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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.

 

Conned, well conned

March 6, 2018

Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Jacob Rees Mogg?

Who can we really blame for the Brexit farago?

The answer came to me in one of my occasional political dwams, in a revelation adding fuel to the assertion that tragedy and comedy are close bedfellows.

The real villain behind the piece is none other than James Bond!

The more I though about this, the more sense it made.

If we start by looking at Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator and alter ego.

He was the son of a banker, Eton educated, worked for Naval intelligence, and mostly obtained his later employment through contacts or nepotism, rendering his ability  in any given post more or less irrelevant. He had relationships with the Harmsworths/Rothermeres of Daily Mail notoriety, eventually, after a long affair, marrying Viscount Rothermere’s ex-wife after he divorced her because of that affair. His leading role with Kemsley newspapers came with an annual three month holiday in the winter, which he spent in the West Indies.

Not  surprisingly, Bond was cast in the same mold, and, if we look back at the general attitudes of the novels, a pattern emerges.

Despite the fact that the sun was setting fast on the British Empire for most of Bond’s existence as 007, the subplot was that Britain had world influence and if you wanted a job doing properly, you needed to use a Brit. Bond has a friendly “special relationship” with Felix Leiter of the CIA – but despite the American’s greater resources, generally it’s Bond who helps him out of difficult situations. Foreigners are generally bad guys – often German, increasingly Russian, and finally, and vaguely, with the arrival of SPECTRE, basically “everybody else”.

Bond’s appeal is that he knows how to dress, what to drink and eat, and is perfectly at home in “elite” company. Spending silly money on everything from cars to shirts to suits, shoes and cuff links is seen as admirable, and also a positive image of British affluence.

Though Bond is “On Her Majesty’ Secret Service”, he is plainly out for himself most of the time, and when things go wrong, he is forgiven because he is so charming, witty, and urbane. He gets out of seemingly terminal situations not because of his own ability, but mostly because of gadgets supplied by the much more intelligent “Q”.

Women, foreigners, and anyone he perceives as inferior are basically treated, at best,  with callous indifference. He’s involved in “the Bond Project” but quite happy to dress it up in a Union flag, if that eases his path, or makes it more acceptable to those to whom he is accountable.

Looking at the current UK government, you might be forgiven for recognising quite a few of these traits – though you might feel they are more sanguine about taking risks for other people rather than themselves.

The real point, however, lies in the fact that the Bond books were phenomenally popular, and that popularity increased with the films as the sixties and seventies moved forward.

Their popularity was generally put down to  a certain mix of sex and adventure, and, in the films, the increasing use of special effects and gadgetry.

However, there was an added ingredient which was generally overlooked, or, at least, downplayed.

Bond’s world was a place where Britain still ruled the waves and somehow had the respect and affection of its former imperial subjects; it was seen as a major power and frequently was the bulwark between total war and peace. In a sense, it was as if the war had never stopped: foreigners were still to be kept in their place and, if not downright hostile,  couldn’t really be trusted, there were Communists under every bed, and occasionally in them, and if you had money, power, good looks, and the support of the Establishment (however grudgingly) you could get away with just about anything. A grin, a wink, and a knowing smile were all you needed to get by. If only they’d sent 007 to Suez!

On a personal level, Bond and political correctness were complete strangers – he could say and do what he wanted with complete impunity, especially when it came to the women in his life. He was, in effect, the complete Bullingdon Club member.

The grand gesture, the power of wealth, knowing the right people, and making a show: all became a substitute for hard work and graft and a genuine concern for one’s neighbours, other than in a grand political sense. Bond would have been quite happy with the  phrase: “There is no such thing as society” – he may well have had it embroidered in to his expensive hand made shirts!

And, it’s the fact that this made the books so popular which suggests so many people in Britain believed in his world, or at least desperately wanted to, or needed to, and, apparently, still do. Bond offered the kind of freedom, adventure, influence and excitement to which the vast majority of Britons, nor their state, could never aspire. If he was a vicarious character for them, the world in which he operated was a vicarious universe for them.

It was a world in which it was perfectly acceptable to quote “the war” as the best of times, and to define your country’s strengths and values by the damage it could do to others. It was a world which others were rapidly abandoning, but one to which the UK State seems to have become increasingly and delusionally wedded as time has moved on. My mother frequently spoke about the blackout, the May Blitz, and spending her twenties sleeping in an Anderson shelter – but I never once heard the phrase: ‘the best days of my life’.

Most folk, of course, recognised the books for what they were: entertaining hokum to pass away the time in an airport. For some, though, it brought on a wistfulness for imagined times of international glory, and for other, the elite, it must have seemed a pretty fair reflection of a world they recognised. It was a vainglorious vision of a past that had never properly existed, the few elements that had, being well gone, long before Roger Moore raised his eyebrow. There’s nothing wrong with having a Golden Age – but there is something odd about inventing one and continuing to pretend it exists. The self image of the British State is as out of touch with the reality as the elite who peddle it as a means of retaining their privileges.

Ian Fleming tapped into the escapist wishes of his readers, just as the Brexiteers tapped into the escapist wishes of the voters.

The people whose mindset was that  James Bond’s world was true parallel those who want the post Brexit world to match their similar aspirations.

The name is conned, well conned.

Kindness of Strangers

March 5, 2018

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My football DNA is pretty clear – it is Hibernian green through and through. However, it gets a little frayed around the edges when you examine my history.

My family started supporting Hibs when they arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland in the mid 1890s, my uncle played for them in the late 20s, and he and my dad took me to my first game when I was not yet four, in January 1956.

However, my dad died the following year and later we moved to the north of England. When I was considered old enough to go to a game alone, in November 1963, it was to watch Southport FC in the old Fourth division, and I developed a lifelong passion for live football in the ten years I lived there.

Naturally, when I returned to Edinburgh in 1970, I became an ever present at Hibs’ games, and now, after a lifetime in teaching, I work voluntarily as Hibernian’s Education and Welfare Officer.

But – there was a gap between our arriving in Lancashire in 1958, and my starting to go to Southport games in 1963. It was the time when I was starting to understand football and develop a love for it, it was the time when we were starting to get the odd highlights of games on grainy black and white television – limited to midweek European games.

It was the time when Tottenham Hotspur were quite clearly brilliant.

And I fell in love with that team with an intensity which only comes with first love. So much so, I can rattle off the line up without pause, over fifty year later: Brown, Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, MacKay, Jones, White, Smith, Allen and Dyson.

For me, just recognising football, it was ideal timing: Arthur Rowe had introduced a beguiling style of “push and run” football which was easy on the eye and highly effective; Bill Nicholson – who could have been modelled on any of the war heroes we were still reading about in our comics – had modified the style and was getting together a team who could fully apply its fluency; and there was a mixture of players to satisfy every footballing need. I loved the athleticism of Bill Brown in goal, the reliability of full backs Baker and Henry, Blanchflower’s intelligent probing play and leadership, the uncompromising centre half play of Maurice Norman, and the no nonsense linking play of Dave MacKay. The wing positions were perfectly balanced with the speed of Jones and the brave trickery of Terry Dyson, Allen poached goals, Bobby Smith could have invented the word ‘rumbustious’ at centre forward, and my first proper footballing hero, John White – born a few miles from my home in Edinburgh – could ghost into positions, pinpoint passes, and score goals out of nothing. I’ve no idea how you could play against that team – goals and inventiveness could come from anywhere, and when they were on a roll they were unstoppable.

The magic was enhanced by the film noir productions every few weeks on television, darting figures in all white strips playing against black uniformed teams like Gornik of Poland, snow on the ground, the harsh glare of the floodlights. How many guys of my generation remember being allowed up late, hunched in dressing gowns on the sofa, avoiding parental eyes in fear of the “time for bed” nod? And weren’t that Spurs side just worth it?

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There’s no love like first love they say, and though, naturally, my weekly attendance at Southport and my return to the Hibernian Family inevitably brought a stronger sense of reality to my football supporting, I’ve never quite managed to shake off that Tottenham team of the early sixties: that team provides the default image for every position; their style provides a comparative starting point for every team I watch. Those players hover over my times at football, like benevolent uncles, sharing my joys and woes, they never fade. Each July 21st I make the short trip to Musselburgh and walk from John White’s childhood home  down to the park at the bottom of the street where he first kicked a ball, and I think of  him – and his Tottenham team mates – who fired a young boy’s enthusiasm for football.

And because football – even now – is about people rather than simply trophies and glory and high finance, I share this tale of what made Tottenham so extra special to me.

In August 1965, off on holiday with my mother, we had a stopover of three days in London – to see the sights and take in a show. What would I like to see, she asked me. No hesitation: “White Hart Lane!” Bless her, she agreed.

So, after a brief flirtation with Tottenham Court Rd, we eventually  arrived at a bus stop on the High Rd. My mother thought it an unlikely place for a football ground – but I had studied all the pictures in my copies of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. There was the pub – the White Hart, there was the actual lane!

I think I probably ran through the gates and towards the huge main stand “Tottenham Hotspur Football Club” in large letters. I’d made it to White Hart Lane!

Then, of course, reality invaded the dream moment. It was early August – even if Spurs were back in training, it would have been out at their Cheshunt Training Ground. The place was locked up and deserted. I tried to put a brave face on it, but my mother would have sensed my disappointment.

We returned to the High Rd. There was a row of shops there, among them a newsagent and a greengrocer, if my memory serves, and my mother headed into the paper shop, explained we’d come from the north of England, and asked if there was any way of seeing the Spurs ground. The shopkeeper was not a football fan but thought it would be difficult at that time of year. As we left the shop, he came running out after us and called to a guy passing by: “Hey – Harry – this lad’s from the north and he wants to see the Spurs ground, you’ve got a connection, ain’t you?.”

I must admit, as a 13 year old, I was getting a bit embarrassed by now, and would have let it go, but the man stopped, and said he’d see what he could do, telling us to wait while he had a think. He disappeared down the lane, I dared to get my hopes up. They didn’t exactly say: “Wotcher, mate!” but to my Scottish/north of England ear, the shopkeeper and Harry both sounded like proper Londoners.

Harry returned and told us to come with him. We walked down the lane, across the car park and along the front of the stand. There was a small door in the vast frontage – Harry knocked, it opened, and a voice said: “In ye come – you can show him round, Harry.”

It turned out this was a watchman and Harry knew him, so he’d checked it would be ok. I must have just about been hyperventilating by this stage. It’s worth remembering that “stadium tours” did not exist in those days; indeed, preserving the mystique of “behind the scenes”, was a bit of a priority for clubs at the time, and very few people would get to view the inner sanctum. I’d hoped to get into the stands to see the pitch – now I was heading for the dressing rooms – Spurs’ dressing room! The corridors were dark, there were white painted brick walls and navy blue trimmings. The dressing room was dark wood, frosted windows and navy blue cushions or coverings on the benches round the walls. There was a big bath and some individual baths. This was where the team got ready!

You can imagine the effect on a 13 year old boy. I was ecstatic and a little overwhelmed – trying to take it all in, wanting to remember it, but just awed that I was actually there.

We passed the tunnel and then climbed some stairs and emerged in what must have been the Directors’ Box. There below was the pitch! All those black and white nights – Gornik, Slovan Bratislava, Dukla Prague, Feyenoord. There it was below me. Truly magic!

A voice from below broke into my dreams: “It’s alright, mate, “ shouted Harry, “they’re with me.”

After one last look at White Hart Lane – THE White Hart Lane – we headed back down and out of the stand through that same small door.

Back on the High Road, Harry prepared to say his goodbyes – but 13 year olds have no self awareness, and I was muttering to my mother. She took the hint and relayed my wishes to Harry: “He was a big fan of John White – is there any way he could get his autograph?”

Talk about not quitting when you’re ahead!

Harry scratched his head but looked less perplexed than you might expect – given my hero  had died more than a year before. He agreed to ask around and we exchanged addresses. It was a wonderful demonstration of the kindness of strangers. I didn’t really expect anything to come of my request, but was hugely grateful for his generosity in making a dream come true for a small Scots lad he’d never met before.

The next day – obviously on a roll, we went out to see Wembley Stadium. A knock on the door and a well rehearsed tale about our trip from the North seemed to do the trick and before I knew it I was in the Wembley dressing rooms and walking down the famous tunnel. In the modern day world of marketing and commercialism, the idea of walking up to stadium like Wembley and “getting a wee look” seems impossible to accept – and I have to say, on my return to school, when I reported that I’d been in the dressing rooms at White Hart Lane and Wembley, there were more than a few sceptical looks.

I hadn’t expected to hear from Harry  again, but, in mid September, a large packet arrived for me with a return address of 19 Chalgrove Rd, N17. Inside were programmes and a number of A 4 sized –photographs, of the kind displayed outside newspaper offices in those days – all had been signed by the players in the picture, including a number by Jimmy Greaves.  “Up the Spurs! Harry Vickery.”

What a lovely gesture, and one which has stayed with me through the years. As I had his address I was able to write and thank him, and I  sent him a Christmas Card for a good few years.

Whenever I see Spurs on the television I remember those days and I hope they have retained at least some of that north London community feel in these highly corporate times – because, ultimately, that says far more about a club than winning trophies. Harry’s home was a ten minute walk from the ground – which is how the shopkeeper knew him and how he knew the watchman. Clubs need to be rooted in communities in that way – which is one reason I am pleased that the new Spurs ground will be within the footprint of the other one.

I hope Harry’s kids and grandkids are Spurs fans and I would love them to know of Harry’s kindness – which I forever will link with those Glory Glory days.

In the early sixties, there were no substitutes – only eleven men in a team, but when I start off on that familiar list of “Brown, Baker, Henry……”  I always recall twelve names; I always include Harry Vickery!