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The News where they are.

September 27, 2018

In 1922, when Westminster imposed a border in Ireland, they were attempting to put that country’s strife on the back burner. The proposal was accepted by all sides because they were tired of conflict and wished to end it in some way. Like every fudge, it worked because, in its vagueness, it was possible for all sides to claim a “victory”.

The Unionists believed they had a guarantee of a permanent majority in “their” part of the island – a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” as James Craig had it. The Republicans accepted it because, with a promise of a “renegotiated” border within a decade or so, they believed a smaller statelet would prove unsustainable, and unity would follow.

Westminster were able to say that they had solved the conflict between these “crazy irish people” and focus their attention elsewhere.

Having drawn a border that had no historical or economic logic, and meandered bewilderingly across 500 kilometres of countryside, they  retreated and focused on other matters.

They called it “The Irish Border”.

When the Troubles erupted in the late 1960s, they took most in Westminster by surprise. The British public had virtually no knowledge of the six counties, and for the government, for decades, it had been “out of political sight, out of political mind”. A statelet which prided itself on being, in a  later phrase, “as British as Finchley”, was, in actuality, about as different to Britain as was possible. Elections were gerrymandered, public services were provided on a sectarian basis, the “forces of law and order”, primarily the RUC and their auxiliary force, the B Specials, were run on sectarian grounds and contained bigotry on a large scale. In much the same way as blacks in America’s southern states, the minority community were kept in their place and deprived of opportunities for advancement, economically and socially.

When resistance and then violence forced the six counties on to the political agenda, there was little understanding in Westminster of what had ignited the fuse. Ignorance had indeed been bliss. The Unionists presented it as “an IRA uprising” and, not having the knowledge to dismiss this claim, Westminster attempted to quell the problem by involving the military, a move which, ironically, quickly converted a civil rights movement into a Republican insurrection. London eventually learned that, while the six counties were very different to Britain, they were also not amenable to the kind of  “end of Empire” army policing which had been employed in Malaya, Aden, Yemen and other colonised states.

After a generation of violence, a point was reached when all sides were looking for an excuse to stop. The Good Friday Agreement was another masterpiece of fudge, again appearing to give all sides a reason to claim victory. The Unionists saw the removal of the Republic’s constitutional claim to the six counties as a copper fastening of their position “within the Union”; Republicans saw shared government, alongside the clear demographic growth of the “minority community”, as a route to re-unification; Dublin saw the economic benefits of peace on the island and a relaxation of their claimed responsibility for a part of the island that they no longer actively sought. In London, there was a sigh of relief, and delight at another chance to take the six counties off the political agenda.

The British called this a solution to “The Irish Conflict”.

True to form, once Westminster re-focused away from Ireland, they lost any chance of understanding the processes that had been set in flow by the Good Friday Agreement. Whilst wilful ignorance after 1922 had allowed a sectarian statelet to become entrenched, rather the reverse had happened after 1998.

Despite political leanings, in every day life, folk will generally be led by what is convenient. In unionist gatherings, there will often be references to “Derry”, rather than “Londonderry” because it’s easier, especially when none of the “other community” are present and a political point does not have to be made. Republicans, equally, will avail themselves of “British” culture in terms of entertainment and sport from “across the water” despite public avowals of it being “foreign”. It’s just the way people are.

The Good Friday Agreement in its many clauses  facilitated this smoothing out of differences. Without checkpoints and the threat of violence, it became easy to live in one jurisdiction and work in another; similarly with medical treatment – folk from Letterkenny receiving treatment in Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital, for example. Most meat processing for the six counties was undertaken in the Republic, much of the Republic’s agricultural product found its way north. The natural hinterlands which applied before the imposition of the Border and were made unworkable during much of  the Troubles, were reinstated. On the ground, in trade, social life and day to day events, the Border virtually disappeared. Its “legal” continuation continued as a comfort for those who desired it, but the truth was that everybody -– whatever their political beliefs, benefited and took advantage of its “disappearance”.  That was the real “peace dividend”: people could operate in their everyday lives without the hindrance of an imposed division.

Ultimately, folk from all communities appreciated this easing of routine and the convenience. Friends and relatives in the area of north Leitrim, from where my family hails, had retail choices again. Depending on time of year, shopping needs, or time available, they could shop in  Enniskillen, 30 miles away, Sligo 20 miles away, or Carrick 18 miles away. Belfast, Derry and Armagh, though further, were all possibilities, irrespective of which jurisdiction they occupied.  The same, of course, applied to social and cultural events or family visits. “Normalisation” meant only the “usual” considerations of time, expense and choice were involved in deciding the destination, not the thought of checkpoints, delays, and forced diversions..

Much of this, of course, was invisible to Westminster. As par for the course, they had presumed the “problem” solved, and turned away to other things. The difficulty is, like cosmetics or fraud, a political fudge has to be nurtured carefully to keep up the pretence of a solution.

Such was the desire for peace amongst folk in the six counties and around the Border regions that even the prolonged dissolution of the Stormont Parliament failed to rock its foundation. Even in the  face of some spectacular ignorance from Westminster Parliamentarians, the people in the statelet decided to keep on rubbing along together, albeit with increasingly bitter rhetoric.  Preserving the everyday “normality” was seen as a priority, and the fudge had enabled both communities, and those who would consider themselves “neutral”, to live in a social atmosphere which supplied most of what they desired – politically, and from day to day.  The RCI scandal and the stand off over  Irish Language legislation raised the temperature – leading to that suspension of the Parliament, but, though frustrated, most folk could live with that – as long as their everyday life was mostly unaffected.

Then came Brexit, followed by the May 2017 election.

Much of the UK Government’s economic  “peace dividend”, gained from the demilitarisation of the six counties, was diverted back to gain DUP support, and  the Tories proved themselves, not for the first time, woefully ignorant on Irish affairs. They spoke of preserving the UK, whilst supporting a party which promulgated policies in the six counties which made the statelet very different to Britain – a familiar story.

In turn they first denied there was a difficulty with the Border, then claimed to have solved it, and finally tried to diminish the size of the problem. Throughout all of this, the 27 EU states have supported the Republic solidly – there could be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. It seems everybody except the Brexiteers has an understanding of the chaos and conflict which will be caused by a return to a visible  border.

Pragmatism being particularly embedded in the northern Irish psyche, many hitherto “loyal British citizens” have hastened to preserve their European status by claiming Irish passports. Never mind border checkpoints, the need for their protection, the delay to trade, and the almighty paperwork, post-Brexit, the six counties will be a statelet of people who may be Irish and EU citizens or British and non-EU citizens, and some who will no doubt keep a foot in both camps. The implications for the interaction of government and people are enormous.

At Westminster, they call this “The Irish problem”.

As they say, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat their mistakes. Virtually all I have written about here has been caused by the presence of the British in Ireland and yet they continually delude themselves that it is an “Irish” problem.

This refusal to take responsibility infects all their decisions. Their cry before the Independence Referendum in Scotland was that, as “equal partners” in the Union, we should “lead not leave”, that our contribution was valued. Even before the result was offcially announced, David Cameron had made it plain that this was nonsense, and this position has been further stated by a refusal to give the Scots Parliament a voice in Brexit despite 62% of the country voting to remain in Europe and a disproportionate weight of fall out from Brexit landing on our country – especially in agriculture and fisheries.

Lest this should be seen as a “nationalist” issue, I’m sure folk in the north of England would concur with my view. George Osbourne promised they would be “the powerhouse of the North” and then the government turned away, satisfied that the problems of the north of England could be settled by a phrase.

Talking of phrases, few have been better satirised than in James Robertsons’s take on BBC News, where they introduce a ten minute news programme, for what they quaintly describe as the “nations and regions”, at the end of “the main news”, by announcing: “And now the news where YOU are,” as opposed, of course, to they news where THEY are – which is the important stuff. This, from the Establishment broadcaster, is a perfect representation of a UK/London centred view of the world. It not only diminishes the other countries of these islands, but it limits the ability of folk in England to establish their own identity – outside of Spitfires and roast beef.

The demand for independence in Scotland is largely fuelled by increasing realisation that London sees everything through a particular prism. Of late that has more and more been an isolationist view of the world and a quite bizarre harking back to war time as the “best of times” when, apparently, Britain “stood alone”.

To progress and move forward, a country needs to be open to all influences and learn from a wide range of approaches. Whether this involves a welcome to immigrants, an adoption of international approaches to solving problems, or a realistic perception of its place in the world, all of this is necessary if its citizens are to have the best future. Diversity brings strength.

Scotland is stymied currently by only having political access to other countries and ideas through the prism of the UK; just as Ireland faces suffering from the ignorance, wilful or otherwise, of politicians, when it comes to Brexit and a hard border. Basically, if something is not in the interests of the south east of England, then it is not deemed worthwhile, irrespective of its impact on other parts of these islands. It is laughable that the UK Government, having announced its intention to leave the EU, should then demand a negotiated exit on favourable terms for one country out of 28.

If politics is not seen as being about ordinary people and their every day lives, then we are back in the days of  gunboat diplomacy and international sabre rattling.

A government unable to say: “This will damage our people, we are not doing it” – particularly when that stance is influenced by internal political party wrangling, is not fit to govern.

And a system which allows that to happen, which ignores the will of the Scottish voters and their Parliament, which diminishes the Good Friday Agreement by taking sides in the six counties, and which promotes to leadership such a narrow elite, is clearly broken.

It’s time to fix it.

 

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An American Tune

July 13, 2018

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The opening bars of Paul Simon’s “America” echo across the bowl of Glasgow’s Hydro concert hall by the Clyde. Along with 12000 others I’m humming the notes I first heard over 50 years ago. The diminutive figure steps up to the microphone: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together….” He’s singing to long gone English girlfriend, Kathy Chitty, but there’s little doubt that the words equally describe the part he has played in the lives of so many of a certain age in this audience.

His songs, music and lyrics have been emotional way stations in our lives over half a century. The words he wrote reached out to us. They were the progression – for him and for us – from the pop simplicity of the Brill Building music factory, where he toiled with Goffin, King, Sedaka, Mann, Weill, Greenwich, Barry, Diamond and more, to a more lyrical, intense, creative style of expression. For those of us in our mid teens then, his songs provided the bridge from the immediate accessibility of pop singles to the deeper sensitivities of the singer songwriters and the classical literature with which we had struggled to come to terms.

How many of us first understood the meaning of “mediocrity” from its use in “Homeward Bound” or awoke to the possibilities of poetic description with the phrase “I turn my collar to the cold and damp” in “Sound of Silence”?  How often do we notice graffiti – even now – and find ourselves thinking: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”. Looking round at our 21st century world of marketing and celebrity aren’t we reminded of the prescience of “to the neon god they made”?

The connections are many and sometimes random. Sitting in the middle of the night, trying to sleep, on Wigan railway station in 1977, heading home after seeing Scotland beat Wales in Liverpool in World Cup Qualifying, I couldn’t help but think of “Homeward Bound”, written on the very similar Widnes station, only fifteen miles away. And now there are poems from local poets written on the waiting room windows of Wigan Wallgate railway station. Somebody else made a similar connection, perhaps.

The first time I ever wept at concert was the first time I heard Paul Simon sing “Sound of Silence” live. I was quite taken aback by the strength of the emotion and wondered if it was purely a sentimental recall of my childhood. Perhaps it was, but it was also a strong reminder of how deeply some of the music and lyrics of those years are embedded in our psyche. It’s also true of the Beatles and others, of course, but the intensity of Simon’s lyricism seems somehow to cut deeper – it’s about how he is saying it as much as what he is saying.

I remember a night when I was seventeen. Our senior school social club had a folk night and one of my classmates – a music prodigy called Steve Dunachie – performed “Scarborough Fair” in a complete version of the Martin Carthy arrangement used by Simon and Garfunkel. His guitar playing was immaculate and I wondered if I kept practising  would I ever become as competent – and the answer has been “No”! However, for ever, the opening strains of that song have taken me back to a classmate I haven’t seen since I left school, and a poorly lit school dining room in 1969. It is chastening and, I have to admit, a little thrilling, to recapture how serious and intense we were about our music then – without the distractions of computer games, videos, Spotify or MTV and its ilk.

Around the same time, with my closest school friend, who remains   my oldest friend, I was  discussing the song “America” and the filmic qualities of its lyric. We discovered  we had both had the exact same dream about the circumstances of the song. Perhaps not surprising,  but it seemed almost mystical way back then.

Ten years later, when I started to travel around the American mid-west, the song was never far from my thoughts, and, with a family history that goes back to Brooklyn in the 1880s, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of trying to capture the “reality” of the USA, and haunted, as well,  by that line: “’Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping” as a perfect evocation of loneliness.

Perhaps part of Simon’s success is the way in which his art kept on developing, seeming to match the progress of our lives. From the south American and Hispanic influences of “El Condor Pasa”  and “Me and Julio” through the reggae of  “Mother and Child Reunion” he always seemed to open to finding new ways to enhance and broaden his musical vision; a new Simon album was rarely predictable.

He matched the mood perfectly, despite initial controversy, when he was brave enough to cross Apartheid barriers to promote and popularise African music with the “Graceland” album. Those who feared he might lend legitimacy to the South African regime quickly accepted that he was, in fact, opening the doors and windows for the rest of the world to acknowledge the talent and joie de vivre  which was being half smothered by the status quo in South Africa.

It was “You can call me Al”, always  remembered through the iconic Chevy Chase video, which brought the Hydro to its feet dancing this week, but has there ever been a more uplifting intro or a more evocative opening line than in “Graceland”: “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” over that galloping bass beat?

But, ultimately, Paul Simon has always made my generation reflect. From the student angst of “I am a Rock” – where we sat silently and empathetically alone  in our bedrooms, as the orange CBS label spun round on our Dansette record players, through the busy production of “Mrs Robinson” with its spray of American icons, echoing Dustin Hoffman’s twitchy awakenings with Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate”. We listened and we learned, I suppose.

The use of language became something to which we could aspire, and we lost our self consciousness when it came to enjoying, or attempting to produce, lyrical imagery. Words were on our side now, we slowly forgot to fear their complexities, and started to celebrate their power. We enabled our more creative thoughts and found ways of sharing them. Of course, Simon was not single handedly responsible for our growing maturity when it came to language, but he certainly opened many doors and guided us in many directions.

And his influence was felt in the most unusual aspects of pop culture.  In many respects, television’s “Top of the Pops” has not aged well, and perhaps the most embarrassing reminder of a certain era in our lives, beyond the retrospective disclosures of the activities of some of its DJs, was the weekly performance  of the resident dance troupe “Pan’s People”. However, Simon’s influence even assuaged the dubious taste of that regular  routine. Probably the only “Pan’s People” appearance that anyone can clearly recall after more than four decades would be the video filmed to accompany “Bridge over Troubled Water”. Away from the normal “bump and grind” presentation, this featured only the group’s leader, Flick Colby, in a balletic interpretation of the atmospheric song. Filmed almost in monochrome, the “different” nature of the clip, the fluidity of the interpretation in her dance, allied to the soaring beauty of Garfunkel’s vocals, fixed it in the collective memory – almost a paradigm for Simon’s abilities to promote different art forms and encourage a more eclectic approach to popular culture.

Of course, it’s a personal and individual thing: different songs and different memories for each of us, but the connection can’t be denied. When he sang “The Boxer” in Glasgow, it was inevitable that a thousand voices in syncopation would supply the “whipcrack” effect at the end of the line “Lie de Lie “ – it was a Pavlovian reaction, born out of decades of internalising the song.  For us, “Kodachrome”, played at the funeral of my much loved brother-in-law, a photographer, was particularly moving, but we were dancing through our tears.

He started with “America” and ended with “Sound of Silence”, and, in between played just about every song we could remember, backed by an epic band, and displaying his wit, communication skills and seemingly undiminished enthusiasm, despite it being a “Farewell Tour”.

But ultimately, Paul Simon has become embedded in the part of our psyche which thinks – about life, people, and the whole damn thing. He is representative of a whole generation and class of American whom the world admired, who challenged those  “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening”. So it was timely that he was singing to us as the current American President was heading towards  these shores.

Long before Trump’s appalling election, Simon’s “American Tune” was pondering the state of America, consciously evoking the sense of pessimism generated when the values and ideals of the founding fathers are compared to the realities of today. Neither he, not his supporters, could have dreamt that the song would be so completely relevant in these times.

As a child of an emigrant family, as a supporter of an inclusive and welcoming policy towards refugees, I still find that Paul Simon’s lyrics are relevant, thought provoking, and, sometimes,  ultimately heart breaking.

“And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea…

 

We came on the ship they called the Mayflower

We came on the ship that sailed the Moon

We come in the age’s most uncertain hour

And sing an American Tune.”

I’m just glad that tune was sung in my lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It makes you think.

June 11, 2018

IMGP2206Cricket is a  game which promotes reflection.

The authorities’ attempts to shoehorn it into television schedules with shortened “100 ball” versions completely misses the point about all that makes cricket so special: it is a “long” game – in every sense – and that is its unique selling point.

Yesterday I found myself in one of my favourite reflective positions – on the top of the Grange club’s venerable pavilion.

There is much upon which to reflect – not least the day’s game versus the “auld enemy” and the fifteen years or more  I have been perched up here in every conceivable variation of weather conditions.

Just in front of me are the assembled media. There is Paul Hoffman –  an exciting fast bowler and prodigious hitter of the ball, whom I  loved watching play for Scotland. Then Dougie Brown arrives – who for so long flew the flag for Scottish cricket south of the border. Further along is Jimmy Anderson – who once perched next to me in the members enclosure at Lancashire – 17 years old, the drinks carrier for the first team, and a butt of their jokes – and now the epitome of cricketing success. Next to him a younger man, James Taylor, also with a precocious talent – sadly unfulfilled because of the the discovery of a heart ailment.

Later, David Sole will drop by, interviewed no doubt about his own career as a winning Scottish captain at rugby,  and the national recognition for two sons at cricket and a daughter at netball.

You could easily maintain that all human life is here – or at least, every aspect of cricket  – its highs and lows, its joy and despair: the life-reflecting elements which make it such a great game – a sport that hooks people as children and never leaves them.

So even before something remarkable begins to unfold, I am in reflective mode.

As the openers made their way to the middle I think of all that Kyle Coetzer has done to keep Scotland in the forefront of associate cricket. If it’s a game of reflection, it also needs its inspiration, and the skipper unfailingly provides that in word and deed. I think of all the excitement Matty Cross has provided in his keeping and batting, and as the score mounts, I think of the style of Richie Berrington and the reliability of George Munsey, and the times they have rescued Scotland or pulled us to victory. And I sit there, like all at the ground, transfixed by the mastery of Calum MacLeod, and the joy of seeing  a Gaidhlig speaker powering past his century against England.

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Calum’s career has been a roller coaster and he deserves every moment of success. How his  photographer dad, Donald, covers the team’s performances with no discernible signs of camera shake is beyond me!

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But it is a perfect wicket, reduced boundaries, and against the world No 1s. Even as we pass 350, I keep my confidence well in check. Then Michael Leask arrives for a cameo, and is no sooner at the crease than a trade mark 6 fairly hurtles over the ropes.

And then I start to believe.

I remember Grant Bradburn saying that “holding our own” is not good enough for Scotland, that we need to “look into our opponents’ eyes and show them we believe we can beat them” – and that’s what Leasky did with that six.

More reflection inspired by Jonny Bairstow’s quickfire century: thinking of watching his dad playing, back in the day, a presence I’m sure is never far away from the son. Then – not for the only time on this sunny Sunday – a mixture of emotions. England are powering after the total with all the verve and élan to be expected from the world leaders in this form of the game – is the ‘natural order’ to be emphasised? But a wee answering internal voice tells me that this Scotland squad don’t do surrender, they have the mental strength, the collective approach, to overcome big partnerships, batsmen who appear well set, or statistics which suggest the balance has turned.

The fielding is excellent –reflecting years of drills, fitness and commitment, the bowling refuses to wilt before the English batsmen’s dominance, and the feeling round  the ground is that something could be on here, the lads are playing at top level, there is a belief about them – could we even say a swagger?

Stockbridge, not normally seen as a hotbed of nationalist fervour, echoes to the sound of ‘Flower of Scotland’. The crowd alternate between bated breath and roars of encouragement and appreciation. You can see the team taking strength from the atmosphere – it’s as it should be: players and supporters as one.

Mark Watt is probing intelligently, Ali Evans and Richie Berrington are all energy and invention, Safy Sharif continues on his one man mission to exemplify Coach Bradburn’s philosophy of Kaizen – steady, continuous improvement.

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The England players are looking less certain now – an unnecessary run out sees the back of Root. The run rate is still comfortable, but then two  wickets in two balls – the skipper and Hales are gone – but surely Moeen Ali will produce one of ‘those innings’ and see them home? Then a typical Munsey catch off Watt puts an end to that notion.

Two phrases hover over the ground  in the pauses between overs: “Can we do this?” “Don’t put the mouth on it!” – everyone willing their neighbour not to say anything rash about a Scottish victory! Luckily the players are much more focussed than the crowd!

While I sit on my perch atop the pavilion, chewing my lip, fiddling with my camera, trying not to think of the impossible, they go about their business professionally, as we have come to expect.

When Rashid is run out, a roar escapes from the stands – even the hospitality guests, and the normally impeccably behaved  pavilion patrons, are jumping about like school kids.

Finally, silently,  I channel Barack Obama – YES WE CAN!

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Come on, Safy – you deserve a wicket – you’ve worked so hard over the past few years.

Thump…..pause…..appeal……finger goes up…….oh my goodness!!!!!!

Reflection on hold for a moment, I’m roaring, jumping, shouting, hugging, and punching the air with joy. Here on these seats where I’ve spent so many hours huddled in meteorological and cricketing gloom, the sun is warm, I’m basking in the bright light of victory, and Scotland have beaten England at the Grange! I let that sentence echo round my brain for a few seconds – it’s like the first sip of beer on  a hot day: my, that feels good!

And as the pipes play and the crowd cheer and the players dance a jig of delight, I manage to calm down enough to reflect – of course I do.

I think of these players and their predecessors and all that you have to sacrifice to play cricket for Scotland; I think of their families – the support they’ve given, the pride they must feel, and I think of all the Cricket Scotland folk – the ones I know, the ones I half know, and the ones I vaguely recognise.

I think of Grant Bradburn who refused to be deflated by the many challenges faced by a Scotland coach, and quietly went about making us winners; I think of the backroom staff – all great contributors to the cause in so many ways – former skippers, Gordon Drummond, Preston Mommsen, and Craig Wright; and Kari Carswell, Abbi Aitken and Kat Heathcote  and many more – who have progressed the women’s game so well  that the men must have felt bound to respond; Simon Smith and Toby Bailey who put in the hard yards away from the spotlight, Ramsay Allan in the office, Malcolm Cannon who came, and saw, and made it happen.

And I think of Ben Fox, the Comms Man, who has so often been the Messenger of bad news but has somehow avoided getting shot, and now can proclaim the Good News!

All that hard work, commitment and dedication – and for all of them,  in different ways, alongside the hundreds of volunteers across Scotland, cricket has been life changing.

Right now, in the evening Summer sunshine of Stockbridge, there are thousands of people as happy as they have ever been – because of all those folk who believed in Cricket Scotland and brought us to this point.

And suddenly I don’t know whether to laugh or cry – a daft old bugger on top of the world.

It’s only a game, but it makes you think – and the view from the heights of this old pavilion has never been better!

 

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Jeremy, Cyril, and a hovercraft

June 7, 2018

It’s Summer 1974 and during the university holidays I’m working as a car park attendant and deck chair boy on the sea front at the west Lancashire resort of Southport.

My beat is on the Sea Wall – which is a dyke, as you might find in Holland, topped with a road and car parking space stretching for about a mile. My job is to walk or cycle along its length, selling parking tickets to families who have come from east Lancashire or Merseyside for a day at the beach.

Behind me on the sea wall is the man-made Marine Lake where the local yacht club sail, in front of  me lie miles and miles of sand, for the sea has been retreating from this coast for over five centuries. By the mid seventies, the incoming tide only actually reaches the town on a few occasions each year.

This is not entirely bad news.

One of the first ever air mail flights landed on these sands, there is still at this point a beach aerodrome from where a rickety bi-plane gives pleasure flights, Henry Seagrave once set a landspeed record of 152mph here in the 1920s, and there is room for a thousand cars to park at the height of summer.

It does have its negatives  though.

Children tend to be upset when they find that “seaside” is a bit of a misnomer, though the fun fair and amusements do provide a distraction. The town’s lifeguards maintain a fleet of brightly liveried red and yellow World War 2 amphibious DUKWs to patrol the vast spaces – for fear they, or the swimmer in difficulty, would be exhausted and past help, long before they could reach them on foot.  The town’s Victorian Pier has a slightly embarrassed air about it, due to the fact that, most of the time, it stretches out over sand and not sea.

It’s a good holiday job though:  out in the sun most days, but huddled in the creosoted atmosphere of the staff hut in bad weather – and the bad weather can be brutal.

With a strong westerly wind, sandstorms and even mini-tornadoes, or “spouts” as they’re called, come barrelling in across the beach and make life very unpleasant. On these days, the long strip of car park is inhabited only  by the occasional salesman, parked up to record his figures in his sales book. The Head of Publicity and Attractions pays a visit in such weather and is not happy that we leave these guys to their own devices, and don’t ticket them. We point out it’s almost impossible to stand up outside  in these weather conditions.

He returns the following day and gives each of us a bright yellow full length oilskin mac, a sou’wester, and a pair of goggles: “Do yer job”, he says.

We try our best, but, dressed like that, when we suddenly loom up out of the sandstorm, and tap on the car windows, looking like rejects from Rommel’s Afrika Corps in the desert, we nearly give the drivers a heart attack.

This particular day is quiet. The sea is a silver line just below the distant horizon, it’s  cloudy and there are  only a few tourists. We sit by the hut, students in our late teens chatting to the regular attendants – mostly elderly guys with disability pensions – an interesting collision of ideas.

One of the old guys stands up and looks out to sea, hand shading his eyes against the light.

“What the bloody hell is that?” he asks.

We all have a look.

In the distance, across the sands, over the marshes by the Ribble estuary, we can see the phallic symbol of Blackpool’s Tower pointing heavenwards – but Jimmy Booth has his eyes on something nearer.

There is a spot of movement at the edge of the faraway tide; it seems to be coming  towards us in an erratic zig zag. Gradually, we realise there is a noise  associated with it – like  a gang of motorcyclists revving through town streets.

Eventually it reveals itself as a hovercraft, all orange livery and roaring propellors – though it is difficult to see it clearly because of the smoke it belches out and the sand and gravel it is sucking up from the beach.

Having only seen hovercrafts on television, I had always taken them to be smoothly gliding creatures, displaying a majestic disdain for the laws of gravity. This presents itself as more like a roads lorry bumping from pothole to pothole.

Even at a hundred yards distance, the reek of the fuel is overwhelming, and then, suddenly, with no warning, it gives up. The engine cuts out, and, with what I swear sounds like a sigh, the whole machine flops on to the wet sand.

Without the roaring of the engines, it feels like a deathly quiet has come over the beach. The craft hiccoughs a few times as if trying to raise itself up again, but finally slumps, defeated, back on to the beach

There are no visitors around, but eventually two men in suits start making their way out to the stricken beast. By the time they reach it they are struggling across rippled sand and there is splashing sea water around their ankles. Obviously the sea had made it that far at some point in the past twenty four hours.

A door opens outward in the craft and a figure appears. He jumps down on to the sand rather gingerly and walks towards the two men, who shake his hand. They turn and watch the vessel’s doorway.

The hovercraft lists quite badly to one side and a huge figure appears in the doorway and stops, apparently stuck. Perhaps as a result of a shove from inside the cabin, it drops down on to the sands and there is an audible splash. Waddling now,  it approaches the other group of men and they tiptoe their way towards the sea wall.

We are transfixed by this display for which we have been quite unprepared. As the figures come closer there is a distinct whiff of Laurel and Hardy about the performance – indeed, one of the old lads starts whistling their theme tune.

A car has pulled up just by the pier and they head towards it. Only at this stage do we realise that the two intrepid hovercraft passengers are Liberal Leader Jeremy Thorpe and Rochdale MP, Cyril Smith. This makes the whole performance even more surreal.

Thorpe wears his familiar garb of brown coat and trilby hat – one hand keeps the hat on his head, the other grasps a briefcase, he walks like a man on sheet ice. Smith follows behind, familiar dark suit, the jacket blowing wide open, his gait is more like a man treading through a snow drift.

The party get into the car and it drives slowly away. There has been no welcoming committee, no voters to wave at, or babies to kiss, not even, as far as we can see, any press photographers to record the momentous event.

The hovercraft remains deflated on the sands, its pilot walking round its skirt, doing the equivalent of a lorry driver kicking the tyres. Next morning it will be gone – taken by the tide, or under its own steam, or on the back of a truck, we never find out.

It turns out that the Liberals have been touring the coastal towns of the south west and north west in a hovercraft – partly to cause a stir, partly as proof of British engineering, and partly to underline their contemporary image as “something different in politics.”

Unfortunately, the craft has proved unreliable, the timetable haphazard, and the public attention strictly limited. The rumour in the north west is that the 29 stone of Cyril Smith has been a payload for which the hovercraft is not able.

Whatever the truth, the hovercraft assault on the beaches will not work in Southport – a 9% swing to the Liberals here  in the February election – part of a country wide surge which gave  hopes, yet again, of a Liberal revival, will be  replaced in October by a 4% swing against them, and the local Tory retains his seat comfortably.

Many times over the years I have thought of that afternoon, and occasionally wondered if I dreamt it all – but, even a fevered imagination could not conceive of a sight like Thorpe and Smith emerging from that hovercraft.

If anything, it now seems like a metaphor for the direction of English politics over the forty years or so since. The great hovercraft of Britain, desperate to exemplify its international stature, has signally failed to maintain enough wind beneath its skirts, and bumps along the sandy beach, a largely forgotten symbol.

Our current knowledge of the two men who emerged from it suggest that politicians who have plenty of “show” also tend to be deflecting from darker realities.

There was a lot of smoke and noise from that hovercraft on Southport beach in 1974, but ultimately it flopped on the sand and went nowhere.

You just couldn’t rely on the vessel – or its passengers.

Remembering Joe

March 22, 2018

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When I was growing up in Scotland and then England, whenever I thought of Sag Harbor on Long Island I could only imagine  a blue aerogramme letter on the mantelpiece, the address almost indecipherable in the hurried scrawl. The writing was no better inside the letter – could someone’s address really be “My Blue Heaven, Garden St”?

My Uncle Frank wrote to his brother, my dad, Paul, every week – so there were lots of letters – but, back in the fifties, far fewer pictures. However, when pictures came, they usually featured my cousins – two pretty girls, with undeniable Irish American good looks, and their  brother – a sharp suited business type, who looked to me every inch an American. I suppose today’s generation might want to envisage the style of TV’s “Mad Men”.

I had actually met Marie when I was very young, and Eileen in the sixties when I was a teenager, when they had come on European tours – but their brother Joe’s European business had been with the military in post war Germany,  and I had only ever seen him through these pictures sent by his proud father.

So Joe was a cousin kind of “removed” to me as I grew up, partly because I had never met him, and partly because of his  movement round the US – taking him from “Repo Man” to Vice President at General Motors.

As I got older I eventually got to see Sag Harbor for myself and stay with Uncle Frank at Garden St and meet all the folks. Inevitably, I fell head over heels in love with the place, as well as the extended family and their friends.

But, because it’s the way that lives go, it wasn’t until Joe had retired back to Sag Harbor and after he’d lost both his son, Stephen, and his beloved wife, Claudia, that we finally got to meet.

I have a fairly limited family circle,  and my three American cousins have always been very important to me, so flying the Atlantic to meet Joe for the first time was kind of a big deal. In addition, Rosie and Patrick would be meeting that part of the family for the first time. It’s fair to say I had some nerves as we flew the Atlantic at Easter 2001.

Joe was to meet us at JFK, and we exited the Arrivals area looking for the sharp suited cousin I thought I knew well from decades of photographs. We never found him – instead, we found Joe McPartlin, about to become, for real, my “Cuz”.

We had been delayed in the baggage hall and only one guy was waiting. We looked at each other:

“John?”

“Joe?”

Before me was a very fit looking man dressed for going out on his boat, or playing golf, or clearing the yard! In an instant I realised I was meeting the real Joe rather than the corporate version.

We talked easily all the way out to Sag Harbor, a warmth was established immediately. As our dads had been so close, maybe this was something that had been handed down.

In many ways, we were different. For me, a beach is somewhere to walk thoughtfully or sit and read a book, for Joe it was a venue for sports and challenge. My house is overloaded with books, Joe’s garage is overloaded with adventure equipment. In retirement, I am quite happy to follow the route the day might take, Joe was an organiser and planner.

The beauty was – and all who loved him must have found this – because he made things happen, you inevitably enjoyed every minute in his company. The twinkle was never far from his eye – when he threw some corn at me before  a meal on his deck and attempted to show me how to “shuck”; when Patrick and I reduced him to tears of laughter as we attempted to throw an American football on the beach, and the great day when we went clamming – and Joe plucked the shells out of the water with the air of a magician, while we struggled to find a solitary sample.

Equally, to go out in the bay on his boat, his thoughtfulness in letting Patrick steer, the joy he showed out on the water, the ease of our conversation – all of this stored love and memories.

Family meals at his house were particularly special. He was a brilliant host, even taking care to ask in advance – what would you like to eat? The hospitality was easy and genuine and it was not difficult  to see it as descended from big family meals shared by our grandparents and our fathers in Buccleuch St in Edinburgh. This was the closest we would ever get to that, and I loved every minute sitting at the McPartlin table.

Inevitably at such occasions, our other great “difference” would be discussed. Politically, Joe and I were apparently miles apart. However, being Joe, for all his “liberal baiting” when we were around – a sport greatly employed against his niece, Kathleen, who also delighted in setting the hare running, behind Joe’s politics was a “need to know and understand”. He didn’t condemn my politics, he asked me to explain them – and though he was often mystified by my left leaning views, he never sought to dismiss them outright. As in so much, his question was always: “Why?” He saw politics as a means of making people’s lives better, and when that failed to happen, he wondered. Often, latterly, our chats would end with him shaking his head and musing: “Well, what are we gonna do?”

One epic meal at Tredwell Lane included a discussion on the USSR which Rosie had previously visited. The two of them got on well, Joe appreciating Rosie’s forthright views, and the discussion was good humoured but seeking insight  and information, and totally without  rancour – which displayed the affection between us all.

At the end, with a broad grin, Joe proudly displayed the campaign acknowledgement letter he had received from John McCain. As we left, he hugged Rosie and twinkled: “Thank you for your input, Rosemary!”

It was a typical Joe McPartlin moment, reducing us all to laughter. We treasure it, and still use the phrase at the end of every hard fought discussion!

I think it’s the measure of a man when he can differ from your views but still value your opinion – one of Joe’s many rare qualities.

In his Faith he was uncompromising – a trait passed from our grandfather through his own father, and his mother. Inevitably, being Joe, his Faith was translated into action – with his counting the money each week at St Andrew’s and fundraising for the church refurbishment – showing all the persistence gained in his first employment as a “Repo man”! But, in reality, his Faith in action was in his love of humanity, his devotion to his family, and his care for them and pride in all their exploits.

To know Joe was to love him – it’s a trite phrase but it carries the truth of simplicity. The expectation of his company brought a lightening of the spirit.

My favourite memories of him are simple and quietly demonstrative. We would be sitting in the yard at  Marie and Al’s in Joel’s Lane, enjoying breakfast and family conversation. A couple of times it was a Monday morning and we would be leaving for home later that day. The side gate would open and in would come Joe, coffee cup in hand, “just passing”, having been at the church.

There would be a few minutes chat, before a brief goodbye – but we would all recognise the affection in Joe’s calling in to greet us. He proved you can convey love without being overly demonstrative, another measure of the style and quality of the man.

Of course we will miss him dreadfully – though I cannot begin to imagine the size of the love-shaped hole his passing will leave in the daily lives of his beloved family – Marie and Al, Pat, his children, and his grandchildren.

We try to console ourselves with the knowledge that we had time together, we shared our love, and we got to know this very special man.

On hearing he had lost his final battle, I shared the news on social media for friends and family. The words I wrote were my first reaction and I cannot better them now:

I’m quite heartbroken to share with family and friends that my cousin Joe McPartlin, of Sag Harbor, New York, has finally lost his last and bravest battle.
Joe and I waited fifty years to meet for the first time but I like to think we’ve made up for it since.
It was an instant connect and I loved him dearly. He, in turn, as all who knew him would expect, returned that love to me and Patrick and Rosie. His hospitality, joie de vivre, concern for others, and, above all, love of family, was legendary, and I am so proud to have been part of it.
He was an inspiration to many, a family patriarch like no other, strong in Faith, high on humour, driven by integrity and honesty, most of all he was a good man who loved life.
He is irreplaceable and my heart goes out tonight to his beloved family – his “troops” – for whom holidays will never be quite the same again but who will hopefully gain comfort from a million wonderful memories of his love, and to Pat – a soul mate if ever there was one.
There will never be another Joe McPartlin – I’m just so glad we were able to know and love him.
How typical he would arrive in Heaven between the feast of St Patrick and his own feast day of St Joseph. He welcomed so many so well to Tredwell Lane – now it’s his turn to be welcomed.
Go well, Cuz. We love you.

 

 

The Question why.

March 21, 2018

It might be an early morning train from Aberdeen, an overnight car journey from the south of England, or a dash across Scotland from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Sometimes it’s in the evening, other times the afternoon, and often Saturday and Sunday. You travel constantly – so  much so that, sometimes, you wonder where you are going and why. And then there’s the gym – and the fees, and the challenge of all that exercise away from the others when you can’t make it south, or east, or north.

You’ve become quite well known to your boss, on account of all the negotiations about holiday time, unpaid leave, and blocks of  absence. She seldom mentions promotion or job prospects, but sometimes you wonder. And sometimes there is no work.

Your partner is understanding, long suffering, and incredibly supportive – but your weekends together are  few and far between, and presents from Dubai and Africa don’t really make up for that.

Another five years and you’ll be thirty – most of your mates will be partners in their firms by then, or set up on their own, or looking for a house with a garden  for kids. The others will be well known about town, partying as hard as they work, or setting off on some amazing solo project….and you’ll just be starting again.

You’ve had glimpses of better: a couple of contracts down south, two or three years of stability, months when you were just a slice of luck away from a whole different lifestyle. But it’s competitive and so unpredictable – you’re in favour one year, ignored the next – and sometimes you don’t know why. And it’s more travel, more time away from home, more promises that may never be kept.

Nobody ever uses the word, at least not to your face, but it’s a selfish way of life – unless you can make something of it. But you know that no matter hard you try,  how high  your commitment, how prominent your talent – in the end your future will be determined by men far away with a different take on your world.

However, ultimately, it’s the life you have chosen, and lots of folk are far worse off. Together with the rest of the guys, building friendships, bonding, supporting each other – through the highs and the lows – all of that is a privilege, often pure joy, and you know you’re lucky to have it. But, without progression, without a decent wage, with nothing in return, it can seem like boys’stuff: forever a 19 year old in an ageing body.

When it stops, what will be left?

How will you justify that lifestyle, that devourer of your twenties, and maybe, if you’re lucky, most of your thirties?

You could give back, by supporting others into the same lifestyle, if you can truly look them in the eye and tell them it will definitely be worth it. You could remember the saltire flying above you, the power of “Flower of Scotland” as you huddle in the dressing room, the pride you feel to be representing your country, to be a part of the few, representing the many.

Most of all, clear eyed and clear headed, you could remember that you love cricket, love playing the game, promoting it, encouraging others, and hopefully inspiring them to share those same highs and lows, those extremities of emotion, and the joy of physical and mental coordination.

You play for Scotland because you love it all, the challenges – internal as well as external, the team work, the fight to improve, the need for self discipline, the opportunity to play for the supporters, the fans, the administrators, club members and volunteers – the whole of the cricket community. All of this is a privilege you are proud to accept, and those who love you and care about you, in turn, accept it is who you are, and what you want to do.

While it makes for a challenging life and difficult choices, there’s also something precious about being amongst the very few elite sports people who can demonstrate they play largely for the love of their sport.

So you will carry on. You will thole the missed catches, the poor decisions, the balls that keep low, and the late night motorway driving. You will get in the faces of those who are paid a handsome wage to enjoy this lifestyle, you will prove you are as good as them,  if not better. You will face your mid thirties when you come to them, and when you put on that cap with the thistle, you will give your all for Scotland.

This will be your motivation and your inspiration. You will not let down your team mates, your families, or your country. You will do whatever it takes. And those who know you will love you for it,  and those who support you will admire you for it, and when you hear the applause as your boots clack down the pavilion steps, please God, you will know it is worth it.

So when it comes to it – when the nation’s media provide poor coverage, claiming nobody is interested, when the ICC cave in to the free marketeers for whom sport is merely an advertising opportunity, when competitions are organised in the interests of others, when funding and fixtures go elsewhere, when highly paid opponents belittle your efforts, when the hill to full member status seems steeper than ever, you will do what we have come to expect of our Cricket Scotland heroes – you’ll send them hameward to think again!

And we’ll still be proud to Follow Scotland.

 

Stuck in traffic

March 15, 2018

Video replays are all the rage in football at the moment, and none more so than those relating to former Liverpool star, Jamie Carragher, spitting, after a Man Utd v Liverpool game.

I could go for the full VAR post match discussion (a sign if ever there was one that VAR seldom settles arguments once and for all) but I’m loathe to go over that old ground: Did he wind down the window so he could spit? Was he aiming at the girl? Did he actually hit her? Why was her father shouting at a fellow motorist and recording his reaction?

The arguments could go on for ever, but they don’t need to. Two things are irrefutably clear – whatever the video purports to show: spitting is disgusting and totally unacceptable; and, abusing a public or recognisable  figure on the street is a coward’s way of showing off: if there’s a negative reaction – you’ve won,  (He’s a horrible sod, you should hear what he said/did); if there’s no reaction – you’ve won, (Big head – tried to talk to him and he blanked me).

You’ve won, because, as you are well aware, the “star” will be chastised whatever he does or doesn’t do; metaphorically, his hands are tied, or should be, if he keeps his cool.

Social media, of course, is just made for this kind of conflict. Without video of the scene, its newsworthiness would have crumbled – folk make claims about celebrities’ behaviour all the time; without “evidence”, it will garner a limited number of “hits”. With pictures, and, even better, video, it can multiply your website’s hits well past that all important daily target.

Perhaps my generation was fortunate in avoiding the need to spit – in the street or on the playing field. Every family had someone who had died of Tuberculosis – an untreatable and terminal disease till relatively recently. Our parents told us that TB could be spread by spitting. Rightly or wrongly, we believed them, and so spitting was seen not just as a disgusting habit, but as a health risk. Similarly, shouting abuse at folk in the street would encourage people to think you were a bit odd rather than a hero, so it wasn’t too difficult to avoid that sort of self shaming either. The rules appear to have changed somewhat.

There is, of course, no point in complaining that times have changed – it’s what they do, but sometimes reflective comparison can lead to a clear assessment of the destination at which we have arrived.

I go back to one of the great football weekends of my life – certainly in my teenage years: April 28/29th 1967 – when I was 15.

Living in Southport, in Lancashire, I supported the local team, home and away – and that season, under Head Coach, Billy Bingham, they were headed for promotion for the first time in their history. Friday night, April 28th was a crucial moment. Tranmere Rovers were our closest rivals, both geographically and for promotion glory, and that night was a derby game which we believed would settle promotion for one of us.

A crowd of 15, 555 saw a tense and fast moving game which Southport won 2-1 thanks to an o.g. and a goal for our iconic striker, Eric Redrobe.  In the end,  both these teams won promotion, but it was that victory at Prenton Park which convinced us we were on our way up.

Also in the news that Spring were a local amateur side – Skelmersdale Utd. The team from the Merseyside new town had stormed to an Amateur Cup Final at Wembley – a big occasion in the sixties – against the aristocrats of the amateur game, Enfield.

The Final, the previous week, at Wembley, in front of   75,000 spectators, had ended in a 0-0 draw, and so, in the days before penalty shoot outs, a replay was to be held the following week at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground. A few of us who supported Southport thought that it would be good to hire a minibus to take us to Manchester so we could support the local amateurs in the replayed Final.

So, still high from the previous night’s victory at Tranmere, we headed for Maine Rd the next day – two big games in a weekend!

Sadly, in front of more than 55,000 fans, Skem could not deliver the trophy, and Enfield ran out winners by 3-0.

On the way home, the traffic was gridlocked – Manchester Utd having also been at home against Aston Villa.

At about 5.15, the guy next to me nudged me and said: “Hey – look who it is!”

Next to our minibus, headed in the opposite direction, but at a standstill as we were, was a familiar face in his iconic white Jaguar – George Best!

We opened our window and he wound down his:

“Awright, George?”

“Hi lads – where have ye been?”

“Maine Rd….”

“Oh aye – how did Skem get on, then?”

“Lost 3-0 – how about you?”

“We won, 3-1, shame about Skem….”

“Did ye score?”

“Aye – Johnny Aston and Denis got the others….”

Then the traffic moved and our brush with fame was over.

Of course, we were beyond delighted. Best was the biggest star of the day – and we had spoken to him – even better, he had spoken to us. We would be telling our pals all about this at school on Monday, and for some time to come (and some of us would be writing about it over fifty years later!)

I thought of that when the Carragher incident was reported – two cars stopped in traffic, fifty years apart.

We were Southport supporters, and maybe a couple had some liking for Utd, but it would never have occurred to us to be unpleasant to Best, certainly not outside of the heat of a game. Furthermore, he was probably the first of the footballing superstars, so this is not a tale of the olden days with footballers getting the bus to the game. He was a genuine household name, recognised far beyond the world of football, yet we had no trouble being civil to him and he was able to converse with us in return.

Had there been smartphones and social media in those far off days, I’m sure we would have been clicking away and the results would have been on Facebook and Twitter long before we got home.

In a way I prefer that I have a vivid memory of the occasion which is not filtered through photographs, recordings, or instant accounts of the incident. It was a big moment in a big football weekend and I am able to look back on it, a lifetime later, with undiluted pleasure.

It was a time when sport had heroes instead of celebrities, and fans admired them instead of challenging them.

You would have to believe our world was simpler and more gentle then, and it is sometimes hard to identify what we have gained in losing that simplicity.