, что они беспокоят и вас. Все военные конфликты связаны с болью и страданиями. Все мы люди и мы это понимаем.

Я также надеюсь, что вы понимаете, почему мир обеспокоен. Мы знаем, что Путин ошибается, вторгаясь в Украину, и мы знаем, что он лжет вам. Он называет это «Спецоперацией», но вы должны знать, что это война.

Эта «операция» по любому определению является войной, но Путин никому не позволяет называть это войной. Теперь есть более серьезные наказания для любого, кто сообщает новости таким образом, который Путин не хочет видеть. Иностранные информационные агентства закрывают свои московские офисы, чтобы защитить своих сотрудников, и вполне вероятно, что Facebook и Twitter будут заблокированы российским государством.

Я понимаю, что ваши СМИ будут говорить вам, что Украина является агрессором по отношению к своим сепаратистам и что НАТО навязывает русскому народу «западные ценности».

Вы должны знать, что в ООН 141 из 193 государств-членов проголосовали за резолюцию с осуждением России и призывом к ее уходу из Украины. Речь идет не о НАТО и даже не о «Западе» (что бы это ни значило). Когда большая часть остального мира недовольна действиями одной страны, проблема, скорее всего, будет в лидере этой страны.

Как «западник», я могу сказать вам, что меня не волнует, что мои «ценности» навязываются какой-либо другой стране, и даже если бы я это сделал, я бы ожидал, что Apple или Netflix сделают это гораздо успешнее, чем НАТО. Пожалуйста, спросите, почему вам все это рассказывают. Это не имеет смысла, потому что все это ложь.

Будем честны. Люди во всем мире просто хотят жить в мирном мире. Большинство из нас на самом деле не заботятся о политике и странах; мы просто хотим счастливой жизни. Пожалуйста, не поддавайтесь влиянию того, что другие говорят вам об остальном мире. Мы понимаем, что русские люди не такие, как Путин, но чтобы оправдать его действия, ему нужно, чтобы вы поверили, что в других странах полно людей, которые вас ненавидят. Как и все остальное, что он говорит, это просто неправда.

Мы беспокоимся за Украину, но, пожалуйста, знайте, что мы беспокоимся и за вас. Никто из нас не знает, как долго Путин сможет продержаться, но чем больше вы не верите его лжи, тем меньше у него власти над вами.

Мои самые наилучшие пожелания всем вам,


A Message for Russian Friends


I hope you can understand this. One of the few phrases of Russian that I remember from my visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1991 is “My Russian is very bad”.  Today, my Russian is just as bad but I have Google to help me translate.

Red Square, March 1991

The events in Ukraine are worrying the whole world.  I’m sure they worry you too.  All military conflict involves pain and misery.  We’re all human and we understand that.

I also hope you understand just why the world is worried.  We know Putin is wrong to invade Ukraine and we know he’s lying to you.  He calls it a “Special Operation” but you should know that it is a war. 

By any definition, this “operation” is a war – but Putin does not allow anyone to call it a war.  There are now greater penalties for anyone who reports the news in any way that Putin does not wish to see.  Foreign news agencies are closing their Moscow offices to protect their staff and it’s likely that Facebook and Twitter will be blocked by the Russian state.

I understand that your media will be telling you that Ukraine are the aggressors towards its separatists and that NATO is forcing “western values” on the Russian people.  

You should know that, at the United Nations, 141 of the 193 member states voted for a resolution to condemn Russia and call for it to withdraw from Ukraine.  This is not about NATO or even “The West” (whatever that means).  When most of the rest of the world has a problem with the actions of one country, the leader of that country is likely to be the problem.

As a ‘Westerner’, I can tell you that I don’t care about my “values” being forced on any other country – and even if I did, I would expect Apple or Netflix to do that far more successfully than NATO.  Please question why you’re being told all this.  It doesn’t make sense because it is all a lie.

Let’s be honest.  People all over the world just want to live in a peaceful world.  Most of us don’t really care about politics and countries; we just want a happy life.  Please don’t be swayed by what others tell you about the rest of the world.  We understand that Russian people are not the same thing as Putin – but to justify his actions, he needs you to believe that other countries are full of people who hate you.  Like everything else he says, it’s just not true.

We’re worried for Ukraine but please know that we’re also worried for you.  None of us know how long Putin can last but the more you disbelieve his lies, the less power he will have over you.

My very best wishes to you all,


Higher, Faster, Stronger

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to wish a friend “good luck” as they compete at the Olympic Games, so I had the very great pleasure of sending my very best of wishes to Carlos Parro of Brazil – as he competed with his ride, Goliath, at the Tokyo Olympics. 


With a young horse against a formidable field and an almost all-conquering Great Britain team, Carlos and Goliath battled the heat, the fences and the occasion to finish 32nd on a score of 62.90. 

The effect of the year’s delay on this Games means the next shot at Olympic glory will be in Paris in just three years time – meaning Goliath should be a much more mature prospect by then.  Of course, any eventer would add to that, ‘injuries permitting’ because this is such a demanding sport and very little can be taken for granted, even from one month to the next. 

20 Years Engaged…

July 7th was the twentieth anniversary of this photograph being taken: Helen and me, sitting on the terraces of the old Lansdowne Road, with friends, about to watch a Robbie Williams concert after an all-day drinking session in Dublin.
H w M N L and Z in Dublin

What Helen doesn’t know at this point is that in the right-hand pocket of my cargo shorts, I have an engagement ring, fully prepared to be deployed during one of the slower numbers.
What I don’t know at this point is that before the main event even begins, Helen and Mel will run off, onto the pitch and disappear into a crowd of tens of thousands. I then have to chase after them and spend the entire gig, on tip-toes, unsuccessfully trying to find them, becoming increasingly disheartened with each passing slow number.
I did eventually manage to pop the question, hours after the gig, in the least romantic way imaginable, involving at least one expletive.
Despite this experience, it’s still the best decision I’ve ever made. We’ve had some amazing times since then, a wonderful son, three dogs and some great friends. I like to think of our engagement ‘misadventure’ as a perfect metaphor for life:
1) Not everything goes as planned.
2) Don’t forget to live in the moment.
3) If you’re not prepared to deal with the unexpected by facing it together, how will you ever know how good it can be?
Oh, and here’s the link to the montage again. #IStillLoveYou

10 Years On: By Royal Appointment

Just over a decade ago, I was honoured to be asked to speak at the National Equine Forum, one of the most prestigious events in the horse industry. The event was attended, as usual, by HRH The Princess Royal. and, unusually, would be held at The Royal Society in London. Here’s the only news source I can find today that verifies this story.

My speech was entitled ‘How to Run a Successful Equine Business in a Recession’ and, as a speaker, I was asked to meet Princess Anne afterwards – she was very complimentary, by the way. Every year since, I believe the event has returned to its usual venue of the Mechanical Engineers’ Institute on Birdcage Walk (although this year’s event was, of course, virtual) which means I’m also able to say that I’ve spoken at The Royal Society, the very epicentre of science since 1663. From Benjamin Franklin to Charles Darwin to Tim Berners-Lee, the list of people who could say the same is about as illustrious as one can imagine.

A couple of years later, rather less-than-illustriously, the laptop I’d written it on gave up the ghost and died on me. I hadn’t backed it up and, by the time I came to rebuild the data on its replacement, I thought I’d lost the speech. As Edmund Blackadder once exclaimed, ‘Bugger!’

Fast-forward to this morning when I was searching through my archives to find an elusive file for a thing I was doing and what do you know, badly filed in the darkest recesses of a subfolder entitled ‘Meetings’, I found it!

Obviously a lot has changed in the last ten years so I found myself reading it with slightly gritted teeth, hoping that it hadn’t aged terribly. I’m pleased to say that not only was that not the case but the points raised seem as relevant today as they did a decade ago when the world was, in so many ways, such a different place.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the speech. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it – and perhaps rather more so than I did delivering it…

At the lectern of the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography

How to Run a Successful Equine Business in a Recession

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for asking me to come to speak to you today on what was originally going to be the grand and far-reaching title: “How to run a successful business in a recession”.  When I first heard that title, I wondered if I should presume to pontificate on such a topic. 

By adding the modifier ‘equine business’, the subject moves away from the standard and the mainstream towards the niche, the specialist, the quirky – which is an area I’m much more familiar with!

I also feel that the very notion of an ‘equine’ modifier is something of theme in itself – to which I will return:  The distinction, if there is one, between ‘our world’ and ‘the rest of the world’.  

I’m sure the academics amongst you would expect a well-prepared student to gain extra marks by attempting to substantiate or even challenge the premise of a question before going on to answer it. 

The most problematic of all the terms in the title is the word ‘recession’.  Firstly, the UK is not technically in a recession, as I speak – although we’re still wary of a ‘double dip’ taking hold.  Whether or not the equine economy is in recession, nobody really knows and yet, for a “£4bn economy”, it strikes me that we should know much more than we currently do.  We have a variety of surveys but no real indices of performance.  

Does recession put us at most at risk of belt-tightening or will our customers deny themselves everything but their horse? Are any more people taking up riding today or are many riders walking away?  I really don’t know.  No organisation seems to be measuring these effects in any meaningful way.  Whatever is being measured, could certainly be better shared.

Regrettably, there is almost no regular, independent data about the equestrian retail economy.  We piece together a permanently changing hypothesis, based on our own experiences and morsels of information from trusted suppliers.  

I can’t claim to be too frustrated by this, as it has always been thus but I am a little envious when I see more concerted attempts to quantify the ongoing performance of other specialist markets.

I’d also question what our definition of ‘successful’ is these days.  Significant growth is usually the simplest determinant but in the current circumstances, many would argue that profitability will do just fine.  To others, it may even be just surviving in business for another year.  

If this sounds unambitious, I would urge you to leaf through the Plimsoll Report on our Industry.  It paints a grim picture of an industry seemingly over-populated by mediocrity and apparently tolerant of the reduced margins that accompany an over-supplied and stagnant market.

In the quest for success in any economic environment, I’d say that businesses have only three basic forces that operate on us, over which we have some control.  The economist’s twin favourites of Supply and Demand are there – as well as the bit in the middle, Operations.

Our Supply trade is still something of a cottage industry which remains heavily skewed towards the small operator.  It seems that we are only now at the beginning of a period of consolidation that has been in effect over the last two or three decades in other, comparable, specialist markets, such as the camping and cycling markets.

In a downturn, difficulties are most keenly felt by those who are smallest or least professional – and I appreciate that those two terms do not mean the same thing. 

It’s important, then, that every company should tread very carefully in their dealings with any suppliers that are the most susceptible to the icy economic winds.  There are too many small companies offering too many alternatives of similar products, resulting in too much undifferentiated competition and resultant commoditisation. 

This magnifies the risks of suppliers’ difficulties adversely affecting retailers who placed too much reliance upon them.  

Whatever the economic climate, it’s always good business sense to think very carefully before deciding about which suppliers to appoint and which to retain.  In a recession, that process becomes even more crucial.  

Your operations, literally, are everything you do and ‘you’ is the operative word here.  It’s the area over which you have the greatest control.  You can have an effect on your processes simply by deciding to have an effect on them.  Suppliers and customers can be influenced but very few companies would ever claim to be able to control either party.

In the good times, there is always the reassurance that growth is there to be achieved, as long as it can then be handled.  Whether it’s extra computing power, a new fork-lift truck or an administrative position, these are significant step-changes that accompany linear growth.  You can very often go from struggling to cope without the resource in question to struggling to justify having it when it arrives.  Generally, as long as the problem your new resource leaves you with is better than the alternative you’ve avoided, you’ve made the right decision.

As the economic cycle slowly turns, aspirations for the future are not as easily funded – every resource needs to be justified by the present, in case that’s all you can reasonably expect.  If that means the fork-lift goes back and the admin tasks need to be shared out again, that’s not an admission of failure, it’s just a recognition that the context has changed.  

The level of demand is expected to reduce in a downturn.  When demand reduces, it risks becoming outstripped by supply and so, prices must fall.  You must lower your prices and in doing so, probably your margins.  It’s simple economics.

Well, I can’t wholly say that’s not true but I can say it’s not the whole truth.  Simple economic effects will only be solely in evidence when the world is full of simple economists and, happily, that’s still not the case.  The Marketing world is a much subtler and more nuanced place to live than the Economist’s world.  We also deal in products that are decisions of the heart more than they are of the head and with customers who have a living, breathing horse to care for rather than an asset to maintain and protect.  

Yes, price competitiveness is perhaps of greater importance today but companies ignore at their peril the importance of customer service, whatever the market conditions.  Reducing prices and margins is not an adequate justification for also reducing efforts to build a positive customer relationship.  If all around are losing their heads in this regard, now is exactly the time to make sure you care more about your customers, if you want to see them more often.  

We pay attention to the price points for each category of product we sell.  It won’t shock you to learn that we sold far fewer rugs over £100 last year, compared to the year before.  Nor will you be astounded to hear that rugs under £50 were much, much more popular over the same period.  Such effects have only to be monitored as closely as possible in order that an ongoing strategy can be formulated around them.  The effects may seem fairly obvious, but with the benefit of a few specific numbers, you can be surprised to see by how much these ‘obvious’ effects are in evidence.  

The absolute favourite tactic of retailers everywhere to stimulate demand without appearing to reduce prices is ‘Bundling’ and it’s used everywhere:  3 for 2 offers, starter kits, family packs and software packages.

Bundling does come at a reduction in margin – the lower unit cost is what makes it attractive to the customer – but it’s a means of eliciting more value more quickly.  Who really needs a stock of three bottles of shampoo in their bathroom?  Or, for that matter, two?  We’ve grown used to it because as consumers, we’ve agreed that if we pay up front for more stuff, we get even more of it free.  

I appreciate that not all business are too concerned with issues such as holding stock but even service sector businesses need to understand that price points are vital to continuing to attract customers who now can’t justify the prices they used to pay.  If the price tag is the barrier, offer reduced options that are cheaper but at the same margin, one-hour riding lessons instead of two, that sort of thing.

If you want an example of service bundling, how about that idea that was invented to keep football teams afloat in the years before sponsorship and television money – the season ticket?

Whatever the state of the economy, businesses always have to perform or eventually, they will cease to exist.  Recession merely brings a heightening of this ever-present reality, a greater possibility that your company will fail.  At the same time, it brings a greater possibility that your competitors will fail, which in turn presents extra possibilities that your company will succeed.  We tend to think of Opportunity and threat as polar opposites but they never exist in isolation of each other.

I mentioned earlier a theme: the curious relationship between the ‘horsey’ and the ‘non-horsey’.  If we are truly to achieve success for equestrian businesses, I must take this opportunity to impress upon us all to better engage with all those in our world and become more inclusive to  those from the wider world.

The sphere we inhabit is different from the wider, mainstream world and yet it is a subset of that world.  In the horse, we share a key differentiating factor from the rest of the world.  We believe it gives us a common reference point and a set of shared values that are distinct to the non-horsey world.  

It’s very reassuring to see the equine community gathering together on occasions such as this but like any community, we must acknowledge that ours has had its fair share of net-curtain-twitching and perhaps even the occasional garden-fence squabble over the years.  With all that in mind, one might take the view there is less solidarity across our community than we’d like to think.  

One might go further and conclude that the very notion of a single, convenient ‘equine’ umbrella to distance ourselves jointly and defiantly from the rest of the world seems more than a little illusory.  ‘Riding’ is really a multifarious, mongrel construct, made up of a slew of different disciplines and, of course, the unaligned, much-maligned ‘happy hackers’.

Even if the horse does define us all as an extended family, such a kinship is both a blessing and a curse.  Like an island community, we very often seem to draw comfort and strength from our differences from the ‘mainlanders’ who “don’t understand our ways” and we are often quick to highlight our differences from the mainstream.  

I’ve heard many ridiculous statements over the years like “horsey people don’t have time for the internet” or “our customers don’t want that kind of service – they can get that at ASDA”.  

If you looked at our customer database – of over a quarter of a million people – you’d see that many of them live in normal houses in suburbs or even towns and cities.  You’d know that most of them are able to use the internet and you’d conclude that when they’re not around horses, they like to immerse themselves in the subversive counter-culture by visiting such places as Tesco, McDonalds, IKEA…even Primark.  I would add that many of them wondered what all the fuss was about during the hunting debate and a significant proportion even believes, quite firmly, that hunting should remain banned.  

It’s very easy to overlook the huge number of riders and horse owners who, rather inconveniently, don’t care about any of the disciplines and wouldn’t recognise a British Olympic rider if they met one while out on a hack.  This part of the market, our customers, our community views their horse, as an escape from the rest of the world, not as an outward expression of belonging to an artificially-constructed ‘horse world’ or, heaven forbid, any reason to indulge in competitive activity.  

Should that really be such a surprise to us?  Do we really want our community to consist solely ‘the right sort’ of people if it is to flourish?  Can we afford to be too choosy in a recession?  In fact, forget the economy.  Do we dare risk turning away the very people who may even assure the future of equestrian sport itself?

I’ve always felt that above all else, business in general – but retail in particular – demands and thrives on brutal honesty.  If too few people are visiting your shop, who or what do you blame?  The weather?  The economy?  The Government?  Suppliers?  Perhaps even the stubbornly unco-operative customers themselves?  There comes a point where you have to accept that by doing things differently yourself, you can improve the situation.    

Honesty itself won’t add a penny onto your revenue but it has a strange habit of pointing you towards the ideas that do put more money in the till.

As a marketer, it’s natural, even tempting to want to segment the market in which one operates and the horse world with its myriad of different sports seems ideally suited to this.      

What can be less easy to do is to gain that same level of connection with all customers at the same time, from those who would define themselves by their chosen discipline but crucially, also those whose passion is just as fulfilled by ‘looking after’.  

Faced with this challenge, the few elements that I’ve observed to be truly common across the whole of the horse world appear to be grooming, mucking out and a compulsion to support anyone who helps horses.  A common denominator seems to be to do with clearing up a mess of one sort or another.  It strikes me that it neatly highlights a necessary pragmatism that defines those who spend their time around the horse and it’s very similar to the kind of pragmatism that seems to me to be one of the most vital factors in achieving success in any business at any time, not just an equestrian business in a recession.

Thank you for listening.

The speakers at the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography
HRH The Princess Royal at the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011. Photo: Craig Payne Photography
The programme of the 19th National Equine Forum, at The Royal Society, March 8th 2011.

Whatever Happened to Likely?

I can stand it no longer.

I’ve learned to become tolerant of shopkeepers’ misplaced apostrophes on the pluralised goods offered on their signs. My blood pressure now barely registers a response to seeing yet another failed attempt on Facebook to arrive at the correct there/their/they’re form. I even try not to roll my eyes whenever I hear contestants on ‘Pointless’ answering Xander’s “What do you do?’ question with “So…I’m a <insert job title>”.

I know I should do better. Yes, poor punctuation, lazy misuse of homophones and sentences beginning with prepositions are all, strictly speaking, ‘wrong’ but I also accept the argument that English, like any healthy language is permanently evolving – an advantage it maintains over its more atrophied cousins, German and French. Let’s also recognise that we tend to celebrate the genius, rather than castigate the hooliganism of a certain William Shakespeare who, when the language constrained him, simply made up the word he wanted to use, bestowing dozens of virgin terms to the lexicon. I like and admire Stephen Fry and I try to follow his example of celebrating the freedom of the language rather than condescendingly policing those who succumb to its technical imperfections. Put simply, I’m trying to be a better type of pedant.

I freely admit that some breaches of the grammar code bother me less than others, for reasons beyond my explanation. I can’t seem to summon the same objective ire whenever I consider the famously irregular ‘Star Trek’ line: to boldly split the infinitive where no television show has split it before. I’ve even managed to allow myself the licence to end the odd sentence with a preposition. To paraphrase Churchill, this is the sort of English up with which I will sometimes put.

I really do try to be less judgemental and I acknowledge my lack of consistency in the way I choose to prioritise ‘the rules’. And yet there are still examples that I consider to be beyond the pale.

Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s likely that you might not have done until this point. The likely upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more likely that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?

Please abide with the over-use. I’m doing it for a reason. Let’s re-run the above paragraph with each gratuitous use of the word ‘likely’ replaced by the adjective ‘probable’.

Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s probable that you might not have done until this point. The probable upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more probable that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?

It works. The words are interchangeable because they’re both adjectives – describing words, to use the teachers’ vernacular that you may dimly remember from school. Unfortunately, the word ‘likely’ has a weakness, a design flaw that has led to its wanton misuse – an escalating level of abuse that is likely to show no sign of slowing.

Here’s the problem: the word ‘likely’ is, I think, fairly unusual in that it is an adjective – a word that describes a thing – that ends with the letters ‘ly’. Cast your mind back to that English lesson in which you learned about the adverb – a word that describes a verb. It’s the word form that mostly ends with the letters ‘ly’. Or, to put it more illustratively, mostly, adverbs are identifiably evident by their most commonly seen characteristic.

Remember the replacement exercise above? The adverbial form of ‘probable’ is (of course) ‘probably’. The rules of grammar stipulate that you can’t replace an adjective with an adverb. This is not a denial of your human rights, it’s just a fact. See what happens:

Consider the fate of the word ‘likely’. It’s probably that you might not have done until this point. The probably upshot of me shoe-horning it into another part of this sentence is making it more probably that you’ll stop reading, isn’t it?

Clearly, ‘clearly’ is an adverb but, equally clearly, ‘likely’ is not. And yet the word finds itself repeatedly, undeservingly, incorrectly pressed into such service. It should all be so…well, unlikely.

It may not come as the greatest surprise to learn that this particular disruption to the mother tongue is largely American in influence. For a number of years, the phrase “[X] will likely [do Y]” has peppered American news reports. We’re well aware that Americans long ago decided to spell things wrong on purpose and we’ve seen for some time how advertising has seen the need to wage war on adverbs, for colloquial impact and to save those two extra, cumbersome characters – hence, ‘Eat Fresh”, “Drive Smug” etc.

Unfortunately for our hero, rolling news is, by definition, largely speculative in manner, there’s therefore lots of scope to use, incessantly, any word that conveys uncertainty or inconclusiveness – creating the perfect conditions for this linguistic mutation to take hold in the vernacular.

This is wrong on so many levels

This has, in turn, enabled a generation of British journalists who prefer shorter words, want to sound more ‘current’ or who simply know no better, to neglect to defend the Queen’s English and yield to the lexicological inexactitude around them.

To its credit, wiktionary deals with the adverbial use of ‘likely’ under its ‘Etymology 2’ heading, rather pejoratively stating “The adverb is a US usage and does not appear in British English except under direct influence of US practice” and asserting that it is “poor style and an artificial, sometimes pretentious way to imply a sense of erudition”. Conversely, the Cambridge Dictionary states more neutrally that “In American English, and more and more in British English, likely is used as a mid-position adverb (like probably in British English), most commonly between will and a main verb”.

Let’s hope this will be wrong on more than one level

We appear to be at a crossroads, in which some in the field of linguistics consider it to be a vulgarity and others a natural progression. It is, essentially, the same argument that purists and pragmatists have waged since well before Shakespeare’s day. The difference is that Shakespeare knew he was concocting a new word – the key tenet of so-called ‘poetic licence’ is that you have to know the rules in order to break them.

I wish I was able to extend such an appreciation to all who interchange an adjective ending in ‘ly’ with an adverb. I wish it bothered me less. We’re all to some extent inconsistent with the bits of English that we preserve and those we choose to reject. Very few people today use the once standard form of the word ‘to-day’, myself excluded, and yet I find I’m still a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to apostrophes used at the beginning of archaic contractions such as ‘phone, ‘flu or ’twas – to the amazement and, occasionally, the consternation of others.

I know the vast majority of people don’t care enough to worry about stuff like this. I suppose to most of us, language is simply a toolbox to be used as required to fulfil a purpose, unencumbered by precedent or prejudice. I still can’t help but see our mother tongue as an heirloom, a thing of value, handed down to be used and respected, upheld and preserved, As much as I accept the need for language to evolve, I suspect I’ll always be wedded to its sense of permanence, even where it has become fossilised. Does this mean I’ll ever be happy to blur the lines between adjective and adverb, between British English and American English, or succumb to democratic change and reflect the new ways some words are used?

Not bloody likely.

Still Feeding on Birding Lessons

Last week, while out dog-walking, I came across kestrel perching on a hedge and then swooping down to find small prey on a patch of grass.

More than anything else, I felt very aware of our proximity to this regular visitor, much closer than the perimeter at which a wild bird would normally take flight. Unperturbed by our presence, she used her position to survey the nearby patch of field, frequently swooping down to pick up a morsel and then duly flying back to the lookout position on the hedge line.

Occasionally, the bird would run about the ground, rather comically – her light-coloured, feathery upper legs emphasised by a brisk, clownish running style.

I’ve lived around kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) for nearly 40 years and I’m still in awe of their legendary ability to hover; their uncanny ability to ride the wind such that, however their body undulates, their head remains absolutely fixed to its precise coordinate. Of course, I’ve seen them perching and surveying before – usually atop telegraph poles or street lights – and it’s little surprise that from there, they will swoop down to intercept any prey they espy. In all that time, I’d never seen a kestrel so close to the ground, for so long, swooping so repetitively and actually running around on the grass.

I was intrigued by the hunting method she employed and I was a little concerned that this individual was either too hungry to hover or possibly even physically incapable. It’s November and it would be hardly surprising if food is less abundant. Worms and insects often have to make up for a shortfall in protein – but was there a reason why this kestrel, usually a master of the skies, should be reduced to hanging around the free buffet?

When I got home, I did a few google searches and started to read up on kestrel feeding habits. In particular, I found this: The Hunting Behaviour of Some Farmland Kestrels by M. Shrubb (1982).

In it, Table 1 suggests that, over the winter months, farmland kestrels are almost twice as likely to ‘still-feed’ (from a perched position) than by hovering – with the proportions reversed over the summer months. It suggests (not unreasonably) that the need to conserve energy in harsher conditions is the main reason behind the change in strategy.

Hovering is, as you might assume, an energy-consuming activity, requiring kestrels to feed on upto eight small rodents a day, to survive. As long as food is abundant, their expert ability to hunt this way will sustain them. When it isn’t, they still-feed. Their legendary eyesight means that they can spot an insect from fifty yards.

Thanks to simply observing nature and hunting myself on the internet, I’ve learned something quite fundamental about a bird with which I considered myself to be quite familiar.

The real lesson is that we should never stop learning.

So Far Ahead of the UK

Back in July, I wrote with some concern about the decision to soften the UK’s lockdown measures, citing the fact that Melbourne was about to enter a second-wave curfew. Today, as the UK experiences its highest level of daily deaths since May, Australia’s second city is about to come out of lockdown again, amid international praise for its adherence to disease control measures.

On Sunday, the NRL’s Grand Final was played in front of nearly 40,000 fans at a deliberately half-full ANZ Stadium in Sydney and there are now no limits on sporting attendance in neighbouring New Zealand. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that a combination of circumstance and leadership quality has lead to this diametrically opposite outcome on the other side of the world.

I wish my Melburnian friends well after their sacrifices since July but, more fervently, I wish we in Europe were as disciplined as they have been.

Looking east from the Eureka Tower viewing level, along the Yarra to Melbourne’s CBD, the MCG and AAMI Park. Flinders Street Station is in the bottom-left. Photo: Paul Bentham

From Grange Hill to The Palace – And Back

In August, I got round to reading ‘From Grange Hill to Bipolar and Back’ by George Wilson. For those who don’t know, George is my wife Helen’s cousin – although you may know him better as ‘Ziggy’ from Grange Hill and ‘Little Jimmy’ from Brookside.

About eighteen months ago, he called me to ask for my thoughts on some things he’d been writing in a blog that had helped him to explain and overcome the mental health challenges he’s faced over the last 30 years. I immediately encouraged him to see if he could write enough material to turn it into a book and then to get it published. I felt strongly that his story is one that would be of great help to people, whether they suffer from, care for those with, or just feel under-informed about mental health issues.

I’m sure lots of others will have said the same to him but I knew that doing so would force him to confront some very dark memories – including being present at the Hillsborough disaster – and that’s a tough thing to ask of anyone, let alone someone with a history of mental ill-health. There would have been absolutely no shame in deciding that such a task was a step too far for him.

But he didn’t. He wrote the book and, towards the end of 2019, he got it published. In January, he went on ‘This Morning’ with Phil and Holly to publicise it. As the 2020 went on, the already important issue of mental health has become an increasingly hot topic.

On holiday in Italy, I finally read the book. As I expected, it’s unflinchingly honest and details a life of heady highs and shocking lows. I’d heard about a lot of these events before and, as a Grange Hill fan, I recognised the actor ‘George Christopher’ in many of the stories but, for the last 20-odd years, I’ve just known him as ‘George’ (although Helen still calls him “our Georgey”).

Last week, he posted on Facebook that he’d got a reply from Buckingham Palace, thanking him for the copy he sent to the Duke and Duchess (I presume of Cambridge – William and Catherine). He’s offered his assistance to them in their capacities as patrons of charities in the area of mental health.

I’m so proud of him for listening to me and to everyone else who encouraged him to write this book. I can’t begin to describe the admiration I have for him for actually writing it and I think he deserves every bit of recognition due to him as he continues to reduce the stigma of a condition that can affect any of us. The heir to the throne could do a lot, lot worse than enlist his help in some way.

Here’s his post of the letter he received from TRH. If you want a copy of his book, I’m not going to give you an amazon link for it – I’ll encourage you to contact George directly through FB and he’ll point you towards one. If you ask nicely, he might even sign it!

Taking Liberties With Labels

This month, I return to one of my favourite subjects – America.  All my life, I have indeed been watching America, as the refrain goes.  And as I write, the Razorlight analogy extends further because there is trouble and also panic in America.

I’ve been here before.  On the eve of the 2016 election, I wrote a letter to my old friend, begging her not to fall under the spell of a man who would charm her in order to abuse her.  As you know, she didn’t listen and…   …well, let’s just say she’s feeling pretty used right now.

Another obsession I seem to have is for words.  In particular their use (and abuse) as labels and, as far as I can deduce it, their etymology.  One of the most fundamental principles of psychology, albeit one which is still hotly debated, is this: Language determines Thought.  Using the very words that people use, I have always contended, it is possible to form a deeper understanding of them.

Let’s begin with that most American of words: Liberty.  Like the statue that bears its name, the obsession with the principle is one with strong French connections – but one re-purposed into something uniquely star-spangled.  As is frequently the case with the words we analyse, a greater insight can be gained from the words not used and so it appears to be the case here.  As the American colonies were crystallising in their rejection of King George and taxation without representation, revolutionary France was discovering her penchant for Liberté – but as part of a tripartite, together with Egalité et Fraternité.  Is it telling that America seems to have cherry-picked one over the others?

This seems less clear-cut on second glance.  The cradle of the America we know today was Philadelphia, the site at which the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.  Tri-lingual word-nerds will instantly know that this city’s name was derived from the ancient Greek words phílos (beloved) and adelphós (brother) – hence its identification as ‘The City of Brotherly Love” – and that, just as France was nearing her revolution, the importance of fraternity was valued equally by both peoples.

And then we get to Egalité.  The notion of equality in America has always been somewhat problematical – the fact that the declaration includes the phrase “that all men are created equal” seems to neatly encapsulate America’s rather variable approach to a construct that is supposed to be, by definition, a constant.

800px-lady_liberty_under_a_blue_sky_28cropped29Whatever their reasons, by 1886, when France chose to bestow a gift on her anti-royalist co-conspirator, its manifestation was of Liberty, not Fraternity or Equality.  The location of the statue, at the mouth of the Hudson, adjacent to Ellis Island, the destination for incoming ships carrying fleeing immigrants provides a clear context for the Liberty it extols.  It is designed as a beacon to welcome and reassure those who see it that they are now free of the repression that forced them to flee their homeland.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” says the poem inscribed upon her.  Liberty may therefore be viewed more as a defining characteristic of the process of becoming and American citizen than of America itself.

As seems to have been the case with Equality and Fraternity, the concept of Liberty was allowed to shift from this specific context to something wider, more self-congratulatory, more self-serving.  America’s eventual anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner was originally a fairly obscure poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, compelling his compatriots to sing with gusto that they inhabit “The land of the Free” but even then, such a sentiment was demonstrably illusory, a perversion of the specific principles espoused by the Statue of Liberty.  Doubtless, it was a high-intentioned celebration that American citizens were free of the shackles imposed on the feudal subjects of the Old World.  What it doesn’t address is that the citizenry at that time only included white people.

This pre-Civil War self-deluding notion of “the Free” may have simply become a historical quirk, an innocent indulgence from a time that knew no better.  We may even have come to see it as a harmless, unknown piece of naive jingoism, were it not for the actions of two Presidents, over a century later.  The US Navy had been using the song since 1889 but it gained its first Presidential approval from Woodrow Wilson in 1916.  Given that its words were taken from a poem called Defence of Fort M’Henry and with its strong themes of conflict and resolute defence, perhaps its sentiments resonated more strongly at a time when America felt uneasy about the unfolding ‘Great War’ in Europe.

It’s certainly feasible that its images of stoicism through embattlement may have sustained America through her eventual involvement in war – and the beginnings of the Depression a decade later.  Seemingly uncoincidentally, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution of March 3rd 1931 to make The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of America.  At a time of huge economic uncertainty and its attendant tendency for existential re-assessment, there was a clear benefit to reminding Americans, at every opportunity, that they were undeniably “the Free” and “the Brave”.

It’s important to be even-handed at this point.  In many ways, pre-Depression America was flourishing and could be slightly forgiven for her blinkered optimism.  Already a major military power and the world’s biggest exponent of two of the century’s most defining industries, entertainment and transportation,  her riches led her to mount challenges to history’s favourite benchmarks.  America was already, the holder of ‘World’s Tallest Building’ – the Chrysler Building’s 1,046 feet would be surpassed within a year by the Empire State Building in a flurry of skyscraper construction in Manhattan.  Similarly, the title of ‘World’s Longest Bridge Span’ was held by one American construction after another, with New York’s George Washington Bridge, at 1,067 metres almost doubling the distance of its predecessor, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.  Plans for even more ambitious projects like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge were a clear sign of America’s bravery, zeal and intent.  Freedom and Bravery: the words seemed to be perfectly apt.

However, Liberty seemed to be in limited supply among America’s black population, officially emancipated by Abraham Lincoln almost seventy years previously.  Institutional racism could not be so easily legislated against and over the intervening decades, forced labour and partition remained as prevalent as they had been before the Civil War.  And, of course, there were also the lynchings and abuses of justice.  Prevailing racial attitudes in the South, together with increasing mechanisation, cheaper transportation and the burgeoning growth of industry in the Northern states had led to The Great Migration – and America’s first real test of her heady aspiration that “all men” should be equal – a test which resulted in racial tensions and rioting in 1919.  Not for the last time, the threat to America’s mostly segregated status quo was re-presented as a symptom of the pernicious disease of Communism, by then on the rise in much of Europe, and the racial significance of the unrest was downplayed by the widespread use of name “Red Summer”.

And so, from 1931, it became possible for a whole country to clutch its chest and pledge allegiance to a flag which represented values that were demonstrably inconsistent where differences were only skin deep.  It would be another eighteen years before George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced the concept of ‘doublethink’ as a satirical tool of his Totalitarian state but a prototype form of it was already in evidence in “the free world” well before the rise of the great dictators had really begun.

Over the rest of the 20th century, as subsequent American generations came and went, each more rewarded by the fruits of materialism than the last, and with only the concoction of external threat to rally around, the American notion of Liberty seems to have shifted, to mean something else entirely – namely the freedom to gratify the self.  In this way, the old notion of American Liberty seems to have become annexed by Libertarianism, the right for the individual to be free in all aspects of life, without recourse or consequence.

The words sound similar and are, of course, related but it is by no means inevitable that the two principles should become so conflated.  There is also a word from that same root that describes those who extol the rights of others to be free in all aspects of their lives, without recourse or consequence.  That word is ‘Liberals‘ – and it’s a label carries a whole different load of connotations in America today.  It’s the reason why we are presented with what appears, to non-Americans, the faintly ridiculous sight of those who value their Liberty decrying with equal passion their vehement disagreement with Liberals, to whom a litany of perceived impositions are attached.

Is that all this boils down to, then?  An existential struggle about which ideological group’s right to Liberty (however that may be defined) exceeds the other’s?  If X’s right to free speech supercedes Y’s right to be heard?  If A’s right to religious expression outranks B’s rights over their own body?  If P’s right to love and partnership infringes on Q’s right to their own beliefs?

As valid as they undoubtedly are, the questions are, I venture to suggest, not the sum of the argument.  There’s a lot of discussion about rights across this whole debate and very little mention of responsibilities.  It reminds me of a teenage conversation I once had with my Grandmother when I was fixated on and certain of my rights – a conversation teenagers are still having today – and I found I was unaware that there even needed to be a relationship between one’s rights and one’s responsibilities.  It’s a conversation I was reminded of the first time I saw Spiderman and Peter Parker’s teenage reasoning with his Uncle Ben – a conversation that uses his “powers” as a metaphor for one’s rights and draws a similar relationship with one’s responsibilities.  Societally, Western culture seems to have done a generally poor job in underlining this principle, leaving the job solely to caring older relatives to attempt to establish it as a fundamental value.  As one generation replaces another, what if that role ceases to be filled?

The correlation with teenagers is, I believe, of some relevance.  Occurring roughly a fifth of the way into a human lifetime, it’s a fairly universal expectation across most cultures that such coming-of-age conversations become necessary.  Would it be therefore hugely amiss to suggest that America herself, at the tender age of 244, is still in her late adolescence?  That the child prodigy who once mocked her slower, more ponderous elders with her youthful brilliance is beginning to understand the limitations of her own mortal capabilities?  Like a star student who suffers their first disappointing grade, she must now ask fundamental questions about herself, in order to learn from the experience and face the future with renewed confidence.

‘Liberty’ as she stands, looking out to sea, was always supposed to represent freedom from persecution elsewhere.  The principle of Liberty was never about the right to simply do as one pleases – and it certainly wasn’t a cipher for a particular kind of government.  Even in a truly equal society, the rights of the individual are not inalienably superior to the rights of one’s fellow citizens and, as any properly-raised teenager should eventually attest, the freedoms of others occasionally have a detrimental impact on the freedoms of the self.

5108465b35e6de9a7d065627a00d0a9aThis is not a broadcast on behalf of the Democrats or the Republicans and neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden approve this message.  It’s merely an attempt to illustrate how the misuse of language and the absence of objective, critical thought have led to a meta-situation where the ultimate freedom seems to have become the very right to define what freedom is.

Check your history books and see what Orwell has to say on the subject and you’ll find that such a freedom is a symptom of the least free societies in human history.

Lockdown Challenge: 10 Travel Photos

I was nominated by Helen for this ten favourite travel images ‘challenge’ thing on Facebook. Unlike everyone else, I’ve decided not to string it out over 10 days – and I thought I’d compile all ten images on here.

Photo 1: Red Square, Moscow, (then in the Soviet Union) – March 1991.

PJB Red Square

In the days when cameras were cameras, you either didn’t take photos or accepted that rubbish ones came along when they did. I managed to get this utterly terrible photo in one of the most amazing places on Earth and it’s my only photographic record that I was ever there. The resolution is shocking, the fashions are highly questionable and I offer no excuse at all for that bum bag. To the right of the picture is Lenin’s mausoleum (I didn’t bother viewing the body), behind me is The Kremlin, specifically the Spassky Tower and just perfectly out of shot to the left of the frame is St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most astounding sights in the world.

All things considered, this is a truly awful photo that just happens to remind me of an amazing, unique two-week coming-of-age experience. BTW, I’m stood next to Mike, my Russian exchange student host, whom I still haven’t managed to find on Facebook.

Photo 2: 107th Floor Observation Area, South Tower, World Trade Center, New York City, USA – January 1994


That’s me with the hair, looking through the binoculars north to mid-town Manhattan, at 1,310 feet. Shockingly, the guy in the baseball cap behind me, who looks like he’s about to mug the lady in the headscarf, is Martin.

I’m not going to lie: it was 1994, still in the pre-digital, pre-social world so, in lieu of an actual photograph, this has been screen-grabbed from a very shonky home video recording, hence the stunningly poor quality (again) of *another* world-famous landmark.

Famously, just over seven and a half years later, the ‘Twin Towers‘ would be no more, making this an especially poignant memory. Hopefully, there are places in eternal Hell for all those involved in that atrocity. I’m tempted to wish for the same fate for all involved in developing the ludicrous ‘white balance’ setting on 1990s video cameras that just loved to reset to default and white out priceless experiences like this. Most of our NYC footage is next to useless because of it. If you thought John Lennon’s house in Berkshire looked eerily white in the video for ‘Imagine’, it’s nothing compared to our footage of his place at the Dakota Building, overlooking Central Park.

Kinda kicking myself that we did’t stop for a photo more. A quick pose on the helipad at the Manhattan helicopter tour would have been a great idea. Good times, though…

Photo 3: The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA – November 2002
P H J P &amp; D at Grand Canyon

You may be tempted (again) to mock my sartorial style – who wears a fleece and a Bez hat to the desert? Before you do, you should know that, as a result of some unfortunately-chosen breakfast items in Las Vegas the day before, I’d contracted food poisoning and spent most of the preceding night wondering which way to point in the bathroom. As a result, my internal thermostat was all over the place.

Having cleared out the system, I’d taken nothing but water and Pepto-Bismol for the six hours before having to get into a light aircraft for the short flight over the Hoover Dam and on to the edge of the Canyon. Predictably, it didn’t go well and I can now claim to be one of a select number of people who have sprayed fluorescent pink liquid into 3 or 4 sick bags inside a small plane over the location once voted Number 1 in the list of ’50 Places To See Before You Die’.

I believe we were near Eagle Rock at this point but to be honest, I could just about stand up, let alone remember many details. Even in my highly diminished state, it was still one of the most magical experiences of my life.

Photo 4: The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France – August 2013


Finally, a photo in which the photographer, the technology and the subject are all fully functional.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to Paris but I’ll never forget my first visit there, on my 18th birthday, in the year of its 100th anniversaire.  This sojourn in 2013 (en route back to Calais from Bordeaux) was an opportunity to go to the top of the famous Parisian landmark for the first time since my very first visit, over twenty years previously.

Once we’d returned to ground level, we decided to take this picture to mark the occasion.  I have loads of pictures of the Eiffel Tower but this unusual angle of its familiar shape illuminated against the night sky is my absolute favourite.


Photo 5:  Villa del Balbianello, Lago di Como, Italy – May 2014


I really can’t say what part of the world makes me happiest but Lake Como has to be in the Top 5.  The food, the pace of life, the scenery and the micro-climate make this such an enchanting place to be.  This picture was taken in our first visit there, in 2014.

We’ve been back twice since then and I can’t imagine ever not wanting to go back again.  It’s an achingly beautiful place and, if you like Italian food and wine, you’ll find it impossible to resist.

Star Wars nerds should recognise the location of this photo as being the place where Anakin and Padmé were married at the end of ‘Episode II: Attack of the Clones’.  The same location was also used in ‘Casino Royale’ for the scene where James Bond is convalescing after rolling his Aston Martin at speed.  In reality Villa del Balbianello is a former holiday home of the Rothschilds which is now a museum with the most manicured gardens you’ve ever seen.

Photo 6:  Slane Castle, Co. Meath, Republic of Ireland – May 2017


Travel isn’t just about going somewhere, it’s also about what you do when you get there – or why you even go.  This was certainly true of our short 2017 trip to Ireland – to watch Guns ‘N Roses on their ‘Not In This Lifetime’ tour.

I’m sure this might not be for everyone but the chance to combine a one-off experience like this while sampling/becoming re-acquainted with another culture (I mean, who doesn’t love Ireland?) is an intoxicating mix.  The Emerald Isle is doubly special to us as it’s the place where we got engaged, after another concert there.  Find someone or something you want to watch in a part of the world you want to visit and you’ll know just how rewarding it can be.

We also had time to nip in to Dublin, which, if you’ve ever been, you’ll agree is no hardship, either.

Photo 7:  Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Marina Bay, Singapore – December 2017


We were only there for 36 hours and much of that was spent fighting off jet-lag but Singapore certainly left a lasting impression – not least because it gave us the chance to sample the famous roof-top swimming pool on the 57th floor of the city state’s most recognisable building.

We were also lucky enough to be able to meet some old friends there, to catch up and to gain an insight into this heady fusion of a place that many tourists never get to see.

Photo 8:  Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia – December/January 2017/8


The most expensive night out I’ve ever had – but a pretty good one!  This was pure bucket-list stuff: to be in Sydney on New Year’s Eve and to be among the first in the world to welcome a new year.  With all the flights and hotels booked, there just remained the question of how we’d spend the evening.

Well, one thing led to another and we ended up booking ourselves onto one of the flotilla of boats that take in the famous light show from the middle of the harbour.  Five hours, three courses, lots of wine, twelve solid minutes of midnight fireworks and lasers and one fight later (not us), the whole thing was well and truly ticked off the list.  You know what?  Looking back, it all seems like an incredible bargain.

And then this: an important by-product of any travel experience is the chance to re-live it whenever you see the place on TV, thereafter.  I’m sure I’ll always tune in to the Sydney New Year display, covered in the UK at 1pm on New Year’s Eve.  With every passing year, I’ll continue to receive ever-greater value for money.  How many times can you truthfully say that a night out is really an investment?

Photo 9:  Monterey Bay, California, USA – August 2018


Increasingly, the chance to see more of the natural world is a major motivation to travel.  For this, I could have chosen any number of birdwatching reserves we’ve been to, or the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island.  Or even the Great Barrier Reef.  In truth, nothing, I repeat, nothing will compare with – or prepare you for – whale-watching.

When in California, we got the chance to see a pod of humpback whales feeding on anchovies, less than a mile from the coast.  The sights, the sound, the smell, the size of these amazing creatures is something so awesome to behold, you’ll find it impossible to compare it to any other experience.  It’s nothing short of an epiphany.

We tend to compartmentalise our travel dreams into simple lists that can be simply chalked off and that’s largely true of mere places.  I’m not sure it’s just as easy to say the same of true experiences like this.  We could have seen blue whales, grey whales or orcas that day.  Given the chance, I’d go back there like a shot – and do it all again.

Photo 10:  San Francisco, California, USA – August 2018


Travel teaches you the understanding that you will, at some stage, have to reconcile expectation with reality.  Once you’ve arrived, some places will surprise you and others will disappoint you.  Just occasionally, you find a place that is everything you always wanted it to be.  I’ve felt it in Amsterdam, in Melbourne and here, in San Francisco.  And then you’ll always love them and hope they never change.

As in most parts of life, timing is as important as any other factor: your own time of life, your motivations and aspirations – together with the point in the cycle of fortunes that affect the places you see.  I’m sure Moscow has changed hugely in the last 29 years – but then, so have I.  I could easily have listed a completely different list of 10 places I’ve loved to visit: Barcelona, Prague, Gothenburg, Hong Kong, Austin, London, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Denver, Munich are all fascinating in their own right and no less worthy of a visit than the 10 I did choose.

Currently, with travel restricted, we should treat this time as a reminder not to take our world for granted – and never to stop feeling the need to explore beyond the horizon.  To continue to share the sights it holds and the people and the nature you can find there.  In the end, when your time on Earth is coming to a close, will you regret the amount of stuff you owned – or the number of places you got to see?

‘1917’: My Wittertainment Email

On Tuesday 14th January 2020, I watched ‘1917’, the Oscar-nominated film by Sir Sam Mendes.  The next day, I sent this email to ‘Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review’ – “The BBC’s flagship film show”, known to its army of fans as “Wittertainment”.  If you’re familiar with the programme, you’ll be aware of a) the conventions of the letters they receive and b) the fact this one did not get read out.  If you’re not familiar with the show, you’ll have no idea whatsoever why I’m taking this opportunity to say ‘Hello to Jason Isaacs’

On with the email…

Dear Triple Alliance and Triple Entente,

[LTL, MTE & great-great nephew of Corporal H. Latham (1893-1918)]

I’ve been looking forward immensely to watching ‘1917’ ever since I first saw the trailer, several months ago (back when it was the work of plain old ‘Mr. Mendes’) and, like many others, I was particularly struck by the revelation that the whole film is played out “in a single shot”.  As an admirer of his last notable example in the oeuvre (the opening sequence of ‘Spectre’), it seemed an impossibly bold ambition for a mainstream action film to have; one that would have to be seen to be believed.

Tonight, I went along with my Mum and my 15yr-old son to the local complex to see if the film could possibly live up to, not just its own considerable hype, but also a level of expectation commensurate with its now double-Golden-Globe-winning, ten-times-Oscar-nominated status.  Bitter experience has taught me not to expect anything so exalted so readily and I sat down with my code-transgressive nachos (eating them compliantly quickly, before the trailers started), steeling myself for a certain level of inevitable disappointment.

I needn’t have been so cautious.  Barely a few trenches into our heroes’ mission, I felt quite able to ‘pack up my troubling concerns in my metaphorical kit bag and smile, smile, smile’ – except when I wasn’t grimacing, jumping or otherwise emotionally investing.  The accuracy of period detail seemed incredibly high, a task made all the more difficult – and necessary – by the fact that so many 2020 film-goers who watched ’They Shall Not Grow Old’, in 2018, are now far better informed of the most intricate elements of this century-old period in time.

At times, I must confess the ’continuous shot’ schtick did feel more like a burden than a device – I occasionally found myself unable to forget about its existence, waiting for the next cleverly-masked transition or spending more time thinking ‘how did they do that?’ than, I’m sure, would otherwise have been the case.  I then realised that even these distractions were not that different to the ‘what-have-I-seen-this-actor-in?’ kind of reactions that can impede the suspension of disbelief in any film.  Perhaps a second viewing would see this effect lessened.

Eventually, I was able to ignore the technical appreciation enough to inhabit the world with the characters – ironically, just as the technique is designed to encourage.  The experience was, at times, not that dissimilar to watching someone playing a ‘first-person shooter’ video game – which I’m sure would add to the level of peril and investment for many viewers.  Another point to make is that the ‘real-time’ plot delivery necessarily requires more exposition, which I found I could forgive more easily than I would for a more conventionally-edited film.

Given its specific slice of time, the film noticeably comprised a rich tapestry of landscapes, colours, settings and textures. The twists were well-disguised and profound and, even when the MacGuffin quest had reached its conclusion, there was still time for one last revelation to encourage a reappraisal of the whole thing.

Perhaps a less generously-spirited review may suggest this is a film that’s a little too clever for its own good.  However well acted and choreographed, It’s possible a more orthodox telling of the story would have felt less obtrusive in many ways – but it’s also likely that it would also have made for just another war movie.  Ultimately, I felt relieved that the boundaries were challenged and that Sir Sam was fully justified in making such an audacious production constraint his hill (or should that be ridge?) on which to die.  As The Good Doctor has often said: “I’d rather see someone try – and fail – than not try – and succeed”.

I’m not sure it’s the best film I’ve seen all (Oscar) year – ‘Joker’ asks more profound questions and answers them more adroitly – but it’s certainly deserving of its ‘Best Film’ nomination for realism and ambition alone. All in all, we all agreed it was a fine use of two hours and, like many of the best film-going experiences I’ve had in recent years, the ability to say I wasn’t disappointed was all I’d hoped for – and the most pleasing thing to be able to confirm.

Tinkety-tonk and down with the Kaiser, etc.

Paul Bentham BSc.(Marketing), tea drinker Emeritus.

60 Miles? Nothing in the Scheme of Things

After all the seemingly pointless Strava updates about random cycling sessions you may have seen, it’s time you all knew the truth I’ve been keeping under wraps – I’m going to do the Manchester to Blackpool bike ride.

I’ve been asked to ride to help raise money for the iMRI Scanner Appeal at Manchester Children’s Hospital. Aaron’s colleague Gary learned that his 13 year-old daughter Olivia was diagnosed with Ependynoma, a rare brain cancer. As Olivia is currently receiving treatment at the MCH, she’s hoping to raise as much money as possible for this appeal.

You don’t know Olivia. Neither do I. It doesn’t matter. We all know people with children and it’s one of nature’s cruellest tricks to afflict young people like her with conditions like this, indiscriminately. Think about Olivia as any teenager you know and about her family as their family. Wouldn’t we all be happier in the knowledge that places like Manchester Children’s Hospital have all the technology they need to fight and beat horrible diseases like this?

*Serious Face Bit*

I only need to cycle 60 miles – hopefully a few hours in the saddle – which might smart a bit for 24 hours. If you can endure the pain of giving up a few quid, you can help alleviate the difficulties of Olivia’s family and many many others for years to come. Please give what you can to the just giving page below. Thank you.

Thanks For Your ‘Great North’ Support!

We’re back from the Lake District after another successful Great North Swim weekend.  The caravan’s been emptied, the roofbox has been removed from the car and nearly all of the washing has been done.  There’s just one more job to do – to say a massive ‘Thank you’ to all of you who gave your support.

‘Game face’ on as Charlie gets back out of the water, following the acclimatisation phase, just before the start.

This year was the fifth year we’ve attended the ‘Great North Swim’, held around the north-east shores of Windermere.  With the exception of the 2017 event, we had some of the worst weather we’ve experienced there.  Lower temperatures, higher winds and heavier rain all made for a more challenging weekend – and that’s before anyone got in the lake!  With higher waves for the swimmers to contend with, the organisers took the decision to reduce the length of each event, to allow them to be set out over a more sheltered part of the course.

As Charlie’s only fourteen, even though he began the weekend a veteran of two previous GNS events and countless training swims over the distance, he was still only able to enter the half-mile distance.  The organisers insist on a lower age limit of 16 for the mile swim so the same issue will occur next year.

Unlike the last two years, where he was ably escorted around the course by Warren and Aaron, this year they’d decided to swim at their own pace.  That made things slightly trickier for spectators and photographers because in a field of mostly front-crawlers, Aaron’s breaststroke always made it easier to spot the three of them.  As they were cheered into the water and began to swim away from the watching crowds, it was clear that they were swimming apart and both Charlie and Warren would be harder to spot.

The high winds had led to the course being reduced to 500 metres, approximately two-thirds of the scheduled distance.  With Charlie hoping for a sub-twenty-minute half-mile, maths suggested that we could expect him home in thirteen minutes.  Interpolating further, that would suggest, he’d reach the turn on the course at around six and a half minutes.

I trained my binoculars on the turn at around the six minute mark and looked for any of the three of them.  Separated, as they were, there would at least be three times the chance that I’d see one of them, I thought.  And yet after a whole minute had gone by, none of the swimmers I saw looked familiar.

Wondering what the problem was, I began to track my sights backwards along the ‘back straight’ and drew a similar blank.  The only other thing to do was pan along the ‘home straight’ to the finish line.  Surely they couldn’t be that far into the course with only seven minutes gone.  And then I saw the unmistakeable bobbing action of a breaststroker.

Aaron’s give-away breaststroke action makes him easier to spot – but where was Charlie?  Spoiler alert: see the splash right at the bottom of the picture…?

It was definitely Aaron.  Surely, Charlie would only be a short distance from him – but again, logic seemed to be a stranger to the unfolding events.  I scanned the waters behind Aaron, to the left and then to the right.  We were coming up to eight minutes on the timer and neither Charlie nor Warren were anywhere to be seen.

And then I looked in the waters ahead of Aaron.  There had been a few training swims where he and Warren had said they’d struggled to keep up with Charlie but I’d expected that they were mostly saying it as motivation.  Surely, today, with all the adrenaline pumping, that wouldn’t still be the case – would it?

It was.  Far further ahead of Aaron than I’d dared imagine, I finally spotted his laconic crawling style.  Not only was he so far ahead, he was actually nearing the finish.  I trained the camera on him and began to click away, making up for lost time.

Charlie approaches the ramp that leads from the water to the finish line

In no time at all, he reached the ramp that leads to the finish line, got to his feet and virtually sprinted to the line.  His official time was ten minutes eighteen seconds but his time in the water was nine minutes forty.  A combination of the shorter distance, the watching crowds and perhaps a little competitive spirit enabled more of a sprint but even so, it was an impressive time.

Minutes later, Aaron and then Warren crossed the line and all three of them gathered in the finishers’ zone for the obligatory photographs.  Once again, they’d all completed the course!

The three amigos – in the order that they finished

As a result of their efforts, I’m delighted to confirm that Charlie and Warren have managed to beat their £500 sponsorship target for Amelia’s specialist support.  As I type, the appeal has reached £665, a third more than they’d hoped to raise.  Of course, don’t let that stop you adding to that figure, if you wish to.  Every pound raised is as important as every other.  Once again, thanks to all of you who made that happen!

To see how the sponsorship money helps – and to add to it – have a look at Warren & Charlie’s JustGiving page.

Just When You Though It Was Safe, He’s Back In The Water…

Hi everyone.

If you’re even a fairly regular visitor to this parish, you’re probably familiar with my god-daughter Amelia, her special needs and the various things that we, her support network, join in with to help her every year. If you’re not aware, here’s some examples, from previous years:

Okay, so you’ve got the picture. Basically, it’s *that* time of year again so you know what’s coming next: I’m asking for your support, as much or as little as you feel able to give – it’s all massively important and so very much appreciated.

Just like the last two years, Charlie (now aged 14) will be swimming the half-mile course at the Great North Swim, in Windermere. The actual lake, not the town. He’s more than capable of swimming further than that but the organisers don’t allow mile-swimming (or further) until after a sixteenth birthday has passed. Just like last year and the year before, he’s done many evenings at Pennington Flash in Leigh, getting the miles in, to ensure he can do a half-mile (that’s 805 metres) on the day, with relative ease.

By rights, that should be all I can tell you – it’s the same deal as last year, please sponsor him, all contributions etc. etc. but it tends to harm the sales pitch when you say everything’s the same. For that reason, I’m going to divulge something else. Something that, once you know, might get me in trouble. Don’t tell him I told you this but…

Last year, he did the half-mile in something like 20 minutes and 30 seconds. It may have been eight minutes quicker than his 2017 effort and it was a good time but *whispers*, he was a bit gutted that he hadn’t gone “sub-twenty”. This year, he’s made it his mission to beat that benchmark, swimming further and harder to ensure he can do it. He’s another year older, more experienced and with slightly longer limbs so he should achieve his goal but we won’t know until he’s got round again. If you want to support him for anything, it’s this effort that will define his 2019 swim, not the distance.

Alternatively, you can support his determination to swim around the ‘Penny Flash’ course quicker than I can cycle around the whole park (he has) or the resilience (and Coca-Cola) required to combat all the bugs that inhabit a lake filled with wildfowl…foul. Open water swimming is certainly not for everyone but for that reason, those who do it deserve anyone’s admiration.

Right, I think I’ve ladelled that on heavily enough.

Please consider helping Charlie and Warren as they raise funds to help with Amelia’s progress for another year. The link is below. Oh, and as Warren works for United Utilites, we’re hoping that every pound that he and Charlie raise from this page will be matched by UU – so for every pound you donate, you can get two pounds’ worth of feelgood.

Really, what’s not to like about that?

Thanks for reading!

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Obituary: Marley

Marley was born, we believe on 7th July 2007 (7/7/07) and was ‘put to sleep’, aged 11, on 3rd May 2019.

Marley died on the day that news broke of the death of Peter Mayhew, the man who gave life to Chewbacca.  The coincidence was a fitting one: both were synonymous with a lifetime of faithful service and companionship, the best sidekicks anyone could ask for, whether you were walking in the woods or infiltrating an Imperial base on a forest moon.  One was described as a “walking carpet”, the other donated his fur to carpet several generations of birds’ nests.

It all started so improbably.  It was March 2008 and we’d heard from a friend that her colleague had an eight month-old golden Labrador pup that she needed to re-home.  Just as we had done with Sam, our first dog, three years earlier, I’d agreed to go along to “have a look” in the laughably naive expectation that such a measure would constitute no form of material commitment.  Just like the last time, we may as well have bought the dog bed on the way there.

He wasn’t badly behaved but he was young, restless and wilful, a little too much for this rather unadventurous middle-aged couple and their pension-age Jack Russell.  Having just built our house and deliberately carpeted it in the same colour as our black lab, this golden upstart was clearly the wrong colour.  He also had the wrong name – ‘Charlie’.  Obviously, there was no way we could have a house in which a child and a dog could share the same name.  No, it was a nice idea but not possible.  Again, logic seemed to be absent because by the Easter weekend, he was with us, subtly re-named Marley (after John Grogan’s ‘Marley & Me’, which I’d read the year before), nervously and deferentially trying to find his place in our young family.

My memory of his first day with us was at tea-time.  Helen had been watching a fly-on-the-wall show about an animal rescue team in Dallas and noted that they would often gauge the character of their intake by deliberately taking their food away from them.  She had a point, of course: we had a three year-old son and had to be sure that the newcomer’s temperament could withstand even an accidental provocation.  I put down his bowl of food and watched as he ravenously began to devour its contents.

“Now pick it up”, Helen ordered.  “Like they do on ‘Animal Rescue’.”

I hadn’t seen this part of the show but I’d like to think I know dogs well enough to be able to judge their nature fairly accurately so I went along with it.  Even though I was almost certain that he’d react perfectly to the test, as I edged my hand forwards to take away his meal, it still occurred to me that I didn’t actually know how he was going to react.  Slightly nervously, I removed the food.  The young dog went instantly from frenzied eating to silently pleading for the return of his meal.  The test had been comprehensively passed and we’d both gained each other’s trust.  

A week or two later, the aforementioned TV show was on and the latest resident was to be tested.  Meal prepared, placed on the floor, dog allowed to start eating, bowl removed -using plastic ‘hand’ on the end of a long stick, just in case….  I looked at a now giggling Helen.  “You kept that bit quiet!” 

Marley’s story (and this obituary) could easily have been written into finality only a few weeks later.  It was summer 2008; I was on my way to drop Charlie (still pre-nursery) off for the day, before driving to work.  At the time, Helen’s horse was stabled at home and she was feeding him before going to work.  I was just driving over Parbold Hill when my ‘phone rang.  It was Helen and her tone was urgent.

“You’ll have to come home.  Marley’s tongue is blue”

The inquisitive young dog had discovered a black plastic box, a supposedly tamper-proof container in which rat poison could be safely placed.  Having successfully opened it, he’d found a strange blue substance which must have looked interesting enough to eat.  Fortunately, he was so proud of his exploits, he’d decided to show Helen how happy he was.  If he hadn’t, or if Helen had decided not to hang back to feed the horse that morning, it could have been a very different outcome.

Naturally, we acted fast.  Within half an hour, we were at the vet, signing consent forms for antidotes, vitamin K, to induce sickness, to clear out his system and a full day of observation.  We were reasonably confident he’d survive but we were told to expect him to be affected by the medication for another twenty-four hours.  When I got home from work at six o’clock that evening, he bounced towards me with all the vim and vigour of a dog still pleased with himself for breaking into an ‘unbreakable’ container.  He seemed indestructible, an irresistible, if idiotic, force of nature.

Marley was always a team player, happy to play second fiddle to the more dominant Sam.  It didn’t take long for the older dog to impress upon him that the bit of bedroom carpet by my side of the bed was very definitely Sam’s night-time spot.  Marley’s response was simply to wander round to Helen’s side of the bed.  

Nocturnal politics aside, Sam always identified as Charlie’s dog, his protector and permanent shadow.  This left open the position of a similar companion for me – an opportunity that Marley was only too happy to fill.  Even a quick trip to get something from the garage or to take empty milk bottles to the end of the drive was a chance for Marley to pad along, dutifully, at my heel.

Pursuing a tennis ball, mid-pounce

He was quite the athlete in his younger day.  Utterly fixated on catching and retrieving a tennis ball, we soon realised the most efficient way to meet his need to let off steam was to stand at one end of the field with a tennis racket and keep hitting it to the other.  Within seconds, he was back, ready to go again.  After ten full-length belts of the ball had been retrieved, in no time at all, I’d worked out he’d run a mile.  Only after another twenty or so repetitions, would he start to calm down.  

We’d find ever more inventive ways to harness his energy and enthusiasm.  I remember several times when I’d deliberately bounce the ball in such a way that I could photograph him leaping acrobatically for it.  There was also one occasion where Martin made a point of bouncing a ball in front of a massive puddle in the water-logged field, so the act of jumping for it would lead to him landing in the small lake.  The first I knew of it was when I received a photo of a sodden, mud-encrusted dog, absolutely focused on the out-of-shot ball, desperate to be asked to fetch it again.

As the pair matured, their tendency for hi-jinks finally diminished.  No more playing on the other side of the dual carriageway or disappearing to play in the mud a few fields away, they eventually succumbed to respectability.  Barbecues and birthday parties were their favourite times, a field full of kids to play with, with plenty of available food (either offered or unguarded).

Partners in crime: Marley and Sam

Throughout his time with us, we’ve never had a doorbell, yet any similar sound on TV always made Marley bark as though someone must be at the door – presumably a throwback to his previous family.  We also wondered why similar depictions of reversing lorry alarms elicited the same response – until we realised one Thursday morning that, to him, it was a trigger that the bins must be being emptied.

He loved walking over the fields, crossing the motorway bridge and exploring the woods that lead almost to Appley Bridge.  Even in his final weeks, he was always giddy with excitement every time it became clear that we were about to go for a walk.  Tennis ball exploits aside, he tended more to be a keen spectator than a participant of garden football matches and, whenever the chance arose, was surprisingly reticent to show off his fishing-dog heritage in water.  We did once harness him to a sledge to see if he’d play along but he spent most of the time barking – probably protesting that the whole thing was beneath him.

Reluctant sled-dog

At the age of eight and a half, his appetites and toilet habits suddenly changed.  He’d always been impeccably behaved in the house so clearly, something wasn’t quite right.  George, our vet, suspected canine diabetes and soon enough, the results confirmed it.  The symptoms were reversible but the condition was “life-limiting” and it would require him to be injected twice-daily.

As the aphorism goes, dogs are “98 percent wolf” and most, however domesticated, do not take kindly to being jabbed in the neck – understandably so.  If it had been Sam, the most ‘human’ dog I’ve ever encountered, I still think he’d have struggled and resisted in the way that dogs can only be expected to, which would effectively have been a death sentence.  Even life-saving treatment has to be weighed against extreme distress and the potential for biting injuries.  

Marley was different.  Possibly because he was the runt of his litter, he possessed a legendarily meek nature and always accepted his obligations without complaint.  His reward for compliance was the years it added to his life.  Without doubt, the biggest hurdle in owning a diabetic dog is overcoming the natural reluctance to believe that you can inject an animal so regularly.  You just have to – but it’s so much easier with a compliant dog.

Not only did he make the process as easy as it could be made for us, he also ensured that we could more realistically ask others to administer his insulin, which meant we could still go away for weekends and holidays with minimal effect.  To everyone who has ever stood in for us to inject him and allow us not to be tied by his condition, now is a good opportunity to say thank you.  He was our dog and our responsibility and it takes a lot to act outside your comfort zone for someone else.  Marley may have made it easier but you made it possible.

When Sam died, in 2016, we put our name on the Labrador Rescue register, expecting that it would take some time before a suitable dog would become available.  Less than a fortnight later, we’d been chosen.  Marley had probably just got used to the benefits of being the sole dog in the house when, unfortunately for him, his world was turned upside-down by the arrival of Hurricane Elsa.

Suddenly, this immature, fourteen month-old, neurotic pup was sharing his space, interrupting his routine.  For the first time ever, we heard him growl in frustration – at her persistent attempts to goad him into playing with her when all he wanted to do was lie in his bed.  In this instance, his benign nature probably didn’t help.  Sam would have had her up against a wall in no time, instilling his disciple in no uncertain terms.  Marley just wanted a quiet life and only complained as a ‘last straw’, to remove the irritation.  If anything, his tolerance only encouraged her mischief.


Eventually, the relationship calmed and, with Elsa’s worst excesses (mostly) abated, Marley accepted the situation and was happy to play second fiddle again – as he always did.

Time and diabetes were beginning to conspire against him.  His eyes began to cloud, his legs weakened and his gait became more uncoordinated and wavering.  Despite it all, his appetite remained undiminished.  He loved to be outside but walking any distances took more out of him than before.  He slept a lot more.  This time last year, I would let him out and encourage him to lie in the sun, to rest with its warmth on his back.  Since his diagnosis, it had seemed realistic to make the assumption that each summer could be his last.  I remember hoping that 2018 would be a good summer.  It was.  I hope he thought so too.

At our three-monthly veterinary check-ups, George and I would monitor his weight, his progress, his fructosamine and glucosamine levels.  We were controlling the diabetes well but as he aged, it began to occur to me that he may not outlive his primary condition – that other factors may claim him before the diabetes.  In recent weeks, we talked about ‘the sign’, something that assures you it’s time to make the right decision.  As long as Marley was keen to drag himself along on a walk or bark his disapproval that five o’clock had passed and he’d still not been fed, his zest for life couldn’t be denied.  In both respects, this remained the case, even as recently as the Easter weekend, the eleventh anniversary of his arrival in the house.

Enjoying a walk on Christmas Eve 2018

Two days before he died, he chose not to go on a walk and we allowed him his uncharacteristic reluctance, an unlikely anomaly.  A day later, he wouldn’t get out of his bed for his tea.  For a dog almost defined by his love of food, this could be no acceptable exception.  It was the sign we were waiting for.  His breathing was suddenly shallower and his visits to the water bowl were almost constant.  I suspected, needlessly, that his kidneys were beginning to fail.  The last words he heard were from George, from Helen and from me.

As we did for Sam and then Ben, we dug him a grave by the lawn and laid him to rest in the shadow of the rhododendron bush.  The memorials that mark their resting places reflect their lifetimes of service.

I remember saying once of the young Marley, when he arrived, in a flurry of uncertain outcomes, in 2008: “if he’s half the dog that Sam is, I’ll be happy with that”.  Of course he turned out to be so much more than meeting such a modest expectation.  In many ways he was the polar opposite of his predecessor and his marked differences removed the possibility of direct comparison, an unnecessary exercise at the best of times.  Marley was every bit Sam’s equal, in lots of ways, more understated but no less worthy of note.  Perhaps one day, we may even say the same of Elsa.

In the end, Marley was happy with being a dog, happy to be part of our family, happy in his routine and, ultimately, happy with everything else that life gave him, good or bad.  He was loved and he gave every appearance that he knew how loved he was.

That, to me, sounds like a life well-lived.

Even when he was asleep, Marley liked to do things his own way.

My Letter to Lisa Nandy MP: May I Count on Your Support for the Kyle-Wilson Amendment?

official_portrait_of_lisa_nandy_crop_2Lisa Nandy is the Labour Member of Parliament for Wigan and former Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.  

If you agree with the points I have raised in this letter, I encourage you to copy the text and use it as the basis for a letter to your own MP.

Dear Lisa,

I write as a concerned constituent, having read your recent piece in the Guardian: ‘A flawed second referendum could break our democracy’ and the arguments it puts forward to support the position.

I understand your discomfort at dealing with the legacy of divisive, binary choices and your concerns of holding Yes/No referenda on deeply nuanced matters.  These are uncomfortable times which seem to be filled with binary choices to navigate a way safely onwards.

The piece suggests you have accepted that the moral rather than the ideological imperative renders the ‘No Deal’ outcome unsupportable, particularly with regard to protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland.  For this reason and all the concerns about protecting health and prosperity that you have cited, it would indeed be an act of gross negligence to facilitate our withdrawal from the EU without an agreed structure.  There’s nothing wrong with removing an unacceptable outcome – but it does have the effect of increasing the probability of a further binary choice to come.

By your own admission, this morally unacceptable outcome is one which polls suggest around a quarter of the public would support – logically, around half those who wish the UK to Leave.  Unfortunately, this presents you with another binary choice: simply ‘respect’ the most recent democratically-expressed view of the electorate or explain the consequences of blindly following a potentially self-destructive path before we all have to follow it, knowing the proportion who favour an unworkable solution.

Given the unhealthy closeness of the June 2016 vote, the changes in the demography of the UK in the two and a half years since then, the huge gulf between what was promised by Leave and what we now know may be possible to negotiate (and the fact that some promises were demonstrably untrue), it’s impossible to claim there is insufficient evidence to re-evaluate the whole issue.

Consider also the fact that the last major poll that indicated a Leave majority was conducted a year ago and in recent weeks, the continuing impasse in the Commons has led to a slew of polls showing mounting concern for the current trajectory of the country and growing support for another referendum.  As you can see, I’m using the same source for these polls that you used in your article.

The argument against a second referendum cannot, in any sense, be that it is “anti-democratic”.  Disobeying a referendum would be anti-democratic.  By definition, asking people to vote again is the very essence of trust in democracy.  Those who would have you believe otherwise must be viewed suspiciously in only asserting so because they feel they have something to lose.

Obviously, such opponents of a 2nd Referendum are likely to be the evangelical Brexiteers, those who believe they “won” and have now been granted a mandate to pursue EU withdrawal with barely-limited gusto, based on a tiny majority, zealously guarding the interests of “17.4 million” by seemingly seeing fit to ignore completely the expressed view of 16.1 million fellow citizens.

There are other opponents: Remain-leaning MPs of all hues who sit in strongly pro-Leave seats, whose vacillation may potentially be influenced by the fact that publicly disagreeing with a majority of their constituents may not be the most advantageous career move.  Such a description may or may not apply to a number of Tory back-benchers who can find comfort in diligently obeying the whip and conveniently avoiding a confrontation with their own voters.  On the Labour benches, the Member for Don Valley seems to be the most notable example for such a potential conflict of interest.

Finally, of course, there are the stealth Brexiteers, those who secretly always wanted out but who sit back and allow events to take their course with a suitable amount of shoulder-shrugging and token opposition around the margins of the debate to be seen to have done just enough not to have exposed their own duplicity.  I speak, of course, of your own Leader and much of his inner coterie.

This week, following the 230-vote defeat of ‘The Meaningful Vote’ and the 149-vote defeat of ‘Meaningful Vote II’, there is, we are informed, likely to be a third attempt for the Prime Minister to scrape her ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-starred deal into UK policy – I’d like this one to be called ‘Meaningful Vote – With A Vengeance’.  Among the amendments it will face, we expect the Kyle-Wilson Amendment to be debated, in which May’s faltering, diluted position, if passed, must be put to the people as a “confirmatory referendum” and against which the option to Remain must feature.

As a concerned constituent, someone who has met you, has always found you to act very impressively and who has always been proud to say that you are my MP, I implore you to abandon the position in your Guardian piece, of hand-wringing deference to a single vote on a once-in-a-lifetime issue, in the name of ‘protecting democracy’.

This decision must be guided by the most fundamental principles of parliamentary representation – with which I trust you will be more than familiar.  I won’t insult you by quoting Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill at you but I think it’s fair to ask that, given the clear distinction between ‘representative’ and ‘delegate’, your vote for Kyle-Wilson demonstrates your willingness to provide representation for all the constituents of Wigan, not simply act in delegation of its (suspected) majority.

I trust you to put clearly-delineated national interest above those even of most of your voters.  I trust you to disobey your party whips if the country’s future depends on it and, just as Jess Phillips has already stated, I trust you to have the integrity to accept that in doing so, you accept all consequences that your most noble actions may invite, should the majority of the people of Wigan then disagree.

Yes, it’s a binary choice but leadership often requires the conviction to make a choice and argue for it – and it’s disingenuous in the extreme to ignore that inconvenient truth and continue to act as a leader of the constituency you represent.

I wish you well this week and I hope you can be part of the change that sees this whole ghastly mess turned around, allowing the whole country to concentrate once again on the real problems it faces.  I also believe that, in due course, the failure of both front benches over the last three dismal years will be corrected and younger, more reasonable, more resonant voices such as yours may be heard, from positions of greater seniority.  I’d very much like one day to claim that I’m proud of you not just as my MP, but as the holder as one of the Great Offices of State.

Please seize this opportunity to better define the future for us all.

Yours faithfully,

Paul Bentham

The Forester’s Needs You!

Without prejudice.

44475389_565954213836552_2111173384594259968_oI was saddened to read this post from our local pub, earlier today. I don’t know what happened but I have no reason to disbelieve the account given. I also know that in the year or so that Gareth has run the pub, he has returned it to its former glory, making it a place you want to visit, rather than just put up with going to. I was sure he’d make a success of the place when his first act was to re-instate its traditional name after the sacrilege that was ‘The Silver Tally’.

Anyway, It’s a lovely pub these days with a good beer selection and a wide choice of good food that’s very reasonably priced. Now, with staff reportedly out of pocket, it needs your help to trade its way out of the fate that has befallen it. With the weekend upon us, why not go there for a meal and see if you agree with my recommendation? If you can’t make it this weekend, there’s always another chance to go to a pub!

We happened to go there for a meal last night, for the first time in a while, and had no idea they were facing this awful situation. Needless to say, we won’t leave it as long before we go back. I hope this setback is short-lived and that, in the longer term, the change of structure becomes a change for the better for all concerned.

Good luck to Gareth, Minnie (the Rottweiler) and the rest of the team as you make The Foresters such an asset to our local community. Let’s hope the wider community can do their bit to increase its value to the surrounding area!

Vist The Foresters’ website

Obituary: Ben

Ben wasn’t even our dog but, for well over a decade, he was part of our family.  He was as much a participant in our daily life, our annual celebrations and our most treasured memories as all the dogs we could call our own.

It hardly seems like much time has passed but it’s now over twelve years since Martin confided to me that he’d chosen a border collie puppy with which to surprise Vicky on Christmas morning.  Upon collecting him a few days before the big day, we all colluded in the secrecy, stealing clandestine visits to see this new ball of black and white fluff.

Ben the puppy, a few days before Christmas 2006

Martin and I grew up with border collies.  If you’ve ever owned one, you can’t fail to be impressed by their high intelligence and strong work ethic.  Within weeks, Ben had been trained to do a number of increasingly complex tricks, demonstrating his obedience and a clear willingness to please.

Border collies are perfectly suited to their traditional purpose of rounding up sheep on remote hillsides and directing them into a specific holding area.  Naturally fast and agile, they also have deep reserves of endurance, combined with a level of mental commitment to achieving an objective that you’d expect of an Olympic athlete.  Other breeds outwardly enjoy fetching balls and waiting for the next one to be thrown.  With Ben, a session of ‘fetch’ was more akin to watching a highly-trained operative at work – enjoyment seemed to be a secondary consideration to simply completing the task as quickly and as efficiently as possible.  You had to assume he was enjoying it, or he wouldn’t keep doing it, but it was clear he had little time for pointless tail-wagging when there was the serious business of another ball to retrieve.

He would transfer his highly-motivated, highly-disciplined approach to all aspects of his life.  When told it was time to go in, there was no sense of objection or ‘just one more’ lingering in the field, like most dogs would; he’d diligently trot to the back door and wait to be let in.  For Ben, clocking off one job did not mean switching off his default, obedient setting.

As you’d expect for such a focused individual, he was happiest when accompanying Martin wherever he went.  For most of his life, he was able to, from a standing start, spring into the back of a Range Rover and then settle straight down until he was next required.  Unlike our dogs, whose life in a secure, extended environment had inevitably blunted their ability to be ‘street-wise’ beyond the gates at the end of the drive, Ben had that rare ability to combine the best of both worlds.

Ben and Sam, his first companion, in 2009

As Max and Abi came along and grew up, Ben found he was being asked to divide his focus to include additional family members – now with slightly different expectations.  Young children are more prone to spending time petting a resting dog and Ben accepted the unfamiliar extra attention and allowed himself to be a regular pet as well as a ball-retrieving team member.  He’d also indulge in games that didn’t require his fetching talents, circling and intently observing games of three-a-side football as if we were merely six unruly sheep who consistently defied his control.  When it snowed, we’d tow each other around the field on sledges and, while the whole thing must have made absolutely no sense to him, his work ethic decreed that it would always be necessary for him to run behind, as closely as possible for as long as he could.

As I’ve noted previously, it seems the cruellest long-term effect of incorporating dogs into a growing family is that their physical prime occurs when their young human companions are well short of theirs.  As the wheel of time turns and the kids’ speed and energy increases, the canine life-cycle means that they will eventually fail to keep up.  Even an intelligent animal who develops an ability to pace their exertions (as Ben undoubtedly was) will only be able to delay that inevitable day for so long.

The addition of a variety of smaller, furrier companions provided him with a less strenuous outlet for his livestock-wrangling instincts.  Rabbits, guinea pigs and, latterly, a pair of degu all required, in Ben’s mind, unflinching observation lest they break free from their cages and terrorise the household.  Not on his watch, they wouldn’t.

Ben in his favourite place, waiting to chase another ball in the field

In his final year, Ben found he had a room-mate, another border collie: younger, faster, more headstrong, more unruly.  It’s a testing time for any older dog: a trial of both patience and ability to adapt.  Ben graciously allowed Meg into his house, delegating fetching responsibilities under his watchful gaze and tolerating her youthful boisterousness.  We’ll never really know if Meg has allowed herself to be influenced by Ben’s stoic example as she has grown from young pup to ebullient adolescent.  When she acts on her best behaviour, it’s easy to believe that perhaps she has.

Over the years, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune had begun to take their toll on Ben’s health, particularly the ability of his heart to function as fluently as it once had.  Naturally, his exertions became rationed for his own good as his condition was managed.  His quality of life was undiminished but, for his own good, his capabilities had to be thought of as reduced.

While he was as keen to participate, we let him but we knew he couldn’t be exhausted.  Similarly, he knew how to pace himself and his condition caused little concern until very recently, when, uncharacteristically, he chose not to take part in the ball games.  For such a driven and disciplined dog, it was the clearest message he could give that he knew his lifetime of service was coming to a close.

Today, his message was heeded and, after consultation with the vet, the decision was taken.  We buried him by the front lawn, in the shadow of the rhododendron bush, next to Sam.  It’s a cliché but it’s true: there’s always sadness at the passing of a loved one but you have to load the other side of the scales with the gratitude that they enriched your life and, hopefully, you enriched theirs.

Rest well, ‘Benny Boy’, you’ve worked hard for it and you earned all our affections.





So Near Yet So Far: The Story of Charles Asbrey…

Among the first names on the Peace Gate list of Standish men lost in the First World War is that of Charles F. Asbrey.  Despite the fact his death occurred on 2nd December 1918, almost a month after the Armistice, he was still on active service in France, which is why his name appears alongside those killed in action.  His story seems therefore just like the many stories of lost men from that war – but it could hardly be more different.  Today, the centenary of his death is as good a time as any to tell it.

Charles Ford Asbrey was born in Charnock Richard in April 1879, the son of John Asbrey, a butler from Kettering, and his wife, Jane, from Wavertree.  He was christened at Christ Church, Charnock Richard the following month.  The 1881 census shows the family had moved to Prestwich, presumably due to John’s employment.  Ten years later, the family had moved to Standish and John had become the publican at the Black Horse pub (now the Lychgate Tavern) on Church Street.

After spending his teenage years in Standish, Charles trained as a saddler and harness-maker with a Mr. Gordon and became engaged to Mary Jane (‘Ginny’) Bentham of Broomfield House, Bradley Lane.  Ginny was my great-grandfather Ernie’s youngest sister.

On 6th March 1901, Charles and Ginny were married at St. Wilfrid’s church in Standish with Ernie Bentham one of the two witnesses.  The census of that year, taken a few weeks later, shows the couple visiting the home of a Mr and Mrs Reppin in Leicester, possibly on their honeymoon – or, with the addition of a little more information, perhaps not.

Their first son, James was born on 7th October 1901 in Leicester, suggesting that their marriage, seven months previously, had been a ‘shotgun wedding’, hurriedly arranged to legitimise the coming birth.  The move to another part of the county may have been an attempt to obfuscate the fact that James had been conceived out of wedlock.

Two children followed: Norman in 1903 and Jane in 1905, both in the Manchester area.  It’s unclear what Charles was doing for a living at this point but by 1911, the couple had moved to Spendmore Lane, Coppull and Charles had become the Manager of a Brickmaker’s works.  The 1911 census even shows that young Norman happened to be staying at his grandparents’ house in Blackpool that night.

Bentham Latham wedding 1907
The wedding of Ernie Bentham to Margaret Latham in September 1907.  Mary Jane ‘Ginny’ Asbrey is stood, third from the right, behind her parents, James and Alice Bentham.  It’s unclear who the man is to the left of her but it’s quite possible that it is her husband, Charles Ford Asbrey.  Another casualty of  WWI, Harold Latham, then aged 14, sits on the ground in the centre of the picture.  The two may have fought near each other in the Battle of Messines.

Charles was 35 by the time Britain entered the First World War and would not necessarily have been expected to volunteer for service, initially.  As the war wore on and ever more new recruits were required, remaining men in their late thirties were increasingly expected to join up.  From a distance of over a hundred years, it’s dangerous to draw conclusions about Charles’ motivations for what followed but the facts show an unusual and ultimately tragic sequence of events.

Fast forward to January 3rd 1917, over two years after the outbreak of war.  The previous summer had seen the horrors of the The Somme and almost a year earlier, the campaign at Gallipoli had cost almost 57,000 Allied lives, among them over 11,400 from Australia and New Zealand.  With such mounting losses from a conflict on the other side of the world, the ANZACs had been forced to recruit wave after wave of new personnel.  It was amongst the list of recruits for the 9th reinforcements to the 45th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force that the name ‘Asbrey, Charles Ford’ rather surprisingly appears.

According to army records, Charles had been working as a harness-maker in Mayfield, New South Wales, about 70 miles north of Sydney on Australia’s east coast at the time of his enlistment.  It’s tempting to conclude that he had fled his home country to avoid the war but it’s also possible that he was simply working away to seek his fortune – or that he and Ginny had found a way to separate with minimal dishonour.  The same records show Ginny as listed as living at 31 Hawthorne Road, Blackpool (although another document has that address crossed out and 3 Eaves Street, Blackpool given as an alternative), no doubt to be near her father, James Bentham.  Her mother, Alice, had died in 1913.

Within three weeks, Private Asbrey (service no. 3350) and his 45th Battalion reinforcements left Sydney Harbour aboard HMAT Anchises, bound for Plymouth, arriving back in his homeland on 27th March 1917.  Records show that the battalion was held in reserve, behind the lines near Ypres, during the battle of Bullecourt in April and May, without entering the combat.

HMAT Anchises, the transport vessel on which Charles left Sydney, bound for Plymouth, en route to the trenches of WWI

In June, the unit saw action in the Battle of Messines in Flanders.  It’s not known if Charles was with the unit by this time but if he was there, he may well have been fighting alongside his brother-in-law’s brother-in-law.  The 25th Signals Company of the Royal Engineers, probably including one Harold Latham, a fellow son of Standish, was also engaged at Messines.  Harold’s sister, Margaret had married Ernest Bentham, Ginny’s elder brother, in 1907.  It’s tantalising to contemplate that the two men, members of the same extended family, representing different Allied armies may even have encountered each other in the trenches in 1917.

After Messines, the action shifted to Passchendaele and both Harold’s and Charles’ units saw action at this most fearsome of battles, between July and November of 1917.  The 45th Battalion was one of a significant number of Australian forces in the various engagements that became known as the third battle of Ypres, together with a strong contingent of Canadians.

The 45th formed part of the 12th Brigade, which itself was a part of the Australian 4th Division and was held in reserve at Polygon Wood in September 1917, an exchange which resulted in 1,700 casualties in the division.

On 12 October, the Charles’ 12th Brigade was assigned to protect the 3rd Division’s flank during the First Battle of Passchendaele, and took part in an effort to capture the Keiberg ridge. Although, elements of the 3rd were able to enter Passchendaele, and the 12th gained their objective, both groups were eventually forced back. The unsuccessful effort cost the 12th Brigade around 1,000 casualties.  The losses were considerable enough for the Australian authorities to at one stage consider breaking up the whole 4th Division to provide reinforcements elsewhere.

Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge in the Ypres salient

Having survived Passchendaele and seen out the end of 1917 with his battalion still in operation, Charles would have spent the winter rotating between front and rest areas around Flanders and northern France, with the severe weather and battle-scarred landscape making trench-foot as dangerous a consideration as the enemy.

In March 1918, Charles’ division was rushed to the Somme region to stem the German Spring Offensive, which had been launched on 21 March and was threatening Amiens. The 12th and 13th Brigades established themselves south of Albert, around the railway embankment and cuttings of the Albert–Amiens railway at Dernancourt, where they joined British troops. The 12th Brigade was positioned forward, taking over from the British 9th (Scottish) Division, while the 13th held a support position around Bresle and Ribemont-sur-Ancre.  On 28 March, during the First Battle of Dernancourt, the 12th brigade helped fight off an attack by the 50th Reserve Division, with 137 Australian casualties.  A week later, on 5 April, the Second Battle of Dernancourt was fought. In the lead up, the 13th Brigade moved forward beside the 12th, taking over from the 35th Division. Together, the two brigades faced an attack by two and a half German divisions in what was described by historian Chris Coulthard-Clark as “the strongest attack mounted against the Australians in the war”.

In early May, the 12th Brigade carried out a follow up attack around Monument Wood, to the east of Villers-Bretonneux, which made little headway against the defending Jager troops; nevertheless, the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux had restored the Allied line in the sector.

Following the defeat of the German Spring Offensive, a brief lull followed while the Allies prepared to launch their own offensive, which ultimately would bring an end to the war. During this time, the division went on to fight in the Battle of Hamel in July. The 4th Division was responsible for planning and commanding the attack, but the decision was made the only one of its brigades would take part with the 4th Brigade being reinforced by brigades from both the 3rd and 5th Divisions, as well as four companies from the US 33rd Infantry Division for the attack.

After the Allies launched their Hundred Days Offensive in August 1918, the division took part in the Battle of Amiens, the Battle of Albert, the Battle of Épehy and the battles against the Hindenburg Line outposts, finally reaching the town of Bellenglise.  Withdrawn in late September, the division was replaced by the 3rd and 5th Divisions, although  the 4th Division provided 200 advisers to assist the inexperienced US troops that were assigned to Monash’s corps.

Members of the 45th Battalion at the Battle of the St Quentin Canal in September 1918, just before the battalion’s withdrawal from action.

In early October, the remainder of the Australian Corps was withdrawn from the line for rest at the insistence of Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes.  After the armistice in November 1918, the division was not selected to advance into Germany with demobilisation due to commence before the end of the year.  Unlike 10,973 of his comrades in the Australian 4th Division, Charles had survived the Great War and his service was almost at an end.

Unfortunately, Charles was never to return to Australia or even to England.  On 2nd December 1918, with Germany defeated and after serving in the most deadly theatres of a war he may well have attempted to travel half-way around the world to flee from, Private Charles Ford Asbrey died, according to army records, of ‘sickness’ in France.  It’s unclear if his illness was a result of his service, linked to an injury or, like one of millions of others in 1918, a result of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic.

He was buried at Saint Sever Cemetery, across the river Seine from Rouen, in Normandy.  In August 2012, I happened to drive through Rouen, en route from Calais to Bordeaux and must have passed within a few miles of his final resting place.

Ginny Asbrey née Bentham was re-married in 1924, to a man called Gerald Wadeson who was fifteen years her junior and only six years older than James, her and Charles’ eldest son.  They lived for a time on Talbot Road, Manchester, near to Lancashire’s cricket ground although her residence was listed, perhaps unsurprisingly, as Blackpool when she died on 17th April 1964.  Gerald lived on until 1980.

A Corner Of A Foreign Field That Is Forever…Standish

With the centenary of the Armistice almost upon us, this year’s Remembrance Day will be especially poignant.  Anyone with strong family links to serving personnel, especially those who were killed in action, will be keen to participate in the many commemorative events that will be held.

I grew up believing that no-one from my family had served in either World War.  As far as I was aware, my forebears were farmers and thus likely to have been deemed more important to the war effort to remain at home than shipped to some foreign shore to fight for King and country.  I always observed Remembrance Day silences and the like from a sense of public duty rather than any personal connection.  Being generally disinterested in the ghosts of generations past, I barely gave the matter much more thought.

Then, last year, I spent a little time helping out with a family genealogy project.  I thought it was just a one-off, at first.  I told myself it would be a laugh and I only did it because others were encouraging me.  Do they sound like the reasons addicts give?  They should do because suddenly, the whole thing seemed to become very addictive.  I was spending more time discovering details about ancestors I didn’t know existed on and when I wasn’t, I was thinking about the next time I’d be doing it.  

Before long, I’d discovered all sorts of priceless things.  One of the most surprising was that my paternal grandfather had had not just one but two older brothers who had died in their infancy – both called James – which explained a long-term curiosity of mine: why it was that the family tradition of including the name James had mysteriously seemed to skip his generation.  Ernest, my grandad, died in 2005 and I’ll never know how much he knew of the existence of his two tragic lost siblings.

I also looked deeper into one branch of the family tree that I did know something about.  My grandad’s mother was born Margaret Latham and an impressive sepia photograph of her wedding to my great-grandfather Ernie Bentham has hung on one wall or another for about as long as I can remember.  Decades ago, in moments where my apathy towards our family history must have seemed less apparent, I dimly remember being told that it was quite the social event of the year in Standish and that the place where the guests were assembled was in fact the lawn at The Beeches – the Latham family home.

Wedding of Ernest and Margaret
The Wedding of Ernie Bentham and Margaret Latham, 3rd September 1907. L-R: Thomas Latham, Martha Latham, Jane Latham, Rev. Charles Hutton, Catherine Latham, Ernie Bentham, Margaret Bentham (née Latham), unknown bridesmaid, James Bentham, unknown poss. Best Man, Alice Bentham.  Click image to enlarge.

Filled with a new-found fascination for the past, I decided to focus on this pivotal moment in our family’s history and find out more about that day and all the characters it brought forth.  First, the basic details.  The year was 1907.  Edward VII was on the throne, the Liberal Henry Campbell-Bannerman was Prime Minister and Britain was arguably at the peak of her imperial prowess.  Rather ironically for a period often romanticised for having endless golden summers, the country had spent much of the year with below-average temperatures, with June being a particularly dismal month.  The wedding took place on 3rd September and was conducted by the Reverend Charles Hutton, who would become one of the longest-serving rectors in the history of St. Wilfrid’s church.

Most people in Standish will have heard that The Beeches was the home of JB Almond, of the brewing family but it was actually built for Thomas Latham, a mining magnate from Orrell who had worked his way up from driving pit ponies to owning his own string of collieries from Ince to St. Helens.  He’d moved his wife, eight sons and three daughters from Gidlow Lane in Wigan to The Beeches on its completion in around 1903.  Margaret, his eldest daughter, had agreed to marry Ernie, the son of James Bentham, a cattle farmer who lived at another of Standish’s more desirable residences, Broomfield House on Bradley Lane.  It looked every inch the perfect union of two upstanding families – with all the conspicuous trimmings of industrial and agricultural wealth.

Bentham Latham wedding 1907
The Wedding Party on the lawn at The Beeches: Harold Latham is seated on the ground in the centre, between his mother Catherine Latham and his new brother-in-law Ernie Bentham.  The bell tower of St. Marie’s church can be seen in the background on the far right of the picture.  Click image to enlarge.

On another wedding photo, among all the starched collars and overflowing bouquets, sat rather awkwardly on the ground in front of the newlyweds, is 14 year-old Harold Latham, Margaret’s youngest brother.  Unlike many of his brothers, who joined their father in the mining industry, Harold was determined to enter the legal profession.  He’d been educated at Wigan Grammar School and was later to attend the highly-rated Kilgrimol School for Boys in St. Annes. Three and a half years after his sister’s wedding, during the 1911 census, he was recorded as being a Law student, boarding at the home of the Reverend Henry John Ferrall at The Parsonage, Heckingham in Norfolk.

1911 was a terrible year for the Latham family.  Reportedly, a downturn in fortunes had forced Thomas to sell The Beeches to his friend, JB Almond some time after April – the 1911 census shows the Latham family were still living there on April 2nd.  There’s no record of whether or not the stress of his financial situation affected his health but on November 26th, Thomas Latham died, aged 60.  Just as the death of Edward VII the year before had done with the Royal family, the baton was passed to the next generation of the dynasty.  After the comforts and certainties of the Edwardian age, they were all about to face a very different, very difficult decade.

By the summer of 1914, Harold was aged 21 and in the process of pursuing his vocation.  Working under the Town Clerk of Wigan, he’d passed his intermediate exams and had only his final exams to pass in order to become a qualified solicitor.  Upto this point, his life had been filled with privilege and opportunity – at a time when living conditions were decidedly less comfortable for the vast majority of those around him.  He’d lost his father at 60, a brother aged 27 and at least two nephews in infancy so he was not untouched by tragedy – although life expectancy and child mortality in those days would have meant such experiences were far less remarkable then, than now.  Barely eleven weeks after coming of age, he was tantalisingly close to joining his chosen profession and making his mark on the world.

Unfortunately, in a distant country, a man called Gavrilo Princip was also about to make his own fateful mark on the world – by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.  With Europe controlled by four huge colonial superpowers, each protective of their interests and mostly ruled by related monarchs, jealous and distrustful of one other, the ensuing diplomatic crisis created a chain reaction of measures, pushing the whole continent ever closer to the brink of war.  When German troops marched into Belgium, Britain was forced to honour her 1839 treaty with the Belgians and declared war on Germany at 11pm on 4th August 1914.


Initially, Harold and his brothers were under no obligation to sign up to fight.  Patriotic fervour was such that almost half a million men enlisted within two months, added to whom were another quarter of a million underage boys, seeking either adventure or an escape from poverty, or both.  Lord Kitchener, War Secretary (he of the iconic recruitment poster) felt it vital to treble Britain’s army, expecting a long conflict, and pushed to sustain recruitment at 92,000 a month.  They were ambitious numbers and conscription was the obvious solution but the Liberal Government was uncomfortable with the idea and instead sanctioned a huge propaganda effort to compel more men to volunteer.

An unlikely ally in the recruitment drive was a section of the women’s Suffrage movement.  It became not uncommon for patriotic women to approach men of military age in the street and present them with a white feather, a symbol of cowardice, as a means to shame them to enlist.  There’s no evidence that any of the Latham brothers were approached in this way but knowledge of the practice was widespread and any man, particularly from affluent, influential families who had chosen not to volunteer did so in the knowledge that he was inviting public questioning of his honour.

Whatever their motivation, Harold and four of his six surviving brothers (Jack Latham had died in 1906) volunteered for service in early 1915.  Frustratingly, there’s no mention of which of his brothers joined up with him.  Logic would suggest it was the youngest four of the six: eldest brothers William (40) and Daniel (38) were possibly considered too old for service.  Furthermore, both were active in coal-mining, which meant they could have been included among one and a half million men who were “starred” – designated as working in an essential occupation.  If that supposition is correct, Harold would have enlisted along with Dick (24), Edward (25), Ernest (31) and Thomas Jr. (33).  Harold’s record shows he joined the Royal Engineers, was given the Service Number 72750 and was posted to the 25th Division Signals Company.  

In May 1915, Harold and his unit moved to Aldershot to begin final war training. They received their service rifles in August and early in September, the Division was inspected by King George V.  On 25th September 1915, they were deployed to France but the first mention of their engagement in battle was eight months later, holding ground captured weeks earlier at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Signals fulfilled a vital communications role between front line and command.  Attached to the Royal Engineers, it’s almost certain that they would have been conveying messages to and from the specialist and newly-expanded tunnelling units as they fought to repel the German offensive Operation Schleswig-Holstein.  A total of 2,475 British casualties were suffered over three days, including 637 from the 25th Division.

If that was a brutal introduction to the war, Harold’s next documented action, a few weeks later, was to become even more synonymous with carnage.  The 25th Signals are recorded as being deployed at the Battle of Albert at the beginning of the Somme battles on 3rd July 1916, two days after its commencement on 1st July, still the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army with over 57,000 casualties.  When Harold’s unit arrived, they were to spend the next two weeks in an environment in which a further 25,000 British casualties were suffered – and this was only the opening phase of one of the defining battles of the whole war.

The next three months were spent in a succession of battles around the Somme, supporting General Haig’s autumn offensive.  His Company was involved at Bazentin Ridge, Pozieres Ridge, Mouquet Farm, Ancre Heights, Thiepval Ridge and the capture of the Regina Trench.

It’s unclear if Harold and his comrades were then allowed any R&R in the months that followed The Somme or if the onset of winter merely ensured hostilities slowed while both sides dug in.  The Company’s record shows their next engagement was The Battle of Messines in Flanders in June 1917, a result of some gained ground over the winter and spring.  The battle was significant as it represented a successful British intervention after the failure of the French-led spring offensive, which had resulted in demoralisation and desertion in the French ranks.

What followed was another posting at a battle whose very name was to symbolise the carnage of the war – Passchendaele.  The 25th Signals’ record refers, more prosaically, to the Battle of Picklem Ridge, Ypres but the date – 31st July – leaves no doubt.  Harold’s company saw action again at the capture of Westhoek in August but seemed to remain absent from the rest of the battle, which ran until October that year.

Soldiers of the Australian 4th Division on a duckboard track passing through Chateau Wood, near Hooge, Ypres, 29 October 1917.

Again, there is no record of the Company being involved in combat over the winter months but in March 1918, Harold’s comrades were engaged in the Battle of St. Quentin, thus described by the Forces War Records website: “German artillery launched the largest artillery bombardment of the war, swiftly followed by rapidly advancing shock troops, against the British Fifth Army, Third Army and units of the First Army stationed in and around St. Quentin”.  With the subsequent loss of ground to the German advance, fighting continued on to Baupame on 24th March.

Throughout April, the unit were engaged in various activities in the Battles of the Lys, towards the Belgian border.  In May, the unit travelled further south to Huit Voisins, just outside Reims to assist French efforts to repel Operation Blucher in the Battle of the Aisne.

A further gap appears in the record of the 25th Signals throughout the summer of 1918, implying R&R (troops were supposed to spend equal amounts of time rotating between front line roles, in support roles, in reserve or resting) with their next active service on 4th October 1918 at the assault on the Hindenburg Line, as part of the Battle of St. Quentin Canal, alongside the Australian 2nd Division.

With the Armistice only 38 days away, Harold Latham had now been stationed in France for over three years.  Records show his unit had been present at two of the most fearsome battles of the war – possibly of any war – and while the records only detail the Company’s movements, not that of each individual, it’s more than likely that Corporal H Latham was there to witness it all and survive.  From today’s perspective, it’s easy to look at this date and presume that after enduring so much, with so little time left in the war, he must surely have made it back to Blighty, to Standish and to a rewarding legal career.  Unfortunately, this was not to be.

On 6th October 1918, as the 25th Division were about to capture the town of Beaurevoir, Harold was severely wounded and taken to a casualty clearing station behind the front line, just one of 8,802 British casualties in the battle.  Sadly, he succumbed to his injuries and died the next day, aged 25.  Sunday 7th October this year was the centenary of his death.

Cpl HL Report Scan

Harold Latham’s untimely passing occurred barely a month before the end of the war in a battle that historians have suggested was so pivotal to the campaign, it began to convince the German high command that there was now little hope of overall victory.  It seemed that, apart from the beginning of the Western Front conflict, Harold had been present at many of its most significant moments.  Cruelly, he would be denied the chance to see it to its very end.

On November 2nd 1918, following the official process of notification and with a mere nine days of the war left, the Wigan Observer posted notice of Harold’s death.  His mother, Catherine was by then 65 and living in Southport.  The report also mentions that one of his four serving brothers had been discharged while the other three were still in France.

Cpl. Latham was buried in the Tincourt New British Cemetery at Tincourt-Boucly, approximately 40 miles east of Amiens, 40 miles south of Lens.  He was one of 1,114,914 British soldiers to die in the “Great War” and one of seventy-eight from Standish.  When the Peace Gate was completed in October 1926, his name was duly included in the list of the local fallen.

It’s also fitting to mention that during the First World War, Harold’s adolescent home, The Beeches, was commandeered and converted to a Voluntary Aid Detachment Hospital, known as “Woodlands No.3”, administering aid and recuperation to returning injured personnel – including, perhaps, Harold’s discharged brother.  Last year, at the start of our genealogy project, I was fortunate to visit The Beeches and meet the new owners as their renovations began.  The plans for the restaurant look exciting and I’m looking forward to dining there when it opens. 

As a footnote, I now wonder if any aspect of this new use for the old building could be named after or inspired by Corporal Harold Latham, reflecting its proud wartime connections.  It would be a fitting tribute to a man whose life story deserves more recognition and a timely way to encourage the people of Standish to welcome the new venture.


It’s Only Words (To Take Your Heart Away?)


“The Impotence of Being Earnest”

I believe it was Søren Kierkegaard who once said “If you label me, you negate me”.  Already, I’m sensing you’re rolling your eyes at the audacity of my quoting a 19th-century Danish philosopher, without any warning.  “Oh no, here we go.  What an absolute [insert insult of choice]”.  Hold on a moment, though.  Wouldn’t your chosen term of abuse be a label, meaning you’ve rather spectacularly missed our Scandinavian friend’s point?

Søren Kierkegaard.  Photo: Wikipedia

You’d also be falling into the trap I’ve laid for you.  It was a pretentious quote but not entirely in the way it seems.  I’m pretending to quote Kierkegaard but it’s actually a line from the 1992 film ‘Wayne’s World’, a far less academically significant (therefore a more socially acceptable) source.  If I’d said I was quoting “Wayne from ‘Wayne’s World’”, would that have made the label any more flattering?  Would it negate me any less if it was? 

In recent years, as the public discourse in the UK, the US and elsewhere seems to have grown more adversarial and unsophisticated, I’ve found myself reminded more and more of Wayne Campbell’s unsuccessful chat-up line.  Maybe I am a little over-sensitive to the choices of words used by anyone in power whose intentions are unclear – or conversely, as seems to be increasingly the case, perhaps most people aren’t sensitive enough.

The Scientific Case

“Of Course It’s In Your Head – Why Would That Mean It’s Not Real?”

For over a century, the disciplines of Psychology (the study of the mind) and Linguistics (the study of Language) have found themselves frequently intertwined.  The central argument that has always drawn these two distinct areas of study together is this:  Language determines Thought.  It’s important to say that I’m in no way posing as an expert in either field.  I did a little Cognitive and Social Psychology at University and for a year, I lived next door to a Linguist – and no, he wasn’t a cunning one.  I can google ‘psycholinguistics’, read about Piagetian cognitive determinism and name-drop the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but I won’t pretend to understand any of it fully and it won’t make much difference to my basic premise that you or I don’t.  It’s just important that you keep in mind the widely-supported proposition that the words we use and hear used go some way – perhaps a long way – to influencing the way we think.

I have, however, worked in Marketing for over twenty years so it’s fair to say that I’ve written enough copy to know how to use language to seek to gain acceptance and approval from the reader – the keys to being able to persuade them.  I’ve been to seminars in which eminently more experienced wordsmiths than I am have forensically deconstructed their craft as part science, part art – often a dark art.  We’re all consumers of products – which makes us all consumers of advertising.  It shouldn’t be hugely controversial to suggest we’re all to some extent aware of it when others are trying to change the way we think about something and yet the practice still works remarkably well for it to continue to exist.  If you don’t just love a McDonald’s meal but you’re “lovin’” the experience of going there, that word has influenced, possibly even determined, your thought.  Yes it’s a free country and you may have been free to make the choice to visit the ‘Golden Arches’ but how free were you to arrive at that thought?  Consequently, if 300 million people don’t hear the name ‘Hillary’ without it being prefixed by the word ‘crooked’, what is that going to do to the unconscious opinion of her with a large swathe of them?  It’s what psychologists (and marketers) call the ‘mere exposure’ hypothesis.

The Historical Case

“Time’s Arrow”

What about when the same techniques are applied even more nefariously?  Let’s not mess about here, I’m going to go all ‘Godwin’s Law’ at this point and use one of the most chilling, notorious, shameful examples of persuasive writing – just to prove that it actually happened: “Arbeit Macht Frei”.  It’s German and it translates as “Work Makes You Free”.  Have you remembered where you’ve seen it, yet?  It was (and still is) written above the gates at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, possibly the site of the very worst of humanity’s depravity.  The context is clear: those that were sent there, arriving in a state of fear, were met with a message of promise and a condition.  “You may feel trapped and persecuted right now but if you work hard here, you’ll actually be free”.  Even without knowing what happened next, it’s an incredibly shocking attempt at a strapline.  When you then consider that “Freedom” seems to be a deliberate euphemism for the reader’s impending death, it’s breathtaking in its soul-crushing brutality.  The real lesson that this example teaches us is not just that it’s a fairly crude attempt at thought control but that such a crude phrase was used so brazenly, so utterly cynically.  

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, where we all feel we know better and could never possibly return to those sick, twisted days, there’s a small, nagging suggestion that we may not be as wise as we think.  Arguably, we’re still happy to support those who would use our language against us, so have we really learned from our species’ mistakes – and is our complacent belief that we have aiding and abetting aspiring thought-controllers of the future?

The Literary Case

“The Right To Tell People What They Do Not Want To Hear”

At the forefront of the effort to ensure that the horrors of totalitarianism must never be revisited was, of course, George Orwell.  In his scathing critique of the subject ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, he shrewdly included the vital role that the distortion of language could play as a means to facilitate and perpetuate an all-powerful state.  “Newspeak”, the name given to the dangerously re-defined, state-approved form of language was the means by which concepts such as “doublethink” (a means by which one fact simultaneously demonstrates the opposite) could possibly exist.  Logically, it seems perverse to assert a patently self-contradictory statement such as “War is Peace” but the practice of doublethink, delivered in the approved guise of newspeak, would eventually compel Orwell’s oppressed inhabitants of “Airstrip One” to agree that it must be the case.  

You may think this is all a little extreme and scare-mongering but the context is vital.  It was written in 1948 and propaganda was a huge part of the war effort on all sides.  It had long been understood that to control what is believed to be “the truth” is to control a war effort and, by extension, a war – the famous quote about the truth being “the first casualty” of war was anecdotally attributed to Californian Governor, later Senator Hiram Johnson, in about 1916.  Orwell’s genius suggestion was that by maintaining a perpetual state of war, his totalitarian regime was able to maintain a permanent control of truth itself. 

Today, it’s a rather sad irony that, rather than his masterpiece and its darkest ideas being fully understood by all, they have, for many, become trite buzzwords from TV shows in which mildly perilous situations occur – an undesired form of newspeak, you might conclude.  Viewers of ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ may know of the Orwellian connection but without having read the book, can have no grasp of the gulf that exists between the plight of Winston Smith and that of the guests of Frank Skinner or Davina McCall et al.

The Semantic Case

“Warning: Implicit Content”

As our friend Søren would no doubt agree, the problem with labels is that they are generally one of many ways to describe a person or a group which can be used wholly to define them, removing natural complexity and using a simplistic shorthand instead.  Too often, we don’t really identify it’s happening when others use labels and we rarely notice when we do it ourselves.  Labels allow unspoken connotation to fill in the gaps and strip out context and nuance.  It takes effort to realise that there’s more to the simplistic description than is being made explicit and it’s too easy to derive a wider, unsaid, implied meaning.  

The other problem is that we all have many applicable labels at all times; some of which present us positively, many of which don’t.  I’m a father, a husband, a dog-owner, a tax-payer, a voter and a graduate which I would hope all sound like good things to be.  I’m also an SUV-driver, a cyclist, a caravanner, a Libran and a football fan, descriptions which do not always meet with universal popularity and can be used, in isolation, to undermine.  Furthermore, depending on your particular perspective, my applicable geographic labels of Lancastrian, Northerner, Englishman and Briton may or may not derive positive acclaim.  Subjectiveness, relative to an audience hugely affects the positivity, or otherwise, of a label.  If someone wanted to create antipathy towards me from a Yorkshire audience, guess which label would be most useful in achieving that aim?  What if the audience was from London?  Or Wales?  Or Germany?  Labels make it easy to discredit and are too easily met with unquestioning acceptance.

The Pragmatic Case

“That’s No Way To Go, Does Your Mother Know?”

To a certain extent, none of the above should be that surprising.  Most parents will recognise the important distinction between the justifiable chastisement “you’ve behaved stupidly” and the altogether more dismissive “you’re stupid”.  We take care not to label children when they err because it’s unfair and it sets a poor example – yet we seem to forget all that when it comes to the behaviour of adults.  Anyone can behave idiotically.  It’s a complicated world – so we tend to simplify idiocy by distributing it at the individual rather than the event level.  

Social psychologists have observed from studies that people tend to attribute judgements of others due to “dispositional factors above situational factors”.  Mothers have long discouraged their children from taking such a disposition-centric view by encouraging the more situationalist “they can’t help it and probably didn’t mean it”.  When we grow out of childhood, such guidance shouldn’t need to change – but as we become more hard-bitten by life experience, it just seems as if it is advice more appropriate for children.

The Logical Case

“Therefore, My Dog Is A Cat”

There’s also the issue of flawed logic to consider.  Mathematicians have long known about something called the Conditional Probability Fallacy – a logical trap that suggests that if one thing is represented in another, the opposite must also be true.  As a species, we seem to be innately disposed to accept certain binary truths and it’s logical for us to attempt to apply that trusted model wherever we see two states in a relationship.  “Darkness equals night” so it’s obviously equally true that “night equals darkness”.  The fallacy exists when such a relationship between the two states is implied, hence: “All fathers are male” – so all males are fathers?  A simple logical ‘sense check’ is often enough to debunk the flawed conclusion here – our own experience tells us It’s obvious that the inverse cannot be true.  

What if there’s insufficient personal experience to undermine the proposition?  What if the intricacies of such logical traps are exploited to an audience largely unaware of their existence?  Can we be conned, en masse, merely by implication?  For example, it’s easy to imagine the suggestion raised by the logical relationship ‘All jihadists are Muslim” – so are we being invited by anyone who asserts this point to conclude that “all Muslims are jihadists”?  Why is their religion suddenly important in this context, anyway?  Where is the consistency with other descriptions of terrorists?  When the UK was beset by horrifying attacks by the IRA, a supposedly exclusively Catholic Irish Republican militia, they were never described as “Christian terrorists”.  Is it fair to surmise that there’s a reason for such inconsistency?  Is there a justification for it?  

The Legal Case

“You Can’t Handle The Truth!”

We trust our politicians and news outlets to deal in the truth but from a legal standpoint, that’s only a third of the requirement.  Any witness in a court of law – arguably the arena where words matter most –  must swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.  We’ve heard this seemingly quaint legalistic phrase so often that its incredibly profound meaning tends to be lost.  It’s of huge significance that there are three strands of truth in this well-worn saying and they absolutely do not mean the same thing repeated twice merely to add gravitas.  Logically speaking, there are three very distinct requirements to be met by this oath.  Firstly, there’s “the truth”:  Is X factually correct, yes or no?  In answering this point, is the requirement for the statement to be comprehensively true: does it explain all facets raised by the question truthfully or does it omit any elements that are also true and inconvenient to include?  Finally, the need to strip away misleading detail: does the answer include other, spurious information, implied by its inclusion to be equally true and relevant?

In law, circumstantial evidence is deemed to be be flimsy and generally inadmissible.  In the media and, far too often, in public debate, little distinction is drawn between material and immaterial fact.  One provides insight to a story, the other adds innuendo.  Guess which of the two additions tends to be most commercially attractive?

There’s a reason that physical representations of Justice are traditionally depicted as ‘blind’, her eyes generally obscured by a blindfold.  It’s precisely because the Law is expected to ignore such spurious details as may be supposed just by looking at a person (i.e. “nothing but the truth”).  A verdict must be based solely on the facts presented, in the expectation that they are exhaustive and untrammelled by concoction, regardless of wealth, power or any other supposedly irrelevant factor of those on either side.  No politician or news outlet is bound as strictly to these principles and, by extension, their ability to convey what might be termed ‘absolute truth’ is inevitably inferior.

The Digital Case

“A Binary Expression”

In an ever-more inter-connected world, words travel further and elicit more words of riposte from more respondents than ever before.  With such inordinate possibility and reach, has humanity used the adolescent phase of the internet principally to broaden its mind and further its understanding?  Sadly, the evidence suggests, in the main, that it hasn’t.  Indeed, we’ve tended to deal with the exploding plurality of opinion and viewpoint by most commonly retreating to the comfort and solace of people with whom we are most in agreement, like disparate prehistoric tribes retreating to their various, demarcated caves. 

In our ‘echo chambers’, our digital ghettos, we appear to be doing what social psychologists have always observed in group dynamics: emphasise intra-group similarities and highlight inter-group differences, like opposing sets of football fans.  Here again, language is a useful stick – striking a drum to emphasise unity and beating those to whom that unity does not apply.  With all the zealotry of the Spanish Inquisition, those who are judged to be heretical to the orthodoxy of one side or the other are denounced as ‘snowflakes’, ‘libtards’, ‘fascists’, ‘leftists’, ‘Blairites’ or ‘TERFs’ to name but a few epithets.  Similarly, the mere mention of these terms of heresy is sufficient to remove any further right of explanation or mitigation to be heard, like the man being branded a blasphemer in the always-relevant ‘Life of Brian’.  In short, the process of labelling doesn’t just negate individuals in these circumstances, it can defenestrate them of their credibility. 

A clear example of the ease with which negative labels can be proliferated in the digital age is the much-discussed ‘Centrist Dad’.  Aside from the fact that it is principally designed to trivialise and undermine a particular assumed set of views, like any other label, it would appear to take the principle a stage further.  To its proponents, the term generally represents a frustration at a perceived lack of radicalism that they would believe is necessary, a dismay at the supposed reliance on much of the status quo.  Aside from the implied sexism and ageism of the term, it is essentially a disapproval of ‘Centrism’.  The trouble with this term is that it is only really clearly defined by that which it is not – radical leftism or indeed rightism – rather than that which it can be said to be.  Centrism is therefore analogous to atheism, which is defined merely as the absence of a belief system rather than an ‘active’ position in and of itself.  So-called ‘centrists’ subsequently find themselves being thus defined more for a set of values that they don’t hold rather than any that they demonstrably do.  This appears to be clear with-us-or-against-us posturing – and history holds dark warnings for that kind of simplistic tribalism.

And then there’s the media in the digital age.  Like any other consumer product, media proliferation has led to a huge increase of news providers, each subsisting on ever-narrower niches of audience type.  Unlike things like breakfast cereal, which has also found itself in a market in which it must accommodate more choices, tailored more closely to a more specific clientèle, it seems questionable whether news should operate in this way.  British newspapers always represented a fairly diverse range of readers but reporting of facts generally superseded the in-house interpretation of their significance and so the Guardian and the Telegraph, while ideologically opposite, would report essentially the same stories, albeit differently paginated and analysed according to their (and their readers’) politics. 

When the world wide web was barely a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye and I was but a sixth-form student, I tended to spend my Monday mornings trying to avoid doing my Maths A-Level homework by reading each of the day’s newspapers in the library.  Today, I believe that the appreciation it gave me of the role of a broad yet largely responsible media landscape was the best education I received at that time, consistently far more meaningful than my questionable ability to perform differentiation from first principles or indeed identify a Poisson distribution.  As a result, I find myself suitably dismayed and alarmed at the willingness of a legitimised partisan press to use the language of their own tribal agenda, abandoning the media’s traditional role of observer and analyst, in order to become a willing participant.  Most depressingly, those outlets that attempt to retain a vestige of objective detachment are now being demeaned by the dismissive label “Mainstream Media”.  Somehow, this is what we seem to believe to be progress.

Words are also being used accordingly to reinforce another growing social trend: the rise of simplicity or – as it’s described by Stephen Fry – infantilism, of debate.  Nuance seems to beyond the grasp of many, brought up on oversimplified phone-in radio debates and most issues find themselves being reduced to saccharine Good/Bad questions.  Is this helpful when debating the most difficult questions we face?  Complexity is an inherent component – or should be – to any far-reaching question.  For that reason, the answer is not simple and anyone who claims otherwise is likely to be doing so for expeditious reasons.  BAD! – with a commensurate level of qualifiers…

The Evolving Case

“If You Tolerate This, Then Your Children Will Be Next”

There have always been ways for the unscrupulous in power to self-aggrandise or denigrate those with whom they would disagree and, as Orwell and many others have shown, attempts to distort the meaning of words to suit an agenda is a recurrent one.  Of course, they aren’t all as pernicious as newspeak.  Some methods are older and simpler than others but they’re all employed with the same aim in mind – to influence our perception.

The old favourite among politicians is to speak with such eloquence and articulacy, that most people won’t stop to wonder if they’ve been lied to.  It’s therefore no surprise that when everybody’s favourite Victorian throwback MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was invited to admit his investment company’s stance on the financial uncertainties of Brexit seemed at odds with his stated political position, he merely brushed off the matter by suggesting there was “terminological inexactitude” in the assertion (a phrase first adopted by Churchill in 1906 to circumvent the prohibited practice of using the term ‘lying’ in Parliament).  Just as he expected, the country sniggered at the archaic delivery and chose largely to overlook the suspicion that ‘Jaunty Jacob’ had been putting his money somewhere other than where his mouth was.   

I suspect you’ve been waiting for the next bit.  I hope you’ll agree I’ve tried to restrict myself from returning to the Trump well of lexical chicanery thus far but then I’d hate to disappoint you so here it is, probably his most egregious example.  When an earlier video emerged, during the 2016 US election, of Donald Trump’s startling boasts of what he felt his fame allowed him to do and say around women, the matter was then raised at the second televised Presidential debate.  Famously, his main defence was “It’s just words, folks. It’s just words”, an astounding attempt to discredit his accusation by simply dismissing the importance of words – the very currency with which he was attempting to ascend to the office he holds today.  Protectors of the power of language were horrified – notably JK Rowling who later tweeted that “If they [words] don’t matter, we’re all lost” – and then were further horrified to note that a wide section of the American public were happy to accept the explanation, uncritically.  Once again, the most shocking examples of the abuse of language are not the most sophisticated examples but the brazenness with which the most crude versions are employed. 

Finally, it’s important to note that the powerful do not have the monopoly on distorting language to further their own causes.  Recent years have seen those with less power adopting a similar technique – with concerning implications.  No-one should want to undermine the experience of minorities in their struggle to gain equal recognition and representation but to a language purist, it’s equally unedifying to see certain groups explaining their experiences and situations with the phrase “my truth”.  It’s understandable that the assertion is that their perspective on issues is different and needs to be more widely understood but can it be right that the word ‘truth’, which is supposed to be an absolute, can now be treated like any common noun and fall under the auspices of a possessive?  This isn’t merely a point of grammar but one of meaning itself.  Surely there can only be one truth, however many interpretations of it there may be.  If we complicitly downgrade the term ‘truth’ to mean little more than ‘opinion’, aren’t we devaluing the very concept of truth itself? 

Such concerns are brought into sharper relief when, inevitably, the language of the powerless is then appropriated by the powerful.  During the furore that surrounded Serena Williams’ conduct at the 2018 US Open Final, opinions swirled that she was both a powerful, millionaire athlete or the victim of sexism and racism, depending upon the level of support or condemnation being proclaimed.  Headlines such as “Serena Williams is being punished for speaking her truth” legitimise the concept in the vernacular and will offer those who seek to further themselves by factual obfuscation with another useful tool to achieving it.

No wonder we’re being described as living in a “Post-truth” world but the very existence of such a phrase is, to my mind, hardly a portent of promise.  If nothing is going to mean anything anymore, shouldn’t we be more worried that the most basic principles that anchor our hard-won rights are under the same threat of being erased?


Southgate, Redemption & Coming Home

Today, I went to Chorley. Nothing particularly noteworthy or even relevant in that, on this day of all days, you might think. In fairness, you’d be right – unless you’re aware of then significance it has to me.

What’s the tale? Okay, ‘long story short(er)’ version: It’s Euro ‘96. I’ve managed to get corporate tickets to Old Trafford for the first semi-final (France v Czech Republic) which went to penalties and even then ‘sudden death’ penalties. Eventually, the Czechs managed to win, which meant we had less than an hour to get in front of a TV to watch the other semi – England v Germany – from Wembley.

I decided to eschew my lift back to the nice Cheshire hotel which had been our earlier rendezvous, calculating that to get there would mean missing the first 20 minutes, and take my chances in getting a tram into Manchester. I joined the hordes thronging around Old Trafford (cricket ground) station and, soon enough found my way on the Metrolink into town.

Only days beforehand, Manchester city centre had been attacked by the IRA and all the way from Deansgate station there were boarded up windows and a sense of being in a war zone. I chose to get off at Piccadilly Gardens and find a pub showing the match.

It was still the mid-nineties so not every hostelry was equipped with a television, although it was easy to spot those that weren’t – they were empty. Conversely, the rest were jam-packed. After trying a few – and with kick-off approaching – I decided I’d have to cram myself into the next available bar, which I did in a place my failing memory tells me might have been called the Brunswick Tavern. As I squeezed my way in, the place erupted. Alan Shearer had scored in the first minute.

As you’ll almost certainly know, the next couple of hours consisted of a German equaliser, numerous agonisingly close chances for an England winner and a penalty shoot-out that was lost when a young centre-half called Gareth Southgate had his kick saved. It’s written deep into English footballing folklore.

As the game had worn on and tensions had increased, the dozens of random strangers had begun to forge a bond and, once poor Gareth had enshrined his place in Pizza Hut ad ignominy, the numbers had shrunk such that those that remained were now buying each other drinks and communally crying into them. I have no idea now who I was commiserating with but, more to the point, at that juncture, filled with numbness, I had no idea (or interest) what time it was.

Of course the important temporal issue was that of the last train home (to Wigan) and by the time I got to Piccadilly Station, it became apparent that I’d missed it. The only alternative to a night on Manchester’s streets or an embarrassing call to my parents was the last service to Blackpool, which stopped at Chorley.

Quickly sobering up, I caught the Blackpool train and managed to stay awake to alight at Chorley – where I realised I had nowhere near enough money to get a taxi home.

Filled with the fatalistic hubris of alcohol and existential angst, I decided to sod everything and walk the seven or so miles home. It took me three hours and I only got to bed at about four o’clock (in the daylight) with sore feet, a degree of dehydration and a heavy heart. Despite the years and the inebriation, I still remember much of that walk home.

I remembered today, as I drove past Birkacre Garden Centre the (probably long-departed) guard dog that barked at me as I trudged haplessly past its domain 22 years ago. I remembered my frustration and empathy for Southgate, knowing he would be portrayed as a villain of the piece but, even then, knowing that he was one of football’s good guys and ill-deserving of his inevitable notoriety.

Today, en route to Chorley and, in particular, as I drove past Chorley Station, I reflected on Gareth’s redemption, his reassuring example that nice guys don’t always finish last and hoped that, this time, England’s semi-final would end in easy victory, not in unedifying dismay.

In the end, it was neither. Clearly, victory has eluded Gareth (and the rest of us) again but this time, abject desolation in defeat has been replaced by dignity and optimism. It may be another four years of ‘hurt’ but it’s an interlude that has given the nation a prevailing sense hope rather than scorn. Above all, it has vindicated Southgate, resurrected him from the grip of those dark days and left us wanting him to be the man to inherit the mantle of Alf Ramsey – as with Sir Alf, a knighthood has already been suggested.

England fans don’t expect to win tournaments – we just would rather not be significantly disappointed. We tend not to set our sights too high, usually settling for quarter-finals as our ‘par’ score. In reaching the semis, you could say we’ve gloriously over-achieved. That didn’t feel particularly true in our home tournament in 1996 but it is now. Above all, I hope we can find the stability to give these players – and the manager – the chance to do this again and perhaps fulfil the fleeting promise they gave to go even further.

It didn’t feel like much fun at the time but that long walk home is now a cherished memory – and I’d happily walk further, if it was as a consequence of winning a semi-final.

Notes On A Shrinking Planet

Travel.  It’s such a short, functional word which has come to represent something far more profound than its brevity implies, like ‘time’, ‘life’ and ‘politics’.  Too often, it’s a word associated only with the mechanics of moving around the world, rather than the effect of doing so.  Perhaps the term ‘transportation’ would better describe the simple relocation that is the very minimum requirement of ‘travel’ in its correct, widest sense.

Still, we’re in something of an etymological mess when it comes to finding the right words for this rather modern phenomenon.  Our default choice in Britain is ‘holiday’, derived from the Victorian practice of visiting a coastal town en masse on a “holy day” – hardly relevant to today’s more secular, less patriarchal society.  Even in America where adopted terms are simplified (‘sidewalk’?) and tend to concentrate on the benefit they provide, the best they can muster to describe the act of leaving home is the effect it has on the home itself – ‘vacation’ – rather than the effect on the person doing the vacating.  It all means that in little more than a few generations, the prevailing notion of travel has grown far beyond the capacity of any pre-existing word adequately to portray it.

Like most normal kids from a normal background, thirty years ago, my ideas of travel were shaped largely by the narrow band of TV shows dedicated to the subject.  While otherworldly figures like Alan Whicker bestrode the globe and sardonically described its most esteemed sights, regular, affordable travel tended to be defined by the more accessible, stereotype-laden clichés of ‘Duty Free’ and ‘Wish You Were Here?’ on millions of screens each week.  The average pre-teen of the early 1980s would have felt destined, almost consigned to a future of sangria-fuelled straw donkey collecting on a diet of burgers and chips while being careful not to order ice in the drinks.

It’s precisely this mindset that Peter Kay channels when he riffs on calling home and telling everyone there that ‘Les Fingres’ abroad taste exactly the same.  We laugh at that routine because we’ve lived it – and we sort of expected that always to be the case.  We knew we were unlikely to become smooth, debonair operators like the aforementioned Whicker, with his unlimited budget and James Bond-like ability to infiltrate the world in which ‘the other half’ lived.  And yet, Whicker was every bit as much a stereotype as the cheap-gag Spanish waiter, albeit a much more alluring one.  Our diet of travel-based entertainment seemed to consist only of hotel paella or QE2 caviar.  In the aspiring Eighties, it soon became clear that such a narrow menu would not be enough.

In the 1990s, various TV chefs became credited with creating a new genre of entertainment by breaking the mould of unnecessarily fussy and unattainable representation of cookery.  Ten years previously, the same thing happened to travel TV.  The year was 1988 and the person was Michael Palin.  It was the “former Python” who reprised Jules Verne’s fictional quest to travel around the world in eighty days – an assignement widely believed to have been previously turned down by Whicker himself.  In doing so, Palin carved a secondary career, arguably redefining the concept of travel for an entire generation.

It was travel television presented by a comedian who was famous for being in a show I didn’t remember, re-tracing the plot of a book I hadn’t read, in places I was sure I’d never visit.  In theory, it should have held no appeal to me at all.  And yet, Palin displayed his trademark avuncular silliness, laced with disarmingly profound observations in often gritty or unlikely surroundings.  He was the very antithesis of the emblazered Whicker or the perma-tanned Chalmers, a refreshing antidote to the established pomposity of most TV travel show presenters.  I was hooked – and found myself counting the hours until next week’s episode.

In Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg’s eponymous challenge is perfect example of a ‘MacGuffin’, a classic literary device in which a character’s compulsion to do something provides the motivation for a story to develop.  Fogg’s desire to win a ridiculous bar-room bet is therefore little more than a thin excuse for him to visit lots of places and give Verne the makings of a plot.  From a writer’s eye, Fogg – and indeed Palin – seem to reinforce the sense that in travel (or indeed, depending upon your philosophy, in life itself), the destination is not as important as the journey.

Looking back, there was more than met the contemporary eye to commend Palin’s ’80 Days’ – it would take decades for us to realise it.  Before setting off from the Reform Club, Palin had already involved two other Pythons, Terrys Jones and Gilliam, discussing their thoughts on his epic quest, with each setting him a challenge to bring back a specific item (one being a Chinese roof tile).  I’m sure this was simply a blatant attempt to add another couple of ‘star’ names to the billing in an attempt to garner a few more viewers but their mutual regard, unforced humour and Pythonesque (can you use that word when it’s actually used to describe the Pythons themselves?) randomness showed that travel didn’t have to be so very serious and, given a little education and inquisitiveness, could become a source of entertainment in and of itself.


The second revelation, an altogether more prescient one, came when Palin arrived in Hong Kong.  There, he was met by an old friend, Basil Pao, who showed him the sights of his home town.  Like most people watching, I didn’t imagine I was ever likely to meet an old friend anywhere overseas – any more than I ever thought I would visit Hong Kong.  This was simply something that only famous, jet-set people could ever do.  It seemed like a reminder that Michael, for all his accessible celebrity-next-door persona, was, after all, far more likely to be found in real life flying to New York on Concorde than on the Dover to Calais Townsend Thoresen service.  We still watched and forgave what seemed like a lapse into more conventional, idealised travel programming because we knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be standing frustratedly at another dockside, worrying about missing his next connection.

If you never saw the series or don’t remember the outcome, our Mike did eventually manage to succeed in his challenge.  While the twist in Fogg’s circumnavigation was the overlooked ‘extra’ day provided by eastward travel that Verne cleverly added, Palin’s last-minute complication was the more prosaic and altogether more dispiriting combination of rudeness from British Rail and intransigence from the Reform Club.  After a wonderful celebration of meeting people from many other countries, once back in Britain he could do no more than rather anti-climactically wrap up the story in front of the closed doors of the spectacularly out-of-touch establishment.  At least he managed to bring back that roof tile.

Fast forward almost thirty years and the whole concept of commercially-available travel has been largely transformed, thanks in no small part to the man upon whom John Cleese once bestowed the title The Nicest Man In England.  Palin then went on to travel from one Pole to the other, circumvent the Pacific, cross the Himalayas and do a plethora of other “boy’s own”-type voyages, building a career as a travelogue presenter that now almost eclipses his status as a member of one of the greatest comedy acts that ever drew laughter.  Looking back at ATWIED (as we must now abbreviate TV programme names), many viewers today may completely fail to understand the relevance of the whole ‘lumberjack’ segment he did in North America.  Philistines.

If Michael Palin opened the door to what travel might become, he didn’t exactly enable it.  Greater levels of aspiration, driven by steadily increasing levels of affordability have led, inevitably you might conclude, to an Experience economy.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to simply be somewhere else, you had to do something different and noteworthy while you were there.  As with TV channels, types of car, supermarkets and cuisine, travel options to the masses began to proliferate, with ever-smaller, more specific segments of the market being catered for.  It didn’t matter if you wanted to go wine-tasting, take in a safari, spend a week on the slopes or find an all-inclusive that specialised in entertaining small children, there was a holiday brochure for you.

Another ingredient in the changing face of travel has been the huge increase in interconnectedness we’ve seen in the new millennium.  In years gone by, people had the default and noble option of simply neglecting to stay in touch with their classmates or former colleagues.  There was of course a hand-written alternative to losing contct but it was generally too labour-intensive to sustain for all but the closest friends – and even then usually around Christmas when it was deemed worthwhile and socially acceptable.  I was fortunate to be on the cusp of this change: I discovered email before it became fashionable, while still at University and was therefore able to maintain a digital proto-social network with my friends from Uni after we left – almost a decade before anyone had heard of ‘The Facebook’.  Today, we friend request people we haven’t seen in the analogue world for over a quarter of a century and become, by extension, a small part of each other’s lives again.

In the same time, there’s been an increase in migrant working which means that if you have a hundred Facebook friends, the odds are that at least one of them will be living abroad – or may be someone you met while you were overseas.  Either way, if you ever visit that person’s country, you’re now much more likely to make the effort to meet up ‘IRL’.  What no-one saw, Michael Palin included, I’m sure, was that his rendezvous with an old friend in Hong Kong would in time become less the preserve of well-heeled journalists with impeccable connections but a much more commonplace occurrence in a more connected world.  We truly are a more global species today than we were  in 1988, a year before the end of the Cold War.  Even those of us who have never ventured beyond their own borders have become so, by proxy.

So where does all this cultural and societal progress leave the already ill-defined notion of what travel is, what travel should be?  And what will that word come to represent to the next generation of travellers?

Perhaps part of the reason for the ambiguity is that “travel” has come to mean whatever you want it to – a beach holiday on the Costas or a year’s back-packing around Asia.  The extent of our travels may always be limited by our funds but we will become less and less limited by the availability and therefore opportunity to choose how we travel.  For that reason, we’ve seen a rise in eco-tourism, pilgrimages, be they religious (Mecca), secular (Machu Picchu) or sporting (international tournaments) – as well as innumerable other niches in the market.

Then of course, there’s the effect of the good old internet.  Comparison sites for flights, accommodation, car hire etc. have flattened the many-tiered vertical model of agents, removing margin and lowering end user prices.  The removal of the heavily-formatted product via an intermediary has brought about the seemingly modern (but actually quite old-fashioned) concept of the independent traveller, a return to the days of real-life Phileas Foggs and Doctor Livingstones, you might presume.  Then, as now, travel did not have to be simply a pre-ordained itinerary of critical-mass conveyance and accommodation but, cliché aside, a true voyage of discovery.  Without the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional agent model, it’s now much easier to travel like a Victorian gentleman – with the assurances of today’s communications as our latter-day Passepartout.

The flexibility of options has also extended to the levels of communality we may prefer – travel with friends, extended family, other like-minded souls.  Nor do we all have to move around together; we may choose to overlap our schedules, make rendezvous plans, even choose to synchronistically exchange the use of our houses.  It’s all a far cry from the group-booked coach tours that communal travel implied in days gone by.

In a world where you can choose from thousands of possible combinations every time you order a coffee, it’s no surprise that travel too has metamorphosed from a curated and prescribed activity to an utterly personalised one.  It’s now not just about where you go or for how long, but with whom, for what reason and in order to take in which experiences.

We may well extend our physical travel horizons even further over the next decade or two, with sub-orbital or even inter-planetary options potentially on offer but it’s difficult to contend that the most profound revolution in travel isn’t already taking place, here on earth, right now.  Phileas Fogg may have become, by a Python’s extension, an inspiration for the travel aspirations of millions today but when he was created, his adventures were just as unlikely, just as much a part of the realm of science fiction as Verne’s other work, including ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.  That Fogg’s grand touring is so widely available today is travel’s ongoing legacy.  Anything else, intra- or extra-terrestrial, is simply a matter of geography.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics?

As a Wiganer, I don’t mind admitting I’m still getting over our 18-14 defeat to Hull in last weekend’s Challenge Cup Final.  I feel I probably shouldn’t be so affected by it, these days – I’ve been here enough times before: in 1984 (crushingly), in 1998 (inexplicably) and in 2004 (rather drunkenly).  I’d like to think that those experiences, plus of course the very many Cup-winning years (including the famous eight-in-a-row) would give me sufficient perspective to absorb the disappointment a little more adroitly.

Sadly, just like Tony Clubb’s doomed attempt for the line, it was not to be.  Now, four days on, the anguish at the outcome has dissipated slightly.  I know this because I’ve now come to believe that the scoreline was not, for once, the most significant statistic of the day.

Before I explain what I believe is, I should move to deny any stirring suspicions you may have that I’m displaying sour grapes or even revisionism.  Of course I wish we’d won but the day highlighted an issue much more concerning than merely the non-adornment of yet another trophy in cherry and white – it’s an issue that has implications on the future of the sport of rugby league itself.

You may or may not have picked up on the story that the attendance of 68,525 was the lowest at a Challenge Cup final since its return to the re-built Wembley in 2007.  There are a number of facets to this simple stat, together with a fair degree of context, to increase or reduce the level of alarm it elicits, depending upon your viewpoint.  If nothing else, this is very much a matter of interpretation and opinion, which rather thickens the plot but also fuels the conspiracy theories.  It all brings to mind the phrase, often attributed to Mark Twain who believed himself to be quoting Benjamin Disraeli (although no record of Disraeli saying it exists): “There are lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Before we go any further, is this story true and by how much is the figure lower than any before?  According the BBC match report, the figure was “by some distance the lowest” but what does the data say?  As ever, my friends at Wikipedia are a handy place to check:

2007  St. Helens 30–8  Catalans Dragons 84,241
2008  St. Helens 28–16  Hull 82,821
2009  Warrington 25–16  Huddersfield 76,560
2010  Warrington 30–6  Leeds 85,217
2011  Wigan 28–18  Leeds 78,482
2012  Warrington 35–18  Leeds 79,180
2013  Wigan 16–0  Hull 78,137
2014  Leeds 23-10  Castleford 77,914
2015  Leeds 50-0  Hull Kingston Rovers 80,140
2016  Hull 12–10  Warrington 76,235
2017  Hull 18–14  Wigan Warriors 68,525

So, there you have it: in headline terms, no different to last year (which was itself the lowest post-2007 figure) but almost eight thousand fewer again, quite a significant drop.

The chief reason for the sudden discrepancy appears to be the widely-quoted accounting change that for the first time this year, debenture-holders’ seats were not automatically counted as occupied, giving a more accurate figure.  This is basically a way of suggesting that every previous new Wembley figure was utterly fictitious and that in real terms, this year’s attendance figure was no different to any other year.  It all sounds incredibly convenient to spare any blushes the RFL may have – but can it be true?

At this point, most people would probably just shrug their shoulders and move on with their life but this requires a level of stadium geekery that I feel able to provide – and to some extent, corroborate.  When the current incarnation of Wembley Stadium was built, part of its funding came from a debenture scheme (“Club Wembley”) in which holders were given a middle-tier seat for use at any event held at the venue – a sort of super season ticket.  Inevitably, most of these were seen as justifiable investment by companies with an eye on the corporate hospitality opportunities they afforded and they signed up in their thousands.  I know someone who did, a print supplier with whom I used to spend a lot of money.  In 2011, as I was one of his biggest rugby league-following clients, he offered me his seats to watch that year’s Challenge Cup Final.

“It’s who you know”: The 2011 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos, taken from the Club Wembley seating in the middle tier

You can most easily see the seats in question in the ten minutes after the re-start in any home England football match as the mostly corporate inhabitants struggle to down their half-time pints until about the 55th minute.  It was, I believe, at one such occasion that the seat-holders’ conspicuity by their absence provoked Adrian Chiles to give it its most scathing (and most apt) nickname: “the ring of indifference” – perhaps the most John Lennon thing he’s ever said.  Anyway, as their debenture holders were seen as ‘customers’, it seems every official attendance at the new Wembley has counted each and every one of them, whether or not they were represented on the day by anyone in person.

I can only presume that in 2017, ten years after the stadium’s opening, the debenture terms have elapsed and different rules now apply.  The good news is that 68-odd thousand is not really any lower than any other year so the “lowest attendance” story is (and I hasten to give this term the credence it ill-deserves) ‘fake news’.  The bad news, rugby fans, is that for a decade, we’ve been kind of kidding ourselves about the true numbers.  The case is perhaps most clearly made by this Getty Images picture, taken during the 2010 final between Warrington and Leeds.  The official attendance that day was 85,217, purportedly less than five thousand people shy of a 90,000 full house and yet, despite the tightly-packed crowds in the upper and lower tiers, the whole middle tier appears sparsely populated.

Does any of this bean-counting matter, then, if it’s all built on a farcically inaccurate trend?  Clearly, not as much as is being made of it – but it does beg the rather more fundamental question of why we’ve probably now had a decade of Challenge Cup final attendances that were ‘only’ c.70,000.  In the days before the old Wembley had its capacity reduced to 70-odd thousand, finals regularly attracted crowds in the 90,000s.

Looking at the pictures from this year’s final, it’s easy to see that this year, the RFL knew the problem was coming.  I’d already received increasingly urgent emails from them with various last-minute deals, including “£5 for under 16s”.  On the day, this tweet of Wigan legend Martin Offiah in the Royal Box clearly shows the upper tier opposite ‘blanked off’ by decorative red*-and-white/black-and-white sheeting over vast swathes of the seating area which were not expected to sell.

*by the way, RFL, Wigan’s colours are cherry and white, not red.

What’s most interesting about this development is where the empty seats where.  If you know Wembley, you’ll know the Royal Box is directly opposite the TV camera gantry.  To the viewers at home, it would, for most of the time, seem as though Wembley was full.  Depending upon your viewpoint, this is either a case of good PR or managed decline.  It’s also something in which the RFL have a fair degree of form.  Remember the 2013 World Cup?  The opening fixtures were a double-header in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.  My son Charlie happened to be a mascot that day and I took as many pictures as I could of him with the England and Australia teams as they lined up before the game.  The attendance was 45,052, the capacity in Cardiff is 73,000, leaving around 28,000 empty seats for the organisers to hope no-one sees.  From the picture below, would you care to take a wild guess which side the TV gantry is at the Millennium Stadium?

England v Australia, the opening fixture of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

To be fair to the RFL, there are exceptions.  For six of the last ten years, the Grand Final has attracted a 70 thousand-plus crowd to Old Trafford (nominally with a 75,000 capacity but slightly reduced for such occasions to allow a stage to be built on the South West quadrant for the pre-show live act).  As a percentage of capacity, the Grand Final is now almost always in the upper 90s.

2007  Leeds 33–6  St. Helens  71,352
2008  Leeds 24–16  St. Helens  68,810
2009  Leeds 18–10  St. Helens  63,259
2010  Wigan 22–10  St. Helens  71,526
2011  Leeds 32–16  St. Helens  69,107
2012  Leeds 26–18  Warrington  70,676
2013  Wigan 30–16  Warrington  66,281
2014  St. Helens 14–6  Wigan  70,102
2015  Leeds 22–20  Wigan  73,512
2016  Wigan 12–6  Warrington  70,202

And then there was the success story that was the 2013 World Cup Final – a crowd of 74,468 which is still, I believe, the world record attendance for an international rugby league match.  Much as I’d prefer to gloss over the fact that this game didn’t include England (thanks to both a piece of sublime magic and a last-minute try from New Zealand in the semi-final), the absence of the home nation makes the subsequent sell-out for the final even more worthy of praise for the organisers.

Not the best picture of the crowd at the 2013 World Cup Final but the filled stand to the left is where you’ll find the TV camera gantry at Old Trafford

The common denominator to both these successes is, it’s safe to argue, the fact that they both took place at Old Trafford, Manchester, set almost perfectly within the very heartland of rugby league.  Wembley and Cardiff, on the other hand, are not.

The point is, I would contend, strengthened further by the somewhat chequered achievements of the ‘Magic Weekend‘, the newest kid on the block of annual rugby league showpiece occasions in the UK.  The reliance on compound attendance figures for these two-day festivals has more than a whiff of an initiative seeking attention via the biggest number it can lay its hands on, which is why I prefer to look at average attendances over the two days.  Over the last ten years, the numbers have barely edged beyond plus-or-minus 10% of 30,000 per day.  That sounds great, compared to a regular fixture (in 2016, Super League fixtures averaged 9,134) but for three fixtures in a day (and sometimes, it’s four), 30k seems like a case of negligible uplift.  Add to that the fact that the fixtures for these events tend to be ‘marquee’ games like Wigan v Leeds or derbies like Hull v Hull KR which tend not to struggle for numbers when left to be played in their normal surroundings and the whole thing feels like it might just about be ‘washing its face’ and no more.

Of course, all of the above is not the be-all and end-all: the Magic Weekend adds a marvellous sense of occasion to those there, it helps to generate extra national press from a largely union-centric media and it ‘spreads the gospel’ further afield and all that but after all that effort, it’s difficult to claim that, empirically, it’s added even a single extra bum on a seat.  Throw in the fact that the venues (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Murrayfield, Edinburgh; Etihad Stadium, Manchester and, latterly, St. James’ Park, Newcastle) are all much larger than 30k and you’re back to the same game of ‘hide the empty seats from the cameras’ – average daily occupancy has ranged from 40% at Cardiff to 67% in Manchester.  Just how commercially successful is the whole enterprise, really?

It’s an important point to make because one theory I’ve read is that the existence of the Magic Weekend is the most likely cause of the trimming of Challenge Cup final crowds.  An alternative away-day at which your team is guaranteed to play does seem like a slightly more appealing alternative to the more traditional, relatively vicarious pursuit of turning up at Wembley in your team’s colours “for the day out” even though two other teams are actually contesting the final.  Having been part of the convivial, ‘rugby league family’ atmosphere, it would be a shame to see it lessened but equally, it takes a bit of fortitude to walk proudly down Wembley Way in a Saints shirt, for example, knowing you’re going to suffer a few hours of (mostly) light-hearted ribbing from the assembled hoards of Wigan and Leeds fans milling around outside the stadium when your team isn’t even there.  As someone who must admit to being part of that ‘friendly fire’, I can confirm I’d think twice about taking the time and expense of going all that way not to see my team, knowing I’d be on the receiving end of it.

Spot the Saints fans, if you can.  And then mock them!

I think there are other factors.  Bank Holidays are divisive things: enabling grand days out for many but also providing prohibitive alternative attractions which aren’t always easy to avoid, like weddings, long weekends away or, in my case, family holidays (I was driving home, trying to avoid being drawn onto the Péripherique in Paris, last Saturday, while asking for regular updates from Wembley on the BBC Sport app).  Bank Holidays also seem to promise extra travel problems too.  A terrible crash on the M1 and the closure of Euston station, last Saturday seem to be further invitations not to bother again, in future.  I appreciate there were many finals held on the Saturday of the May Day weekend, years ago but was the Challenge Cup not equally well served by holding its final in the last weekend in April?  It seems so: 94,273 Wigan and Halifax fans attended the 1988 final on April 30th, that year.

The mood music is not great, wherever you point your ear, though.  Earlier this year, the RFL caused some consternation by raising the possibility that future Challenge Cup finals may not be played at Wembley, surely a red line-crosser for most fans of the sport.  Even in Australia, the home of the dominant Kangaroos and the all-conquering NRL, all is not rosy in the garden.  As in England, parochial imbalances afflict the sport there, with comparable constraints and similar initiatives to counter them.  In particular, the go-to remedy to address the suburban Sydney clubs’ willingness to exceed their local confines is to play selected regular season games at the 83,000-seat ANZ Stadium, the cavernous-when-empty home of the 2000 Olympics.  If you think the hastily-decorated bank of empty seats at Wembley signify problems in our game, wait ’til you’ve seen a round of NRL played before barely 10% occupancy and a veritable Southern ocean of blue seating blocks.

I’ll soon get over Wigan’s loss at Wembley, I’m sure – possibly as soon as Friday if we can bounce back and put one over on our bitter rivals from St. Helens.  I’m also sure that this year’s Grand Final will attract around 70,000 or more again this year (hopefully with around half of them wearing cherry and white, again).  The real litmus test will come the next time the game holds a showpiece away from the M62 corridor.  The location of the 2018 Magic Weekend is, as yet, unconfirmed.  The three most-attended incarnations have all come at Newcastle – albeit no single day there has ever left fewer than 12,000 empty seats – so it’s the most obvious choice.  An outside bet may be the Ricoh Arena in Coventry: desperate for the money, tried successfully for home internationals in recent years and offering an achievable capacity of over 32,000.  It would be a venue less likely to visually advertise any shortfall in ticket sales but its very selection could be seen as a tacit admission of the RFL’s desire to play safe and not over-extend.

As a fan, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned, either way, about the choice of venue for a round of Super League fixtures in late May.   I would however worry what the implications would be of anything that could be construed to be ‘damage-limitation thinking’ on the future of the game’s oldest and noblest occasion.  Wembley is a non-negotiable part of the Challenge Cup and more must be done to ensure it is filled on the one day a year our sport has it.



Going the Extra Half Mile for Amelia

You may be familiar with my god-daughter, Amelia.  I’ve blogged about her before.  Here she is with my 12 year-old son, Charlie, whom she adores.

Amelia with Charlie.

I’d love you to read the full post but click here if you just want to ‘cut to the chase’.

Two years on from my last blogpost about her, she’s now nine years old and is still severely autistic, non-verbal and has learning difficulties.  She’s still as friendly, with a smile and a hug to melt the hardest heart and, when she wants to be, she’s as mischievous and keen to get her own way as much as any other nine year-old.

As you can imagine, she has quite complex educational needs and thankfully, she is able to have them met by her amazing school, Astley Park in Chorley.  As you can also imagine, budgets are tight and so much more could be achieved with just a little more funding.  For that reason, they established a charity, ‘Friends of Astley Park School’ (FAPS) and over the past few years, so much of the money raised for this charity has directly benefitted Amelia.  If you’re familiar with my Facebook offerings, you may be well aware of the various weekends we’ve dedicated to supporting Warren, “Amelia’s Daddy”, in his various physical challenges to raise money for FAPS and for Amelia.  Only last month, we cheered him on as he completed two runs around the Asics Windermere Marathon course – each 26.2-mile run, a lap of England’s largest lake, with some huge inclines to run up, as you’d expect in the Lake District.  Here he is approaching the finish line – the second time around:

‘Amelia’s Daddy’, a.k.a. Warren completes the Asics Windermere Marathon.  Again.

Last year, we also supported  Warren and another friend, Aaron, as they entered the Great North Swim (this time in Windermere), obviously for the same cause.  While we were there, something unexpected and unbelievably affirming happened.  Charlie, then aged 11 asked what the minimum age for the event was.  We told him it was 12.  Immediately, he vowed to come back next year and swim the half-mile event for Amelia.  Charlie has always been a strong swimmer in the pool but this is a tough assignment – many people have panic attacks once they get out into the open water – and we gave him every chance to pull out gracefully before we publicised his endeavours.

Since last summer he’s been preparing for the swim – and we’ve stepped up the training since April this year.  Even when we’ve been abroad in that time, there happen to have been lakes nearby and he’s kept up his training.

Swimming in Lake Como, Italy during the Easter holidays

In that time, he’s tapered up from a couple of hundred metres at a time to around a kilometre – well over the half-mile he’s training for.  He’s trained in all weathers, in three different countries and at various times of day.  He’s even suffered the blight of open water swimmers, brought on my taking on too much unclean water.

Swimmin’ In The Rain – at Pennington Flash, Leigh

All the while, he’s remained focused on his goal – and on raising as much money as possible.  When I set up his Justgiving page, I gave him a target of £500 – with no idea if it was a realistic figure for him to raise.  If I’m honest, I just hoped he’d get somewhere near that figure.

We were in Ireland last month to watch a Guns ‘N Roses concert, staying at ‘The Lakeside Manor’ hotel in Virginia, Co. Cavan.  Obviously, the wetsuit had to come, too.

With a few days to go until the Windermere swim, I’m delighted to reveal he’s now passed that notional target of £500.  There are so many people who have already said some wonderful things about him and pledged their hard-earned money to support a cause that they may only be aware of because of Charlie’s efforts.  It really is humbling stuff to see and we’d like to thank everyone who has already donated.

The Chase…


If you’d like to add your support to the dozens that have already given money to this wonderful cause, please visit Charlie’s Justgiving page and donate what you can.

Obviously, those closest to us have already added their support and naturally, they will tend to be more sizeable donations.  Please don’t look at the donations made and think we expect any particular level of support – anything you can offer would be massively appreciated.  We all know that even £3 barely covers the cost of a cup of coffee but if you are willing to pledge even that amount, that’s better than just leaving the page without adding your support.

Thanks for reading and for any amount you are able to pledge.  We all really appreciate it!


Paul, Helen, Charlie, Jacquie, Warren – and, of course, Amelia!

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 10.3

The final excerpt of a verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 1st April 1994,  18:30 (CST) / Saturday 2nd April 1994,  00:30 (GMT)


With a setting red sun on the left and what seems like an ocean on my right, we’re climbing out of Chicago, out of the USA and out of my Easter adventure.  The good news is:

I have a window seat

There is no-one next to me

Filet Mignon is still on the menu

The bad news:

‘Beethoven’s 2nd’ is the film.

Ah well, maybe I will sleep well.  As always, travelling eastwards, the dusk is short.  At a rate of climb, this is negated but at 26,000 feet, we only have 11,000 left to go.  We’re an hour ahead of schedule (07:50 ETA) and heading for Detroit.


The reason I said “seems like an ocean” is because Lake Michigan is huge, about twice the size of Wales*, by my reckoning and therefore, you can’t see the shores — I guess they don’t call them “Great Lakes” for nothing!  It’s practically dark outside now and hopefully, it may induce some sleep!

The flight time is approx. 6½ hours as opposed to 9 hours westbound.  That’s the Jetstream for you!

I see land again. We’ve crossed Michigan lake…  …into Michigan state (presumably).  I see lights below but we have absolutely no idea what town it is!  The sky behind us goes red, orange, yellow, green, blue; while in front, it’s a sort of murky navy blue.  It’s still very clear and, from the black floor, you can see lights arranged in that familiar criss-cross pattern Americans call towns and cities.

The colours behind fade as the navy blue consumes all.  And yet, looking along the plane (inside), there is illumination, a duty-free video, a hive of steward(/ess) activity and the occasional remark (or child’s shriek) of those adjacent.  Eventually, the sky will darken (inevitably), the ground will darken (in Canada) and even the cabin will darken as people decide they would like to be awake during their first day in England.

What have I learned in Austin?

Despite my insistences that the US is not to be viewed as a single entity, I think for the purposes of this observation, I should contradict myself.  Therefore, we have the UK and the USA.  In many ways, Austin is extremely similar to Lancaster.  Lancaster does not have a cityscape skyline, a ‘downtown’, an airport or any shopping malls.  The similarity lies in equivalent terms. Austin, like Lancaster, is an historic, provincial capital.  It is now a university town, partly dependent upon the adjacent campus for its wealth.  It is relatively of similar proportion (in relation to overall population) although Austin is slightly proportionately bigger.

So what?  If we see Austin and Lancaster as equivalents, microcosms of the United States and United Kingdom respectively, here’s the difference: the amazing things I’ve seen and written about — the stadium, the airport, the shopping malls, the trading and commerce therein.  The number and variation of food emporia, the transport systems and the television channel variation.  That is the distance between us and them.  I haven’t mentioned the weather because that’s not Lancaster’s fault, but it does make a helluva bonus!

America is a place where, if you have the money, you have the choice also.  Attempt to draw me into an argument about the ethics of wholesale commercialism if you may, but I warn you: it’s not nearly so linear as you think I mean.  Yes, there are people without.  Yes, it does not prohibit the creation of an underclass.  It is not, however, simply a case of more money = more fun.  While I concede that money increases the choice of fun, you can still exist in America on a moderate allowance.  The temptations to overspend may be greater (who is this addressed to?) but I can testify 2 weeks of US living for under £200 — and that’s a holiday.  Ask Paul or Rice how much you need to *live* in America.

The inherent advantage of the American Dream is not simply to earn more money.  The financial motivations act as a catalyst to self-improvement, the desire to ‘make it’.  If everyone believes this, life improves.  Even the postage stamp salesman knows that if he strives, he can sell more stamps.  By striving, he improves his standard of service.  If everyone’s service improves, so do expectations.  Then the stamp salesman must strive further.  Some dismiss this as greed or money-grabbing.  Does this negate the value of a country where motivation to please the customer is almost a religion?  I say no.  Yes, there are dangers in the plan; aren’t there dangers anywhere?  “Try telling that to the people who have to work Sundays”. you cry.  I agree.  No-one should be *made* to do what they don’t want to do.  Isn’t life about compromises, though?  Do these people consider that their inconveniences are a by-product of a system which offers greater potential for them than any other country on earth.

Do you realise the cost of living in the States is remarkably low?  Fast food, borne of competition and old-fashioned economics, much cheaper than at home — because it *has* to be.

I’m not trying to indoctrinate anti-Marxism onto the globe but remember this message the next time your meal is under-cooked or your train has been motionless for an hour.  Something has gone wrong because someone has let it go wrong…  …de-motivation.

I hope I’ve motivated you to understand why I never tire of the USA.

I’m sure your next question goes like this: “If you’re so bloody enamoured with the USA, why don’t you sod off there, then?”.  The answer is simple.  As Roy Walker puts it: “It’s good but it’s not right.”

The United States has achieved so much in its 200 years-plus of independence.  Without the constraints of tradition or nepotistic perpetuation, it has excelled on its own merit.  It has mineral wealth, room to spare and (if necessary) waste, a variety of climes and a massive resource of labour.  We have a lot to learn from America but it does not embody utopia.  We may not be able to match its impressive wealth of resources but what we can match and in many ways improve upon are much more important than mere commodities.  We need the attitude of success if we are to succeed; how many champion athletes just walk onto the track and simply run?  None.  They have the attitude for success.  We have the foundations for success: the best and most respected education system in the world, a history of innovation in science, technology and arts.  Yet all this from a small, seemingly inconsequential nation.  We have got something in the system right.  What we do not seem to have is the knowledge of what is right, what else needs to be right and the belief that it can be made right.  We tolerate ineptitude, we limit our ambition, we pretend to be the poorer cousins of the fold and we spread pessimism like a plague.  We can never compete with the acreage-related strongholds of leading agricultural produce worldwide.  We can use our advantages properly and have faith in our ability.  This sounds like an assertion seminar because we need one.  If this was a preach to the converted, the message would seem as regular as the Queen’s speech.  America has these advantages but they are not exclusive.  And the sooner we learn to appreciate this, the sooner we can stare them, as a nation eye-to-eye, instead of squarely in the navel.**

I’m sorry if this sounds like a combination of ‘Mein Kampf’ and the American constitution but a visit to America provides so much insight as to what we in Britain lack.  It is only through reflecting on the successes across the pond that we can be made to fulfil our own potential.  Just as denial of what we take for granted helps us appreciate it so does exposure to that which we choose to ignore in the pursuit of ‘fitting in’, which is fine as a day-to-day existence but limits the horizons to which you can aspire.  Travel, as they say, broadens the mind.  Does that go for travellers too?


03:25 (BST) <— Yes!

Yes, it’s completely black now (as promised).  The steak was divine, as was the caramel ice cream which followed.  I’m hoping that the Bailey’s that I’m now sipping will facilitate my quest for sleep.  It’s been a pleasure talking to you.  If you do feel preached to, there remains one final piece of advice: go to America.  See for yourself!!

In the meantime, here’s to being British and being in Britain.  Cheers!

Thank you; Goodnight.


* My reckoning was a little inaccurate: Wikipedia says Lake Michigan has a surface area of 22,404 sq mi and Wales covers an area of 8,023 sq mi.  Lake Michigan is therefore 2.79 times the size of Wales.  I’ve no idea why Wales is considered to be a standard unit of measurement for such purposes.

** Is any of this any less true in 2017 than it was in 1994?

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 10.2

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 1st April 1994,  16:14 (CST)


Flying into Chicago was equally as impressive as flying over Dallas.  Marginally cloudier, it was still easy to pick out O’Hare as we flew PAST it!  Why?  Because we had to approach from the east.  This meant flying over Chicago itself, five miles out over Lake Michigan, and turning around, thus presenting a near-perfect view of downtown Chicago.  Remember ‘FlightSim’?  Taking off from Meigs airport on the lake shore?  Past that tall , black building with its two antennae*?  I’ve just re-lived it — for real (except we didn’t take off from Meigs**) — but I did see it!


My flight is at 6:10 and there’s an aeroplane to Paris at my gate (K11) right now.  I’m still in Terminal 3 so no need to take the monorail today.

I’ve made the customary ‘phone call to ensure Dad gets to bed early — it’s 20 to midnight there, right now.

I met a bloke on the last flight from Cleveland, Ohio who was thinking about holidaying in England.  Naturally, I did my bit for the North West Tourist Board but I still had to tell him: “Manchester — it’s 200 miles north of London”.  GRRRR!!

He went to University in Columbus (Ohio, again) and we swapped student stories.  He asked me how well-travelled I was and I think I surprised him with the ensuing list — especially Moscow!!

Looking around this place, it’s scary.  As I’ve mentioned, this airport is unbelievably large but so is its volume of traffic.  For example, when we landed, we crossed (at an altitude of lower than 50 feet) another runway from which a plane, in the distance, was in the process of taking off!!  I’m surrounded by stationary ‘planes, there are more taxi-ing behind them and yet more swarming around, incoming and outgoing.  It really is like a bee-hive, with continuous, seemingly ad hoc arrival and departure.  I’d just rather not try and think about how difficult it is to co-ordinate a place like this!  And then there’s Heathrow, which although (or is it because) it is smaller, it is the busiest airport in the world.  Now, there’s a comforting thought, and that’s not even accounting for the IRA!!  God, I’m glad I’m flying into Manchester!

By the way, ‘Cowboys from Hell’ was sold out and just in case you think we deluded ourselves in assuming it was Pantera, Rice saw their drummer in Town Lake Foods — ordering nachos!!

“Nachos rule!!”

[I think I’ll check in now, as Paris has gone and the board now says “Flight 54 Manchester” — Yes!!!]

18:00 (CST)


Sunset in Chicago.  We take off in 10 minutes.  It’s going to be a long flight (believe it or not).  I may sleep.  I’ll try to watch the film (which looks crap) but I am planning a finale to this, an all-consuming Palinesque summary of the US, warts and all, but to also attempt to quantify the expectations one should have if you are planning to visit.  I know I’m waffling a bit but I feel I should depart from Chicago first, before I depart on my journey into the life of a Texan traveller.

The sun has gone down now; only a red hue exists over Chicago — and the vapour trails of another plane as presumably, others are going home too.  The seat-belt sign is on, the (video) emergency performance is about to begin and we’re asked not to use electrical instruments until we are in flight.

Did I mention I got another window seat?  3 out of 4!

I’m also praying that no-one comes and sits next to me.  That vacant seat here would be very useful if I fancy a sleep.  We’ve had the “prepare for departure” notice; I think I’m sleeping on a padded surface again!  Yes!!

There goes the door — it’s official — we’re moving!

Time to conclude *this* entry.  A handful of boiled sweets and a peep out of the window are on the agenda now.

See you later!

* The John Hancock Center.

** Meigs Airfield was a single-strip airfield on a man-made peninsula in Lake Michigan, just south of Chicago.  It closed in 2003 and the land is now used as parkland.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 10.1

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 1st April 1994,  13:53 (CST)


This is (if you hadn’t already guessed) the flight to Chicago.  As I mentioned, we’ve just flown directly above Dallas, Texas.  Virtually cloudless, you could see downtown Dallas, Texas Stadium and DFW Airport right in a straight line together.  In fact, you can again because I took a photograph of it.  Hope it comes out*.

DFW Area Aerial

Last night, we went to Double Dave’s again.  In a bout of wanton decadence, I bought us two huge pizzas – unlimited toppings.  We all but demolished them, leaving enough only for breakfast this morning.  Ahhh, wake up and smell the pizza!

We got a lift to the airport from Frampton in his bright blue GMC truck, with as much power in the stereo as presumably there is to be found under its considerable hood…   …bonnet! (I’m nearly in England now)

Anyway, I glimpsed my last of Texas, and now I’m looking forward to the aforementioned list which in its entirety is only to be found in bonny England.

* I don’t recall ever developing any of the pictures I took on this trip (I must have done, but can’t remember). but this image from Google Earth (1993 satellite imagery) is an accurate representation of the view I have described.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 9

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Thursday 31st March 1994,  12:56 (CST)


Well, what happened since the last time I wrote?

Tuesday: woke up and met Paul on campus at 4:00 in the Longhorns souvenir shop.  I’d (thankfully) got some money and already bought some souvenirs.  We went and sat in the Memorial Stadium to watch the Longhorns (American Football team) in spring practice.  Then we went to Dishwasher, sorry, Disch-Falk Field to watch the Longhorns (funnily enough) play San Antonio Roadrunners at baseball.  Anyway, the Longhorns (!) won 9-6 and we got some groovy photos.

Crown and Anchor Austin

Wednesday: awoke to find Paul and Rice were still asleep (as usual).  Eventually, they got up and we went to campus, as always.  We then went to the Crown & Anchor**, followed by a few bars to take in the stereotypical bar-life of Austin.  Imagine the bar in any Burt Reynolds film, the bar out of ‘Terminator 2’, the bar off the Carlsberg ad: (“You English”?***), blur them all together and there you have it; a stereotypical American bar.  After five pints of assorted American beers, we’d had as much gas as we could take and came back.  I’ve just rung home and ‘Beavis & Butt-head’ is on soon.  There’s talk of us going to watch Pantera tomorrow****, which would be pretty good as a final fling for the vacation.

The main thing, though, is to make sure we front up for the All-You-Can-Eat at Pizza Hut tomorrow.

Still, seeing as I’m returning home soon, I should really be thinking of the things that I’m missing, then I’ll look forward more to going home (theoretically).  So, here’s a brief list, just to give you an idea:  Fish & chips, brown sauce, Old Peculiar, ‘Coronation Street’, right-hand drive cars, ‘Match of the Day’, a real bed, MY GUITAR, my dog, correct spellings and grammar, any mention of cricket, people who don’t say “Ohreally”, adverts that don’t suck, my guitar, Old Peculiar, the weather (only kidding) and that good old Englishness that is there when you wake up in the morning, that you can breathe, and surrounds all that there is to behold and appreciate — no, not the cold, the indescribable entity, the ‘je ne sais qui’ (English version), the feeling that you only recognise when it isn’t there.

* Cheap student meal: 1x tin of tuna, 1x tin of tomato soup and curry powder to taste (lots)

** Great to see the Crown & Anchor is still there and still serving the JCB, looking just as I remember it, from the look of it on Google Street View (Sept 2016)

*** A quick Google search suggests this was the advert I was probably referring to, featuring Angus Deayton.  The ball stopping on the pool table does seem like the kind of point I was trying to make.  As I remember, it was largely a student hang-out so the comparison would have been a little unfair.

**** It didn’t happen, sadly.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 8

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Tuesday 29th March 1994,  13:12 (CST)


Well, what a whirlwind of activity and excitement today was…   …not exactly!  I had a totally lazy day here today, checking up on a few things such as flight times, how much money I have left and ‘America’s Most Wanted’ top 10 (MTV again).  I wouldn’t have minded a little sunbathing quality time but unfortunately, the weather wasn’t up to it — sunny but a mere 65°!  What is this place coming to ?!?  Anyway, the old forecast says it’s going to warm up more during the week, so there’s still time to make it look like I sunbathed non-stop!

Last night, Paul and I went onto campus for a kick about with the football.  More or less as soon as we ran onto the field, four other lads asked us did we want a match.  Paul had played them before and before you knew it, we were away.  I had originally assumed that they were Americans and was looking forward to skinning them but Paul told me that one of them was from Argentina, which made me think twice.  Obviously, I needn’t have worried, they weren’t outstandingly good, but good enough for us to have an enjoyable match.

Today I got my first real “gee you have a really cute accent — are you English?”.  This is a much stronger form of accent recognition, more than the generic “Are you from England?”, especially in this case where the woman in question asked me to say her name — presumably so she could hear it pronounced properly!  Unfortunately, she was an assistant in ‘Jack in the Box’, a burger bar.  Oh well…


Yess!!  Beavis & Butt-head!!  Cool!

[There may follow a slight distortion in the logical thread of the narration as I watch this…..]

…Sod this, I’m going go to bed!

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt.7

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Sunday 27th March 1994,  11:47 (CST)  [17:47 GMT]


I know the Coca-Cola Cup final has already been played; let’s just get that one thing cleared up before I begin.  It’s driving me mad enough as it is!  Of course, I fully intend to ring home within a couple of hours.  As long as somebody taped it – Oh yeah and as long as we won as well – there is no problem.  Anyway… [change the subject, change the subject!]

What happened yesterday?  Well, I have missed out Friday evening as well.

Friday, we walked to the Holiday Inn and had the Mexican buffet (‘Fajita Friday’) — damn hot and only $3 for the pleasure of having one’s internal organs systematically corroded.  We came back and caught a bus into downtown Austin.  It was Friday night and we checked out Emo’s, a live act night spot, one of many on 6th Street, for which Austin is apparently quite famous for <— oops, double prepositioning!


Anyway, Friday was pretty quiet so we returned fairly early (about 1:30) and resolved to try the Saturday experience.  This we did and (last night), we had a more definitive tour of the city’s entertainment venues.  There is the Bates Motel; a small, mirrored rectangle which, in low lighting, looks like an organised Brooks*.  The chairs are easy chairs (padded, armrests, casters etc.) and flanking the stage are two TV monitors showing ‘Psycho’, on a loop, presumably.  We also went to a ‘shots’ bar and has ‘Sex on the beach’, a cocktail comprised of I know not what**, but Rice recommends it, and hearing him order it, reminded me of Westbrook UCI***: “can I have ‘A Few Good Men’, please?” — use your imagination.  I have to admit, I’d never had (a) sex on the beach before but it’s great and if anyone can remember how to do it, I’ll have it again (I think I got all the comic potential out of that one!)

Verily, we arrived at Emo’s again and it was busier than the night before but not, according to my companions, at its best.  Do I believe them or shall I nod and inwardly smile at such an obvious opportunity for them to tell me that Austin really is quite good, actually.  The thing was, deep down, I agreed and therefore why shouldn’t I believe it?  Besides, I’m not a cynic, am I?

Kicking out time from Emo’s was just after 2.  We walked to a dance club and decided to finish the night off in a state of cramp and breathless exhaustion — this predictably became a reality and at 4 o’clock, we took the now familiar route following the I35 over the river, turn left, left again and into the apartment.  4:30am, completely spent and CRASH, I fell asleep.

And now my mind turns to football again.  Actually, there’s a match on HSC, Channel 39: USA v Bolivia at 6 o’clock.  Hope someone else wants to watch it!

Oh ye; I forgot to mention we went on campus yesterday afternoon and we decided to sample the (get this) Union Bowling Alley!  Now we’re not talking GX or Superbowl 2000 but despite the pencil-scoring system, it was a great time and quite ridiculous that there should be a basement bowling alley beneath the Union building****.  In addition, we played 5 games and I won 3!  Watch out Adam/Catherine/Suddy — I’ve been practicing!

14:15 (CST)


OK, so United lost, 3-1 apparently.  It’s a bit of a sod but life goes on.  Take this, for example: on Channel 12, Mexican football.  It’s America 3 Veracruz 0.  America have just score their third to the accompaniment of “GOOOOOAAAALLLL!”.  Sunday is sports day here, whatever your heritage is.  I have already watched Orlando Magic v New York Knicks (Shaquille O’Neal v Patrick Ewing).  There’s also been a bit of ice hockey (Channel 3): Detroit Red Wings v Chicago Blackhawks.  Channel 2 is college basketball — Florida Gators v Boston College.  Not forgetting PGA golf on Channel 4 and on Channel 24, preseason baseball — Chicago Cubs versus Oakland A’s.  Tennis on 39 and motor racing on 40.  Does that cover it?  I think so…

“GOOOOAAAALLL!!!”… It’s 4-0.

Bloody hell, not 2 minutes later, Veracruz get a consolation — 4-1

Final score 5-1.

* Brooks was a nightclub in Lancaster, which (and I’d forgotten this) had a lot of mirrors in it.  I say ‘was’ because a Google search today yields no mention in a dated article since 2006 and the only social footprint it has is a Myspace page.  If that’s not a sign of demise, I don’t know what is.

** According to Wikipedia, there are two variants.  I’m pretty sure we had the one with peach schnapps in it (vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice, and cranberry juice).  I’m actually quite tempted to have that again some time…

*** Cinema complex in Warrington, still going, I believe.  We once went to watch the Tom Cruise film ‘A Few Good Men’ there. Being right-on students, we asked for tickets in the obvious ‘comedy’ way.  What larks!

**** So pleased to see this still exists!  Long may it continue.  It was one of the best afternoons of that year.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 6

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Friday 25th March 1994,  12:05 (CST)


Yesterday was a full day and so there was little time to pause for the purposes of this book.  We went to the Mall and I bought the jeans that Andy and Martin ordered*.  Well I did owe them a favour.  I just hope they fit. 

In the evening, we went to this place called Double Dave’s, a pizza place that serves beer for 25 cents!  Rice and Dan disappeared early so when Paul and I walked back and found no-one in, I remembered that Rice had been chatting to this lad (Frampton, everyone calls him).  Anyway, he told Rice he was having a few people round and to stop in.  Sure enough, we called and found them there.  I also found a custom-made yellow Ibanez and huge amp.  Immediately, the common axemanship removed my already lowered inhibitions and in the flick of an amp switch, I was there, wearing it, playing it, willing my obstinate digits to co-ordinate properly, struggling to overcome the ‘like poles’ magnetic effect induced by the outlay of a couple of dollars at Double Dave’s.  The sound was amazing — more to do with the impressive array of effects, boxes and pre-amps than my fumbling ineptitude.  I have resolved to return, if only to prove I really can play ‘Live & Let Die’ and possibly attempt to re-acquaint myself with ‘Estranged’.  God I need a guitar!

I just watched an advert for a guitar shop in town.  I think that if I find myself with nothing to do next week, Austin will join the list of Wigan, Lancaster and Leeds; I’ll go and do my “prospective buyer” act — 10 minutes can be so therapeutic.

13:08 (CST)


American TV has to be seen to be believed.  In a quiet moment on MTV, I travel through the lost passageways of daytime television.  Ch 2, 3 and 4, there are the usual crappy soap operas that all seem exactly the same; flicking through them, you see an identical man/woman scene with a sort of strained silence, with slightly different variations in the room and in the faces.  Its quite amusing to flick back and forth through them; all the mush blends into on huge entity, like a barrel full of different flavours of the Slush Puppy.


On Channel 5, there is an even more ludicrous specimen.  An Oprah Winfrey derivative — Jenny Jones** — considering the case of the man who proposed to two women in the space of a month.  The conversation progresses and the audience gasps or cheers ever-louder.  Apart from the traditional objections about these programmes, issues such as “all men are bastards”-type mentality, of dysfunctional people or that it becomes a moral court of judgement, the one thing I’d like to know most is: where the hell do they find the audience for these things?

Ahh, they recruit from feminist groups (by the sound of the last questioner)

What a freakshow!

Oh no!  Channel 13 is even worse: “You don’t have peace, brother”

What is happening here?

Oh shit!  I’ve been missing ‘Moonlighting’ (Channel 27)

On CNN (Ch 31), there’s an English reporter.  After all this US crap, I really miss the BBC.

* As soon as I’d told my friends at Lancaster I was going to Texas, I was met with a barrage of requests to buy Levis 501s, American prices being significantly cheaper than those in the UK. 

** Her show, ‘The Jenny Jones Show‘ ran from 1991-2003.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 5

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

The University of Texas campus in Austin.  Photo: UT Austin

Wednesday 23rd March 1994,  16:53 (CST)


Well, here I am, replete with new pen and ready to take on the world in my “journal” as Chris puts it [Reminder: Chris’s email number is IFZE530*].  This is going to be a waffly entry, I can tell.  Here, seated in between Paul’s and Chris’s monitors, and I’ll get distracted a lot…    …(see!)…

Anyway, I went for a wander round Austin today and bought a Charles Manson CD**.  I’ve just emailed Matt and written a couple more postcards.  It’s possible to play a CD and listen to it while you work on a computer here…   …That would be cool; if we could only do it at Lancaster!***

(Chris has just disappeared for a bit so I’m now writing this whilst listening to said CD)

(Ah, now he’s re-appeared, and I’ll have to stop now) — see, I knew I’d get distracted…

I can’t believe I’ve actually got very little to say at this juncture — this is a new experience.

Oh yes…   …soap-box time.

Without getting all political on you, cherished reader, I’d just like to point out a sinister side-effect of Americanisation.  We don’t have this in Britain right now but we might soon — after all, we didn’t have Sunday trading or car-jacking until not very long ago.  The point is the open warfare that most natives refer to as ‘TV advertising’.  Whereas in Britain, firms are not allowed to say things like: “Fly British Airways because Virgin is shite and Richard Branson is a tosser”, this is standard practice over here.  Granted, Richard Branson is not the Nobel award winner for being an OK bloke but when this type of message is dumped into the houses of a nation, the underlying message is one of a twisted sense of morals.  It isn’t really cricket.  In principle, the idea of slagging off your bitterest rival is the commonest of common sense but when you get the ‘bickering’ effect of AT&T appearing, saying “MCI is crap, they don’t really save you money”, immediately followed by MCI saying “AT&T is useless and they charge more than they should”, it all gets a little shambolic.  I’m all for free enterprise but negative advertising is depressing to the intelligent viewer, not just because of the infantile method of reaching the masses.  The really depressing thing is the masses actually lap all this up; i.e. it is their lack of intelligence that dictates the parameters of the marketing battle — if everyone was intelligent enough to see through the pantomime, then AT&T and MCI aren’t stupid enough not to change tack.  No, America is (has been and always will be) market-led and it is the ignorance of the public in general (i.e. the marketplace) that is to blame.  That is ultimately what is so depressing about it all.  After all, it is not merely the cable & wireless companies; everyone is at it: Coke v Pepsi, all the car manufacturers are after each other.  All the insurance firms are in there — everyone.  Where it gets absolutely ridiculous is during election time, when believe it or not, even the political parties get involved!

Sheesh, sometimes this place is so unbelievably over-the-top, I just laugh, be glad I’m British and try to imagine John Major and John Smith**** appearing on adverts saying nasty things about each other…   …Oh no, Party Political Broadcasts!  What are we turning into?

At least it’s not:  “That John Smith, he’s so stupid, he’s fat, he’s bald, he wears glasses, er…   …he’s Scottish” etc. etc.

Except in John Major’s case, it may give him a little credibility!

Anyway, enough of these musings.  Beware, Britain.  Beware of the demon negative advertising, for it will try to encompass us all!!!

<<That was Paul’s soap-box for the day.  Tomorrow at the same time, he will investigate the disturbing plight of misogyny amongst the tree-dwelling Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon.>>*****

I don’t think I did so badly for someone who didn’t have much to say, did I?

PS JCB = Jalapeño Cheeseburger.  Jalapeño = VERY****** hot Mexican chilli.

* …

** Yes, you read that correctly.  Charles Manson, convicted multiple murderer had a song, ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’ covered by Guns ‘N Roses as an unlisted bonus track on their 1993 punk covers album ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’.  I was browsing in Tower Records on Guadeloupe St. (more commonly known as “The Drag”) and found it.  I had to buy it and still have the CD.  Occasionally one of the tracks on it pops up when my iDevices are set to ‘Shuffle’.

*** Wow!  Playing a CD in the CD tray of a computer while working on another task on the same computer!  Imagine that!!

**** John Smith MP.  Remember him?  He died less than two months after I wrote this, creating a vacuum in the Labour leadership – which would be filled by an up-and-coming politician by the name of Tony Blair.

***** To be clear, this was the most random thing I could come up with, in the name of satire.  It’s not really a thing.  Or at least I’m not aware that it is. 

****** See earlier post for relevance of this post-script.  Not that hot, relatively speaking – as I’ve since learned…

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 4

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Tuesday 22nd March 1994,  11:15 (CST)


I didn’t have time to write yesterday because I was up early and went on campus with Rice.  I went to Physics lectures , walked around campus, went with Rice to check his email (nothing from Matt!!).  In the afternoon, I decided to have a look at this stadium of the University’s.  It was no secret that Texas University has a 75,000 seater stadium; I’d seen it on Paul’s prospectus last year.  I’d also heard about it at Christmas from Paul & Rice.  I’d seen it from the plane when we came in to land and it wasn’t exactly anonymous by the time I’d got to campus.  It’s about 5 minutes’ walk from the Physics building (where I’d left Rice to enjoy his fourth lecture).  The main stand is absolutely enormous, towering above campus along with such structures as the main admin building and only one or two others (one’s called ‘Dobie’ and is their equivalent of Bowland Tower, said Rice).  Anyway, I walked up 10 of the 11 levels of the *bottom* part of the main stand and couldn’t get any farther.  Undaunted, I walked around the other side of the stadium and got in.  I sat on the back row, facing the main stand, exactly on the 50-yard line.  The twist is this: the main stand is so huge, it gives a 75,000 capacity…   …and yet it is only 3-sided!  I sat there in awe for about 20 minutes, trying to take in a stadium the size of Wembley, built exclusively for the use of students!

The West Stand of the Texas Memorial Stadium (now the Darrell K Royal Stadium) dominates the skyline around the University.  In 1994, the stadium had three sides and a capacity of over 75,000.  Today, the capacity is over 100,000.  Photo: Daniel Drier

No matter how often you visit America and think you’re prepared for any excess it can throw at you, you’re never quite immune.  I’ve now seen Cape Canaveral, the World Trade Center, Denver’s doomed Stapleton Airport* and DisneyWorld.  Surely I am beyond such schoolboy wide-eyedness.  I am the last person to be shocked by the American capacity to get something so ridiculously right, and yet, even through all my experiences and knowledge of the American Way, when it’s there in front of you (or if you’re sat in it), its compulsion to amaze is irresistible and the inevitable symptom is that annoying British trait of staring like tramps at the feast; a combination of the innate comparison with home and the knowledge that, try as we might, there can be no way we in Britain will equal this.

Anyway, I’m not going to write any more on that stadium — so it’s impressive but just because I’m British, doesn’t mean I have to look like a dumbstruck tourist!

We went to watch ‘Wayne’s World 2’ again last night but there was an unfortunate side-effect: I wanted my guitar by the end of it and I also realised I left my amp in Lancaster…   …oh well, writing about it isn’t going to bring it all here!

I’m starving now.

[having eaten, later]

Paul & Rice have gone only campus — I decided to stay here because I’ve got a few things to do.

It’s 1:15, 7:15 at home — I’ll ring today.

I’ve just been flicking round the channels: MTV, Prime English Soccer, the evangelical channels and of course, not forgetting the, shall we say, liberated attitude to advertising.  Anyway, I’ll resist the draw of the soap-box for another time…   …but it would suffice to neatly contrast the phenomenal ability of this country to impress with its attitude to exhibit, against its phenomenally sad unimpressive class of inhabitant.

* At a time when arguments and protests about a second runway at Manchester Airport had raged on for years, Denver, having outgrown its own airport, Stapleton International, simply demolished it and built a whole new airport (Denver International Airport) on an entirely different site.

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 3

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

Sunday 20th March 1994,  11:39 (CST)


Well, early to bed, early to rise makes Paul a dull boy!  No question of that particular accusation applying.  Yesterday, we did what most people go abroad specifically to do: we swam and sunbathed, played pool rugby, hung out next to a river, ate inordinate amounts of various fast food and sat outside until the early hours, watching the world go by.  I’m sure there’s one missing there…   …I don’t think we did anything else, though.

Well, apart from the fast food reliance, this *is* European too.  Granted the scenery is not up to Italian Alp/Dolomite standard but since when did they have 24-hour supermarkets, eh?  No, I won’t open up that old debate but I will say the two sides did seem fairly well reconciled here last night.  Dan* brought his (American) girlfriend to see us last night (the English one doesn’t know about her yet).  She was born in Greenwich Village in Noo Yawk.

I really wish I’d rang Dad on Friday night — not only because (whoops) I woke him up but also because if I’d rang him yesterday, he would have told me the scores.  Well, I won’t be making *that* mistake again.  We found the channel on the TV that shows English football (remember Keystone**: United v Spurs).  Yesterday was Sheffield Wednesday v Newcastle United.  I knew I was at home for this match and confidently told Rice et al it was 1-1, Cole for Newcastle, Andy Preece sent off, and I can’t remember who scored for Sheff Wed.  Well, Rice was predictably jubilant (again!) when Andy Cole’s goal went in; Paul muttering something obscene and magpie-oriented in the corner***.  Then the final whistle went and he (Paul) looked painfully at him as if I’d denied him the pleasure of seeing Wednesday equalise.  All I could say was “That’s why I couldn’t remember who scored!”.  I was right about the rest, though.


I’ve cultivated the beginnings of a rather nice tan in one day, which I’m afraid means cream and T-shirts for a couple of days and hopefully, I’ll look like Grandad after a month in California by next week.  To all the detractors reading this, I’d just like to say a quick ‘I’M NOT BURNING’, so there.

Although this is a Sunday, it will not, I know, carry the atmosphere of a Sunday because Sundays are not allowed in the States, at least not Sundays like I or Luke know them (side-swipe)****.  There will probably be a doubling of evangelical TV programmes and that’s all.  Can’t hear any lawnmowers, though.  Sorry, Luke, it had to be said!

* Paul & Rice’s room-mate.

** Keystone was the place we stayed in when we were skiing in Colorado, two months earlier.

*** Rice is a Newcastle fan, Paul is a Sunderland fan.  In football terms, the two are sworn enemies.

**** I think this stems from a late-night, drink-fuelled ‘debate’ Luke, Matt and I had in our student house in Lancaster about the pros and cons of the American lifestyle (freedom from restriction) versus the European model (where some areas had by-laws that could force residents to cut their lawn each Sunday). 

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 2

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.


Saturday 19th March 1994,  08:39 (CST)


Firstly, this isn’t the important announcement I was going to make*.  Would you believe it, my pen exploded shortly after I wrote that.  In fact it wasn’t really yay important anyway; I’d just taken a photo of the Mississippi/Missouri and was thinking how it must have dried up because it seemed to be but a trickle in a really wide river bed, but no.  The ‘really wide river bed’ is where the flood** happened.  Anyway, it doesn’t require any more about that story.

I arrived at Austin Airport, picked up my case (which came out early, for a change) and just walked out.  Austin is not an international airport so there’s no passport control and certainly no deluded customs officials who think everyone nipped over to Holland for some contraband before they left for America.  Anyway, Paul & Rice were stood outside and after the customary greetings, everything instantly became normal — only it was in 85° heat.  Well, 98° was a bit ridiculous.  Bloody exaggerating Americans!!

I dropped my stuff off at Chris’s — the guy with the ‘phone.  He’s actually really cool — he’s got an acoustic and a bass.  His mate’s got an Epiphone telecaster.  Yeah, so we walked to this ‘English Pub’ place for a — I’ve forgotten what Paul called them, the initials I definitely remember — JCB and why do I remember that?  Because it’s a chilli burger and JCB is about right, ‘cause it’s that powerful!

I picked up my bags from Chris’s place and we bussed it to Paul’s (shit, my jeans are still at Chris’s — they were the first things to go in this heat!).  As we approached 1333 Arena Drive, it was sort of how I imagined it, except the apartment complex is on the right hand side, yet I’d somehow imagined the left.  Actually, ‘complex’ is a good word.  It must be the size of, say, Fylde residence rooms*** — much bigger than I’d expected.  Anyway, as we approached, there was a police car stopped, but with lights flashing and two cops talking to two guys.  Paul said “Oh crap, there’s not been another shooting, has there?”, at which point, I nearly did (crap).

The apartment, I can tell you, has charms beyond the capability of a camera lens.  Of course, I probably will take some photographs**** but I think people should read this first — to be warned, as it were.  It’s very modern, both in the fact that the building is new and that there’s no furniture.  The living room consists of a TV set and what I would call a viewing area — i.e. the rest is just floor.  Paul, Rice and Dan all have mattresses  now — I don’t but hey!  Who cares?  I’m writing this in ‘bed’ — lying on a cotton sheet on the floor.  It’s a good job I brought this pillow!

Just a couple more things of interest: when it came to the gift-giving, Rice looked like a seven year-old on Christmas morning and because it was from (lickle, ickle) Lyndsey, he had the inevitable inane grin from the rest of the evening.  Paul was a little less overt — well, he’s like that, isn’t he?  You know on the Pink Panther when you can see what he’s thinking in a bubble above his head, well when he got his salad cream and curry powder, I could just envisage salad cream and curry powder sandwiches over his head…   …don’t ask me why.

Also (and I kick myself for not staying awake throughout) was a new episode of ‘Beavis and Butt-head’(!!) where Beavis gets bitten by a dog and pretends to have rabies.  Yes, I slipped in and out of consciousness and didn’t last much longer than 10:30 — but I had been up 22 1/2 hours by then!

Anyway, it’s apparently going to get pretty warm so I’m afraid, girls, I shall be forced into getting a sun-tan!  Ha ha ha ha ha!

Oh yes, Paul & Rice found Luke quite amusing when I told them about Vicky — I wonder what happened on Thursday night.  I’m praying that Matt emailed the night’s events through.*****

Well, gotta get up!

PS Sorry for waking you up, Dad.

* See final entry of ~Pt.1.  There are lots of back references so it’s probable best to read all the entries in sequence.

** The ‘Great Flood of 1993‘.

*** A reference to part of the campus at Lancaster.  According to Wikipedia, there are 16 blocks of student accommodation within Fylde College.

**** I’m sure I did take photographs on this trip but I can’t remember seeing any of them developed – another sign of the time!

***** I have no memory of this at all.

Diaries Of A Texan Traveller – pt. 1

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.


I call this account “a video diary in non-video form” because ‘diary’ sounds…   …well a little drab and soft really, doesn’t it?

I aim to make the reader feel part of every entry.  I hope to match the style of Michael Palin or Clive James* but I’m not sure how that will go.  I aim to include the unexpected aspects of visiting America, to educate, evaluate, criticise, elucidate, inform, encourage and probably mislead your perception of real life in this nation look upon as some sort of elevated monolith of the world community, when basically its peoples are the same as us with ambitions, fears, traumas and ‘Roseanne’…   …just like we are!

I also aim to stop writing like I’m at University – this is my holiday for God’s sake!!

Finally and most importantly, I would like to share my most fundamental motivation with you.  As Garth Algar** once said: “I just hope you didn’t think it sucked”

I think there’s a lesson there for us all…



* They both were, and still are, amongst my greatest influences of travelogue writing.

** sidekick to Wayne Campbell in ‘Wayne’s World’, 1992 film.



Friday 18th March 1994,  16:49 (GMT)


Took off from Manchester this morning with no problems.  As always*, I had the filet mignon for lunch; an American Airlines speciality I must say.  The film (‘The Addams Family Values’) has just finished.  This means I have successfully endured the first 6½ hours without turning to this diary to keep me occupied – I thought I would have written reams and reams by now!  Well, there’s always the Austin flight (in addition to the 1½ more hours here!)

The reason I have not yet got bored is partly because of the bloke I met.  An artist from Huddersfield** no less!  More later – snack time!

* Stretching credulity a little!  Two months previously, I’d flown to Denver, via Chicago, also with American Airlines for a skiing holiday.  I’d had the filet mignon on that flight as well.

** Another friend from University (Matt) is from Huddersfield.


Friday 18th March 1994,  17:40 (GMT)


The Immigration and Customs forms have just been filled in.  Still just over an hour to go.  Everything looks white down below but as I do not have a window seat, I can’t confirm what’s happening right now.  The newspaper says ‘unseasonably cold’ for Chicago.  Oh well!

Austin is supposed to be 29°C – Chicago’s probably going to be 29°F!!  Anyway this bloke (Andrew) lives about 3 miles from Highburton*.  He’s into skiing and has watched Manchester United for over 20 years — now is it obvious why I haven’t started ‘The Liar’** yet?!  He’s going to Toronto to sell his paintings and we had an interesting chat about marketing art — you learn something every day!

* Matt’s family lived in the Highburton area of Huddersfield at the time.

** Semi-autobiographical novel by Stephen Fry.


Friday 18th March 1994,  13:46 (CENTRAL; GMT-6)


I don’t fly to Austin for another hour yet so there’s plenty of time to hang out and take in the scenery — again!

Yes I’m once again sat in the little café in Terminal 3.  Everything is the same (Michael Jordan is everywhere!) — except it’s not snowing.  Little things spark off my memory like those bending iron columns — what were the initials again?  Must remember to ask Martin!*  Well, yes, they’re still here, not surprisingly!

It was a weight off my mind to ring Chris (whoever he is!)** who confirmed that Rice and Paul will be at the airport in 3½ hours’ time.  I think Dad was pleased I rang — from the very same ‘phone booth from which he rang Grandma only 8 weeks ago!  Not that he was to know that, but it sort of seemed right.

Blasé as I appeared before I left (well I probably was blasé), I’m not now; I can’t really comprehend that I was sat in that very yellow plastic chair 2 months ago (unless they swapped them around for some reason) — but the effect is just the same anyway!

OK: an in-joke for anyone who has been to an American airport before:  “Mr Bloggs; Mr Joe Bloggs.  Please contact the information desk.” — it really is the little things, isn’t it?!!

[Somebody’s just sat in my chair — the yellow plastic one!]

I wonder why that Customs official was convinced I’d been to the Netherlands***.  I don’t look like Jan****, do I?

Actually, I didn’t handle that very well.  We both knew it was kidology but instead of being British and saying “I’m sorry but I’m afraid there’s some mistake here”, I overdid the staunch defence bit and sort of whined “but I havennn’t been there!!!”  Oh well, better luck next time — there probably will be a next time.

At least I didn’t bleep here.  In Manchester, I couldn’t believe being bleeped a second time!  10 years of air travel… (sigh)

Oh I think I found some Pepsi in my regular cup of ice cubes! — oh no, it’s just a trick of the light.

5 past 8 now at home…   …I wonder what happened on Coronation Street…   …Shit!  What time did I ring?  25 past I think…   …well that was a close one!  I know I’m in Chicago and all but CORONATION STREET!  Sorry Mum!*****

* My brother Martin and I had discussed the RSJs visible from the departure gate area (for some reason) during my previous visit, two months earlier.

** Another British overseas student at the University of Texas who had become friends with Paul & Rice,  Crucially (and a sign of the time), he was the only person among their circle who had access to a telephone.

*** Looking very bedraggled and student-like as I did, it’s no surprise that I was spotted by a US Customs official who came over to ask me if I’d “brought anything in from Amsterdam”.  I took him literally because I couldn’t believe that he would need to speak in euphemisms, even though it was perfectly clear what he meant.

**** Another friend from University, Jan came from Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire but had a Dutch mother.

***** My Mum was a regular ‘Coronation Street’ viewer then.  She isn’t now.


Friday 18th March 1994,  15:03 (CST)


As I see the last, faint cloud-obscured features of Illinois disappear, my mind turns to filling the time on this 2hr 20min flight.  It hardly seems worth starting ‘The Liar’ now.  There’s certainly no opportunity for conversation as there’s no-one next to me — but I got a window seat!

I realised that, unlike many of the passengers, admittedly American and ‘frequent flyers’; who were perhaps nervy about the take-off, I was hugely relieved, probably because I know Paul and Rice are waiting for me and that after a 9hr flight, this little ‘hop’ is a mere formality.  OK, so I’m blasé again!

Sometimes though, I sort of catch myself off-guard and have to remind myself that I’m now in the USA all alone (for the time being) and despite the facade of casual ‘shit happens’ acceptance, sometimes it is all a little unreal.

I heard a Texan in front of me chatting to an Illinoian (?)*, saying that they wouldn’t need warm clothes as it’s (I’m sure he said) 98°!!  So that’s what “damn hot” means!

The captain just said there’s some “bumpy air” on the way, although it’s pretty clear right now.

What can I see?  Well, a large, (very) straight road, probably an Interstate and just lots of fields, like the plains of Eastern Colorado — no circular fields here, though!

There is a grid of roads at right angles separating the fields and tiny houses are dotted randomly about.  In the distance, I can see a small town where two roads cross.  It just looks like a gigantic patchwork blanket!

Well we are in the Midwest here.  Agricultural heartland of the US.  There’s absolutely no variation for as far as I can see (probably about 40 miles) and it’s completely flat.

Whoahh!  A large town *quick look at the map*.  Could be Springfield, Illinois — I dunno!

8:25 at home; I wonder what’s happening at home.  More to the point, I wonder what’s happening in Lancaster.  Hmmm… Paul & Rice will be told.  Oh yes, Paul & Rice *will* be told**.

This clock-watching is a bad idea.  I’ll have to do something or this flight will seem the same as the other one — which for a 9-hour flight, wasn’t that bad, but for a 2½?!

Wait!  Captain announced we’re going over St. Louis.  I can’t see it but I can see a river.  Mississippi or Missouri, I don’t know.

<<Important announcement coming up!>>  (hereafter referred to as !*!)

* Actually, it’s an “Illinoisan”, according to

** I have no idea what this was specifically a reference to, although it’s worded in a ‘Wayne’s World’ style.  I think it had something to do with a rumoured sexual encounter of one of my house-mates.


Buddy, Can You Spare A Minute?

Hey America!  Hi there.  I’m a friend of yours from way back.  In fact, I come from the same place as Myles Standish so I guess I may even be related to a whole lotta you guys.  Anyways, I just wanted to say something to you, you know, ‘As A Friend’…

We in the rest of the world have been talking and, well, you gotta know, not many of us like this Trump guy a whole lot.  I know a lot of you guys do so I just need to let you know that it could cause us a problem.  We didn’t want to say anything and we nearly didn’t but like that Friends show says: “I’ll be there for you” so here I am.

Visiting the Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nevada in 2002 – with Caesar’s Palace in the background

Before I start, I know it’s your election and kinda your business so I appreciate you might not take too kindly to some guy from the “old country” stickin’ his nose in your affairs but before you get all ‘1776‘ on me, let’s get a few things straight:

First of all, you guys have our sympathy.  We in the UK have, as you might say, “been there, done that”.  We know what it’s like to have a vote to use and feel we’ve got a bunch of crooks and clowns on each side to have to choose between.  It’s only five months since we had the same deal here.  And, according to most of the rest of the world, we messed up then.  I know what you’re thinking: “why listen to this loser?” and I know how you value success.  Think about it though: whose experience is most helpful here; they guy who doesn’t realise what problem he avoided or the guy who knows exactly what his mistake was?

And then there’s this: a lotta you guys like to think of the USA as the pre-eminent country in the world and in many ways it is: economically, militarily and culturally – well popular culture, anyway.  As the world’s only super-power, Uncle Sam is a pretty big deal.  Since the Cold War started, we’ve grown used to a succession of your presidents being styled as the “leader of the free world”.  Y’know, sometimes that presumption of supremacy has rankled with us but we jus’ sucked it up and didn’t say nothing.  I gotta say, if you go with this Trump guy, we’re through with being OK with that.

Take a look at history – not ‘Hollywood’ history where the US cracked the Enigma Code or American servicemen took part in the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III but real history.  Look at how Greece rose and fell (the first time) and how Greek civilization got surpassed by the Roman Empire.  Since Churchill’s days, America has been described as the ‘Rome’ to Britain’s ‘Greece’.  Just remember that eventually, the Roman Empire contracted and disappeared.  I ain’t saying your time is over – jus’ that nothin’s forever.  There are signs if you know where to look: the past kinda catches up with you, y’know, like our colonial past caught up with us.  Thanks to Washington and his homies, you guys mighta got out early but we managed to keep ahold of Canada, much of the Caribbean, India, Australia, New Zealand and some other places.  It was pretty cool while it lasted but eventually, you gotta pay the price for all this struttin’ around the world.  So we managed to re-boot our Empire as a Commonwealth and some say that immigration from those countries was a good thing for us but we had to take a lotta responsibility we kinda didn’t see comin’.  Take it from us, when we look Stateside and see things like the controversy surrounding the use of the Confederate flag and the Standing Rock thing right now,  we recognise them as echoes of history no-one ever thought would keep comin’ back.  You gotta know, these things are jus’ gonna get more and more complex from here on in.  “Mo’ history, mo’ problems”, brother.

The reason you need to know this, guys, is that when some bozo keeps sayin’ “Make America Great Again”, you gotta be sure what he means by that because I gotta tell you, I think he’s bein’ deliberately unclear with you.  In so many ways, America is still great and never stopped being.  In the ways you might think he means by “great again”, you gotta ask: can he, or anyone else, bring back those days?  No amount of slogans on baseball caps is gonna make everything how it was and nor should it.  America still has nothing to fear but fear itself.

You think I’m over-reacting?  What about the last guy who shouted simple solutions to bring back former glories at controlled rallies, who threatened his opponents with jail, who blamed outsiders and gave no value to disabled people?  Well your country mobilized 16 million to help us stop him and over 400,000 of them never came home.  Y’know, I couldn’t believe when he tried to explain away his crazy-ass opinions as being “just words”.  If we’re in a world where that works as a way out for politicians, we’re in a whole heap o’trouble.  Like JK Rowling said, if you can remove the importance of the words we use that easily, “we’re all lost”.

I ain’t sayin’ Hillary is perfect – I don’t know enough about her to tell you I know better than you.  I mean she is without doubt an experienced political operator who’s been a First Lady, a Senator and a Secretary of State  so I do kinda find it hard to understand why she’s so mistrusted by so many of you but I guess you have your reasons.  I just hope it’s not simple misogyny.  You could do worse than have a woman as a leader – ask Germany!

I’m proud to be a pro-American.  I spent my 16th birthday in Florida – the first of many visits there.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New York City; Las Vegas; Austin, Texas and Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I wanna go back and see more of your amazing country.  I love your people, your positivity, your values and your achievements.  I have American friends: I’m pretty sure some are Democrat-leaning and some are Republican-leaning and I hope none of you take offense at what I’ve said.  Whatever happens, I’m not gonna stop lovin’ America, watchin’ your movies, listenin’ to your music and readin’ your literature – but a few of us might think about consciously uncoupling for a few years if you get involved with that guy…

Anyways, I hope we can still be friends – maybe this will help:

I sure do appreciate you reading this.  Much obliged!

Arriverderci, Allerdici

For once in English football’s long and undignified history of ‘hitting rock bottom’ has come a scandal that I’ve actually welcomed.  Proving that sometimes, two wrongs actually do make a right, Sam Allardyce has come to the rescue of all those who thought him woefully under-qualified and over-rated to lead the national team – by spectacularly talking himself out of the job after barely two months.

181122_3649827757075_1625156621_nTo his supporters, he was always the straight-talking, no-nonsense antidote to the seemingly more cultured, continental-leaning and ultimately fruitless philosophy favoured by the FA in recent years.  ‘Big Sam’ will sort it out, they claimed, with all the sophistication of a 1970s tabloid headline.

But we soon found out that he wasn’t as straight-talking as he seemed.  Aside from the whole argument about the potential for corruption, the flagrant disregard for his employers’ policies on third-party ownership and the fact he even felt the need to associate with anyone not core to his primary objective, it was the duplicity that really did for him.  He was exposed as a charlatan who thought he was clever enough to say one thing publicly and quite another once the mood took him.

You might argue that his opinions on the re-building of Wembley, the conduct of Princes William and Harry and the effectiveness of his predecessors are all matters of opinion, to which he is fully entitled.  You might believe there is an adequate separation of the employee and the private individual to justify this claim.

When faced with this question of personal freedom versus professional integrity, my instinct is that I would agree, with only one condition – would he have been happy to disclose any of those views in the job interview?  If he had, knowing the risks to his ambition of doing so, then yes, the FA would have known what they were employing (at huge expense) and would have had no complaint.  If not, then why not?  Because it might not have gone down well, perhaps?  So why should it be such a huge surprise that being caught in possession of a toxic opinion later on would lead to his removal?  And this from a man who has spent ten years bleating about how he would never be allowed to get near his ‘dream job’.

Perhaps it’s not the most judicious thing to quote Greg Dyke (I’ve always held him in quite high regard but I often feel in the minority by doing so) but he’s the only person who I’ve yet heard echo my very first thoughts about this whole sorry affair: why indeed does someone on £3 million per year need to worry about compromising himself for £400,000 (roughly seven weeks’ wages)?  And if he doesn’t understand that simple concern, what else is he failing to understand?

The England Manager’s job is supposed to be the pinnacle of the game and to me, the vast sums of money involved in this particular job in football are more justified than anywhere else in the game.  People talk about it being a poisoned chalice but it’s only poisonous if you fail to meet to the standards of performance or conduct.  Quite frankly, most England fans half-expect some shortfall in performance so even that is largely tolerated.  How hard can it be, therefore, to just conduct yourself appropriately?  Roy Hodgson was lots of things but even his fiercest critic (and there were a few) would struggle to add ‘impropriety’ to his charge sheet.

our_2d00_culture£3m a year is a lot of money, even in football, but it does buy the FA the right to remove all the unhelpful nuance and feeble excuses from situations like this and act decisively.  Thankfully, they had the backbone to do so, knowing it would result in some wholly embarrassing headlines in the short term.  Thankfully, the FA of today seem a world away from their dusty gentleman’s club of octogenarians and, with initiatives like ‘England DNA‘, give themselves a clear forward when situations like this occur.

Yes, it seems faintly soul-crushing to see everything being boiled down to “a process” but it’s the professional thing to do (and to be seen to do) and such exercises are invaluable in situations like this.  Was Allardyce’s integrity of the highest standard?  No.  Well it says here that ‘nothing less is acceptable’.  Sorry, Sam but that’s all there is to it.  On your bike.

We could have also done without his mealy-mouthed “entrapment won” reaction, appearing to many to prove that this is a man with the hide of a particularly shameless rhino.  Will he return to the game?  If he has a shred of dignity, no or at least not in England.  Sadly, it won’t be long before some club or other is desperate and shallow enough to welcome him as their new messiah.  When that happens, if it happens to be your club, just remember this:

Let It Go, Elsa!

First, thanks for all your expressions of sympathy after we lost Sam, last month.  He really was a once-in-a-lifetime dog and it amazed us how many others thought so too.

We were therefore thrust into the state of being a one-dog family for the first time in 8½ years – something which saw the household considerably, unbearably, quietened.  After a week of such torpor, we could stand it no longer and began the search for our next dog.

Having found both Marley and Sam to be wonderful examples of their breed, we naturally gravitated to searching for a labrador.  We also felt it was important that we tried to see if there were labs out there that we could re-home, rather than purchase commercially.  Both our dogs had come to us (via friends of friends) as a result of needing to be re-homed and in both cases, we firmly believed we were able to vastly improve their quality of life with the home we could offer them.

As in most instances these days, the next port of call was a google search to see where our nearest rescue centre was.  We were amazed to find that The Labrador Rescue (North West Area) was only a few miles up the road, in Eccleston, Chorley.  On their site was a 14-month old bitch called Elsa.  It wasn’t a straightforward process (I suspect deliberately so, to deter time-wasters or those people who aren’t sufficiently committed) but we registered our interest, filled in all the necessary details and waited while we were screened by the LR(NW).

A week later, we were invited to visit (the whole family, including Marley) to see if we would be a good match.  Nothing was guaranteed but if all went well, we would be able to bring her home with us.  We agreed to visit on Friday 16th September (Charlie’s 12th birthday) and spent the interim trying not to raise our hopes unduly.

It wasn’t the easiest place to find but we eventually arrived, full of anticipation.  We met Glenys, who introduced us to Elsa.  She ran towards us, a sleek, black ball of submission and curiosity.  I was reminded of our first encounter with Sam, back in 2005, and his similar nervousness.  Amid all the timidity, we could sense the same strength of character.

Naturally, we warmed to her immediately.  Marley was perfectly well-mannered towards her and she was keen to make friends with us.  We were invited to spend some time together in the adjacent field to see how we all got on.  In less than five minutes, we knew we couldn’t leave her behind.  With everyone satisfied with the arrangement, we paid the fee, bought the harness and lead and brought her home.

So now we’re at the beginning of the process of encouraging this very energetic, puppyish youngster into becoming a more responsible, mature adolescent.  As you’d expect, she’s very boisterous, wilful and prone to misbehaviour (with a penchant for running away with shoes) but she’s also affectionate, playful, engagingly startled by tiny things and quick to learn.  Needless to say the level of chaos in the household has increased exponentially since her arrival.

Here she is, already challenging the status quo by jumping on the couch.  Like I said when we got Marley, “if he proves to be half the dog that Sam is, he’ll be great”.  The same is true of Elsa and she’s already well on the way to that particular accolade.


If you’d like to support the Labrador Rescue (North West), there are a number of fundraising initiatives for you to consider.  Follow the link to see how you can help.

BBC: Britain’s Biggest Controversy?

– Oh, he’s not going off one one about the BBC again, is he?

Well, yes I am, I’m afraid.  Normally, I’m motivated to assault my keyboard (and your attention) by the need to defend dear old ‘Auntie’ in the face of some current slight or attack on her being.

This time, it’s slightly different.  My trigger to this particular polemic is not to decry the latest piece of perceived BBC-bashing: the Government’s insistence that all BBC employees earning over £150,000 must be listed in the interests of ‘transparency’.  Much as I love the BBC and I’m suspicious about the thinking behind this development, I happen to agree with the idea.


It’s right of course that taxpayers can see how their c.£3.75 billion is spent each year but it’s hardly fair to infer from that that the BBC has been utterly opaque about its finances until now.  For many years, The BBC’s Annual Reports have been available to download and/or read for anyone with an internet connection and enough inclination/nosiness so to do.  This year’s version runs to 168 pages of often glossy prospectus-like self-promotion but as ever, it is required to include a high degree of financial information.

This compulsion to transparency, I imagine, is both a blessing and a curse to the BBC Trust.  For example, thanks to the report, we can find out that the Beeb spent an astonishing £45.5m on Human Resources (HR) over the last year, up from £43.1m the year before, both seemingly massive numbers.  With a total income of £4.8bn last year, this HR figure amounts to almost 1%, which seems much less significant.  Whether or not you believe this figure is still far too high is of course up to you, but either way, you’re better informed by having this information available to you – as you would be, either way, by knowing that Gary Lineker, Claudia Winkelman et al are this band or that above £150k pa (the declarations will be in bands of 50,000: £150k-£200k; £200k-£250k etc.).

As with any form of information, it’s fair to say that the information alone is not the whole picture.  There is also context.  For instance, the BBC Report shows that the World Service is currently costing licence fee payers £261m and the cost of actually collecting the licence fee come is at around £115m.  So what?  Well did you know these two areas were, until recently, not covered by the licence fee but by other parts of the Government?  Some might say that it was a rather underhand trick to suddenly burden these liabilities on the corporation without allowing any recompense.

Equally, you might take the view that these things were already being paid for by your taxes anyway so what difference does it make what part of the public purse they come under?  That’s a fair point but it’s also then rather harsh to draw too many conclusions about the Beeb’s levels of like-for-like efficiency when these two new overheads account for around 10% of the licence revenue.

There’s also a point to be made here about the fact that most of the £115 fee collection costs (which, let’s face it, are likely to be mostly comprised of pursuing dodgers) are being borne by us, those who do pay our licence.  It’s non-payers we should be directing our ire towards for this, not the BBC for being forced to include the provision in its accounts.

With effectively a £380m millstone placed around its neck, it was hardly surprising that the BBC wasn’t able to stop The Great British Bake-Off defecting to Channel 4 earlier this week.  If only the Corporation had had to spend ‘just’ £105m a year on stopping licence-dodgers, it would have been able to fund the £10m shortfall to keep one of its most popular programmes of recent years.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps it was not just the increased cost that did for the GBBO contract; it was more the fact that the increased cost would have been scrutinised because of the BBC’s ever-heightened commitment to transparency.  It can be argued that the loss of a flagship programme was therefore the right thing to happen and a sign of responsible management and cost control.  Will Channel 4 manage to maintain the quirky-yet-comfy style of the departing Mel & Sue?  Will Paul & Mary judge the new format to be too crummy for their taste?  Will the inevitably fully-laden ad breaks ruin it?  Like the contestants, we’ll have to wait to see how it turns out.

I suspect that, on balance, we’ll miss the BBC version and, in its absence, our hearts should grow fonder for the Corporation that bestowed it on us in the first place.  The same goes for the other divide-crossing crowd-pleaser The Voice.  Auntie Beeb has a proud history of conceiving and developing formats into a mind-boggling list of national treasures from Watch With Mother to Strictly Come Dancing – and far too many in between for me to reel off.  There’s no reason to believe that it isn’t capable of creating something else, just as popular – or even better.

I think Stephen Fry best stated the BBC’s value during his 2008 lecture on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting (it’s well worth watching all 43 minutes but the bit I’m quoting comes right at the end) when he makes the point that, in some other countries, there seems to be enough funding for enriching floral displays on roundabouts, posing the question “why don’t we do that?  How pleasing.”  The point is that such countries can afford to do it  because they choose to make it a priority.  He likens the BBC and its core values (to educate, inform and entertain) to a million such roundabouts and something which we as a nation can agree that we can afford – and if we don’t we may only truly discover its value when it’s too late to recover.  I’ve seldom agreed more with anything else I’ve ever heard or read.

Oh, and one more thing: if the Government’s recently-renewed thirst for transparency is to be the driving force behind another requirement of the BBC’s proberty, we taxpayers must then surely look forward to a similar, consistent, ascending commitment to demonstrating value and equal transparency when it comes to the rest of the Public Sector.

I’ve blogged before about how voters should be given the same consideration as shareholders, with all the access to structured reporting that that entails.  Thus we can eagerly await similar levels of dedication to scrutiny in the case of NHS (with a c.£100bn expenditure, a 214-page report, a lesser amount of financial information and salary information pertaining only to its Board members.) and after that, who knows: Parliament, the Armed Services, the Civil Service, the Police, the Prison Systems and, one might presume, all the privately-owned organisations that depend on Public Sector contracts for, let’s say, 50% of their revenue.

Or would it be too cynical to suspect that that won’t happen?

Obituary: Sam

We never knew Sam’s real birthdate but as he joined our family on March 31st 2005 at the age of “10 months”, as far as we were concerned, he was born on May 31st 2004.  He died on August 31st 2016, aged 12 years and three months.


Sam came into our lives in March 2005.  At the time, we were a household in flux – still working on converting the old barn into our new house, the three of us were living in one room in my parents’ house.  Charlie was only six months old and we were several weeks away from moving in.  I was spending every spare minute working on the house and one day Helen asked, out of the blue “Should we get a dog?”.  I remember pleading that there would be plenty of time for that once we’d moved in but could we just wait, hoping for a bit of pragmatism.  Then it turned out that it wasn’t really an idle question – you see, there was this black Labrador in Golborne that needed re-homing.

Sensing that the cards were stacked against me, I attempted to dampen down expectation by agreeing to go and have a look – “but that’s all”.  Obviously, my well-intentioned caution was futile – we might as well have bought a dog bed and bowl on the way there.  We’d decided to take Charlie with us to see how the two reacted to each other and things didn’t get off to a great start when we were told “he’s in the back room but you’ll have to take your hat off – it makes him nervous”.

Eventually, we coaxed the jet-black, gangly 10-month old youngster out of his cage and into a meeting, of sorts.  Nervous and awkward as he was, he still showed interest in and respect to our rather more confident 6-month old.  He had a tendency to bark at men he didn’t know but it was already clear that he had an affinity for children.  We said we’d go home and talk about it but before we’d even got on the M6, I’d abandoned all hope of a more sensibly-timed canine addition.  It was clear that this one would be the dog for us.

Within days, he’d arrived: another inhabitant in a shared house that was already accommodating upto seven people.  Still clinging steadfastly to the notion of being sensible, we decided that he should sleep downstairs but it was soon apparent that Sam had other ideas.  Minutes after being shut in the kitchen on his first night with us, he barked and whined at the top of his voice, unsustainable enough in any case but doubly so with a sleeping baby in the house.  I was dispatched downstairs to have a word with him.  It didn’t work and neither did the next few attempts.  This dog was not the scared puppy we’d been told about – he was headstrong enough to know what he wanted and intelligent enough to get his own way.  I knew I couldn’t give in to his demands to sleep upstairs with us but I had a disrupted household and work in the morning.  I did the only thing I could do to keep the peace without giving in – I let him sleep with me on a couch in the conservatory.  In doing so, it led us both to get the measure of the other and our bond was established.  Needless to say, the next day, it was suggested that we let him sleep upstairs after all.

As Sam settled into the family, we moved in the converted barn and the baby became a toddler, it was clear for all to see that wherever Charlie went, he had a black shadow, watching his every move.  Sam may have been ostensibly our dog but in his mind, he belonged to Charlie and he always would.  The obvious attachment between the two was the reason why, for Charlie’s first birthday and on the eve of our first foreign holiday together, I bought him a soft toy in the style of a black Labrador and christened it ‘Little Sam’, lest the bigger version be missed while we were away.

One unanticipated advantage to the awkward timing of his arrival was that we were able to match the carpet to the dog, which is why our upstairs rooms are carpeted in the darkest colour possible.  Sam would regularly station himself beside Charlie’s cot at bedtime but, possibly as a result of that shared first night in the conservatory, his preferred night-time spot was next to our bed, on my side.  He continued to observe this nocturnal endorsement to the week he died, perhaps his only concession to ‘belonging’ to anyone other than Charlie.


In no time at all, it seemed, Charlie was older, more curious and keen to explore his surroundings.  This meant taking the time to play out with him on Saturday mornings, while juggling other household chores.  Later still, on his battery-powered tractor, once he was old enough to be trusted to adhere to some basic rules (stay away from the pond, don’t go past the end of the drive), I found I was able to leave him to play under Sam’s supervision.  For almost ten years, if I ever needed to know where Charlie was, I had only to find Sam because I knew he would be within ten metres of him.

Over Easter 2008, we made a decision that was to test Sam’s legendary temperament: we took on another Labrador in need of a new home, Marley.  Unsurprisingly, the older dog took to this new imposter with the good grace we expected of him and they soon became as close as brothers – as long as the pecking order was observed.  With a few well-timed subtle growls in the early days, Sam’s dominant personality ensured that would be the case – although Marley’s compliant nature helped too.

With the newcomer came a different problem – the two would frequently goad each other into more and more troublesome antics.  Many mornings were punctuated by shouts across fields, unacknowledged, before the two miscreants could be seen frolicking about, two fields away, covered in mud obtained from their interest in a boggy patch nearby.  Sam was always the more sensible one – only Marley was capable of eating a whole cake of rat poison and running upto Helen with a blue tongue, so proud of his ‘achievement’ – but make no mistake, they both had a penchant for mischief, which they regularly indulged.


As Charlie grew bigger and braver, their adventures together became ever more ambitious.  The most unfortunate aspect of human and dog growing up together is that the dog’s physical prime coincides with much of the child’s early development – by the time the child can reach their level of energy, the dog’s peak years will invariably have passed.  For a few golden years, though, the ‘sweet spot’ of their joint activity, they were equals: Charlie’s favourite game was to suddenly slip from Sam’s view (which was easier said than done) and run away, behind trees and bushes, ducking into sheds and garages, compelling his bodyguard to hastily track him down.  Its fair to say that Sam enjoyed the game far less – although he was always hugely pleased when he inevitably managed to find his fugitive friend.

An accomplished swimmer (as you’d expect from a type of dog bred to assist 17th-Century Canadian fishermen), Sam was, as you can see, a reluctant sled dog on the one occasion he was offered the job.  He was, however, a keen participant in countless games of garden cricket, tennis, rugby and football.  Charlie and I even had a name for the act of kicking a football between his front and hind legs – the ‘mutt-meg’.  A keen retriever (as you’d also expect) in his younger day, he soon realised that when younger, more enthusiastic legs arrived on the scene that he could delegate much of the fetching duties to Marley.  In many respects, that simple distinction summed Sam up perfectly: clear-thinking to the extent that he was very often much more human-like than dog-like.


His favourite days were the various barbecues and birthday parties we held on the field.  Yes, there was the constant stream of freely-available food, friendly people and various ball games being played but above everything else, he loved to be around the children, watching them, guarding them, revelling in their company and refusing simply to observe their enjoyment from afar.

A few years later, with the help of technology here and there, the pendulum had begun to swing – now it was Charlie who could outpace Sam and as a consequence, we had to start to give thought to managing the welfare of an ageing dog who would willingly run himself into the ground just to keep up.  Declining to chase balls was one thing but deliberately allowing his best friend to leave his side was never something that Sam would readily countenance.


Throughout his life, he would divide his time between the houses he considered his: let out for a wee in the morning, spending the daytime at my parents’ (where it was more likely there would be people present between 9am and 4pm) and then sitting outside, looking at the gate in time for the returning school run.  In his younger days, he’d similarly sloped off next door on many evenings and laid out on the rug there, prompting late-night calls in which it was agreed he could have another ‘sleep-over’.  He monitored the gardening by day and the bedtime-book-reading by night.

As he entered his later years, Sam mostly understood his growing physical limitations.  Like many Labs, his shoulders and hips were susceptible to stiffness after overdoing things and, as a result, mealtimes often involved a number of supplements and the occasional dose of Metacam.  As much as it offended his own sense of duty, he generally knew that he had to slow down but for some reason he never allowed himself to extend that thinking when it came to chasing the quad bike – that particular piece of discipline would always remain our responsibility.  Whatever his age and condition, the job of looking out for Charlie at all times remained a non-negotiable constant.


And so, in the twilight of his years, with the object of his protection now eleven years old and successfully guarded to the point where he’d become ready to explore beyond the childhood horizons of home, Sam’s mission was accomplished, his retirement well and truly earned.  Not that this would change anything; Labradors don’t simply ‘retire’ any more than they can be expected to stop caring.  I don’t expect that Sam ever felt he had completed his assignment but I hope he in some way realised that his role became more honorary than necessary.


This is the last picture I took of Sam, on his last day, enjoying the sunshine in the field where he had compiled and contributed to so many happy memories.  As tired as he was that day, he was determined to follow us onto the field.  He’d stopped eating but the diuretic he was given was making him thirsty and it seemed appropriate that I secretly captured a moment where Charlie was looking after him after a lifetime of unflinching service.  When the time came to say goodbye, that evening, I looked into his calm eyes and thanked him for his loyalty and dedication.  He slipped away with Helen and me holding him, protecting him from fear, as he had protected us all for over eleven years.


As in any obituary, it’s important to draw a distinction between the most recent and the most relevant.  In his final chapter, Sam may have become older, feebler, slower and shakier but for most of the book of his life, he was a vital force, a fearless ally and a faithful friend.  He embodied fun and service in equal measure and in fulfilling these two guiding principles, he touched the lives of so many people and prompted so many fulsome tributes at the news of his passing.

I’m so proud to be able to say he was a member of our our family, even if he was, in his heart, always, always Charlie’s dog.


We loved you, Sam and we’ll always miss you.

An Open Letter to St. Wilfrid’s Primary Academy

To Mr Colothan, Mrs Kneale and all the staff and PTFA at St. Wilfrid’s,

Today was Charlie’s last day with you and I want to thank you all for everything you’ve done for him and the rest of the Class of 2016.

In 2008 (two minutes ago), I remember visiting the school’s open day to determine whether or not it was the school for him.  I went to St. Wilfrid’s between 1977 and 1985 and have many happy memories from my time there.  Being a responsible parent, I was very keen not to be swayed by nostalgia and, even though the smell of the paint in the Nursery that evening instantly whisked me back three decades, I was determined to be critical of anything I thought was not up to the standard I felt entitled to expect.

I needn’t have bothered.  The school was every bit as involving, varied, nurturing and exciting as I wanted it to be.  If I’m honest, it was more so than I remembered it being in my time.  We were shown around by a very impressive Year 6 student (I think his name was Tom).  I noticed he was the house captain of Leigh (which reminded me that I had once held that position) and I remember thinking that if our already bright and confident three year-old could one day turn out to be like Tom, this was the perfect environment for him to try.  The deal was sealed.  He was going to St. Wilfrid’s.

From the very beginning of his education, I knew we’d made the right choice.  I was impressed with the fact the head teacher knew him by name in the first month, by the way the Nursery coaxed the children from being playground-clinging screamers (mentioning no names) into a cohesive unit performing a dance together within months.  I was pleased to see the swimming pool not only retained in these cost-conscious times but also renovated.  I was pleased to see a school that values participation in sport but is not afraid to accept that sport creates winners and losers.

As he progressed from Key Stage 1 to 2, it was clear to me he was continually gaining respect from the school and his peers.  I was particularly happy to see that he was chosen to be in Leigh house – how could you have known?!

By now, it really was clear we’d chosen well.  The after-school clubs, the artistic and musical opportunities, the embracing of technology and incorporation of the internet.  They may all seem ancillary to the actual lessons and learning objectives but they’re all vital components of real life.  Partly because it suited our working hours but in no small part because of their intrinsic benefits, we were always very keen to include Charlie in whatever opportunities we could.

And then, almost a year ago, he was voted as House Captain by his classmates.  As thrilling as that was, selfishly, for me, I was even happier when he was asked to help show prospective parents around at last year’s Open Evening.  It seemed he’d fulfilled the destiny I’d ambitiously held for him.  I often wonder, in moments of unashamed pride if there are parents in next year’s school intake who will remember and be as impressed by him I as I was, by Tom, all those years ago.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story – there were still the SATs to contend with.  As with, I suspect, many parents, there were areas of attainment to work on as the full force of Year 6 took hold.  I saw the look of pressure in his teachers’ faces as we tried to guide him through the tests as best we could and I appreciated the fact that they were also trying their hardest not to let that pressure adversely affect their pupils’ performance.  If only every school could claim that.  I’m so grateful that, with their tireless help, he passed all his SATs  as well as he did and, once again, I have to wonder if that would have been the case at a different school.

Finally, I’ve been proud to see him exhibit the strong sense of responsibility that the school has nurtured.  He’s represented the school at netball, rugby and cricket, musically, dramatically, as part of the Camera Club and at the PGL adventure centre and he’s done it all with great maturity.  Perhaps I should have been more pleasantly surprised to see him win your Leadership Award at today’s Leavers’ Assembly but I should rather immodestly confess I didn’t find it that surprising at all.

People have told me he’s a credit to Helen and me but I hope you would agree that he’s just as much a credit to his school.  I can’t thank you enough for making it possible for me to write that sentence.

Keep doing what you do.  The world needs far more Toms and Charlies.

Paul and Helen Bentham

CJB Leadership Award


Remaining To Be Convinced

If I’ve learned anything over the last few weeks of pitiful so-called ‘debate’ leading upto today’s EU Referendum, it’s that politics is even more of a sham than I had previously dared imagine.  Whichever way the vote goes, the most depressing conclusion is that due to the forces that have led to this conclusion, such an analysis seems unlikely ever to change.

My problem is nothing to do with the issue we’re actually voting on; morally, there’s lots to be said for granting the UK’s population the chance to review our involvement in the European ‘project’, half a lifetime after our parents and grandparents (as it mostly was back then) chose to enter the EC by a ratio of 2 to 1.  The cause for my disdain is the way that our politicians of all sides and of all hues have consistently chosen to present their arguments – and for the most part, the acquiescence of the media in allowing their oversimplified agendae to remain unchallenged by nuance and critical thought.

The signs weren’t encouraging when the term ‘Brexit’ suddenly began to infiltrate our national consciousness.  Given today’s 140-character attention-span, acronyms and portmanteaux are an increasing presence and while I can accept that the media will generally tend to embrace such terms to help them shorten headlines and seem current, it has always sat uneasily with me that such a stylised piece of jargon should be so embraced by the politicians themselves.  In communicating effectively to the electorate, those whom we have chosen to represent us have a responsibility to maintain clarity in the face of a complex argument not descend into the latest piece of Westminster Village gobbledegook at the earliest opportunity.  It was claimed by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1948 that Churchill once wrote “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put” in exasperation at the unwieldy restriction of correct English grammar where it hampers effective communication.  The same argument can be made to the very term which has come to represent the whole issue in its ugly, five-letter, ‘dumbed-down’ state.

Similarly, the arguments on either side of the discussion have remained largely untroubled by too much careful consideration or any sense of balance.  In or Out, the main tactic has been to scare the poor, well-meaning, responsible voter into submission by tainting their reasonable uncertainty with fear.  “Vote Leave and create a recession” said the Remainers, almost certainly guided by James Carville’s now legendary psephological constant which asserts that “It’s the economy, stupid” when it comes to compelling voters.  This was bad enough but given so much xenophobic material to work with, the Out campaign certainly left no barrel unscraped, with ‘all immingration is bad’ becoming the inevitable baseline for their rhetoric.  The worst case scenario for such idiot-baiting was therefore unsurprisingly realised when Jo Cox MP was senselessly murdered while doing her job serving her community, a job that all people with a brain will realise is a public service denied to much of the world’s population.

While I’m on the subject of immigration (and I must address it at some point), it’s actually something of a red herring in the context of this referendum but there’s a hugely important point to be made.  While the argument has become so childishly binary, we allow certain assumptions to stand as fact and it’s important to point out that they are not.  I found myself in a minor Twitter spat with someone who accused me of being ‘anti-immigrant’ because I pointed out that it seems necessary to “control numbers”.  Note: that does not mean cease immigration, merely apply control to the number, whatever that may be.  I answered that controlling numbers wasn’t ‘anti-immigrant’,  not even ‘anti-immigration’, just ‘anti-uncontrolled-immigration’.  To righteously make the leap that I hate foreigners themselves because I have concerns about the capacity of the country was, I felt, pernicious thought-policing of the worst kind.  Remember Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale pensioner whom Gordon Brown called a ‘bigot’ for expressing the same concerns?  If the Prime Minister of the day can’t make that distinction, based on a knee-jerk assumption that people who question uncontrolled immigration must be unreconstructed Alf Garnetts, we are clearly not as intelligent a species as we like to think we are.

Where in this whole monstrous carbuncle of a process have we seen evidence of positive inspiration to vote one way or another?  Any form of assessment that our life will be enhanced or enriched either way seems to have been lost in the universal agreement that the decision we face can only be characterised in the way our choice will need to protect us from one catastrophe or another.  And we wonder why people are engaging less with Politics?  Of course the electorate need to be convinced but there are ways to do that by inspiration as opposed to unremitting threats of desperation.

Actually, there does seem to be one tactic, employed on both sides, which I would have to admit is based in positivity and aspiration rather than the rest of the negative narrative – but it’s so pathetically facile, I almost can’t believe I’m allowing myself to distinguish it as a legitimate piece of electioneering.  It is, alas, the celebrity endorsement.

We’re all used to seeing Gary Lineker’s face on a Walkers crisps ad or hearing Helen Mirren assure us that actually, *we*, not just she, can now be said to be “worth it”.  We live in a consumer society and we’re so used to famous people telling us that they recommend such-and-such that we barely even notice it as a tactic anymore.  Similarly, we all know which households in our local area will be desperate to stick up signage in their window or garden exhorting every passer-by to vote for this party or that, every time there’s an election.  Why not combine the two ideas?  There’s only two choices so there must be a ready selection of ‘slebs’ on either side who’ll only be too egotistical, sorry, happy to publicly align themselves with either argument.  How meta is that?  Forget the actual merits of the argument, everybody, just know that if you vote ‘Remain’, you’ll be on the same side as James Bond.

I don’t really have a problem with Daniel Craig outing himself as an ‘In’ supporter on Twitter – we all have the right to do that if we so desire and he’s no different, he just has more followers.  What I do despair at is the expediency (which is doubtless in direct proportion to the number of followers) that saw our Prime Minister (Our. Prime. Minister. FFS) rush to accept the acclaim that, hey, even 007 is in my gang!  I know I bang on about Churchill a lot (and I know he had his faults) and I like to use him as a go-to personification of a true statesman but consider this for a moment.  Can you possibly imagine him even thinking of resorting to bolstering his position by noting that (for instance) “Mr. Nöel Coward has been insightful enough to agree that we must not pursue Mr Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement”.  To a statesman, there is politics and there is celebrity.  One is determinant of the standard of living that a country enjoys, the other is a distraction from it.  Ne’er the twain shall meet.

Many would claim that we’re now living in a celebrity-obsessed age.  Is that why we’re being confronted with dumbed-down arguments, sugar-frosted with celebrity endorsement?  Politicians have long acknowledged the power of the maxim ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing’, which rather sadly seems at odds with the whole point of political debate, doesn’t it?  Consequently, are they now living by the addendum ‘if you can retweet a film star, you’re winning’?

And so to the actual issue at hand.  As we all know, it’s very tempting at this point to re-heat our favourite historical distractions like Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, “Two World Wars and One World Cup” and all that but ultimately, to do so only provides a jingoistic shot in the arm and achieves nothing so it must be resisted.  At its heart, the issue first seems to be one of control: London or Brussels, UK or EU, ‘Queen and Country’ or ‘European Partners’.  There is of course a lot to get worked up about when you consider the EU, the seemingly ever-growing mission creep of the project from trading entity to would-be federal state, the grossly-skewed-in-favour-of-the-French CAP, the impenetrable lack of transparency and accountability of all the countless Eurocrats, the mind-boggling levels of resource it all requires and, one suspects, wastes.

And yet, we forget its primary aim, its – dare I use the French term? Yes, I dare – raison d’être was the avoidance of a continent-splitting bloodbath for the third time in half a century.  From a very low baseline of expectation, it has to be said that, so far, that particularly basic aim has been successfully achieved.  Well done, all concerned for avoiding potential world oblivion by finding an inordinate amount of more trivial matters to squabble about in expensively-designed buildings instead!

It has also, in fairness, provided protection from unfair trade tariffs, cut heavily (believe it or not) most cross-border bureaucracy, provided member states with the option of a common currency (which we seem to like, as long as it’s the same in every other country) and vastly simplified (via vastly complex rules on standards) the process of selling goods across the continent by providing the single source of regulation.  Much of this happened before the internet age so, whether you wish to be charitable enough to say that the European project anticipated it or not, by the time we all realised we could now shop across national boundaries from home, much of the regulatory work was already done to enable the whole of the continent’s sellers to benefit from the shift in customer behaviour.

I don’t remember the 1975 referendum but I do remember the 1992 ‘Single Market’ upgrade that presciently paved this particular path.  I remember the often ridiculous resistance to it, often from ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ retired Sergeant Major types: “we don’t want to be eating Italian sausages and Dutch cheeses when we have Cheddar and the good old British banger!” they prattled.  And look what’s happened since then: our palate has become infinitely more cosmopolitan, our cupboards now brim with foods we didn’t even know existed twenty-four years ago.  We haven’t just savoured the salami since ‘92, we have cherished the chorizo and venerated the wurst.  And we’ve similarly done all sorts of alliterative appreciation of an untold amount of other foodstuffs that I’m going to leave you to consider.  It’s also interesting to recall that even the most ardent anti-Euro old farts never seemed to direct their ire to French wine or German beer, strangely enough.

So we’re demonstrably not that keen to leave the European party, we just want to be peripheral to it, one may conclude.  Participating on our own terms but free to move on to another party somewhere else if we feel like it.  Is this about control, then, or ambition?  Is it a case of Remaining to keep the safe and mostly agreeable status quo or Leaving because we feel we’re capable of having more fun, with cooler people?  It sounds enticing enough but is it as simple as merely being free of Europe – or will it require more of us, and our leaders, than that?

One argument that’s often made in support of the EU is the fact that its schemes benefit deprived areas in member states, fund higher education, support scientific development and regulate cleanliness of beaches.  While much of the above could be claimed by naysayers to be costly, interfering, inefficient and exceeding the body’s initial remit, there’s one point that seems never to have been adequately addressed: why?  Not so much why should the EU feel the need to concern itself in these areas but how is it even necessary?  If every member state was being run properly, each would have granted sufficient priority to the state of deprivation, educational attainment, scientific progress and marine environmental quality.  It seems to me that such schemes only exist because of a dereliction on the part of all member states that rely on EU aid – a charge that applies historically to the UK as much as anywhere else.  It seems that successive Governments have treated the EU in the same way they view the Lottery – as cash-rich entities that exist simply to relieve its own departments and ministries the burden of having to actually worry about funding necessary improvements to vast swathes of the national resource.

In order to be convinced that we’re better Out than In (because I really believe that we could be), the question really becomes one not of control or even ambition but one of competence.  Do I trust a post-Leave Government (of any colour) to increase our trading power, reduce our regulation, control our immigration and ensure that our sink estates, our universities and our beaches are all appropriately resourced?  In order to answer that question, we need a little more context…

Referenda (to use the correct Latin plural) are a curious notion.  One the one hand, they seem ultra-democratic; allowing the public to decide on a given single issue.  What could be more self-determining that that?  On the other, they sit uneasily within the usual democratic framework – generally, the idea is that we the people give a mandate to govern us for a term, based on a manifest selection of promises to effect certain changes and then we leave them to it.

Also, parties win and lose elections and those within the winning and losing parties are given (or relieved of) power as a consequence.  Candidates are expected to ensure their electioneering is in harmony with the party on whose ticket they are standing, meaning that if they win, they win but if they lose, they can always highlight the areas of their Party’s policies with which they personally disagree to mitigate their failure.  In short, there’s nothing terminally discreditable to one’s further career in losing a seat at an election.

In a referendum, it’s different.  Politicians are granted that most dangerous of things: a position determined by their ‘conviction’, unencumbered by those controlling bullies, the party whips.  Removing partisanship strips out their requirement to be ‘on message’ and therefore makes it a rare test of each politician’s ability to truly align himself or herself with Public Opinion.  The upshot is that those who are seen to agree with the Great British Public may thereafter wear their affirmation as a badge of honour and those who misjudge the mood may have nowhere to hide when questioned about their ongoing credibility.

That’s why referenda tend to be so uncommon.  Yes they seem all very inclusive and communal but do we really want to have to tell the Government we’ve already elected what we want them to do every five minutes?  Do politicians themselves want to subject themselves to the vagaries of so frequently committing their personal views to the public vote, when it’s difficult to make an excuse for being seen to be out of step?  No.  However nice an idea it seems, to all concerned, the prospect of a referendum is a box best left unopened – most of the time.  The only times they can’t be avoided are when the issues are so fundamental and generally when the question falls outside of general party political lines.  Like now.

That means that there’ll be casualties on whichever side loses.  As it’s non-partisan, that means that there’ll be casualties within a Government, a Cabinet, potentially even the office of Prime Minister itself.  And that means there’ll be opportunities for those on the winning side to fill those vacancies, wherever they occur.  Could that be the real motivation for those who have chosen to oppose the ‘Remain’ campaign?  A shit-or-bust gamble to attain higher office, based on alignment to a game-changing shift in the political landscape rather than a commitment to the actual principle itself?  Surely it can’t be true that the thing we’ve been talking about all this time is just a sideshow in a wider game to further the ambitions of a small number of string-pulling pro-Leavers.  Surely not…  You have to wonder…

So, to re-cap: we are where we are with Europe, it could be better, it could have been much worse.  We may want more control of our affairs but what are we prepared to give up to get it?  Can we really do much better by doing things differently and, crucially, do we have the leadership talent to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity?  Does the way we’re being communicated to by our politicians show a disdain for our intelligence to start with – and does any of it really matter anyway if it’s all just a part of a Machiavellian play for power?

As Duncan Bannatyne says on ‘Dragon’s Den’, “for those reasons, I’m oot” –  by which I mean I’m ‘In’.


The Greatest Legacy?

Since Muhammad Ali’s death was announced yesterday, there’s been a flurry soundbites, platitudes and #RIPMuhammadAli hashtags floating about on social media – and I confess, I’m responsible for a number of them.  What can this blogpost possibly add to such a weight of collective emotion?

Well, this, I hope:  It’s an understandable reaction to the loss of an icon of our times but it strikes me that it’s easy for most people to make the mistake of mourning the legend rather than man behind it.  Only when you examine the context of Ali’s achievements do you understand how his sobriquet “The Greatest” was so deserved – and what we have really lost.

More than half of the world’s population would, like me, have to admit that Ali the fighter was before their time, his story having been built into a fable by the media and the generations who watched it unfold before them.  From our perspective, the narrative is that Cassius Clay simply took on the mantle of historical figure, as though it was pre-determined.  His own famous assertion of greatness at the age of 22 and his subsequent re-branding as Muhammad Ali only seeks to reinforce the scripture-like depiction.

Yes, if you know a little about the racial segregation of the Southern States in the 1960s, you’ll be aware of the infamous disopsal of his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river.  That should add some context but paradoxically, it seems to act merely as another parable in the book of Muhammad.  How must the reality of that felt, the institutional rejection of a man by the country he’d been proud to represent on that Tokyo podium?  Imagine the sense of injustice that would arise from the juxtaposition of national achievement and the racial division espoused by that same nation.

It would have required a fighter’s courage to uphold his anti-patriotism  in the face of pressure to support the war in Vietnam.  There really are only two fundamentals in life: deciding what’s right and wrong and deciding whether or not to stand up for your beliefs.  With his well-tested views of justice as his compass, he made a choice and he backed his choice.  Despite the resentment it caused in an America unwilling to accept the consequences of its tolerance of segregation, Ali stood firm, risking his livelihood and his liberty.  Being right and true was more important to him than being popular or even understood by mainstream opinion.  Humanity and single-mindedness are both admirable qualities but they are invariable mutually exclusive; one usually being shown at the expense of the other.  In making his lone stance, Ali exhibited both for all to see.

Received wisdom did eventually catch up with his views, decades later, when Ali had soaked up all of the punches that contemporary conventional opinion had to offer.  It makes you wonder who the next public figure will be to show such leadership of thought and act against an orthodoxy in a changing world.  Does such a person exist today?  Will one ever exist again?  It’s hard to say – although it’s easier to imagine that humanity will need someone like Ali again at some point – some might say the sooner the better.

Another context shift is the state of boxing itself.  Today, we expect the whole package of trash-talking, pay-per-view, the ever-present disappointment at the bloatedness of the various authorities and the cynical challenger-dodging of too many a title-holder.  I’m not claiming Ali exhibited a purely Queensberry ethos but without his part in boxing’s history, would it ever have become the spectacle that spawned the kind of Rocky exhibitionism that we later came to take for granted?  The fact that today, we’ve seen it all before (and better) remains one of boxing’s biggest challenges – aside from all its politics, posturing and pomposity – and it’s why the sport is now such a shadow of its former self, and so vulnerable to being usurped by WWE, UFC and other combat sports.

You may stake a claim for the days of Marciano and Dempsey – even Tyson but you’s struggle to deny that the early to mid-seventies was heavyweight boxing’s golden age.  There is simply nothing like the same cocktail of raw talent, matches and rematches and free-to-air coverage in boxing today.  In fact, it’s difficult to refute the suggestion that the day Sylvester Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Rocky Balboa, the decline of the sport he honoured had already begun.

When we say that we won’t see another of Ali’s like, in or out of the ring, are we effectively condemning boxing,  and maybe even humanity to a future incapable of matching the achievements of the past?

Muhammad Ali vs Sonny Liston, 1965 World Heavyweight Title
The iconic image of Muhammad Ali standing over the defeated Sonny Liston

Amazing Amelia’s Amazing Daddy

You may or may not know that I have a wonderful god-daughter called Amelia.

Amelia is seven and has a rare combination of learning difficulties and spectrum conditions which mean that she doesn’t speak and has a mental age well below her actual age.  You may think this defines her but it doesn’t.  She loves swimming, animals, dancing, watching films and running around – like any seven year-old.  She distrusts anything that’s not part of her routine but she learns and gets used to dealing with new things as well.

It’s well known that kids are likely tell things to you straight because they lack the social awareness to ‘dress up’ an unflattering observation and you can multiply that effect by about ten to get Amelia’s view of life.  There is absolutely no artifice with Amelia because in her world, there is only what matters to her and what doesn’t.  Why is that worthy of mention?  Because when you get an unprompted hug from Amelia, it’s the only thing in the world she wants to do at that time and it’s an amazing feeling.

Obviously, Amelia’s schooling is outside of the mainstream system.  She attends the Astley Park School in Chorley and they do wonderful work to allow her to overcome her disabilities as best she can.  As you can imagine, the school’s resources are stretched and there’s invariably a situation where more can be achieved if only it could be funded.

To help the school and to give Amelia the best education she can get, her dad (Warren) has taken on a variety of sponsored endurance challenges.  Last year, he did the Greater Manchester Marathon, the Brathay Windermere Marathon and the Great North Swim (in Lake Windermere) and raised thousands of pounds along the way.

This year, he decided to push himself further, doing a ‘Back2Back’ variant of the same three events.  This meant doing the ‘Born Survivor’ challenge at Lowther Castle the day before completing the Greater Manchester Marathon in 4:45, running the course of the Brathay Windermere Marathon the day before the event – and then doing the marathon proper the next day.

Finally, it’s back up to Cumbria on June 10th to do two swims (on Friday and Saturday) at this year’s Great North Swim.  Characteristically, his first swim is a 5km event, further than he’s ever swum before – even in training.  On Saturday, he’ll be doing the relatively straightforward (!) mile swim with our mate Aaron – who’ll be making his competitive outdoor swimming debut.  Aaron will also be raising money for Amelia’s school and ongoing care.

If any of this has impressed you (and it’s tired me out just typing all of this), I implore you to visit the links below and add your support – any amount, no matter how big or small will help make a difference (wow – how difficult is it to ask for money without sounding like you’re on Comic Relief?!)

Warren’s justgiving page can be found here:

And Aaron’s is here:

Of course, no-one expects you to sponsor both of them (although we did for reasons I’m still struggling to understand).  Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter which you support as it all gets pooled together at the end but if you pressed me, I’d suggest you sponsor Aaron – he’s about 500 quid behind Warren and we can’t have him feeling too inferior when he’s about to swim a mile in lake water for a mate’s daughter’s school, can we?  Also, there’s a small chance that Warren might get a bit big-headed about all this if it all just goes to his page…

Anyway, I digress.  “You can pledge your support at any time but do support” etc. etc.  In case I haven’t tugged hard enough at your emotions, here’s a picture of Amelia and her Daddy after last year’s swim.  I’m sure she’d thank you with a hug, if she knew how you were helping her and, trust me, you’d feel that was recognition beyond any price.  If not, I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with all our heartfelt (and socially correct) thanks.

Thanks for reading and make sure you follow the links!!


Marley the Diabetic Dog

Earlier this year, we weren’t happy with Marley‘s health.  He was becoming less active, drinking more water than before and just looked less happy with life.  He’s always been a ridiculously active dog and, with his 9th birthday not far off, we knew he’d have to slow down at some time but this…  …this seemed like something more than that.

I’m not sure what I was expecting the vet to say but way down the list of possibilities was that he had developed canine diabetes.  Instantly, this meant that we had to become conversant with all sorts of unfamiliar terms and processes – and it meant twice daily insulin injections for the rest of his life.

Of course, there could have been far worse outcomes and in the scheme of things, diabetes isn’t particularly life-changing – but it did act as a reminder of the famous Lennon quote about life being what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

As anyone would do, we found that it wasn’t a huge undertaking to reschedule his meals, manage his insulin and syringe stocks, train enough people to inject to provide cover for days when we’re away and make time for all of the ongoing veterinary appointments.  It just seemed like an insurmountable task at the start.

As I type, his glucose curve is under control at 23 units, twice daily – although the nadir is a couple of hours later than we’d like it – and his fructosamine readings are still a bit high.  If this is incomprehensible to you, bear in mind that it was to me too only a few weeks ago.  Basically, he’s doing fine and we’re managing it well – so far.

I should end by saying thank you to George at Gilmore’s Veterinary Surgery in Standish for his successful diagnosis and patience with me while explaining every step of the process post-diagnosis.  Thanks also to everyone who has (despite, I’m sure, every urge to say they can’t do it) stepped out of their comfort zone and deliberately stabbed a sharp piece of metal into a living animal.  You have all helped us to make his ongoing care as easy for us as possible.

Finally, thanks should go to Marley himself.  He’s always been the softest-natured dog you could ever meet and I was worried that the treatment might begin to harden his responses.  He’s never growled once and has barely shown any signs of his discomfort.  He’s still a happy dog and for as long as that remains the case, we’ll do what we have to do to prolong his happiness.

Sorry lad, you’re on a strict diet these days…

The End of a Long and Winding Road…

Today, I worked my last day at Robinsons.  As a family, we’ve chosen to sell our remaining stake in the business.  I’d like to say more about why that is but, legally, I can’t.

Robinsons is a name I’ve been involved with for as long as I can remember; as long as it’s even possible for someone to have an association.  When I say it’s been a significant part of my life since birth, it’s not just a hollow cliché, it’s a statement of fact – my birthday (October 5th) almost always falls in the middle of the Horse of the Year Show and during the 1973 show, my Dad drove back to Wigan from Wembley for my birth…and then back down to Wembley for the sake of the business.

In the forty-odd years since then, I’ve been involved at times tangentially, intrinsically, unknowingly, unwillingly, enthusiastically and almost every other adverb you can come up with.  Thanks to Robinsons, I’ve done some jobs that most people wouldn’t do, acquired skills to perform tasks that many people couldn’t do and been I’ve been required to do some things that, these days, it’s commonly held that you really shouldn’t do.  Throughout that time, it’s enabled me to fly around Manhattan by helicopter, see Hong Kong from the Peak and enjoy a night’s entertainment at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich.  I’ve mixed with celebrity, royalty and, occasionally, criminality and in the space of one particular fortnight, I experienced both Kipling’s imposters: the disaster of a store destroyed by fire and then the triumph of my own wedding, itself borne of a workplace relationship.  Whether I’ve liked it or not, whether it was primarily work or pleasure, Robinsons has always been a present factor, an immovable object in my life.

There aren’t many pictures of me on horseback. This one from the late 1970s shows that, even at home, ‘work’ was never far away…

The earliest Robinsons (…Saddlery, in those days) memories I have are of sitting with my Grandad in the back room of the almost comically small shop we had at Wallgate, Wigan (by North Western Station) in the late 1970s, ‘helping’ him as he turned his hand to saddlery repairs.  I just about remember going on Friday buying trips to Walsall with my Dad and Grandma as we filled our trusty Granada estate car with whatever stock we could fit in – or more probably, whatever we could afford, back then.  I even remember going on delivery runs to customers in and around Burscough, Ormskirk and Southport.

More than anything, though, in those days, I remember the shows.  Hazily, I can still recall being awoken by the early morning missions from RAF Valley on the Anglesey showground, the rather eventful route we always took to the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, collecting conkers and the odd birthday present at our pitch virtually underneath Wembley Way and getting home at half-past three in the morning after driving back from the Royal Welsh Show at Builth Wells.  I remember claiming to ‘drive’ our 40-foot show unit on the motorway while my school friends were still mastering riding a bike.  Okay, it only amounted to sitting on my Dad’s knee, holding the wheel as he would tell me to make minor corrections left and right but it was a proper HGV, it was at motorways speeds and, to any six year-old, that constituted full control of the vehicle.  Even now, the smell of cut grass, sun-warmed canvas and frying bacon whisks me back through the decades to Shepton Mallet, Peterborough or any of a number of other exotic-sounding places that no-one else I knew had ever heard of.

As I grew older, my awareness and my level of responsibility grew and I found my first taste of true independence on the various showgrounds.  Like any young boy, the opportunity to spend whole days wandering unrestricted around acres and acres of agricultural machinery on display was one not to be missed.  I soon became acquainted with Beecroft’s Toys and by the age of eight, my specialist subject was undoubtedly ‘Tractors’.

Arena North Show Stand
The Robinsons Saddlery stand at the Arena North showground, Lancashire, circa 1979.

While the show circuit gave me all these experiences and many more besides (like watching the 1982 World Cup Final on a grainy black-and-white television in a caravan in Harrogate), more often than not, it would represent absence – spending half of each summer in a one-parent family environment.  There was often a present for us when we were all re-united (if we were lucky, a Britain’s toy from Beecroft’s) but my birthdays were almost always a Dad-free zone until I was about 13 – although I did once see him on TV, leaning on a hoarding by the collecting ring while David Vine was introducing the next to go in some class or other.  Kids tend to hate being ‘different’ and in that respect, we were different from our ‘normal’-job-breadwinner friends but in retrospect, it wasn’t that much of a hardship when you consider what many kids contend with.

While Martin and I were making the most of this seemingly idyllic, Blytonesque lifestyle, changes were afoot.  Growth was on the agenda and time was waiting for neither of us.  First, we moved house, expecting to relocate the shop to our new address and then, with the addition of a business partner, we moved the shop – to an old lorry showroom in a place down the road called Ashton-in-Makerfield.  To us, it just seemed a continuation of the same adventure, even though it was obvious that its much bigger scale brought with it bigger pressures.  In the way that family businesses do, we all mucked in when we had to: I remember one Easter Sale when I was given a canister of compressed air and about two hundred yellow balloons – I don’t think I had any skin left on my fingertips at the end of that day!

During another Sale day, I remember being positioned at the store entrance with a box of clear plastic bags, specifically to invite ladies to put their handbags in one “for security” while not entirely understanding why.  That only a handful of the hundreds of customers I spoke to took exception to this seems mildly surprising these days.  That a ‘supermarket’-type store was entrusting this ‘security’ task to an eleven year-old whom, as I recall, was also unpaid may perhaps raise the eyebrows slightly higher.  It was a more innocent time and the need to address the greater good was more pressing than any sense of inappropriateness that seems to stalk every decision we face these days.

The expansion also meant understanding what it meant to have staff.  We’d always had ‘a helper’ or ‘an assistant’ at Wallgate or at the shows but this was retail on a much bigger scale.  Now there was a range of new people to get to know – bringing forth a rather broad variety of characters, let’s say.  To grown-up eyes, it’s obvious what the joke is when colleagues have a whip-round to pay for a kiss-o-gram to turn up at work to mark the birthday of the ‘quiet lad’.  All I remember is my own cartoonish eyes-on-stalks amazement when my ten year-old eyes feasted on a red satin-and-fishnet-clad girl who looked like she’d arrived out of a Benny Hill sketch one evening, after closing time, to great cheers while she embarrassed the life out of the poor guy!  I’m also pretty sure that with us kids present, she would have had my Mum hoping against hope that this was an ‘o-gram’ of the ‘kiss’ and not the ‘strip’ variety!

Staff brought another new dynamic: the question of how to respond, at the age of ten, to a sudden influx of unsolicited flattery from adults.  Being “the bosses’ son” was both an accolade and a bit of an embarrassment, if I’m honest.  Maybe I’m too much of an egalitarian at heart or maybe I have a low threshold for overtly creepy behaviour but I was never too comfortable when strange adults were too nice to me for no apparent reason – after all, that’s not what kids are given to expect from grown-ups.  I’m afraid that even now, any form of unexpected sugary affirmation may set off such defences, honed on years of “one day this will all be yours and you’ll be my boss”.  I apologise to anyone who’s ever been sincerely this nice to me if I’ve ever returned your sentiments with an aloofness ill-befitting of the occasion.  Perhaps it’s a form of autism on my part (many experts claim that we’re all somewhere on the spectrum) or maybe it’s my inner ten year-old still struggling to discern false flattery from genuine geniality.  I would hope that there are other kids of business owners with similar enough experiences to at least allow the conclusion that I’m not that weird about the whole subject.

As childhood gave way to adolescence, the shop became a means to an end other than mere entertainment.  I was desperate to go on the 1989 school skiing trip to Austria, at a cost of about £300 and managed to negotiate a Saturday job in the feedstore for the whole of autumn and winter in order to fund it.  As a father now, I understand that I was never really expected to pay it all – it was an opportunity to test my mettle and show me the value of hard work.  At £10 a day (out of petty cash), there certainly weren’t enough weeks in the interim to get me to my overall target – but my contribution was being matched at home.  Having accepted my discomfort with everyone working there knowing who I was, I was now able to relish in the value of customers not knowing who I was – I certainly enjoyed it the day I was brazenly asked by a feed customer “why don’t I put three in the boot and you just write down I put two in?” which allowed me to reply “I’ll need to ask my Dad about that – it’s his company”.  To this day, I’d still prefer to be anonymous and under-estimated than known and have my thoughts presumed by others – but there are good sides to being known as well and you can’t have it all ways.

As I’d hoped, the eventual holiday was great fun and the source of lots of happy memories but I also found that those formative weeks working in the feedstore were just as memorable and are now just as fondly recalled – unavoidably so, whenever I hear “Need You Tonight” by INXS or “Dignity” by Deacon Blue.

Once again, change was in the air: we’d dabbled in printed brochures at showgrounds and found it a far easier way to win sales and keep customers than the labour-intensive show circuit.  The late eighties had seen Robinsons give up the shows and venture into the brave new world of mail order.  This meant photo-shoots at home, restricting our movements around the garden, in case we appeared in shot (bad) but on the other hand, it meant having the odd model about the place (good, if not quite as good as a kiss-o-gram)!  In reality, it was, almost without exception, a largely dull process made worse by the tetchiness that everyone seemed to exhibit, a state I’ve come to appreciate at first hand in the years since then.

1984 Bulletin 1
Modelling: seems like a great idea at the time, tends to be something you’ll regret thereafter…

On top of all that, much of the photography we did was of boring, static things like shavings forks and hook-on door mangers.  When it came to the clothing, I always drew the line at modelling anything (bizarrely, Martin didn’t, which is equally uncharacteristic) but even then I couldn’t escape the odd assignment to put my hand in a glove or my foot in a welly-sock or something equally unglamorous.  Today, you’ll hear people on chat shows sorrowfully claiming that “life on set is nowhere near as exciting as you’d think, you know” or some other such plaintive cry.  While I still bristle at the faux modesty of it all – and it’s not like they’re working down the pit, either – the basic point is one that I’ve well understood to be unremittingly true since my early teens.

And so in 1990, with GCSEs taken and weeks to fill before starting sixth-form college, I returned for a summer job, just in time for a major refurbishment in the store.  By now, at almost seventeen, I was more comfortable in my role – and it helped that for the first time, I was actually doing work that I knew I could do as well as (if not better than) anyone who worked there: labouring and fixture-building.  I was happy to swap banter with the tradesmen and I soon found I had become something of an expert in building shop fixtures.  In addition, the lunch-time conversation was more grown-up, the esteem I attracted seemed more genuine and any falseness I perceived seemed to dissipate, as I was proving my worth.  It was a great time and I only have to hear ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John, ‘Can’t Touch This’ by MC Hammer or, inevitably for that summer, ‘Nessun Dorma’ by Luciano Pavarotti to transport myself back to that wonderful, heady time.

Two summers later with A-Levels done, I was back in demand as a labourer, as we decided to move our now burgeoning mail order department to a separate warehouse a few miles away.  Having passed my driving test in early 1991, I quickly added the skill of driving with a trailer – which would be put to good use as we moved load after load from one building to another.  Again, I benefitted from the advantage of proficiency: being able to reverse a sixteen-foot trailer into a tight space tended to remove any sense that people were being unnecessarily gushing with me.  As long as I was doing things I felt that others knew they couldn’t, there was no need for false flattery.  It was another rite-of-passage summer and, as you’ve asked, I’ll add that its soundtrack seemed to be dominated by ‘Living On My Own’ by Freddie Mercury and ‘Dreams’ by Gabrielle.

It was also the first time that I found myself occasionally frustrated with the inability of others to see what I required of them when working together, which was something that, at the time, took me by surprise.  I now realise this was my first taste of managerial experience but back then, I couldn’t believe that it was possible for me to just turn up at the start of the summer holidays, fresh into a job and somehow know what to do far quicker than someone who’d been doing such work for years.

During my university years, I often found that the holiday work I was doing acted as a perfect antidote to my term-time studies – and vice-versa.  Delivery jobs, painting fixtures, building mezzanine floors were all menial yin to my academic yang.  The principle also extended to the people I was working with: days after discussing quantum theory with my Physicist mates on campus, I found myself explaining to girl in our packing room one day that I was only working there for a few weeks before returning to study for a degree in Marketing.  She looked utterly perplexed.  “What’s that, then?  Like, selling fruit and veg, is it?”  The world is made up of very different people and it was a valuable reminder that it’s a skill in itself to be able to relate equally well to everyone.

It was around this time that I attended my first ever trade fair – the Denver Western/English Apparel & Equipment Market (which happened to be followed by some skiing in the Rockies) and then a Gift Fair in New York.  I was half-way through my second year and in order to be able to miss two weeks of lectures and tutorials, I needed the agreement of the university.  I made a point of directing my request via an American lecturer, hoping she would more fully agree that the experience was of benefit to my course.  I have no idea whether or not the tactic made any difference but I got the permission I needed.  I certainly learned that the Trade Fair was another avenue for unsolicited flattery, just as soon as it was clear that the would-be supplier could tell what the company name on your badge said.

Upon graduation, I threw myself into the ‘Milk Round’ of graduate careers guidance, fully expecting not to go back to the family firm.  Between applications and telephone interviews for this blue-chip company and that, we ended up having a conversation about the fact that for the first time in years, Robinsons was just reaching the point where its Marketing functions needed to be made more sophisticated and I decided to help out ‘for the time being’.  The standing joke I still have with my mates from Uni is that I agreed to join on a temporary basis.  “How’s that temporary job?” they would ask, almost twenty years later.  Well, it came to an end like I told you it would – nothing’s forever!

With Helen, presenting the rosettes after an evening round of the Prince Phillip Cup at the Horse of the Year Show, NEC Arena, 2003.

Since September 1995, when I became an official employee, I’ve spent millions of pounds of marketing budget, taken on (and finished) dozens of people, been involved in countless office moves, seminars, awards ceremonies and meetings.  I’ve flown to three continents and become acquainted with several European airports along the way and appeared in the press and on the radio more times than I can say.

Via my 13-year involvement with BETA, the trade association, I’ve sat on committees and councils, delivered speeches, spoken at the Royal Society in London and met HRH The Princess Royal – who was very complimentary about Robinsons, by the way.   I’ve collected awards for ‘Best Mail Order Company’ and presented awards in the main arena at The Horse of the Year Show, when we sponsored the Prince Phillip Cup.  I’ve even blagged my way into the Press Tent at Badminton Horse Trials, which is no mean feat, I can tell you.  Every job has its perks and it’s fair to say I’ve had my share of them.

I’ve also done the shitty jobs, the weird jobs and the jobs that are almost impossible to delegate, like painting our logo on the road into a local riding centre when we were sponsoring a horse trials, one year.  Spending the night in a caravan in Scotland in December, with the temperature well below freezing wasn’t much fun and neither was being on ‘alarm cover’; getting a call at 2:30 in the morning to go and reset a blaring alarm, wondering if this time there really was an attacker in the dark, or if it was yet another case of clothing in slippery plastic packaging finally slithering apart twelve hours after being stacked too high.   Thanks to Health & Safety, that was one job that we could eventually contract out.  I think it’s also a universal constant that if you consider yourself a showground exhibitor, you must at some stage require assistance with a puncture on a lorry at 1am on a motorway hard shoulder, somewhere.

Another time, when promoting a boot for horses that was billed as an alternative to conventional shoeing, we’d arranged a live demonstration of the product, at Burghley Horse Trials, with a horse in a pen.  In front of an audience of hundreds, wearing a head-mic, I set about extolling the virtues of this amazing new product and noticed I was getting lots of questions from a group of guys congregated at one corner of the pen.  I kept answering their questions but noticed they were getting increasingly technical in nature, with respect to the physiology of the horse’s hoof.  When they started to argue with some of my answers, I realised they were in fact a bunch of farriers who were all incredibly threatened by this product which was, after all, claiming to consign them to history.  That was one day when I felt I’d gone above and beyond the call of duty!

Charred flag
Inspecting the damage, hours after our original Ashton store was destroyed by fire, September 2002. Eight days after this photo was taken, it was my wedding day.

And then there’s the stuff that came out of the blue: like the morning when, after an employee had failed to arrive for work, I took a call from the police telling me he was ‘helping them with their enquiries’ and could they come and take a look at his computer for evidence – if I’d said ‘no’, they would have impounded it!  Anyone who remembers 9/11 will know where they were during those couple of hours.  I was driving from Taunton Dean Services towards Wadebridge the day before the Royal Cornwall Show.  When we arrived, you’ve never seen two people unhitch a caravan, set up the electrics and get the television tuned in so quickly!

Anyone the least bit familiar with the Robinsons story will assume that our Annus Horribilis was 2002/3, the period between the fire at our original Ashton store and the opening on the same site of its larger replacement.  While it’s true to say I’ve had many better evenings than the one I spent standing on Warrington Road watching the flames claim the building which had once housed the entire business, it’s also true that, with the benefit of our robust insurance, we quickly turned it into a process of opportunity and experience-gathering.  For better or worse, we certainly did that!  Working with insurers, contractors, sub-contractors, media, utility companies and with the huge efforts made by all our staff, we took just over a year to re-open and found the whole process overwhelmingly positive.  It was only when we re-opened, unadvertised, on a Sunday (6-hour trading limit, not a good idea) that we realised the power of word-of-mouth.  That day, I spent at least three hours standing on the same Warrington Road, directing traffic (including the Merseyside Mounted Police horsebox) through the double-parked cars as upwards of three thousand people flocked back to see the new store.  We later learned that the traffic was so bad, it had backed up onto the M6 exit slip at Junction 23, at which point, the police mobilised their helicopter to see what was causing all the congestion!

Over the last decade, I’ve been at first beguiled by, then suspicious of and then accepting of the vagaries of the internet as a means to win and retain custom.  We can’t deny the importance of the algorithm as we put our virtual shop window on display but neither can we forget that it is merely a gateway to a secondary decision engine, locked in a separate piece of hardware – something we used to refer to as a ‘person’.  I hope that doesn’t sound too old-fashioned a notion in years to come.  Another unexpected side effect of all this digitality is that it acts as a demonstrable disincentive to do anything else to contact the market.  That’ not to say we should deliberately ignore the channel that is clearly the most responsive, least risky way to return on investment but it has often made the process of Marketing a far more anodyne, far less colourful world than the one we used to inhabit when we didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and we accepted there was a cost of stimulating customer interest.

In recent years, I’ve glimpsed the future of the market we serve – for better or worse, as progress almost always is.  In many ways, the equestrian industry’s greatest weakness was always its greatest charm: that it wasn’t mainstream, that the ‘normal rules’ did not necessarily apply.  Inexorably, we, and many others, have spent most of the last thirty years promising riders that they could expect the same level of choice, service and responsiveness from our little industry that they demand of the High Street.  Jointly, we have managed to close the gap of perception that too often saw those who ride and own horses being treated as almost a separate species to the rest of the human race.  I’ve genuinely heard sentences like “horse people won’t buy on the internet” being uttered by actual, grown-up people in meetings and, at times, despaired.  Now it seems all the pioneering has been done and those battles have been won, inevitably, the prizes on offer for those in the race are more about the destination and less about the journey.

Finally, I’d like to spend a moment paying tribute to all the people I’ve come into contact with, over the years.  All the staff (good and bad but mostly good) I’ve ever worked with have at some point taught me about the human condition.  I’ve learned that, despite the fact that many will disappoint you, most will not and many more than you expect will remind you that, generally, people are a largely positive, reassuringly straightforward collective.  I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredibly honest, noble and diligent people who care about doing a good job to the best of their ability.  As long as you spend most of your time in an environment where you can continue to make that claim, you’ll have a happy, productive workforce – although you do have to accept that you will also have to put up with the odd dickhead along the way and make sure to move them along as and when they appear.

Even then, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s happy and motivated all the time or that you’re always in perfect harmony with those who work for you – since when has anyone ever told you you’re offering them too much of a pay rise? – but it’s not always the obvious things that make the biggest difference.  Loyalty and respect are two qualities that too many employers can bemoan a shortage of from their staff, without realising that they’re both a two-way street.  I’ve always found that offering loyalty and respect to a workforce is, in the end, the greatest determinant of team spirit than almost anything else.  As our niche market continues in its transition from being a ‘Harry Potter’-like secret world to becoming part of the ‘high street’, I sincerely hope that those qualities don’t also become a quaint, ‘otherworldly’ relic of the old ways.

RCL Let It Be
Useful advice when a band puts out its final offering…

And so, If I may be so bold, I’d like to torture one more analogy: the curtain has fallen on this particular band’s latest tour, with no follow-up planned.  We had more than our fair share of hits, we had the Christmas Number 1 spot for a few years, and, yes, we’ve put out the odd ‘difficult’ album.  Over the years, I’d say we’ve been seen variously as the fresh new sound, the hottest live act and, I’m sure, dinosaurs playing ‘Dad music’ and like any proper band, we’ve relied heavily on a fantastic crew to keep the show on the Long and Winding Road.

We may spread our Wings and start our own individual side projects, we may consider a comeback under a different guise or we might just go and buy a farm on the Mull of Kintyre or meditate in India.  It’s too early to say.  We really have loved being here and you really were such a lovely audience.  Thank you….and goodnight!

Things Can Only Get Interesting

Today, I decided to clear out the garage in order that it serves its primary function as a storage area for my car – something I’m habitually keener to do in Winter than in Summer.

As I picked my way through the year’s accumulation, strewn about the floorspace, my first act was to flick on the ancient ‘ghetto blaster’ on my workbench to its permanent setting of BBC Radio 5 Live.  For the first hour and a half, I then began to undertake ‘Operation Enduring Tidiness’ to the familiar tones of Danny Baker’s excellent Saturday morning show.

21351663422_5f33882498[1]This was going to be ‘a big job’ and so when Danny & Lynsey had finished another effortlessly-executed interlude of informal chat with the listeners and guests, I’d barely begun to make a dent in the process of re-homing the clutter.  Today wasn’t a normal day on 5 Live, though.  There was no smooth transition to Fighting Talk, today there was a “special programme”.

It was of course the live coverage of the announcement of the new Labour Leader, with Stephen Nolan and John Pienaar.  And so as I sorted the stuff on the shelves into ‘things to keep’ and ‘things to throw in the skip’, Jeremy Corbyn was duly elected as the 21st leader of the Labour Party.

I’ve already posted that I feel a Corbyn leadership would be one that cannot include election victory.  It’s not a prejudice, there’s a fair amount of precedent over the last 50 years about the propensity of the country to give a mandate to a left-wing ticket, which is, I believe, the point Tony Blair has attempted to make.  While Corbyn may not make Labour more electable, he is likely to make them a far stronger Opposition.  From a non-partisan point of view, ‘Corbynism’, whatever that proves to be, does make for stronger democracy over the next parliament.

Whether you see him as a viable protest vote or an electoral liability, ‘Jez’ is a straight-talking idealist, which is an increasingly rare commodity in politics, these days.  Ever since I read The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman, I’ve despaired of the cloned MPs of all colours who’ve clearly trodden the same politicians’ career path, usually based on the a degree in Philosophy, Politics & Education (PPE) at Oxbridge and/or working as a ‘researcher’ or an ‘advisor’ for a party heavyweight and without ever actually having worked in what we, the people, may regard as ‘a real job’.  We now struggle to remember that there was once a time where one should only aspire to political office after having earned one’s reputation within one’s profession or area of commercial interest.  The only exception to this was the propensity of the altruistic or under-employed aristocracy to seek public office.  Today, it seems that any form of ‘real-world’ experience only serves to form the basis of an accusation of an ‘outside interest’.

The description ‘career politician’ clearly does not apply to Corbyn but it’s fair to say that it does to his three opponents for the leadership – while Burnham read English at Cambridge and Kendall read History at Cambridge, unsurprisingly, Cooper did read PPE at Oxford.  Yes, it does rather seem as though this is some sort of plea not to include clearly bright and high-achieving people into politics so why is this such a bad thing?

The answer came, emphatically, during one of Pienaar’s interviews immediately after the result was announced.  Pienaar asked Liz Kendall’s Campaign Manager why she felt her candidate had failed to engage with the party membership in the way that Corbyn had.  With her ‘party machine’ media training undoubtedly kicking in, she decided she had to re-frame the question in order not to have to give the negative answer that the questioner was fishing for.  “I think what’s most important here is that she [Kendall] has run a great campaign” she entreatied with ascending sincerity.

No.  No, no, no.  Without descending too far into the realms of subjectivity, what I think you’ll find is “most important” here, (I’m sorry I forget your name), is that your candidate only managed to attain 4.5% of the vote and, ultimately, that Corbyn won.  In the scheme of things, nobody really cares how she fought her campaign.  In fact, if anyone were to give it a nano-second’s thought, they’d probably assume that all four candidates probably mounted a professional, decent campaign and that anything else would be at odds with anyone seeking to attain high office in a major political party.

This is why ‘normal people’ (i.e. voters) despair of modern politics – and of modern politicians.  In an age of spin and media manipulation, ironically, the main danger its proponents face is that where they focus entirely on avoiding the traps set by the questioner from the press.  In contorting the reality of the question as a means of achieving the ‘victory’ of avoiding the questioner’s pre-planned ambush, they forget that they very often do so by insulting  the intelligence of the viewer/listener/reader.  That might sound a little dry and unthreatening but, unfortunately for the politician (‘old’ or ‘new’), there are thousands, perhaps millions of the blighters – oh, and twice a decade, they all get to decide the direction of your careers.

The rejection of this phenomenon more than anything else explains Corbyn’s victory – or more particularly, the extent of it.  He may be an unreconstructed old ‘leftie’ with all the electoral appeal of Michael Foot – or he may not. What he certainly isn’t is the type of politician who thinks he’s clever enough to stick rigidly to the rules of media management (“Thou shalt not show weakness by falling for the interviewer’s line of questioning”) at the cost of his perception ‘in the real world’.  In short, he’s happy to present himself as a human being.  This makes him fallible, which is not good for PR but, as the focus groups show, does tend to be good for ‘likeability’.

I’m not a particular fan of Corbyn but I do find him interesting because he’s very much the antithesis of the kind of politicians churned out by the production line, these days.  What he does next – and how many people he takes with him along the way – may well act as a measure, not necessarily of Jeremy Corbyn and his own talents and principles, but of any politician who is prepared to act like we used to expect them all to do.

In the meantime, I’ve got my garage in order and the Labour party seems to once again have its house in order.  Let’s see what state they’re both in by the time we get to 2020….

2015 Election Pt II: The Flux of Capacity

We may all know why we vote, we may have decided for whom we’ll vote but have you given much though to how you vote – that is to say what your role as a voter entails?

Your choice of capacity as a voter may influence who you'll back - to the future government...
Your choice of capacity as a voter may influence who you’ll back – to the future government…

It’s a right viewed as so important that countries have gone to war to protect it, and yet it’s a responsibility for which there is no real preparation beyond the proof of one’s existence for eighteen years or more. We are rightly left to determine the destination of our own vote but it’s also left to everyone to decide how to exercise their choice – which means I’ve never been absolutely certain how to define the role that my right to vote gives me.

Like most peope, I am led to believe that I’m about to exercise ultimate power over those who would shape the history of the country – and yet the process itself has all the profundity of queuing up to visit a public portaloo. And then there’s the terminology: ‘voter’, however correct a description it is, sounds so indistinct and bland for such a supposedly fundamental responsibility. Especially these days, when we can be a ‘voter’ in all sorts of insignificant ways like TV talent shows, social media questionnaires and market research.

It all makes you wonder if the high-minded values of the democratic process are being rather cheapened by all this incessant, trivial vote-taking… So, in what capacity are you going to act when you make your cross on the ballot paper? Maybe that’s not as simple a question as you might think – especially when you consider a little historical context…

Tribalism: "You're either with us or against us"
Tribalism: “You’re either with us or against us”

In days gone by, when only things that really mattered were voted upon, when there were arguably more basic problems for the country to address and when there was such a thing as ideology in politics, voting was merely the mechanism to express the capacity of each voter. In those days, people cast their vote as ‘supporters’ of one party or another. Things were simple: you ‘had’ a party and you supported it, much like someone might ‘have’ a football team to support.

Generally, this was a position you inherited from your birth and upbringing, again, like football. This primary-coloured polarisation could occasionally lead to bitter, hatred-riven tribalism, like…okay, you get the picture. Anyone who chose to reject the birthright of their tribe was described, usually disdainfully, as a ‘floating voter’ and dismissed as a clueless, dithering dilettante of a person, a traitor to their roots for having the temerity to even question the right to govern of their own tribal affiliation. Given how democracy works, it was always something of an irony that this small proportion of the population often held the balance of power – which tended to do little for the esteem in which they were held by everyone else.

"Is this the one for me?  Maybe I should just choose the other one..."
“Is this the one for me? Maybe I should just choose the other one…”

Eventually, the damned capitalists put paid to the nobler principles of ideology and sentiments of consumerism began to replace the raw, bipolar ranks of the electorate. People suddenly found that they had a vote to ‘use’, rather than ‘give’ and that they would remain to be convinced until it was time to use it. Increasingly, voters became less defined merely as ‘supporters’ of parties but chose to view their political affiliation in a similar way to their choice of supermarket. From the 1980s onwards, but particularly since the New Labour era, parties would place a huge emphasis on commercial market research techniques, such as focus groups. Whether they realised it or not, voters had begun to act – and be treated – like ‘customers’.

For better or worse, there seemed to be less of a stigma in tactical voting – as with your choice of restaurant, If you didn’t like the experience of your last outing, you could simply transfer your allegiance to the next best alternative the next time.

This should have come as no surprise. In almost every societal and cultural way imaginable, Britain had, for most of the 20th Century, followed a path forged by America. Capitalism had bestowed its children Aspiration, Meritocracy and Consumerism across the land. In the 1970s, the country which had spent a decade largely identifying with the ideological right of strikers to strike looked, mystified, across the Atlantic at a two-party system in which there was little discernible difference between a donkey and an elephant. By 1992, after a Winter of Discontent and a decade of Thatcherism, when Bill Clinton’s campaign mantra was ‘It’s the Economy, stupid’, the statement about the electorate’s motivation seemed to be as true in Britain as it was in the US. Plurality had become a prize gained not by the collective voice but by a collection of enough individual voices.

Whether or not you regard this societal shift as a positive development is, of course, your prerogative.  In a Western capitalist economy, it certainly seems like a natural progression to empower the individual to exercise an informed choice unencumbered by irrational tribalism.  Have we therefore arrived at the natural, logical conclusion – where the expression of one’s political affiliations is roughly similar to the way we choose a breakfast cereal?

So why isn’t the ‘customer’ metaphor a suitable basis from which to execute the solemn duties that come with the franchise?  What’s the difference between buying and voting?  Consumption can involve an equally active choice process but, having bought something, the choice is supposed to be an end in itself: ‘Forget blocked pipes with XYZ drain cleaner’.  Once you’ve bought the item, the issue you’re trying to solve can just automatically disappear.  It’s seductive because a brief activity then turns the customer into something passive.  You’re invited to believe you can then stand idly by while the product (or service, whatever it is) takes over – and improvements just…happen.  Does that sound like any Government, ever?

Worse than mere passivity, a consumer may then go on to feel a sense of entitlement.  It’s a human flaw that has compelled us all, at one time or another, to attempt to justify any unreasonable position on the basis that ‘it’s always been like that’ or ‘I know my rights’.  This is fair enough if you’ve handed over your hard-earned cash to buy something that then goes on to disappoint; you usually have the entitlement to expect redress.  Again, is that really how government works?

Passivity and Entitlement is a mixture almost certain to disappoint as you live through the four or five years of the next parliament.  You’re guaranteed to see things happen that you don’t like: you can’t do anything about it, but you feel you’ve been promised more of a sense of redress than you find you have.  As a consumer, you can always have your money back but as a voter…sorry, that’s it.

There has to be a further step of evolution.  Tribalism is simplistic to the point of being undemocratic, Consumerism rewards self-obsession but includes the redress to ‘reset’ the ‘transaction’ that voting lacks.  In what capacity should we really be casting our vote?

It's understandable that most people may be uncomfortable with the notion of being a shareholder - is it because we find it difficult to picture what a shareholder is?  This what a Google image search returns - lots of unhelpful stock photography and abstract clip art
It’s understandable that most people may be uncomfortable with the notion of being a shareholder – is it because we find it difficult to picture what a shareholder is? This what a Google image search returns – lots of unhelpful stock photography and abstract clip art

If politics today is less about the big ideological questions and more about the appointment of competent administrators in a global economy, the next logical step, to me at least, is to regard our politicians not as our tribal heroes, nor indeed as our chosen suppliers, but simply as the Board of Directors of The United Kingdom, an organisation in which we all have a single, equal share.  As shareholders, we can expect the right to appoint and remove our Board members at regular, pre-defined intervals and we expect a certain level of financial return as a result of their competence – with a certain level of performance measure being communicated regularly and in a particular format.

Surely, this is a much closer metaphor to the state of being a voter.  It promises no solutions, allows no sense that any change in personnel on the Board is a victory in itself and removes any illusion of stakeholder passivity or indeed consumer entitlement throughout the piece.  Like corporate shareholders do of the Boards they appoint, we should almost expect our Governments to fail, to err and to disappoint – and simply guard against it.

Currently, we certainly don’t have clear enough, accessible enough measures to quantify by how much our Governments do currently fail, err and disappoint. As shareholders, need this to remain better informed before our next opportunity to exercise our right to express our confidence – or otherwise – in their stewardship of our company.  If the General Election is our (if not annual, regular) AGM, we should also expect a (categorically annual) Annual Report to inform it.

The closest thing we have to such a mechanism is the Budget, which must contain a huge amount of fiscal data before the fact but is not really compelled to offer the same level of transparency after the fact.  The absence of such material allows all parties to exercise spin and obfuscation about the ‘facts’ they contest when the one thing voters consistently complain about is lack of honesty.  Where is the Balance Sheet and the P&L for the UK – and its subsidiaries, the NHS, the Armed forces and our other public institutions?  Even where they do exist in some form (as exemplified by the BBC), who decides the format they take, the areas they must include and the items they can choose to omit?

The Lords, or perhaps even the Monarch, should be our financial regulatory authority, apolitical, free of the party system, acting in the interest of the shareholder.  He/She/They should define the level of detail we can demand to see every year, even every quarter.  Terms should be clearly explained (what exactly is defined by ‘unemployment‘ when calculating the figure?) and items which cause needless contention can be objectively listed in the reporting structure.

Of course, it’s wildly optimistic to expect every voter to read every line of detail – it’s our right to engage, or disengage, as much as we want in the whole process.  Whether you choose to engage or not, the lack of availability – or validity – of the information you require should never be a factor in your choice.

You may agree with everything I’ve written or you may disagree vehemently – that’s the essence of the right to vote.  It doesn’t matter whether you believe, as I do, that people these days seem to vote less like a supporter and more like a consumer.  It doesn’t matter whether you agree that rationality and indeed democracy is better served if we all voted as a shareholder would vote, with facts and independently-verified figures.  None of that really matters – it’s just my opinion.  What does matter, hugely, is that you even consider in what capacity you are going to vote when the time comes.  If all of this thought process does nothing to change your conclusion, all well and good.  If any of it makes you challenge your own status quo and think again about why you vote for who you vote for, isn’t that a good thing?

2015 Election Pt I: Suffering for Suffrage’s Sake

Here we go again…

It’s General Election time and once again, a bunch of people I’d normally cross the street to avoid are all suddenly intent on ‘engaging’ with me and ‘gaining’ my vote. To be honest, I’d rather they all leave me alone and let me find out for myself what I do and don’t like about what they stand for – but then I do have to accept that if they did, it wouldn’t be much of a demonstration of willing from anyone looking to achieve a mandate to run the country.

Portillo loses to Twigg
For many, the best part of the whole process: watching the mighty fall

And so, the whole dreary process rolls inevitably down the hillside of the next six or seven weeks, promising only a modicum of voyeuristic entertainment when the debris lands as it finally crashes to a halt.  Who can forget such classics as Portillo v Twigg (pictured) and Hamilton v Bell?

Having been through this rather ludicrous affair five times before, I am tempted to wonder why I’m doing this again? Not the voting bit itself – I’m not that cynical that I don’t believe the right to vote, paid for with millions of lives, should be relinquished or squandered lightly. What I’m questioning is my complete immersion in the canvassing and pre-election process, as a responsible voter.

From a pragmatic point of view, there’s really no need to bother: I could agonise over every line of every manifesto, I could flip a coin or I could just ‘vote with my conscience’ and it would make no difference to the outcome. Cue horrified cries of “every vote counts” and “well, if everyone thought like that..” so let me clarify things a little. I live in the Wigan constituency, a dyed-in-the-wool Labour stronghold since 1918. It has for almost a century been the very definition of a seat where the proverbial ‘pig in a red rosette’ would expect to win – and in all probability, a couple have, over the years.

Lisa Nandy
Lisa Nandy: Whatever happens, she’s going to be the MP for Wigan after May 7th

The current incumbent, Lisa Nandy, most recently the shadow Junior Education Minister, is a highly-rated young parliamentarian and is certainly no proverbial ‘pig’.  The combination of her capability and her seat’s geography means that she must be one of the Labour candidates most likely to be working in Westminster for at least the next five years. In fact, for her not to be returned as the member for Wigan during the next parliament, Jeremy Vine’s swing-o-meter would probably have to point almost due east. In short, she really doesn’t need my vote, whether she gets it or not.

This is the situation, then: I’ve decided that I’m definitely going to vote for someone, that I shouldn’t disrespect the process so much that I’m not just going to vote for anyone, but also in the realisation that after doing all that and then casting my vote, not one iota of difference will have been made. So the question ‘why am I doing all this?’ is, I think, a reasonable one.

The best answer I can muster is that, if nothing else, I feel I need to cast my vote and be accountable to myself. Will I be able to look my future self in the eye (if that’s possible to imagine) and say that, whoever wins and whatever happens in the next four or five years, I contributed my voice responsibly? If the country is well served by the next Government, I accept I’ll have either the satisfaction for having backed them or the nagging guilt of overlooking their potential? Conversely, if the next lot cock things up, for four or five years, I know I’ll either inhabit the moral high ground for having tried to stop them or a kind of ‘naughty step’ for being partly responsible.  I want to feel I can always assure myself that I made the right choice – and that doesn’t change whether you live in a marginal constituency or a ‘shoo-in’, like Wigan.

That, to me, is the essence of democracy and the value of the franchise.  In lots of ways, the whole ridiculous charade is flawed, often seriously (I could go on, and I probably will at some point) but it’s important in the same rather old-fashioned way that might compel you to drive slowly past a funeral cortège: you know you don’t have to, but it’s a standard to which one holds oneself for no other reason than one’s own sense of propriety.

I accept it’s not the same for everyone – elections often bring into the spotlight a very strange ensemble of ‘characters’ with a wide variety of contributions to the process – but I think mine is probably not far from the same position that most people have.  The phrase about of one’s voting preference being ‘between me and the ballot box’ is not just an assertion of privacy, it’s a secret pact that each of us and the ‘box’ have, to do our bit to guide the country through the waters of the next few years, even though it’s just a tick in the box when all is said and done.

Why It’s Still Okay to Admit Liking ‘Top Gear’

Picture the scene.  It’s Sunday evening, just before eight, around the time when, for the last decade or more, upto seven million people start to think about gaining tactical possession of the remote control.  For many, the highlight of their televisual week is about to start.

Over recent Sundays, these time-honoured manoeuvres have been unnecessary.  Why? Because the object of such mass orchestrations, a ‘special interest’ show on a minority channel will not be shown this week – or possibly ever again – while the BBC investigates the most recent conduct of one of its presenters.

Unlike many of Clarkson’s more unquestioning acolytes, I can understand the process here. Generally speaking any misconduct investigation of this magnitude requires that the individual being investigated be temporarily suspended from their duties, probably with full pay, and with no implication of guilt in the meantime. The idea is that the ‘clock’ is effectively stopped for a short time, while a longer-term decision is being made.

I can also accept that a physical assault in most forms is defined by most organisations as an example of ‘gross misconduct’, a charge which very often carries with it a penalty of dismissal.  Remember, this is still an allegation, though.  Anything generally understood to be defined by the above terms may not even have happened.  In the meantime, innocence has to be presumed.

For many onlookers, the case does seem to be rather conveniently ‘open-and-shut’ but is that fair? Even if the allegations prove to be true, any employer would be obliged to consider previous character and any mitigating factors before deciding on a form of punitive action.  Again, the internet won’t be short of people pointing out incidents that reflect ‘previous character’ – and it can’t be denied that ‘Jezza’ has a charge list as long as the service notes on a Lotus Esprit.  It’s a list in which racial slurs, high-jinks, diplomatic incidents, lazy stereotyping have all appeared. Given that Clarkson himself once made reference to the Lotus name being an unflattering acronym, it seems ironic now that it can be equally applied to himself: Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious.

The thing is, whatever happens to Jeremy Clarkson, it should happen in a manner removed from the hyperbole and prejudice that surrounds him, as an individual.  If the BBC decide they’ve finally tired of tolerating his antics and terminate his contract, that too should happen in a manner removed from the hyperbole and prejudice currently being aimed at the show he’s presented for so may years.

I suspect that won’t be the case.  The perennial allure of Top Gear, its willingness to be divisive in an all-embracing age is now, inevitably, threatening to be its downfall.  Its ‘edginess’ has won it millions of viewers over the years – and many enemies, who are unlikely to stand idly by when they sense its current vulnerability.  Of course they will argue that Top Gear‘s schoolboy silliness and base humour are merely the thin end of a wedge that ultimately comprises a deeper, darker agenda of casual racism, xenophobia, the ridicule of minorities and that scourge of the politically correct, the unreconstructed male.

At this point, when the argument begins to form according to wider ideological lines and it becomes easy to forget that we’re talking about a car show, here.  While it can’t be denied that TG‘s irreverance/offensivenenss (delete, according to your viewpoint) is a part of the show’s incredibly popular formula, it is, after all, only part of its style.  The actual substance of the show is the appreciation of the car, of its engineering, its styling, marketing and, yes, its performance.  And yet, somehow this all seems to be lost in all the (dare I say it?) fracas of the last few weeks.

The appreciation of automotive form and function is no less valid or healthy than an interest in, say, antiques, yet one show has cosy respectability and enjoys prime placement within the ‘establishment’ of BBC1 (attracting 5.65m viewers on January 11th), while the other, for one reason or another, was able to entice 6.41m viewers on January 25th to the relative ghetto of BBC2.

Perhaps there’s another wedge here.  One where the thin end is the dislike we’ve seen (and many have felt) towards the ‘puerile’, the ‘laddish’ and ‘lowest-common-denominator’.  A wedge which goes on to encompass a deeper antipathy towards the appreciation of speed, the notion of personal, rather than public, transportation, the very construct of the car itself.  An idealogically-motivated, environmentally-entitled position from people who have decided not just that because they hold certain views of social conduct, so must everyone else; but also because they have a life in which the car plays little or no part, so must everyone else.

If you think this is a rather reactionary viewpoint, cast you mind back a few short months to the tale of the Labour MP for Islington South & Finsbury, Emily Thornberry.  For her, the presence of a white van and flag of St. George outside a (possibly Labour-supporting) voter’s household was an invitation for such disdain.  Nationalism and unreconstructed male attitudes are, after all, not highly-regarded commodities by the chattering classes of New Labour Islington.  Unfortunately, this was a perception which was to cost her her position in the Shadow Cabinet.  No-one will pretend that every white van driver is likely to be a wonderfully erudite, endearing, urbane individual – but who would drive a van for any reason other than to work?  Ms. Thornberry now realises she should have known better than to publicly belittle a voter and (presumably) a taxpayer because *he* fits a profile that is alien to her ideology.  Is that in any way related to what’s going on here?  Little more than intellectual snobbery from those  claiming to be more ‘enlightened’ than the rest of us?

If the chief casualty in this whole Clarkson/Top Gear episode is to be the show itself, yes, I’m sure I’d miss some aspects of its idiosyncratic style that consistently infuriates so many others. But much, much more than that, I’d miss the substance: the increasingly rare opportunity to indulge in and celebrate the world’s most aspirational cars and, despite all the silliness and incorrectness, rejoice in the seemingly prohibited allure of the V8 engine, the 0-60 acceleration time and the standing quarter from some of the world’s most famous and revered car-makers.

“What’s the point?’ ask the seriously ‘enlightened’?  “You can only drive it at 70mph, anyway” they will probably say, seriously missing the point.  They may even point out rather smugly that it is thanks to Barbara Castle MP (Lab) that we even have a 70mph speed limit.  Perhaps they’re right: perhaps there is no point in delighting in the very existence of the Bugatti Veyron or the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento.  But then, is there much point in speculating vicariously at the possibility of a Van Dyck having being discovered over on the Antiques Roadshow?  What, even, is the point of all entertainment or escapism?  Perhaps people who think like this don’t need to look too far at all to find the answer – an escape from people like them, with their joyless worthiness and their unclearly-acquired qualification in knowing what’s best for everyone else.

It’s one thing for people who claim to ‘know better’ to disdain of the presentation and production values within Top Gear, it’s another thing entirely for them to then presume that an affinity for the car, in all its forms, is equally as contemptible.  I hope the BBC has the wit to make that distinction.

Archived: Why our future should keep you up all night

Originally published as a FB Note, on 5 May 2010 at 21:45

Winston Churchill once said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”. Considering it was the very system that he so famously fought to defend, it seems odd to see that he would damn it with such faint praise. And yet, Churchill was nothing if not a realist, able to reconcile the seemingly opposable motivations of idealism and pragmatism – he also said (about Britain’s wartime propaganda) that “truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.

Indeed, there’s nothing like a British General Election to showcase the very noblest and most base elements of political activism and this one has been