I read two pieces on Gaelic football this week – one by Darragh Ó Sé in the Irish Times; the other by Cahair O’Kane in the Irish News.
The basis of the Kerry man’s column was that Dublin were successful, and deserved to be, not because of a superior sense of entitlement as the biggest and richest county, but, conversely, because they have the humility to realise what they have to do to win, and the dedication to do it.
To those of us who support counties with records far below that of Dublin, it was a hard point to accept. It’s always easier to dismiss high flying sports teams rather than compliment them on their successes. However, Ó Sé’s advocacy was as rumbustious as his performances on the field for the Kingdom, and, in truth, just as hard to resist.
In essence, he was saying: “stop grumbling and get out there and do what ye have to do to win”. It could have been Paudí speaking.
O’Kane, on the other hand, writing in the aftermath of nine players withdrawing from the Derry panel for next season, took an entirely different, but sadly familiar, tack.
To him, it’s all rather pointless, when, realistically, more than twenty counties will never win anything – either at provincial or national level. He, rightly, pointed out the commitment needed from amateur players in what has become a game with a professional approach: three, four or more nights a week training, the travel, the emotional and physical toll inter county, and even club, football can take on a player’s life.
Even if you belong to a traditional “GAA Family”, who will at least understand your passion for the game, you could almost write off your adolescence and your twenties in terms of a regular social life or the building of relationships outside of the game.
Does he have a point? – Well, yes – if you believe the GAA is only about winning.
However, everything I know about the game suggest otherwise.
My home county of Leitrim is barely on distant terms with Sam Maguire – he may have stopped off a few times on his way to Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh or Mayo, but he would hardy be classed as a familiar presence around Lough Allan. Indeed, even his wee cousin, the JJ Nestor Cup, awarded to the Connacht Champions, has only visited twice – in 1927 and 1994.
But, there is more to be said.
I referred to my “home county” of Leitrim. The reality is that my grandfather left the county in the late 19th century – yet the connection remains, and in some ways, is most powerfully represented when I see the green and gold shirts of Leitrim in action – whether in Pairc Sean at Carrick, Ruilsip in London, or in Gaelic Park in New York.
There are a range of moments which demonstrate the power of the GAA and its impact on people – far beyond winning performances.
I remember meeting Colm Clarke of Drumkeerin GAA after Mass, one Sunday morning in 2009. His family had once farmed the land my family had farmed all those years ago. When he scored an opening goal for Leitrim that afternoon against near neighbours, Roscommon, in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada, the feeling was almost indescribable: a connection you would never get in elite professional sports.
Then, in New York to see Leitrim play at Gaelic Park in 2013, there was the unbelievable sight of St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue packed out with Leitrim tops at Mass, and after the game at Gaelic Park, a stranger seeing our jerseys on 8th Avenue and stopping us to ask “How did the lads do today?”
Last week, I felt tears at the picture I was sent of a used GAA goalkeeper’s jersey. It was from our Edinburgh GAA club, Dunedin Connolly’s, and my son had worn it as a substitute towards the end of the team’s county final. Over a century after the family left Leitrim, there, again, is the connection – and how proud am I of Patrick, in his late twenties, taking up Gaelic Football, and so enjoying the craic and banter of his new club mates who are from all parts of Ireland.
There’s that connection again.
As I write this, flags are being flown, boots cleaned, kit and gear being prepared by the players and folk of Drumkeerin, our homeplace, – and by supporters all round the world – as they look forward to Sunday’s Intermediate County Final against Ballinamore/Seán O’Heslin’s. Quite simply, the town will be there to support the Pride of the Parish, and that includes those of us who are far away.
It’s easy to be sentimental about the GAA, and to ignore its many failings, but there’s nothing soft or easy about training in car headlights on a wind and rainswept field in the darkness of early Autumn or late winter, or in carrying the hopes of a community when you put on the geansaí. The GAA is often the mainstay of village or town life – when politics and media may seem distant and irrelevant to the folk who live in the remote west or north of the country, the shouts coming from the field will remind them of what is important – neighbours, mutual support, pride in where you come from. It’s about love of your homeplace – whether its outside the door or at the end of a plane trip.
One last scene may explain the importance of the GAA more clearly than another thousand words.
I live in a western suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Capital. It is a predictable mix of neat bungalows and well tended lawns, the epitome of city life in modern Scotland. A couple of weeks ago, just before the All Ireland Senior Football Final, I passed a house in the street next to ours that had a flag flying. It was a Mayo flag. It flew right through the time between the Final and the Replay. Far from the waves on Achill, or the streets of Westport or Castlebar, a Mayoman, or woman, was flying the flag for the county – in this most unlikely of settings.
On the Saturday night after the replay, I passed the house again, the flag was still there, a little limp after the result, perhaps, but the whole front of the house was lit up in red and green. And I’m sure you would have found the same thing on every continent.
That’s the point of GAA football, that’s why the players do it, make the sacrifices, accept the likelihood of finishing with little glory and no medals. They do it for their families, neighbours, friends and the parish. They do it because they care about where they come from. They do it for all of us who cannot.
Come Sunday, I’ll be wearing every bit of Drumkeerin gear I can find; I’ll be glued to the updates and willing success to Kevie Forde, Colm Clarke, Jason and Patrick Byrne and all the lads. If they win I’ll be proud of all of them. If they lose I’ll be proud of all of them – because they ARE Drumkeerin.
Winning is important – but it’s far from everything.
Three songs made me cry when, eventually, and after many years, I first heard them performed live – “Sounds of Silence” sung by Paul Simon, “God only knows” from Brian Wilson, and “Wichita Lineman” performed by Glen Campbell on his farewell tour
All three songs had been part of my life for forty years or more, but none of them had a special association for me, other than teenage memories. The tears were a reaction produced by the “perfectness” of the songs – the words, notes, production and the atmosphere they created.
They were like an automatic release of emotion in some recognition of the role that music can play in our lives. When it feels “right” it can almost take control of us.
This week, another song had the same effect, but for different reasons.
From “Wichita Lineman” onwards, the songs of Jimmy Webb have always affected me. There’s something about his lyrics, his arrangements, his subject matter, which seems, almost literally, to strike a chord. Just as Karen Carpenter’s voice and the arrangements of their songs made the Carpenters’ music attractive to folk who would normally eschew anything remotely middle of the road, so the combination of Webb’s words, music, and production has long delivered songs to be wondered at and admired – irrespective of one’s other musical tastes.
So I took the chance to go and see Jimmy Webb In concert at Dunfermline’s Carnegie Hall this week – a conscious decision to see him at a compact venue rather than in the bigger Glasgow Royal Music Hall later on in the week.
His current tour is based on the songs he wrote for Glen Campbell – a kind of tribute to the star who is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. As such, we knew the songs would be familiar, and the anecdotes fascinating.
He came out, sat at the piano, and played “Galveston”. He played it in the originally conceived mournful style, rather than the more martial production familiar from Campbell’s hit single.
And the tears came.
When I was 17, my pal, Peter, from Dublin, had a battery powered record player. During our holidays in Kilkee, Co Clare, we would take the machine and a few “singles records” out to the west of the town, to an area below the cliffs, called the Diamond Rocks. It was a magical, ageless place with slabs of rock weathered through millennia by sea and wind, the Atlantic waves rolling out ahead, and a puffing hole spraying irregular surprises. You could not be there and not appreciate the grace, beauty and power of Nature.
In those far off days, long before the MP3 era of portable music, the song we played over and over again was “Galveston”. And why wouldn’t we – in that setting “Standing by the water, standing there looking out to sea”, hearing the “sea waves crashing”? It was, I suppose, a typically 60s teenage response to beauty.
The song fitted the scene before us perfectly. “You could make a film here”, I said, still ignorant of the fact that, only months before, David Lean’s Second Unit Director, Roy Stevens, had shot scenes here for the famous storm in “Ryan’s Daughter”.
Nor did I know that the previous year, in a predictably wild interlude between recording “A Tramp Shining” containing Webb’s “McArthur Park”, and the follow up album collaboration “The Yard went on forever”, Richard Harris had brought Jimmy Webb here, in his favourite holiday spot, and referred to the “Galveston” lyrics.
What were the chances of that?
At the time the song’s civil war or Viet Nam connotations were vague to us. It was a good song and fitted a favourite spot. We played it all the time that summer.
So I had started this week in a state of high anticipation: seeing Jimmy Webb, at last after all these years, would be a huge tick on the bucket list.
Then, on Monday, came the news that an Irish Coastguard volunteer, Caitríona Lucas, had drowned near the Diamond Rocks, while involved in a search and recovery mission
It has been a heartbreaking event for people in Kilkee, and in Liscannor nearby where Caitríona and her family lived. Her husband was also a Coastguard volunteer, and she worked in local libraries. She was well known, loved and admired.
And so, when Jimmy Webb played the opening, mournful chords of “Galveston “, I was, as always, transported to the Diamond Rocks, to that place of terrible beauty forged out of the unfeeling power of the sea. The impact of that song, and those emotions, in this week of all weeks, was quite overwhelming, the coincidence sharply felt. That my first time seeing Jimmy Webb should happen in the week when my associations with one of his songs took on such sadness was hard to believe.
And I thought of Caitríona, her friends and family, and all who were devastated by Monday’s events, and of David McMahon, for whom they had been searching, and as the tears came, I recognised that “Galveston” will forever now mean something different to me.
As will the Diamond Rocks.
And I hope the soaring notes, the beauty of the music, and the memories they bring me will help to celebrate the life of giving which Caitríona practised, and will, somehow, exhalt the human spirit she possessed in such amazing and compassionate quantities.
The magnificence of music can link together for me a country boy from Arkansas, a songwriter of genius from Oklahoma, and a wonderful woman from Liscannor, Co Clare.
And as the notes rise and thrill, I know they carry her spirit over the cliffs and ocean that she loved, and I pray her loved ones find solace in her inspiration, which, like the music, will last forever.
I first visited the seaside resort of Kilkee, Co Clare, one August, exactly fifty years ago.
The town and its people claimed my heart in a way that I still find hard to describe, and it has been part of my existence ever since, accompanying me on my journey from teenager through middle age to the present. I’ve probably written more about Kilkee than any other topic, and I continue to do so.
Maybe everybody has an affection for the holiday places of their childhood, but, from my own experiences, and reading the internet, Kilkee seems to exercise a firmer grip on the emotions than most places. Maybe it’s the beauty of its surroundings, its horseshoe bay, its cliffs and walks, its remaining Victorian splendour, or the ever present power and beauty of the sea upon which it depends for its existence.
I recently published a memoir of my times in the town in the 1960s, partially in an attempt to demystify its attraction – or at least to better understand it, and the answer I came up with – apart from personal memories – was the combination of its people and the sea – which shapes so much of its personality as a place of welcome, calm in the midst of such maritime majesty; a place where gentle waves can leave ripples in the sand, while, outside the reef, at the entrance to the Bay, the wild ocean gouges caves out of rocky cliffs, and belittles human endeavour in its eternal ebb and flow.
The year before, I published a novel, based in a fictionalised version of the town and extrapolating from a drowning in the bay which I had witnessed back in the early 1970s. It always seemed to me that the town and marine tragedy were inevitably linked – for all the decades of happiness the place gave to generations of holiday making families. The first place I hunted for sea life on my first morning in the town turned out to be called Edmond Point, in commemoration of a fatal shipwreck there in the 19th Century. Further on, out along the much loved walk to the Diamond Rocks and Lookout Hill, was Intrinsic Bay – with waters foaming at the bottom of sheer cliffs where another ship had been lost over a hundred years ago.
Yesterday, news sources showed lines of people on top of the cliffs by Intrinsic Bay, a familiar red and white rescue helicopter – 115 from Shannon – hovered overhead. In attempting to recover a fatality from an earlier disaster, a man who was a teacher from the inland village of Lissycasey, volunteer coastguard units from Kilkee and Doolin had been sweeping the area beneath the cliffs in RIBs. One of the inflatables had been overturned as it started to head back to base; there had been two injured and a fatality. Caitriona Lucas, from Liscannor, up the coast, a mother of two, whose partner was also a volunteer coastguard, had lost her life in the service of others, the first Irish Coastguard member to die on duty. When not serving the public as a coastguard volunteer, she served them as an assistant in various branches of the Clare County Library.
The sea around KIlkee had reminded us, as it all too frequently does, that its beauty is forged at a human cost.
My reaction came in a familiarly ordered sequence. “Disaster off Irish Coast” morphed to “disaster off west coast” and finally, through my mounting apprehension, to “disaster at Kilkee”. Knowing the spot, knowing the folk who live there, having watched as the local community fought to set up their own volunteer Rescue Centre, the awful news hit home hard. I don’t know many folk in Kilkee these days, but I knew many of their parents or grandparents, and, more than that, I know and feel for the community. It’s not too strong to suggest it is a community I love.
Later on the News came Manuel Di Lucia – a familiar figure throughout all of my connection to Kilkee, a man who, perhaps more than anyone, knows the seas around Kilkee, and has spent a lifetime promoting diving, boating, fishing and, above all, rescue facilities in the town. Although the public had no details yet, it was clear that he knew those involved in the disaster. He was visibly upset, but, as I had first witnessed all the years ago in the seventies, he exhibited the calm determination of local people to deal with what the sea had thrown at them, and get on with the business of supporting each other and seeking to learn from the latest calamity. That’s what they do in Kilkee – whether the sea sends them fish, seafood, storms, tourism, or death – they stoically continue their coexistence with their marvellous, awe inspiring, cruel and beautiful neighbour. They support each other and they live their lives circumscribed by a sea they can neither control nor fully understand, but for which they have respect and a kind of fierce love.
When I came to publish my memoir on Kilkee, it was the folk at Clare County Libraries, where Caitriona worked, who supportively gave permission for me to use an old Hinde postcard as the book’s front cover – a typically technicoloured beach scene from the mid sixties, with families on the strand and a flat sea lapping at seaweed and rocks. It’s a perfect cover for happy memories – but, looking at it today, I can see it only reflects one part of Kilkee’s story.
I never knew Caitriona, her family or friends, but it is easy to mourn for her sacrifice, for the loving and giving person she most obviously was, for the gaping hole left in her family and community, and amongst her brave coastguard colleagues.
But my deeper, and perhaps more legitimate, grief is for Kilkee, its people, and their knowledge that tragedy has visited paradise once again. I wish them continuing strength, that strength they have always shown, in accepting that the sea’s beauty brings the sea’s sadness.
So many folk around the world will be grieving for them and with them today.
I hope they can feel that love.
Sam Martinez arrived in Scotland in 1945 – having been born in British Honduras (which is now Belize) He hoped to contribute to the war effort by getting a job as a tree feller.
This proved more difficult than he had thought and he spent a long time jobless. He would fill in his time walking around Edinburgh, getting to know his new home city.
One evening, he walked past a long queue of people down in Leith and wondered what was happening. He was a sociable man and felt keenly the loneliness of the immigrant, so, although a black man might never be sure of his welcome in those days, he was eager to stop and ask what was happening.
He was told:
“It’s a football match – the Hibs.”
“What colours do they play in?”
“Green and white.”
“My favourite colours.”
“Why don’t you join us and watch the match?”
“I have no money…”
One of the fans gave him a ticket and he got to go in and sit in the main stand behind the dug out and watch the Famous Five. The group who had invited him in chatted to him about his own country and his plans – and agreed to meet him again at the next home game.
He became a lifelong Hibs supporter – and never forgot the welcome he got as a lonely man in a foreign country. “Hibs brought me friends and a sense of belonging, ” he said. “They have always been special to me, it’s family,”
He had attended 11 Finals but never seen them win the Scottish Cup.
Mind you, as was pointed out on social media today, he had seen Hibs win the League – and the League Cup, three times each; seen the club reach the European Cup semi final, and watched as they beat Barcelona and Real Madrid. He had also followed the team through the days of the Famous Five.
In May this year, when he was aged 106 – Hibs oldest fan – the club and his carer took him through to Hampden for the Scottish Cup Final – and we all know what happened.
A few weeks later, at Easter Rd, he got to hold the Scottish Cup.
If for no other reason than that I’m so pleased Hibs won the Cup – and rewarded Sam for 75 years of support.
We invest far too much emotion in football in Scotland and it perhaps inhabits spaces which could be better filled.
At its best, football can bring us together, bring solace to the sorrowful and a sense of purpose to the feckless. It can give meaning to emptiness and roots to the wanderer.
So, as I give thanks tonight for Sam’s long and remarkable life, and as I rejoice in the fact that he saw the Hibs lift the Scottish Cup, I’m inspired to focus on the positives of Scottish football
I remark on the manner in which it runs threads through families, sparks memories between relations – whether they are supporters or not – the bunnet granddad always wore to the match, the dinners ruined after an unexpected cup win was relived in the pub, the first match for ‘the boy’, the companionship between brothers and fathers and sons, and sisters and mothers – on frosty, freezing terraces – when the cold caught your throat when you tried to cheer, and the clack of the rattles was sharp in thin and icy air.
The players loved, and the goals remembered, the favourite spot and the chosen half time drink, sweet tea, pipe and cigarette smoke, stamping your feet to keep warm, match day routines, and the thrill of the lights in the sky on a midweek night; the banter, the hope, the disappointment, and the occasional glory. The sheer joy of being there – part of it all, thousands focusing on that green oblong, willing the distant figures to be in the right place at the right time; the reflection after 90 minutes, rationalising your irrational love for the team, always talking of “we” not “they”, the hours shared and the memories created.
Sam understood that; he understood football is not a matter of life and death, that it has to have its place, and not become a raison d’etre, an excuse for emotional absence, or a vainglorious substitute for real empathy and social responsibility.
But he also recognised its humanity, its capacity for joining people together, building bonds between very different folk, and celebrating a craft and artistry which is so tangential to the important things of life that it brings us the pure inconsequential joy of the truly unimportant.
Football gives us a direct route back to the simplicity of childhood, the happiness of instant excitement, a dim recollection of Christmas Eves from long ago – when we just knew that something magical could happen.
The best way to celebrate Sam’s life would be to keep hold of that perspective, to stop pretending to “hate” the “enemy” to show how deep is our love for our own team; to rid the game of men-children posturing and offering violence as proof of their “superiority”.
To remember that we have far more in common with the guy who goes to football each week like we do – no matter who he supports – than we have with those who are not interested in the game, or who watch from their couches.
As a Hibee, I believe I show my support by being big enough to acknowledge the respect the Hearts fans have for their heroes at Contalmaison, or Rangers supporters’ pride in the Ulster Division, that many Celtic fans have an attachment to Ireland, or the campaigns mounted by fans of Motherwell, Airdrie or Livingston to ensure their club survives. Whether they’re Jambos, Teddy Bears, Bhoys or Dons – I hope I’m big enough to respect them, regardless of whether I agree with them; I hope I can understand that, like me, they get excited by 11 men in their chosen colours seeking to gain a victory.
It’s only football – but it’s glorious in its lack of real importance. So glorious, it doesn’t need to stand for something else – a tribe, an aspiration, or a symbol of superiority – we should enjoy it for what it is.
It’s an intriguing, exciting and engaging sport – which 75 years ago inspired a group of Leithers to welcome a foreigner into their spiritual home and gave him a lifetime of memories, comradeship, and belonging.
If you’re going to the game this Saturday, give a thought to Sam Martinez – one of football’s heroes, whose strength was in his gentleness.
RIP Sam – you’ll be having a great time telling Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly and co how you saw the Hibs bring the Cup home to Leith – and they didnae.
I know I have a few followers on here who watch my Blog because of its KILKEE content, so I thought I would announce on here, as well as elsewhere on social media, that today sees the publication of my memoir of Kilkee holidays in the 60s – “Sitting on the Wall”.
Today is the 50th anniversary, to the day, of the first time I set eyes on Kilkee, so it seems like a good time to launch the book, which is very much a personal memoir, detailing how I fell in love with the town and talking about some of the many characters I met there.
I wanted to write it partly to acknowledge folk in Kilkee where I’ve had so many happy times, but also because, having searched the net, it seemed there was little written about what it was like to have a seaside holiday in the west coast of Ireland in the mid twentieth century – and the only mention of those times in Kilkee I could find where in Homan Potterton’s memoir “Rathcormick” which refers to Kilkee holidays in the fifties.
It seemed to me if I wrote this book then future social historians would at least have one eye witness account of what those days were like. So, if “Sitting on the Wall” ends up as a researchers’ resource in the Clare County Library, I will be perfectly happy.
It felt like a responsibility to write the memoir as I wanted to do justice to the town and its people – I hope I have done.
Maybe – when clouds are grey and the rain hits the windows in far off places, people who love Kilkee will be able to read a few pages of this – and remember better days!
I’m sitting on a chair on a sloping area; it’s a grassy mound now – at one time it was terraced tarmac.
Behind me is the scorebox, still the same outward shape, but electrified since my time. There were two things you had to remember here in the 1960s when you had ambitions of being a scorer: the screws on the right hand winding mechanism were loose, so the handles were very difficult to turn, and, whatever you did, you should never put up 13 for A.D. Bunting – leave it at 12 and then move on to 14 – otherwise, if he was out, he was liable to come charging round the boundary to remonstrate.
You had to climb a rickety ladder to the number winding area; below you was the scorer’s seat in front of the big open windows, at a sloping wooden desk the style of which would have been familiar to Bob Cratchit.
Eventually I made it to scorer for the Sunday X1, fascinated by the dots, the crosses, and the responsibility, and the chance to be part of it all, not to mention the two shillings and the free tea.
It’s a great view from here at third man, especially since I’ve graduated from sitting on the grass at the boundary, to a spot half way up the slope. I’m surrounded by (mostly) men of a certain age, in a selection of sports and casual wear, with rucksacks and holdalls, battered by years of use, containing receptacles for sandwiches, cans of beer, cameras, spectacles, sunglasses, floppy hats, outmoded transistor radios, mobile phones, and notes from their better halves imploring them: “Don’t forget to….”
The talk is easy and desultory – about cricket, politics, family life and the old days. Like me, most of these guys sat next to these same folk fifty years ago at school. A contented air floats over the rows of seats.
The field looks great – lush from a rainy summer, and for all their modern, polyestered, numbered styles, the whites of the players against the green of the surface is restful on the eye.
I love this place.
From here I can watch my childhood.
The pavilion on the far side is long and low: I was at its opening in 1965, a young boy, hovering at the edge of the membership, as I did for most of my time here, impressed by the bar, the snooker room, the committee room, and the changing rooms. The old pavilion had been wooden and 19th century, but this was a modern marvel. I would eventually change in those dressing rooms and sit on the balcony, seeking nonchalance before going out to bat – but I’d never look as relaxed as the many Test stars who would eventually change there, not when I think of Rohan Kanhai fast asleep before going out to face Statham, Lever and Higgs.
Just to the right is where, at my first ever cricket match, Geoff Pullar smilingly signed his autograph and set me off on a lifetime of devotion to the game. In the bar was the spot where I approached Ted Dexter for an autograph, only to be shooed away by the Club Chairman, and recalled by Lord Ted, who signed happily. And there’s the beer taps where they poured pints of the best cold shandy after net practice – never bettered anywhere.
Away to the right is what used to be the Ladies Pavilion – with big hats and mysterious cocktails, and then the indoor cricket school which used to be the tea room. I was pulled up by the local police one Friday night when running to winter nets in the snow. When I told them I was “going to play cricket” they nearly arrested me.
The tea room, and the groundsman’s hut behind, were the site of my cricket education.
As an eleven year old I met the groundsman, Peter Dury. He was a lovely man, and patiently put up with a few of us haunting the ground every day in the school holidays, winter and summer, following him around, and asking questions. We got to “assist” him, carrying around his apparatus; we got rides on the heavy roller and helped him mow the square. We got to know Brian Robertson, his assistant, as well. At 11 o’clock we would all go and have a cup of tea with Peter in the tearoom kitchen, and, sitting round the old battered table, he’d share his sandwiches and cricket knowledge, and, without realising it, we would all be drawn into that hinterland of knowledge and tradition which makes cricket such a wonderful game.
Sometimes we played French cricket, with local rules, on the concrete hardstanding in front of his hut: if the ball went into the shed – with its wonderful aroma of grass cuttings, creosote and diesel – it was out, as was a hit into the upturned seat of the motor mower.
Peter had been on the books at Notts CCC and often played on Sundays. He got a century against Jabisco (Jacobs Biscuits Factory team) one week, and we cheered ourselves silly when he came out between innings to brush the wicket!
Great success came his way – as head of Playing Fields at Nottingham, and as an advisor for many football clubs and the ECB. Though devoted to his grass pitches, he was also instrumental in the development of Astroturf to performance level. He was a good guy who reached the top of his profession.
He had integrity, expertise, and knowledge – but most importantly for we youngsters, his love of cricket set us up for a life of engagement and enjoyment of the summer game. He was a kindly and wise, an inspirational figure in his own way, with no side to him, and a willingness to withstand our childish inquisitiveness and persistence.
Nowadays, of course, health and safety and child protection regulations would make such an introduction to the game well nigh impossible. I’m just glad I was lucky enough to spend time with him and develop an understanding of the game and a lifelong respect for groundsmen. I owe him that love of cricket
So, last weekend, sitting on that slope, at Southport and Birkdale CC, with my childhood memories before me, my school pals next to me, and Lancashire playing Durham out on the ground, I was in cricket paradise, remembering 1962, and thinking of Peter Dury.
Twenty years ago, we were on holiday at a campsite in French Catalonia, a few miles east of Perpignan. Our son was 8 years old, and the site was to become our summer “home from home” for most of his childhood.
The site was well run, family friendly, and in an attractive situation near the beach. However, its major attraction was that it was multinational. We used to leave as soon as the school holidays started and were usually there by the end of June. That meant we shared the site with the French, Germans, Irish, Dutch, Danes and Belgians.
Despite the relaxed nature of the place, there was a kind of routine to the day – especially once folk left the swimming pool around 4pm.
You were liable to be invited to join others for an aperitif between 5 and 6pm. This involved much attempted deployment of language skills, and a bewildering and intoxicating, selection of drinks. We would take whisky, the French pastis or kir, the Germans Schnapps, and so on. They could prove a heady mix after a day in the sun!
In the hour before that, the dads, boys, and a few girls, got into the habit of congregating in a large field at the edge of the site to play football. In later years, the camp site built a more than respectable five a side pitch with Astroturf, but I always thought these games with unlimited numbers on each side, children and dads pitched against each other, on the long grass of the meadow, were somehow perfect.
Sometimes we managed to chat, pidgin-wise, as few of us were fluent; mostly, the international language of football took over. As I drove down through France, I always looked forward to these games and to the friends from around Europe whom we would meet each year.
This particular year, on the second evening of our stay, the game was especially enjoyable. A cooling breeze was sneaking down from the Pyrenees, the grass was not long cut and still gave off that amazing summer smell. The aroma of cooking floated over from the tents and mobile homes, the sky was steely blue, butterflies sought to avoid our trampling feet, there was birdsong in the surrounding trees, and swifts swooping overhead.
Of course, for a dad, there’s nothing quite like playing football with your son, or daughter, and there were many happy faces around me. I took my turn in goal and looked about to take in the scene. It was the kind of game where you really want to win, but the pure joy comes from just being part of it. Dads slid into ill advised tackles, six year olds nutmegged fifteen year olds, ten year old girls played with a determination to better their brothers.
The sounds were of laughter, cheerful and urgent shouting, and in a mix of languages.
I suddenly realised the date – it was July 1st.
Eighty years before, on this day, had been the start of the Battle of the Somme. By this time in the afternoon, over 20,000 lay dead – and they came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, from Germany, Canada and many other countries, many of them were no more than ten years older than the children playing here, and the others were Dads or brothers, like the rest of our gang, or had left behind sisters, like our determined female footballers.
The thought was like a splash of cold water on my hot cheeks. It was hard to think of such carnage in such a beautiful setting, but then, before the Great War, the Somme had been simply a river meandering through bucolic countryside for most of its length.
There was a shiver, as if a cloud had passed over the sun, even though the sky was perfectly blue – but then I was alerted to an attack, and had to look sharp to save a goal. When my son said, “Well saved, Dad,” it felt, somehow, extra special.
I looked at our German friends – Berndt and Nico, at Alain and his boys Sylvain and Romain, from near Rouen, at the shy Belgians who had arrived that day, at the Danish family, and the two skilful Dutch boys, and I felt an immense relief that my birthdate meant we were playing football together, enjoying each others’ company, exchanging drinks and half strangling our languages, rather than facing each other across No Man’s Land.
It was the lottery of chronology.
I don’t know if anyone else paused to reflect on the date, and it didn’t seem right to mention it, but I did feel an extra joy in our session later, as we sat around, exhausted, with our aperitifs, and tried to tell our wives how brilliant we had been.
It felt so good to be part of this gathering – where our different nationalities were a cause for interest, an exchange of ideas, some new empathies. I couldn’t help reflect on how lucky I was, how lucky we all were, to live in times of neighbourliness, cooperation, and mutual respect and understanding.
Of course we were different, and had varying attitudes, but, in a sense, at national and individual level, that made for a more interesting and rewarding friendship, a chance, in the relaxation of holiday time, to look behind the stereotypes, to put names to faces, give voices to strangers.
On that July day in Argeles sur Mer, it felt like our diversity was our strength, our countries were our admission to this international gathering, the future saved from the foolishness of aggression and war.
In the cool of the evening, it seemed unthinkable we would ever return to the politics of envy and greed, to be faced with unscrupulous politicians quite prepared to lie openly in pursuit of their ambitions, and to a society where people were abused in the street because they appeared in some way “different”. Looking around my European friends, I took comfort from the fact that, rationally, we had learned from two wars, and we were moving forward as a continent, together and as partners.
I have also been to the Somme.
It is peaceful now, at least in appearance. In many areas, farmers’ barns replace pill boxes and redoubts. There are rebuilt villages, and small towns, with half familiar trading estates on their approaches – all corrugated plastic and high visibility signage. In places, new autoroutes make their unnatural way across the landscape.
But I’ve also stood in the fields around Gommecourt, where, on July 1st 1916, practically the whole strength of the London Rifle Brigade was wiped out before noon – in what they would never know was merely a “diversionary” attack. Two weeks later, my uncle would arrive in France, and be transferred into the Brigade, with large numbers of his Post Office Rifles colleagues – because there were hardly any left from the original battalion.
I have driven the long straight country roads through flat fields, where the dark shadows of the trenches can still be seen through the crops if you know where to look, and where it seems that milestones are replaced by the stark white tablets in row upon row in military cemeteries.
In the evenings, you will hear birdsong – though, in the distance it may be confused with the reversing beeps of a small town refuse lorry. You may breathe in the scent of the cooling air in the sun setting over the earth – though it will never quite overwhelm the smell of fear from thousands of young men – whose grandchildren would never exist to share the desks in your classroom.
And, when your emotions get the better of you, that thumping in your heart, as you well up at the thought of all those life stories lost, will never quite manage to drown out the thunder of the great guns as they hurled youth into oblivion from distant ridges.
At the foot of each concrete telephone pole are small piles of metal – these are the Great War shells, still uncovered in the fields by farmers on a daily basis, and left here for collection. The army comes around each morning to take them away to be detonated.
A young soldier says, in perfect English:
“You think this war ended in 1918 – but it didn’t. It still goes on for us every day – as long as these horrible, rotten objects emerge from under the ground“
And then I think of the Leave Campaign. I think of all those politicians who see proof of national “greatness” in battle, who tell us we were “at our best” in wartime, who sell weaponry and stir conflict in an attempt to gain some kind of international status, who use their limited intellect to encourage abuse of anyone or anything “different”, who scrape for votes in the soulless lives of those whose world they have systematically destroyed in the pursuit of profit.
And I think of how, playing football with families of many nations in that field below the Pyrenees, I was naïve enough to believe my son would be able to spend his life in the exciting potential of a friendly and cooperative Europe, in a state which welcomed the enrichment which is brought by the diversity provided by immigration.
And I think of all those young men who never left these fields, a hundred years ago: and I could weep.
In fact, I often do.