30 December, 2011

"You didn't go downstairs on Christmas Eve, did you Grampy!"

Christmas is all but over – the big day has come and gone and although my front room still has candles and tinsel, it is all starting to look a little bit tired and sad! Yes, we still have New Year;  yes, we still have the rest of the twelve days of Christmas  to go but the January sales are with us, the world is moving on.
Every year it is the same – so much anticipation, so much prior preparation and hard work, so much potential stress. The TV adverts show us the idyllic Christmas of huge roast turkey, smiling families, happy children, peace and contentment throughout the world – and we so want to live up to the expectations. And then it’s over so quickly!
Christmas is great - you get just what
 you've always wanted!
Was it meant to be like this? Was it part of the deal on the first Christmas when Jesus was born? I think not. But if, indeed, there was a first Christmas with shepherds and magi and angels; if Mary & Joseph existed; if a baby, the Son of God, was born in a  stable adjoining an inn – then was the deal that we celebrated this event in the way we do with rushes to the January sales, the latest computer consoles and i-phones, an over indulgence of food and drink, by jetting off to the sun via Heathrow or by  watching again a much repeated “family film” as we sit, droopy eyed, in our new sweaters, our bellies bloated and heads slightly hazy from  too much wine.
It all sounds a bit doubtful to me – but the thing is we all do it in our various ways. And why? Because it is Christmas! We want it to be the “best one ever” and anyway, “it’s only for the kids”.
So what has my Christmas been like? What, twelve months down the line, will I remember of these past few days?
It didn’t start at all auspiciously. Early last week I went down with a dreadful cold which slowly took its toll -  a non-stop cough and wheezy chest meant that lying down to sleep was impossible. For several nights I slept not a wink and, so, felt dreadful next morning. We managed to entertain one or two friends for coffee and a glass of sherry, we got the last minute shopping done and the car cleaned (a “must do” for Christmas!) and by Friday afternoon the shining car was packed with presents, food and drink to take to our daughter Kate’s in Manchester. We were to spend Christmas there with her and her family, plus our son John and his family. He would make the trip from Reading to Manchester on Christmas Eve as would we from Nottingham.  Unfortunately that night my cold got worse and in the end at 2 a.m. in the morning we found ourselves in Accident and Emergency at our local hospital. It was not the cold that was the problem but the fact that my dodgy heart was beginning to show its hand and we feared a build up of fluid on the chest. As always, the  A & E dept was overworked but kindly and hard working. I slowly progressed through the system and at just after 4.30 a.m. following heart traces, blood tests and e-rays found myself given the all clear but with the much appreciated rider  “With your heart condition, Mr Beale, come straight back if you have any worries”. We are, in this country very, very lucky.
Waiting for our star parts as
Mary & the Angel!
So that will be one of the things that I will remember twelve months hence from this Christmas - A&E on Christmas Eve morning.. But there are a couple of others from the same night. As I  lay on the A&E trolley, waiting to be wheeled to have my x-ray completed, a young woman lay close by. She was fast asleep and a nurse approached her and kindly said “Open your eyes, Rosie, wake up”. There was no response and it took the nurse a minute or two to establish some kind of communication. When she did so she said ”Rosie, you are going home, we’re getting  taxi for you” She walked the young woman around the area, trying to get her attention and wakefulness. “You’ve drunk too much and taken  too many pills...........we’ve spoken to your mum........but she can’t pick you up because she’s drunk too much and taken some pills too...........I’ll get you a drink of coffee”. The nurse went off to get the coffee and as I was wheeled away for my x-ray the Rosie sat quietly sobbing on a chair. It’s Christmas.
The tableau is growing
And the second event? At 4.30 a.m. as I stood outside A&E in the cold  waiting for Pat to pick me up a young man stood arguing with his mother.  The lady, caring, anxious and upset - tears streaming down her face -  was trying to calm him down. His face was a mass of blood, rough bandages had been coiled around his mouth and nose. As they argued these slipped down to reveal a dreadful cut from nose to lips, exposing his teeth and gums behind. His face had clearly been sliced by a knife of some kind. Blood ran down his chin and onto his shirt. The lady pleaded with him to return into A&E where they could attend to his injuries – he roared that he wasn’t going back in but was going to find the culprits and exact vengeance. He was clearly very drunk – swearing at his mother and becoming increasingly agitated and aggressive. He stormed away from his mother and approached me – “You got a lighter mate?” he demanded. “Sorry I don’t smoke” I replied – inwardly I groaned at the prospect of seeing him trying to hold a cigarette in those bleeding, gaping lips. His mother ran up, mumbled an apology to me and grasped his arm, again pleading for him to come into the hospital. I strode back inside to seek safety and warmth until my wife arrived. Inside the door the security man advised “Steer clear of him.....he’s gonna cause trouble”. And standing there with the guard was a nurse who confirmed he did indeed have problems – “He needs maxillofacial surgery – and  urgently”. When Pat arrived with the car to pick me up the man was still standing swearing at his mother, she begging and pleading with him, the blood continuing to spread. And as we drove away I wondered what his mother must have been thinking –  just a few years ago he would have been a little boy excitedly looking forward to unwrapping the presents that she had wrapped for him  for Christmas Day? What must she think now as, the night before Christmas, he swears at her in public, uses every form of foul language and blood spurts from his face and he threatens a terrible revenge on his attackers? Where did it all go wrong for him and her?
Opening presents is great
And so to Manchester. Tired (having been at A & E for most of the night) we arrived to be with our family – eleven of us. We had a wonderful time – lovely meals together, the five grandchildren playing and laughing together, Christmas presents, too much food and although we had a drink or two nothing in excess. But what will I remember?
Well, certainly, all of the things that I mention above but especially our trip to the local church on Christmas Eve afternoon to join in the nativity service. We always feel welcome there – a full church, the usual humorous and warm welcome from Fr Clarke and the expected songs and carols to accompany the great words of the Christmas story and the building of the nativity tableau as children excitedly and noisily  take their places as shepherds, kings, sheep, Mary, Joseph and angels. We’ve all seen it hundreds of times before – we know the words, we can predict that the shepherds will wear tea towels on their heads, we can be almost certain of the songs we will sing..............and yet, year after year people all over the world will turn up to see something they have all seen before. It’s the ultimate “repeat show”. And we loved it! It's Christmas!
What other image will stick in my mind twelve months hence?
I like Christmas
On Christmas Eve I could not sleep – no, I wasn’t waiting for Santa – my cold had become worse and I could not stop coughing as I lay in bed. So, at about 2 a.m. in order not to disturb my wife who was fast asleep I crept downstairs, my duvet under my arm, to see if I could grab an hour or two’s sleep sitting in the arm chair. The light from the street light showed me that Santa indeed had been – the floor at the base of the tree was piled high with presents! Next morning at breakfast I commented to my granddaughters, Sophie and Ellie, that I had come downstairs to sleep. A look of horror crossed their faces – “Grampy, you didn't go downstairs in the middle of the night did you? Had Santa been? Did you see him? What if you disturbed him?” I suddenly felt that I was being accused of acting very rashly and putting the whole of Christmas in jeopardy by possibly interrupting Santa delivering his gifts -  the girls  clearly thought that I had not thought this through properly and they were going to let me know it!
And on Christmas Day much unwrapping of presents and a lovely Christmas lunch together. As lunch time approached it all reminded me of Dickens’ wonderful description of Christmas at the Cratchit’s in a Christmas Carol: “Such a bustle ensued......Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah.
And so do we!
There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last. Yet everyone had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows. But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone -- too nervous to bear witnesses -- to take the pudding up and bring it in.”
Everyone waitng to tuck in!
And yes, just as did the Cratchits, after we had all eaten our fill and congratulated my daughter on her preparations and cookery skills we left the table to relax – much as Dickens’ described it 150 years ago: “At last the dinner was all done, the cloth was cleared, the hearth swept, and the fire made up. The compound in the jug being tasted, and considered perfect, apples and oranges were put upon the table, and a shovel-full of chestnuts on the fire. Then all the Cratchit family drew round the hearth, in what Bob Cratchit called a circle, meaning half a one; and at Bob Cratchit's elbow stood the family display of glass. Two tumblers, and a custard-cup without a handle.” We, too, all sat together, the children watching a TV programme whilst they grasped one of their presents, the adults in various stages of conversation, nodding or TV watching.  And scattered around little piles of presents – testaments to the day!
And, just like the Cratchits, we all gathered around......
If Dickens had looked down on us (and probably millions of others like us) I think he would have recognised the similarities between what he saw in  my daughter’s lounge on Christmas Day and what he had written about all those years ago in “A Christmas Carol”. I wonder what he would have thought? A far cry this from the Cratchit’s poor house – but of course as we all know the spirits ensured that their lot was improved by Scrooge when he became a “new man”. Would Dickens have approved of the huge amounts of money that we spend on Christmas each year, would he have approved of the vast numbers of presents that my grandchildren each received. As a Victorian gentleman I think not. And would he have approved of our visit to church and the nativity play – he would certainly have approved of the church visit but the informal nature of it, the way that children were encouraged to take part and dress up? There was no thought here that children should be “seen and not heard” as was the belief in Dickens’ day. – that might have been too much even for the great social reformer Dickens. It might not have been the sort of church service that he recognised! And finally, what would he have thought of my Christmas experiences in A&E – in one way he would have found it wonderful that ordinary folk can be treated for their illnesses - he would have thought that one of his great social dreams had indeed become reality. But what of Rosie, the girl suffering from an hangover and possible drug use? What of the young man with the gaping lip and blooded face? Well, he would certainly have recognised the seamier side of life – violence, drink and drugs were very much part of his age – but would it have saddened and confused him to see this in the age in which we live where poverty of the scale prevalent in Victorian Britain is totally unknown. Would it have confused him or indeed worried him when he saw and heard the way that the young man treated his mother who was trying to help him? Would he have thought that despite the wonderful hospital facilities and care there that we have are still very serious problems in our society – that increased wealth has not always made for a perfect society. I think that he could have used a few of his very carefully chosen words to express his feelings.
Christmas!





20 December, 2011

A FOOTBALLING GHOST FROM THE PAST (WITH APOLOGIES TO SCROOGE)

When Charles Dickens wrote his great tale of Christmas, “A Christmas  Carol” he restated and established many of the Christmas conventions and traditions that we still put to the test each year. The tale  of Ebenezer Scrooge, probably more than any other book anywhere in the world, has established our Christmas. I could write a whole  blog on this theme but will resist that and select just one small aspect.
Scrooge
When Scrooge is visited by the “Ghost of Christmas Past” he is forced, by the spectre, to remember the many happy Christmases of his own past and the kind, jolly people that he knew then. And this is what we all do at Christmas – we tell our children and grandchildren of Christmases when we were small, we remember long lost friends and relations and Christmases that we have enjoyed, we send cards to remind ourselves and our neighbours, friends and relations of our friendship and warm thoughts about them at Christmas time.
And so I have been doing in the last few days – with a rather unexpected result!
Before I begin this I must say to all that this is not particularly about Christmas – that is merely its starting point. And, I would add I’m writing it and it appeals to me because I like little coincidences and the nice symmetries of life. Those of you who are, like Ebenezer Scrooge, of  a harder hearted disposition might dismiss the next few hundred words as (to use Scrooge’s much used phrase) “Humbug!” But to all of you – wherever you might be on the planet  I would, like little Tiny Tim, in Dickens’ story, to  say “A Merry Christmas to you One and All – and God bless Us, Everyone”.
Being passed over the crowd
On Sunday I was writing my weekly article for the football programme that I produce for my local team – Arnold Town. It had a Christmas theme and I was recalling games that I had watched  on past Christmases. I wrote of my own memories of going to big games at Christmas as a child.  Each week of the football season I went to Deepdale to watch Preston North End. This was the mid-fifties and I would (like all the other kids) be passed over the heads of the thousands of spectators so that I could sit on the cinder track right at the side of the pitch. At the end of the game I would wait till my dad or uncle came to find me.
But Christmas games were different. Always Boxing Day local derbies – against Blackpool or Burnley or Blackburn with vast crowds and there would be a family outing – my dad, my  uncle, my dad’s mate and me. And, we would stand in the crowd – I was rarely big enough to see anything except the back of the bloke in front! But I loved it – I was with the men, I could hear the banter and the jokes from the blokes standing around me – and I knew that after the game we would all go home to a family party at my uncle Joe's where the men would all have a bit too much to drink! They would sing slightly rude songs, there would be presents, and if I was lucky, a few silver coins would be pressed into my hands from slightly tipsy Aunts and Uncles.  At half time in the match my uncle Joe would always take a flask of coffee out of his overcoat. One plastic cup which would be shared around. And, out of the other pocket would come his little bottle of rum, which he would pour into the coffee – “To keep out the cold” he would say. I hated it – revolting stuff, but this was growing up time and part of what you do when you go to a match as a man – and I loved it! It was why I would stand and see little of the game – and drink something revolting - it made me feel grown up! Such is the power of football and Christmas!
Little boys standing on the edge
 of the pitch at Deepdale as Tom Finney
takes a corner. I must be on
there somewhere!
But that was at Christmas – other weeks of the year, as I said above, I watched like all the other thousands of kids from the edge of the pitch – sitting on the cinder track that ran round the perimeter – so close to the players that they occasionally crashed into you as they ran or slid off the pitch. If the ball bounced off the pitch there would be a mad scramble of little boys all wanting to retrieve it to throw back to our footballing heroes. I can remember many such days and games – and a few stand out – one in particular, for an incident that happened only four or five feet from where I was sitting. I didn’t think too much of it at the time but in the days and months and years afterwards it became one of football’s legendary events. And, as I researched footballing history for my programme notes the other day it came back, like Scrooge’s ghost,  to touch me in the most unexpected of ways.
Derek Dooley
You see, on a damp and cold February Saturday in 1953 I was sitting on the cinder track at Deepdale watching the game between Preston and Sheffield Wednesday. I was eight years old. It was a big game and mid way through  the Sheffield Centre Forward, the great and feared Derek Dooley ran in towards the Preston Goalkeeper George Thompson. They both lunged for the ball – right in front of my eyes, only a few feet away – and there was a crack that was, it was later said, heard all around the stadium. I can certainly vouch for that – everyone in the ground knew that one of the players had a serious injury. Thompson staggered to his feet but Dooley lay still – his right leg badly broken in two places. Ambulance men ran onto the pitch and Dooley was carted away to the Preston hospital where he was treated. Unfortunately, the treatment didn’t go well. As he was preparing to leave hospital the following Monday a nurse noticed that there was no reaction in his toes when touched. When the pot was removed it was found that a small scratch on the back of his leg had become infected. Gangrene had set in and it was decided to amputate his leg. It was thought at the time that a chemical from the white touchline marking had got into his injury. They were the touchline markings right on front of where I had sat!
Derek Dooley and his wife Sylvia
leave Preston hospital for home after
his "accident".
Derek Dooley died in March 2008 aged 78. Of course in those days footballers were poorly paid and the loss of his leg meant his career was over. But, he  overcame the trauma of the  amputation to become the club's manager, and was later chairman of their rivals Sheffield United. The way Dooley triumphed over adversity made him the most respected icon of his football-mad home city, and his administrative skills earned him an MBE in 2003. Aggressive on the field, he became renowned off it for his modesty and integrity; the United manager Dave Bassett reckoned him "a man you could trust your life with".
Deprived of his livelihood at 23, Dooley displayed a complete lack of bitterness or self-pity. Indeed, the only time he showed resentment was when Wednesday sacked him as manager on Christmas Eve 1973. He would not watch a game at Hillsborough for 19 years; when eventually he returned, for a Sheffield derby, the entire crowd rose to give him a standing ovation.
Derek Dooley's statue at Bramall Lane
- home of Sheffield United
On his death, both Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United opened their own books of condolence the following day. United announced  that they would name their new youth academy after him and that  a statue of Dooley would be commissioned. 
But, you might be asking, that’s all very interesting but why are you blogging about an obscure event sixty years ago which probably has  a pretty limited appeal in terms of interest – except to football nuts! Well, that is true, but as I researched  my Arnold Town programme I discovered something else – that, rather like Scrooge was touched by the spectres who visited him in Dickens’ great tale, there brushed against me something that brought that event back to my mind and (yes, I do mean this) set the hairs on the back of my neck tingling!
I was searching Google images for a photo of the great crowds who used to attend matches. I put in “Preston North End”, found a number of suitable pictures and then, following  a link, suddenly a picture of Dooley and that fateful day in 1953 popped up onto my screen. “Look”, I said to my wife, “I was there then”.
But then, as the link continued, another photograph with a face I recognise almost as my own! It was my good friend Brian Bradley – a man I had been sitting beside in a football meeting only three or four days before and who I have known and respected for many years. Brian is a Sheffield man – a Yorkshire man – gritty, no-nonsense, sincere,  a droll sense of humour, kind, thoughtful, modest and oozing integrity. Just as was said of Dooley,” He is a man you could trust your life with!” I would say the same thing about Brian. He has given his whole life to football at every level and I know him, and have known him for years,  because  of our mutual interest in local sport and football and because  we both sit in the Committee than runs the Under 19 Football in the North Midlands.
 So, Brian’s face leapt out at me from the thousands of Google images in front of me. Why?
My friend Brian (centre) receiving
his award.
Because, last year Brian was awarded the  “Derek Dooley Award”.  Sheffield & Hallamshire FA and Sheffield City Council  celebrated and recognised the outstanding dedication and achievements of Brian to  the grassroots football community in the area. The Derek Dooley Award  is  specially commissioned  to recognise and honour the outstanding contribution made by Derek Dooley to both the professional sides from Sheffield playing today, and for the grassroots game as a whole - and my friend Brian has been a deserved recipient.
Brian Bradley  has dedicated his whole live to the game at a local level starting out as a player, then a referee and referees assessor before moving into the administration side of the game. And he is still doing it – with huge commitment, humour and expertise - passing his vast experience in to the next generation.
When I sat with Brian last week, I knew nothing of this – he hasn’t boasted of it – he wouldn't. But I somehow  had  a link with that day all those years ago, when I sat, as  a little boy, on the cinder track at Preston, saw the dreadful injury to one of the footballing greats  and never dreamed that over half a century later I would sit, regularly, with a man who has followed on the tradition set up by Dooley. In those days I didn't even know where Sheffield was and never dreamed that sixty years later I would be friends and a colleague of someone who subsequently had a direct link with the man who lay badly injured on the grass in front of me!
Last year Brian wrote an obituary for a footballing friend who had died after a long illness. He wrote of the man “he can be best summed up by saying that today’s players are yesterday's youngsters and today’s youngsters are tomorrow's players, and they all have one thing in common, they are all playing because of Tom's determination and dedication to the club he loved so much." That comment could equally be made of Derek Dooley and Brian Bradley.

At our meeting last week – the last before the Christmas break – Brian arrived with two packets of mince pies – “to celebrate Christmas” he announced. We all had a laugh at his expense and said things like “No expense spared” and “This doesn’t sound like a Yorkshire man”! (For readers in far off places across the globe, Yorkshire men are known in this country for being very careful with money!). In a way a real Ebenezer Scrooge moment – the tight fisted Yorkshire man turns up just before Christmas with Christmas mince pies for everyone! I like that!
"God Bless us everyone"
said Tiny Tim
So, yes, when I saw the connection between the event that I witnessed as a child, when I thought of all the history of it  that I knew so well and then  realised that in a very tiny way I was involved because of my friendship with Brian – then yes, the hairs on my neck bristled a little bit! It put the whole thing in a new context and made it extra meaningful. And that, of course, is what happened to Scrooge in Dickens’ tale – the ghostly visions opened up a new world for him and he became a new man. And when I next see my friend Brian, after Christmas, I will be delighted to tell him of my little connection with his award – and like Scrooge when he woke on Christmas morning after his ghostly visits, I will feel a bit of a warm glow at that association.

Now, as I said above, there might be those of you out there who are of the Scrooge disposition and might just say "Bah Humbug" to what, in the end, is just a bit of a coincidence  - that I went to a football match half a century ago and now know a man who has got an award! But to you I would say these are the little events and occurrences  that perhaps set us off from the animal kingdom - we respond emotionally to situations, we notice quirky little things like this, we think about our past and how it affects our present and future - in short, it is, I believe, one of the characteristics of being a person. To use a musical analogy it is why a piece of music can make us weep or feel pride or feel huge excitement - when after all, be it Mozart or Madonnna, it is in the end only an assembling of notes and sounds and rhythms. It does so because, as human beings, we are stirred by these deep emotional instincts and feelings which in turn are often related closely to our past and its good times and bad times, its happy events and sad, notions of right and wrong or good and bad, the people we have met and been close to, events that have changed our lives  and so on. Animals and robots know no such considerations - but we are humans and we have these feelings. A week or two ago my wife and I went to a concert to see the "Bootleg Beatles" - a wonderful evening of pure 60s nostalgia. And as we listened to the music and watched the group perform it transported me back to the sights, sounds,smells, feelings and emotions of the period - and yet, in the final analysis, it was only a few notes arranged in a particular way and in a particular rhythm. This is part of the human condition and which  separates us from animals or robots. We have feelings. And it is what the ghosts taught the hard hearted Scrooge - a man who until his Christmas Eve visitors - was known for having no feelings.  In the end, my little discovered coincidence   gave me a new take on something that I remember from my childhood - those days of going to watch my team, of being part of a huge crowd, of witnessing an event which made the newspapers and then sixty years later knowing a man who also has a small part in this jig saw made me feel good, it gave the memories and extra dimension .

So, to those of you who would say "Bah Humbug" I will simply repeat the final words from "A Christmas Carol".........."Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all and infinitely more......he became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as that good old city knew........." Perhaps that is what  happened to the great Derek Dooley after his dreadful accident on that fateful day in 1953 - it transformed him and he became a new person so respected and loved in his native City. And that in turn has touched me via my friendship with my colleague Brian Bradley.........I am a very tiny part of that jig saw of events that began in my home town almost sixty years ago.

"And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Everyone”.

10 December, 2011

SAXONS, DUMPLINGS, GREAT MUSIC & A SMALL MINDED TORY PRIME MINISTER

Last week, as we left the UK for a short stay in Germany the papers were full of the Eurozone news – and in particular much huffing and puffing from the right wing press and Tory party that, whatever the outcome, we did not want  a German dominated Europe where Angela Merkel’s Germany were able to call the shots because of their perceived economic superiority. Now, on my return, I read  that “Britain is facing isolation in Europe after David Cameron vetoed a revision of the Lisbon treaty, prompting a majority of EU members to agree to draw up their own deal outside the architecture of the union”. Well, whatever the politics or the economics of those points of view, it started me thinking.
Leipzig Hauptbahnhof

Before you read this blog, however, I really ought to make a couple of things plain – so that you don’t waste your time. I am a committed Europhile and believe that the UK’s position over the past thirty or so years – and especially that of the Tory party - has been close to treason in that it was and is so contrary to the national interest. Give me a choice between a special relationship with the USA or Europe and I will go for Europe every time. Only a few weeks ago French president Sarkozy took David Cameron and the UK to task for wanting to impose views “from the sidelines” – he was exactly correct. For years we, as a nation, have whinged and whined about Europe, pleaded being a special case and wanted to exact special treatment  - without ever really “committing”. I think that if I were  French or German – or any other European member state I would be a bit cheesed off with the attitude of Britain – and would want to say “B****r off then, go and live in your little England”. So, if you are a Eurosceptic, a Tory, a Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph reader then I suggest that you find a more anodyne blog to read today!
Bach - the man who this
was all about

But back to Germany! As our train sped across the flat Saxon plain in northern Germany it occurred to me that when the Saxons (or Sachsens’s as they say in Germany!) invaded England after the Romans left our shores they must have felt pretty much at home. Gliding  from Leipzig to Dresden we could have equally have been in East Anglia passing the flat crop laden fields,small villages, hundreds of allotments all neatly tended with nice little garden sheds and greenhouses. It all made me think. My wife had said at breakfast that morning, as we sat watching Angela Merkel speaking, grim faced, to the German parliament (as she saved Europe again!)  how similar the Brits are, in many ways, to the Saxons.  My wife was right.  Our German neighbours listening and watching as they breakfasted with us in the hotel dining room  rolled their eyes and muttered sceptical, cynical things under their breath as Frau  Merkel spoke – the sort of things that we (or at least I) mutter when I watch David Cameron and his colleagues! We felt very much at home! Walking through the streets of Leipzig or Dresden we could just as easily have been in Nottingham or Leicester or any other British town or city. Of course, much of that is because so many of the shops are the same High Street names we see in our own city centres. My wife saw shop called "DM" and we wondered if it was the German equivalent of a poundshop - called "DM" as it harked back to the old currency, the  Deutsch Mark. The market place has become global! – which is a bit sad really since one goes abroad to sample the different way of life. Throughout our few days in Leipzig we felt at home – people reacted as we expected, they laughed at the same things, they showed the common courtesies and kindnesses that we hope for in the UK, they looked and dressed like us.........we felt at home!   
Must be the best busking pitch
 in the world - under Bach's
 watchful eye!

But, our few days in Leipzig gave me much food for thought about the similarities and differences between ourselves and our German neighbours.  I should preface this by saying that we know Leipzig well – these are not first impressions but things that we have noticed over a number of years. These are simply observations. I suppose that I might be accused of seeing the world through rose coloured glasses or thinking that “the other man’s grass is always greener” – but in the end I love Germany and the Germans. They appear so practical and sensible. So reliable and so pragmatic.  There are no unnecessary “frills” – food is good and wholesome and not designer fayre which hides a very ordinary meal on a posh plate or with unnecessary dressings. Like us Brits, the Germans will stand quietly in a queue until their turn comes.  When you drive on German roads the traffic moves fast – but drivers drive so predictably. When you cross the road everyone obeys the rules of the pedestrian crossing. The list goes on.  In short, you know  where you are!  Going back to the starting point of this blog, I can remember many years ago on one of my first visits to Germany, saying quite unequivocally, “I could live in a German dominated world!”  Over many years and many visits I have seen nothing to change that viewpoint.
Beats Nottingham Railway Station -
German domination looks good to me!

So, late last Thursday night we arrived at Leipzig Hauptbahnhof and walked towards the barriers at the end of the platform. In front of us in huge illuminated lettering was advertised the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra  - arguably, under the baton of Riccardo Chailly, the world’s greatest orchestra at this point in time. In football parlance, one nil to the German’s, I thought! – even on their railway station they have a community pride in something of worth rather than the banal rubbish that plasters much of our High Streets, shopping malls and railway stations!

Whilst on the railway station theme, a few days later we walked through the Hauptbahnhof in the early evening. We noticed several policemen standing at the end of a platform and several more on the platform. Was a famous personality arriving – perhaps Saint Angela Merkel? Was someone going  to be arrested? We hung about and then all was made clear – as hundreds of young football supporters in their green and white scarves and hats alighted from the train – Leipzig had obviously been playing away and the fans were returning home. I assumed from their glum expressions that perhaps they had lost! So, just like in England we thought – football fans need to be escorted along the streets!

Except it wasn’t quite like England!
Leipzig Market Square -
everyone having a good time

You see, I contrasted the German police with their English counterparts. Whether at the train station, on the street or at the airport there was a significant difference. As we had left Stansted airport a couple of days before I had sadly watched two airport policemen patrolling the concourse. Tooled up with every conceivable kind of weapon on high display, bare armed, base ball cap headgear, shaven headed, bull necked, huge military style boots (just right  for giving someone a good kicking!) and  covered in aggressive and unseemly looking tattoos. They looked far more intimidating than any  crook, thug or terrorist I might meet! I would accept this and say that perhaps for the high security of an air port you need a special kind of high profile operator to establish a “presence” but in the UK we see more and more of the intimidating policeman in our everyday life. When I watch the TV cop documentaries I see ordinary motorway patrol men with their bull necked, shaven headed profile. I see big aggressive looking men in their yellow high visibility  ‘flak jackets’, radios dangling, handcuffs displayed and at the ready.  Is this a specific policy to make the police look more thuggish and intimidating than the potential burglar, terrorist or hoodie? I am minded to believe that it is. But in Germany, yes, the police wore a gun – hidden away – but in all other respects were ordinary human beings – everyday hairstyles, a smart but casual uniform, a blue winter jacket very much like the one I was wearing – except, in acceptable and ordinary lettering, it said on the back “Polizei”, ordinary looking shoes, no visible tattoos - this was  not a dress statement of aggression. I could go on!. You may well say that I am naive, that I should be proud of our English “Bobby” – the envy of the world you might say. But I’m not – I am very cynical and sceptical. For me “Dixon of Dock Green” is long dead! The Met and other police forces now remind me of violent Hollywood  type “Terminator” characters, all, like Clint Eastwood, subconsciously saying to the man in the street “C’mon Punk, make my day!” I am not foolish – the Germans will have their  hard men, their specialist anti-terror squads but they are not apparent on the everyday streets as  they are in England.  And yet, in Germany I felt safe – when the police men on duty at the Christmas Market walked amongst the shoppers and chatted with them, smiled, stopped at a stall and bought a hot dog they were saying "We are one of you, ordinary and enjoying the day!" And I felt a little more secure. The strange thing is that although I would not profess to be an expert, from the little that I know of social psychology the received wisdom is that violence begets violence, the abused will likely as not become an abuser – so when our police set themselves up as aggressive looking thugs, they may well be actually promoting a violent response from potential criminals and the ordinary man in the street.   Perhaps the Germans understand this. Two nil to the Germans.
Yep! Christmas is
just round the corner

And as we meandered around the Leipzig streets and Christmas markets for four days we watched as the Sachsens consumed huge quantities of Bratworst and supped the Gluhwein. Where did they put it all? From first thing in the morning till last thing at night stalls were busy and queues forming. But throughout it was all good natured, common decencies were observed. A myriad of Christmas gifts and tree decorations were bought; Santa Claus and Frau Claus sang on the market place stage; a Russian band of brass players from St Petersburg played beautifully on Dresden’s streets and were warmly applauded; five Russians wearing their red army uniforms sang their Cossack songs beautifully – and again received cheers and a standing ovation. And this in a city which only a few years ago was a central part of East Germany and under the Russian boot. In Dresden we saw a smartly dressed middle aged man holding aloft a great Soviet Flag – the hammer and sickle – and stopping passers-by – obviously trying to expound soviet politics. And people listened – there was no aggression, no undercurrent of hatred or animosity.  At one point, right outside the wonderful Gewandhaus Concert Hall – one of the world’s great concert venues,  we discovered an Indian wigwam! And nearby a stall selling fresh smoked salmon – the great salmon  “steaks” roasting by an open fire and being served up with a plate of fresh salad and bread. We carried our picnic lunch into the wigwam to sit down by the brazier to eat with locals out of the cold wind. It was quite a bizarre experience but seemed perfectly normal – and seemed to me to be representative of a society at ease with itself. Occasional groups of teenagers looked, as in all cities, a bit louder and noisier than the rest – but, again, not excessively so. Some of these youngsters were making their own fashion statement (after all that is what being a teenager is all about).  I remember it well in the 60s, wearing a “slim-jim” tie and tight fitting trousers - much to my mother’s horror and shame. Some of the young Germans wore ear studs and had other body piercings (Ugh!) – but to coin a phrase, it all seemed  “in the best possible taste”. We saw no immature or threatening  behaviour, no throwing up in shop doorways, no outlandish dressing of the type I see regularly on Nottingham’s night streets. Despite bars being open, despite youngsters being out for a good time I didn't notice a single security guard or "bouncer" outside a bar or nightclub - and yet in  Nottingham last night as I went to the Concert Hall every bar and club was closely guarded and entrants "frisked" by thuggish looking bouncers. But in Leipzig (and in Berlin last year, and in every other place we have visited in Germany), just ordinary people – young and old – were enjoying a night or day out!

Three nil to the Germans!
The Red Army entertains!

Of course, no holiday would be complete without some reference to good food and drink – at least not in my book! We already knew of one or two super restaurants or bierkellers where we could get good wholesome food. And we found another – the “Thuringer Hof” – just a couple of hundred metres form the Thomaskirche and soaked in tradition. Wonderful traditional cooking. Martin Luther, it is thought used to dine here -- that's how old it is. It's been serving  regional fayre since 1454. Goethe used to drop in, as did the composer Robert Schumann. By 1865 it became known as  one of the most famous restaurants of Germany. Some of the recipes sound as if they are the same that Luther himself ate -  Thuringian potato soup with sausage slices ( we sampled it - it was absolutely delicious!) or pickled beef and Thuringian dumplings or  rare filets of lamb in a garlic sauce with potato croquettes. All washed down with a couple of wonderful German beers! On other nights we ate facing the Thomaskirche at the “Thomaskirche Brauhaus” – a place we have eaten at several times before. The German beer is quite outstanding there, as is the food. Can there be a better bowl of Gulashsuppe anywhere in the world? Like the “Thuringer Hof” the place is steeped in history – originally 15th century, its walls decorated with pictures of old brewery craftsmen and the like. Again, Luther is thought to have eaten and drunk there as did Bach – it is so close to the church, just across the courtyard - it must have been  Bach's local!    Both places were busy, noisy and full of people enjoying an evening out or an after work drink – lots of laughing and smiling. No canned music needed here to generate a false atmosphere of good will and enjoyment – it was there aplenty. Four nil to the Germans
Neva Brass - straight
from St Petersburg

Are those smoked salmon
steaks ready yet?
Of course, our real reason to visit Leipzig was to again enjoy the glorious music of Bach in the Thomaskirche – the church where he spent much of working life. On our first morning I walked into the church and was immediately greeted by the sound of the Leipzig choir and orchestra rehearsing for the concert – Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”. As I sat there for an hour or so watching others, like me creep into the church and enjoy the rehearsal I felt privileged and (perhaps wrongly) thought again how, in many continental countries, great music is much more accessible to the ordinary man and woman. So often in the UK attendance at a concert is a “high brow”, social occasion – not perceived as being for the ordinary man or woman. Often whilst abroad – especially in Italy and Germany – we have simply enjoyed the moment – once sitting on the floor of an Italian church listening to Handel’s “Messiah” watching other Florentines meandering in to enjoy the music as they walked their dogs in the late evening Italian sunshine. And as I sat in the rehearsal - on the alter steps just in front of Bach’s tomb - the church suddenly and spontaneously  erupted in applause at the end of one of the Oratorio’s great choruses. Haven’t heard that too often in the middle of the day in an English church!
Yes, they are - and we'll sit in the
wigwam by this warm fire!

That night Pat and I sat within a few feet of the choir and orchestra and enjoyed the Oratorio. As we knew it would be, the Thomaskirche was packed. We had travelled from England, the German  couple sitting next to us informed us that they too had travelled a long way – over a 100Km from Karlsruhe – just for a concert. We have seen this before on previous visits – at the end of concerts, coaches from throughout Germany picking groups up – people who have travelled large distances – making a pilgrimage, just to enjoy the world’s great music. And this in a country where, unlike England, most towns have their own top notch orchestra, opera or ballet company. And as the final chorus died there was silence; almost a stunned silence. In Italy the audience would have screamed its applause, in England there would have been cries of “more”. But in the Thomaskirche a stillness that seemed to last an age – we have noticed it before, it’s a kind of reserve, a recognition that they are in a Church and not a theatre. And then the clapping, subdued at first, began........ and then mounted to a crescendo with cries of appreciation. Over and over again the orchestra and choir stood and bowed, the soloists beamed. Everyone smiled and knew that Bach would have approved as he gazed down on his church.
All the fun of the fair!

And the next morning we went along to the Gewandhaus. “Are there tickets available for the children’s  Advent Music concert starting at 11 a.m?”  Pat asked.  Yes there were – and only 9 Euros – 9 Euros to sit on one of the world’s great concert halls and enjoy the singing and music of the Gewandhaus children’s choir and orchestra! We handed on our wet coats to the lady at the cloakroom and Pat looked at her umbrella – quick as a flash the cloakroom lady reached below her counter and produced a plastic bag, put the wet umbrella inside and hung it with our coats. A small thing, but one we haven’t come across before in England! They think of everything the Germans! The Hall filled with proud parents and even prouder grandparents all enjoying the Christmas songs and music. We listened to German carols that we knew well and smiled as the choir sang “O Come All ye Faithful” in absolutely perfect English – every word crisp and clear. We smiled even more when we heard a German rendering of “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” – but which half way through switched into English! And towards the end of the concert when the conductor turned to the audience and said “Now it’s your turn” – the whole audience joined in with great gusto to sing a couple of German carols – no mumbling or lack of effort which we so often get at similar points on English concerts – the music was there to be enjoyed and taken part in.

Five  nil to the Germans! Oh dear, this is becoming a bit of a “whitewash” isn’t it!
As good a pint as you will
get anywhere - in the
Thomaskirche Brauhaus

And dumplings in the
Thuringer Hof
I know, I’m looking though rose coloured glasses – like all nations the Germans have their problems and there will be many, many downsides to German life that I do not and cannot know about. Indeed, when we have spent longer periods of time there I’m always glad to drive back into France or return home – my perceived  “discipline” and common sense of German life I can find a bit overpowering. But that is not the point, much of what I see I can relate to and at an everyday level there is much to applaud and recommend. We have much to learn from other nations and from Germany and the Germans in particular – and as I look at the world today, I can’t escape from the conviction that a bit of German common sense and disciplined domination might be a pretty good idea.

And I read in my Guardian and see on my TV this morning that our illustrious PM, David Cameron, has used his veto at the economic summit and effectively sidelined the UK in Europe. Yes, you knew this was coming, didn't you!. From where I stand  economics is only one very small part of being in Europe – it is there where our history began and will continue – not on some far Atlantic shore. Just as important, or more important, than economics are the cultural, social, historical, political  and geographical connections that we have with our close neighbours – indeed, as I noted at the top of this blog we are distant cousins of the Sachsen’s. It is they and their near north German neighbours the Angles who populated our country and wrote our early history. It is the Angles who gave our country its name “Angle Land” which became “England”. And our PM and the right wing Tory press wish to cut us off from our cultural tradition and heritage – for one reason only -  to feed the monster that is the City of London and its financial vultures. Cameron was quite open about that before he left for what we will laughingly call the negotiations - he was going to protect City interests he told us - and to hell our culture, our industry, our alliances with our nearest friends and neighbours.  I can find only one word for this: Philistine! Whilst writing this blog  I’ve amused myself by wondering what would David Cameron and his party and the Mail and Telegraph readers have said had they been around in the ninth century – they would have had to swallow a pretty bitter pill as Alfred the Great (the only English king to be known as “the Great”) became King of England  – a Saxon! Or what about in 1714 when the House of Hanover took over the English throne – Oh dear! – that really is German domination with a vengeance! Perhaps in those days politicians had a slightly wider vision of the world than the current Tory party or Daily Telegraph! Would Cameron have vetoed  Alfred the Great or George 1st – who, horror of horrors, could not even speak English! Or, I wondered, this afternoon as I listened to Handel's great oratorio "The Messiah" how comfortably these Europe and German haters in the Tory party feel when listening to "The Messiah", knowing (if they indeed do know) that  Handel was a Saxon - born in Halle, just up the road from Leipzig. It must be a bitter pill to swallow to know that the undoubted favourite piece of choral music in the UK was written by a German and performed for a German King of England - and that when the great "Hallelujah Chorus" is sung people like me, throughout the UK and the wider world, will stand in homage to the work, to the German composer and as a mark of recognition to this German King. Yep, it must be pretty galling for these people! No wonder they don't want anything to do with Europe and they fear German domination - I mean, it might constantly remind them that we might have something to learn from our friends across the Channel. Listening to "The Messiah" or thinking of Alfred the Great must make Cameron and his "Little Englanders" choke on their roast beef and good warm English ale  - I mean, how can it be that these "foreign Johnnies", who can't possibly be "top drawer" because they aren't English  have such an important place in the cultural and historical life of the nation.
Proud parents applaud their children
at the Gewandhaus Advent Concert

A couple of days ago Larry Elliott in the Guardian forecast almost exactly what Cameron would do. “David Cameron has his red lines for the crunch two-day European summit . They are predictable red lines. They are the red lines that any [British] prime minister in the last three decades would have drawn. And they are the wrong red lines. The prime minister will go to Brussels determined that the City of London be safeguarded from any of the dangerous ideas circulating on the other side of the Channel, such as a financial transactions tax. If he is serious about rebalancing the UK economy, he might be better off agreeing to some of these "dangerous" proposals, letting the City fend for itself (something it is perfectly capable of doing) and devoting some tender loving care to Britain's manufacturers.........  The reality is that for many years the only industry that has really mattered in Britain has been the financial services industry. Picking winners has been abolished for all but one special interest group in the economy: the City........Germany's manufacturing output rose strongly in October and has recovered all the ground lost during the deep recession of 2008-09. Britain's factory production is still 7% below where it was at its peak in 2007, despite the benefit of a 25% drop in the value of sterling.......”
The choir take the applause
at the end of the Oratorio.

Elliott was proved exactly right.
Bach's window in the
Thomaskirche
As I read this I thought back to the start of the banking crisis three or four years ago. I am not an economist but I remember well thinking, “Yep, that makes sense” when I heard of the German government’s initial response to the problems that were beginning to mushroom out of control across the world and which had their roots not in the Eurozone but with the free market financial mismanagement  in the USA. At that point the English response under Gordon Brown was to throw money at the banks and hope they would lend this to manufacturers. They didn’t and haven’t and this has been compounded by the fact that as people worry about jobs, price rises and insecurity they are not spending anyway  - so who are the manufacturers  going to sell to?  And the banks? –well, they and  the City grabbed the money and ran – wrote off their losses with the government handouts and are back in profit within months, bonuses bulging – “Hey, what a great life guys – we literally are laughing all the way to the bank!”
The Thomaskirche at night

Bach's tomb
The German response – quite different. I do not believe that the Germans are into massive state intervention nor do I believe that they have any great belief in the economic theories of Keynes. But they are practical and recognise that wealth and security is based upon work and saving. Provide jobs and security and people will save and spend – and that is not a million miles from Keynes. In a nation that is more cautious and saves a greater percentage than other western nations and is much more focused upon manufacturing than we, they introduced, as the economic crash came, a number of measures aimed at keeping the economy going. They did not pour huge amounts into their banks – for Germans the historical fear from the 1930’s of hyper inflation through printing money is a “no-go area” so amongst other things they gave huge numbers of “vouchers” to assist people in buying a new German car – it kept the great VW/Audi plants at Wolfsburg in work, it ensured the future of Mercedes in Stuttgart, it kept the steel mills of the German industrial heartland rolling, it kept people in work and reasonably secure and so they spent, they saved, they kept the economy moving. It saved on paying unemployment benefit. It all made some kind of sense to me – and reminded me of  Keynes’ famous observation of a century ago (made in his seminal work “The General Theory of Employment”). Rather than giving banks money in times of depression, Keynes suggested that it would be far more effective “if the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is”. Couldn’t agree more!

Six nil to the Germans!
Rehearsal time for the choir
and orchestra

Of course, David Cameron wouldn’t see it my way – and probably at least half the readers (if there are any left) of this blog will vehemently disagree with me. But in the end I feel strongly that in the world of today, as never before, we need to work with our close neighbours and the wider world. Of course, we are all different – but to bury one’s head in the sand as successive UK governments have done in relation to Europe is counter productive. Whether Cameron likes it or not, our past and our future is absolutely bound up with and dependent upon our friends across the Channel. We grovel for a special relationship with the USA, we will do its bidding and dance to its tune on any number of things but fail to recognise that the USA has little or no loyalty to us – we are a little island that can and will be cast aside when American big business says so. No, Europe is our past and our future – it is in our blood and we are in its blood. As Pat and I glided across the Saxon plain to Dresden on Monday I looked at my railway ticket. The ticket lady at the Leipzig Hauptbahnhoff had told us that the cheapest way for us to get to Dresden and back was to pay 31 Euros for a “Saxon Rover” ticket! I liked that – for a day I was a “Saxon Rover” – like those Saxon Rovers of two millennia ago who roved across the Channel and settle in Angle Land and who were my forefathers – I felt that I should have worn my sword, my spear,  my cape, my horned helmet (sorry, I think that was the Vikings!). Our Rover ticket  was valid for up to five people – so we could have taken three more all for the same price. Perhaps I should have given David Cameron, George Osborne and William Hague a ring and offered them a free ride through Germany to widen their cultural and economic horizons!
I'm determined to eat all of this sausage!

And for me this is the issue. Sadly, the UK is today lead largely by politicians of the Mickey Mouse variety - people who would not hold down a job in other walks of life. I don't know the definition of a statesman or woman - but I sure as hell know that there aren't any in the present Parliament nor were there in the last. Hate Margaret Thatcher as I did, I could also respect her - she made things happen, she saw the bigger picture. Even though she had grave reservations about Europe she consistently said "We have to sit at the top table" - she did not use her veto, she did not give in to factional self interest in the way that today's politicians do. Where are the politicians today who can see the bigger picture, who can cut through with  a few well chosen words to the heart of the matter, who can inspire and change opinion  even amongst those who greatly disagree, who can cut through the "red tape" and set a course of action? Will we ever have another Thatcher (perish the thought!), Foot, Macmillan, Crossland, Atlee, Churchill, Bevan, Butler, Williams............ or are we forever destined to have mean minded little men and women who do the bidding of the far right or far left or the City because they haven't got any better ideas, are incapable of seeing the bigger picture or because that is where their "bread is buttered". In the final analysis would I be inspired and follow David  Cameron, George Osborne, William Hague, "Nick" Clegg, "Vince" Cable, "Ed" Milliband, "Ed" Balls, and the rest into battle? Would I be swayed by the power of their arguments and rhetoric? The answer is resoundingly "No". And yet, and yet.......as I sat in the hotel dining room in Leipzig last week, eating my breakfast and watching Angela Merkel facing the German Parliament, and even though my German language skills are severely limited, I could respect what she was saying, could see a bit of "vision", of clarity of purpose.......of "statesmanship".

"All men shall become brothers
...Join our jubilation
" wrote Beethoven
 and Schiller (unfortunately they
hadn't met the Tory party,the right
wing UK press or the City of London). 
Seven nil to the Germans! Yep, we might have beaten the Germans in 1966, we had a bit of an aberration and the Germans an off day in 2001 when we beat them in Munich 5-1 but, overall, they win hands down - both on the football field, politically, economically, culturally and as a society. And yet, our illustrious leader and his Tory cronies want to turn their back and say "We know best!" I have difficulty following that logic.

And I will end with a bit of sweet irony (at least that’s how I see it). In a week’s time on December 17th at the Leipzig Gewandhaus there will take place one of the great musical events of the year – perhaps for many years – an event I would give almost anything to be present at. Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra will be performing in front of their home audience. I had inquired about tickets – but they had been sold out for months. And what are they performing? One of the world’s very greatest pieces – some might argue the greatest piece ever written – Beeethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the Choral, with its univesal hymn of brotherhood the "Ode to Joy". Chailly and the Gewandhaus earlier this year recorded all the nine Beethoven symphonies to great acclaim – the recordings of the year, the definitive Beethoven – all from Leipzig,  a small town in Germany.  The Ninth was first conceived by Beethoven in 1793, as the French Revolution raged. It began to take shape as a piece of music in 1817 at the conclusion of the great Napoleonic wars when the piece was commissioned by the Philarmonic Society of London (no fear of German domination in the City of London then!!!!). It had its premier - possibly the greatest musical event of that century (or indeed any other) in Vienna in 1824 as Europe rebuilt after the Napoleonic wars. At that time, it was customary in Vienna that only the Imperial couple should  be acknowledged with three ovations. The fact that five ovations were received by a private person who was not even employed by the state, and moreover, was a musician - a class of people who had been perceived as lackeys at court - was in itself considered almost indecent. Police present at the concert had to break off this spontaneous explosion of ovations. Beethoven left the concert deeply moved. Seems that old Ludwig and his music had the ability to inspire and move people, to encourage them to dream and strive for greater things - unlike David Cameron and his cronies!  Here was a man, Beethoven, of dreams and ideals, creating something to reflect the dreams and ideals of Europeans of that age as they looked forward to a brighter future. And, as the symphony draws to its wonderful final movement, and the choir rise to sing the glorious “Ode To Joy”, the European Anthem, based on Schiller’s poem, I might have thought of the great words “All men become brothers......Join our jubilation.......Be embraced you millions......a kiss for the whole world...........”. I might have sat in the Gewandhaus and thought, as Beethoven’s music swirled around me  of how the ideals of Beethoven have crumbled - at least in England. The Ebenezer Scrooge gradgrinds are in charge in London - the bean counters, the men whose only vision is self interest and the ledger and pile of pennies - the "bottom line" men. These men , the men of the City, and the present incumbent of 10 Downing Street and his Tory acolytes have no vision of a better world. They don't "do" inspiration or ideals, they don't "do" statesmanship or or bigger pictures or dreams. They "do" vetoes. Like Ebenezer Scrooge they say "Humbug" to the future and to the aspirations of millions.  They see only profit and loss - and their only ideal and motivation is that of the ledger. In short, they are Philistines who do not see the bigger picture - and sadly, they are followed by a Tory press who still want to stir up anti-Europe, anti-German hatred.....and who, seventy years after the last war finished, want to continue it in the in the corridors of power and on our television and cinema screens. Beethoven had no such inhibitions and mean thoughts - he wanted men to join together as brothers. Beethoven and the politicians of Europe - Merkel, Sarkozy and those who have come before them have seen the bigger picture, have striven for a dream, have had ideals, have "reached for the stars".  Indeed, "The Ode to Joy" speaks of the stars in heaven - and in doing so has given people something positive to work for and dream  of. When Mrs Merkel or Mr Sarkozy and the rest go home at night to their respective husbands and wives, do their spouses say:  "Have you had a nice day at the office dear?" And do they reply, "Well, it's been  a hard day, giving people dreams and ambitions and building a better future for all the nations of Europe, but it's all worth while!" And when our own PM and his friends go home and are asked the same question by their respective spouses do they answer "Well I used my veto, I really enjoyed destroying ambitions and dreams and the chance for a better future of millions throughout Europe - and the good thing is that my City pals have given me the thumbs up - it's all money in the bank, dear,  - our bank!!!! Yes, as the symphony reached its climax  I would have thought of that  pathetic small minded man who is my Prime Minister and who leads a party of even smaller minded individuals who do not wish to commit to Europe - all because they want to protect their cosy City directorships and City friends. And who then wrap it up and try to legitimise it  by calling it “defending our interests”.
Chailly leading the Gewandhaus

No, they are wrong, wrong, wrong. Cameron, the Tory party and the City have not been "defending our interests" - he has been defending his interests and those of his Tory friends. The Prime Minister, by his actions, has blatantly compromised and destroyed the national interest - economically, socially, politically and culturally. Our interests lie in Europe not as an isolated little off shore island somewhere between the North Sea and the Atlantic and most certainly not be dependent upon the whims of capitalist free marketeers, freebooters  and right wing extremists in Washington. Europe is where we want and need  our special relationship - unfortunately Cameron is unable and unwilling to grasp this simple truth!

27 November, 2011

A Broken Contract (Pt 2 - The Meritocracy Myth)

Since writing my last blog there have been a number of events which have interested, concerned and angered   me. One was the publication of the UK’s latest unemployment figures which, apart from an expected rise in the unemployed showed an increase to over one million in the number of young people out of work . There was much hand wringing amongst politicians of every hue, many hollow sounding promises and even worse more “sticking plasters” announced by the government to address this situation – various “schemes” that we are told will help youngsters into work and stop them becoming what has begin to be called “NEETs” – that is youngsters who are Not in Employment, Education  or Training. The reality is, of course, that even allowing for the fact that these initiatives are well intentioned they do not and will not solve the problem – in the final analysis the jobs are just not there. To really address the problem a whole new view is needed that would have to encompass issues of globalization, capitalism and the like – and I really don’t see that happening (unfortunately) any time soon.

The second event has been a couple of conversations with friends. Both my friends said the same thing – complaining bitterly about what a waste of time it was for successive governments to want a huge percentage of the youth population to go to university. These youngsters should get out and get a job I was told and then, these comments were quickly followed by the follow up that many of these youngsters who go to university are undertaking "useless" courses. The implication of these comments being that only the very brightest and best should have the chance to go to university and that less “worthwhile” courses and universities should go to the wall.

Well, maybe they have a point – in an ideal world only the truly academically gifted would go to these two or three great seats of learning and the rest of us would indeed  go out to earn a perfectly rewarding and satisfying living in a myriad of other ways. In other words,  how it used to be. But, of course, we do not live in an ideal world and successive governments have told us that “education, education, education’ is the way forward. Our youngsters, as I said  in my last blog, are encouraged to get higher and higher exam results in order that they are viewed as employable or university material. But still, the rate of youth unemployment moves inexorably upwards. As I said above – there simply aren’t the jobs, and the rest is all irrelevant. So, from my perspective it seems to me that the young are in a bit of a sticky situation – very much between a rock and a hard place. Jobs not available, but if they follow government advice to stay on and get more education then they are criticised as doing "useless" courses or not of the right calibre for a “proper” university. I’m pretty sure that if I was leaving school and  thinking about my future now I would be pretty cheesed off and rather angry with what our society was offering to me.

Having said all that, however, there is another dimension to all this which impacts on the whole situation in a hidden and more insidious way – and which perhaps makes the whole situation infinitely worse.

A few years ago, Tony Blair claimed to want to create a genuinely meritocratic society in which those who rise to the top do so because of talent and ability rather than a privileged background. As Blair put it, “......the development of human potential, the belief that there is talent and ability and caring in each individual that often lies unnurtured or discouraged.” Blair wasn’t alone in this dream. In the last General Election my own MP, Kenneth Clarke, informed me, in a campaign leaflet - in which he asked for my vote -  that he “believed in a meritocracy”.  But this made me think! How can one in power say they believe in a meritocracy and still make the loyal oath to the Queen – the ultimate symbol of  an aristocratic society. Has our Queen got the top of the aristocratic tree because she worked harder and utilised her talents  better than any other aspiring Queen in the UK? Are there lots of failed Queens or second rate Queens sitting out there who didn’t quite work hard enough?  Or, is she our Queen and at the very pinnacle of our national tree, because quite simply, she has worked harder, used her talent and ability and care and fulfilled her human potential better than the rest of us – and thus has become Queen. If we had all worked as hard as she, then maybe  we too could have been King or Queen! Of course she hasn’t – she is Queen because of an accident of birth!  The whole thing is a nonsense! I wrote to Kenneth Clarke and asked him to justify his claims and made much the same points I made here. Now, whenever I have written to Clarke in the past, or since, he usually has the good grace to reply – as an MP he is  an OK guy. On this occasion, however,  not a peep. Perhaps he didn’t have a meaningful answer or perhaps one is not supposed to ask those questions.
Our "meritocratic" Queen - is she the
best Queen around? Are there lots of less
good Queens sitting around somewhere?

But, you might be asking – where is this going? I will tell you.

It would be hard disagree with the ethical and philosophical basis of a “meritocracy” – it is a goal to strive for. It is the American dream – anyone can be President if they  work hard. But it only really works if everyone has the same starting point, that there is common agreement about what constitutes ‘merit’  and that they have an equal chance of achieving that merit, value and ultimate reward. Equally, in striving for a situation where merit is the basis for advancement, it is also implicit that some will be excluded and perhaps disenfranchised if they don’t work quite so hard or don’t fulfil their potential quite so successfully. And, if a meritocracy is to mean anything  it must acknowledge diversity and difference. It must value all and the efforts of all. It must promote and value and reward a wide range of skills, abilities, aptitudes, lifestyles and employments. In brutal terms,  in a meritocracy, who is the most meritorious  - the merchant banker or the carer of some elderly patient? Certainly the best rewarded is the banker, so we assume that he/she is valued more highly and therefore has greater merit. Is this morally justifiable? Who judges the amount of merit?

Although the notion of a meritocracy has been around for many hundreds of years it really became a political and sociological ideology with the publication of Michael Young’s satirical  work “The Rise of the Meritocracy” in the mid–sixties.  Young was largely responsible for writing the Labour manifesto that swept Atlee's  Labour party  to power at the end of the war. His books ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ and the satirical ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ I can remember inspiring me and being  almost obligatory reading for people of my generation. Young’s thesis and subsequent writings over the next fifty years envisaged a meritocratic society but one which, sadly, he also forecast, would be ultimately doomed to failure. Briefly, he argued that laudable though a meritocracy is it will ultimately put ‘its seal of approval on a minority who to shine....and its seal of disapproval on the many who do not..... and as a result general inequality will become more grievous with every year that passes.’ When he wrote this in the late 1950s Young envisaged that this would come to pass during the middle years of the twenty first century. In the event he revised his opinion in 2001 – shortly before his death -  when he wrote that the years of the Thatcher government and then, especially, the Blair government had made it come to pass fifty years earlier than he anticipated! Which is, of course, exactly what we have today – just as he forecast. What would he think and say if he were alive today in 2011!

So we have this bizarre, perhaps morally indefensible and almost Kafkaesque  situation for young people (and indeed, for many others). Because of “economics”, the need to balance the accountant’s books and society’s ever increasing demand for “value for money”, cheap goods and the like our needs are satisfied by increasing uses of technology and cheap labour often from the far east. This results in people in this country (and others) being thrown out of work because the jobs are no longer available – to employ our own workforce will make goods too expensive, so better use technology or cheap labour abroad. Those lucky enough to be in work are increasingly in non-manufacturing industries since the manufacturing is done elsewhere in the world and they are increasingly dependent upon academic “qualifications” to access this work . Governments of every hue tell their electorate, or in this case the young, that they need more better qualifications so that they can access this economic and employment wonderland. As a society we increasingly “value” these qualifications, they define us as who we are. And at the same time, of course, they put value or merit on those that have them – and by  default devalue those that do not. If I am lucky enough to have the skills or the aptitude to be an accountant then the world is my oyster - if, on the other hand, my skills are (say) in caring for others then the rewards that the world will heap upon me are significantly less - and I will be the first out of work in hard times. Those who do not fit the value system inherent in the meritocratic society are marginalised and cast aside.  Each year we see thousands of youngsters whooping and crying as they receive their exam results - and those who did not, for whatever reason, creep off into the shadows with few prospects. My dad or the Denaby miner and the like (see previous blog) who possessed no such academic qualifications that would be meaningful today would  be of no value, no merit. Had this situation appertained when I was a teenager I would undoubtedly have been one of those to slink off and become a NEET. A non-person.

But the whole issue is compounded. Young’s predictions have become an awful and Pythonsque reality – because there is no work or because those with fewer academic skills are less able to access the job market they “stay on” at school - hoping to gain some of these qualifications, these educational  passports to work, dignity, security and happiness. Indeed, the government encourages them to do so – but then society derides them for undertaking “useless courses”. And then the government provides the ultimate kick in the teeth – it says, “Get lots of education, then you will get a job” (except a million don’t - they become  NEETs) – “Get the highest qualifications that you can – but ooops, we are sorry,  your 5 grades at “A”  are not quite  high  enough now because the standard is always rising and the jobs are getting scarcer – you need  5 at A*. Oh!.....and we nearly forgot to tell you, we will charge you many thousands of pounds for your studies when you go to university – a debt that you will carry around with you perhaps into middle age or older”.
Michael Young

If we are not angry then we should be. If the young are not angry then they should be. They, and we, are being taken for a ride – all because of the accountant’s ledgers, all because of globalization and our consumerist society's ever increasing demand for cheap goods and the venture capitalist’s quick buck. For all these reasons we  are not only taking away the right to go to work  but we are asset stripping and de-skilling a whole generation – and we are taking away any pride, dignity or responsibility  that they might have had or may have gained through work.

Of course, it is not all – the lucky few are doing well. Those able to access the academic wonderland, those who enjoy the privilege of birth and all that it brings, those who swapped the quadrangles of Eton for the quadrangles of Oxford and then the quadrangles of the Palace of Westminster have no such worries; those whose skills and abilities and aptitudes match the meritocratic society’s  set of values will be winners.  But what of the other (to coin the “Occupy” movement’s phrase) ninety nine percent. Successive governments have told us that better and better schools will ensure that the young are able to benefit and get the qualifications they will need.  Well, we’d all be in favour of  that so let us assume that the government’s dreams come to fruition. That Michael Gove waves his magic educational  wand and in a blink every school is like Eton, every child is an academic icon. Every child has qualifications of the highest order. Will there be jobs for all? Will everyone have a dignified role to play on society? Will everyone feel valued?  Of course not, it will not alter things one jot – the modern economy is reliant upon a smaller and smaller work force and upon fewer and fewer workers – the hewers of stone and carvers of wood are long dead. Under our present system the jobs are simply not there and unless we,  and the government, start from the Keynesian premise that full employment is the goal rather than the globalized economics based on consumerism and the quick buck of the City whizz kid, then there will be those who get life’s glittering prizes and an ever increasing number who do not. This is exactly what is happening today -  a few years ago it was only those youngsters with no qualifications who were unemployed NEETs – now we have youngsters who have played the educational game, have ticked all the right boxes and who  have perfectly good degrees in the long term unemployed. We should be very, very worried.

This is the contract that we have broken with our young and indeed with much of society and saddens me that we are not more angry. As a society we should be ashamed of ourselves - rather like in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of stew, as a society we have increasingly sold a huge portion of our society's future and our young for cheap imports, mobile phones from the far east or cheap food. We have sacrificed the jobs of Sheffield steel workers or Rhondda  miners or Lancashire weavers or Tyneside ship builders and the like for a quick business fix and the bank's profits. And in doing so we have taken away the future and the aspirations for many of our young. As we walk down our High Streets and shopping malls and pass, for example, "Primark" or "BHS" or "Matalan" and we take advantage of the ludicrously cheap imported clothes available in shops such as these and think "what  a bargain I have got", perhaps we should remind ourselves that in doing so we are also ensuring that there is no UK clothes manufacturing base to employ people. Had "Primark" and the like been around half a century ago then my mother and many of my relations would have been out of work as weavers and there would have been no factories for honest skilled youngsters to be employed in and learn the skills of factory engineering. But, of course this is what we do - the quest for a bargain has become the sole motivator and justification of society - and in making our purchases we feed the City accountant, banker and capitalist and at the same time take the future away from the rest of society. We ensure that the profits of people like "entrepreneur" Philip Green are maximised but our industrial base, our workforce and our young are cast aside in order to feed the   monster that is the City. We should all be ashamed and we are all to blame. I have quoted clothes "chains" - the situation and result is the same in other areas. Next month I will be travelling on a budget airline - I can travel hundreds of miles for a ridiculously low cost - what a bargain! But in order to achieve this, the facilities available have been pared, the staff reduced, checking in is all electronic.......and so the list goes on. Like other budget travellers I will take only hand baggage since to take extra incurs extra charges - so there will be no need for baggage handlers - another few jobs down society's drain. The real cost of my "bargain" - is the casting aside of staff and employment opportunities - but hey, let's not worry about it Michael O'Leary will have a few more coppers in his pot, City economists, accountants and bankers will be a little happier with the bottom line figure and their bonus increase - and I have a bargain! Everyone is a winner - except society!  I am not a Luddite fighting change and wanting a return to a mythical and golden past. But as society changes and technology, especially, impinges on our lives it must be the role of government to invest in the futures of the many and not the few. As William Beveridge, the impetus behind our welfare state, said "The object of government in peace and in war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but the happiness of common man". Had he been alive today he might have well slightly rewritten that to include other groups who ensure that the happiness of the common man is limited. And what would the great Joseph Chamberlain have said? Chamberlain, one of the very great British politicians and manufacturers said a hundred years ago "My aim in life is to make it pleasanter for this great majority; I do not care if it becomes less pleasant for the well to do minority". No, we should all hang our heads in shame as we sacrifice our future and the futures of the next generations for a bargain and a cheap deal.

As I noted in my previous blog even in the most primitive of societies, the young are valued - for they guarantee the future - as potential skilled hunters, as midwives,as witch doctors, as arrow makers and the like - and the jungle tribe teaches its young and gives them the chance to take over as hunters and gatherers and cooks and midwives -  for they provide tomorrow. We have taken the reverse view - marginalise the young, prevent them from learning the skills that society requires by removing the jobs and at the same time tell an increasing number of them that they don't have the skills to get on the ladder anyway because they haven't got enough "education, education, education". It has all the ingredients of a Gilbert and Sullivan satirical opera - my, what scathing songs W.S. Gilbert would write. It would be laughable if not so sad and serious.

The whole notion of meritocracy sounds appealing – indeed it is – as with Kenneth  Clarke's assertion that he believes in it, who wouldn't agree - and what a great sounding political slogan that everyone will vote for! But in only has any credibility or meaning  if the playing field is level and if the benefits that it brings through hard work, aptitude, ability and the rest are equally valued. But, of course, in the society we inhabit it is not level and all are not valued equally.

Two football teams begin the season. To all intents and purposes they are exactly even, similar players, same number of spectators, similar ground facilities. At the end of the season Team A wins the Meritocracy Cup – they have worked hard, played well and clearly been the better team. Their hard work, skill and endeavour has been rewarded and they take the trophy and the acclaim – they are valued. They have won the Meritocracy  Cup – and rightly so – and in doing so shown the superiority over the other team. It is an admirable lesson to the other team to work hard and then they too will win.  The winning supporters can justly claim that their team is the best and deserving of praise and value and merit.

But what if the two teams are different? What if one team is an ordinary team but the other has a rich owner who ensures that their facilities are so much better, that only the greatest athletes are used, that they have the best coaching and medical care that money can buy to ensure that they recover from injuries and are kept in the peak of physical condition. If and when this team wins the Meritocracy Cup are they quite so deserving. The losing side may have given their all throughout the season, worked much harder and  been far more committed to their task but have always been handicapped when compared to the other team. What do we or should we value here? It seems to me that issues of fairness and equality come into play – and these are critical considerations if one is talking meritocracy.

A silly example it is true – but not without "merit"! If we want a meritocracy then we must ensure that everyone involved has a completely even and equal chance to fulfil their potential – or in Blair’s words “to rise to the top because of their talent and ability rather than  their privileged background”

And, perhaps, most important, is that in  a meritocratic  society we must  all have a common understanding of what to value and what is of value. For in our society, we show how we value something by  the rewards we bestow upon it! If a meritocracy is to mean anything it must mean that everyone is valued for their contribution. In our society the major way that we reflect our value is by paying a wage. In the bizarre world of professional football we are happy to accept bizarre payments to twenty two men who chase a leather bag filled with air around a patch of grass for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon – and we see that as a useful contribution to society so we reward this merit with many thousands of pounds each week. We reward those who work in the City with huge sums of money. We pay our TV and film stars eye watering amounts. Now these payments might well be justified but for the life of me I can't understand why we do not, in the same way, show our esteem and value of the nurse or the care worker or the teacher or the lorry driver or the policeman or the miner or the .............. After all these people make a contribution – but we pay them much less, or we say hold on your job has gone now, you’re redundant. In short we say to the nurse and the teacher and the care worker and the postman “you and your role is of less value to us, you are of less merit.” In some areas of the country these people have to be offered "affordable housing" because although classed as "essential, key workers" we do not recognise their merit and value to society by a realistic wage. We value some things more than others – some things are seen to have greater merit and are therefore rewarded appropriately. This is the weakness of the notion of "meritocracy".
Who is most deserving of "merit"
 and wealth?
Wayne Rooney.......

Or the care Worker?
Well, you might now be accusing me of being naive or living in cloud cuckoo land. You might well be saying that’s just the way it is and that Wayne Rooney has such wonderful football talents that he deserves all this merit and money or that Jonathan Ross filling our air waves with expletives is part of the great values of our society so he deserves his millions of pounds in wages. And you may be right. But when you are lying on the hospital bed having just been involved in a motorway pile up, and you cling to life by a thread; or when you are old and feeble and need washing and cleaning and taking to the toilet; and when you have children and grandchildren and you want a teacher to teach them to read and add up; and when have no food in your larder because the post man hasn't delivered your pension and you have no money to buy food at the local shop.........then your value system  might be somewhat different. Wayne Rooney’s skills won’t be much use to you. Jonathan Ross’ expletives and cheap humour will not raise a smile. The City banker’s bonus or the venture capitalist’s profit will not sustain your empty belly through the dark night.

No, meritocracy is a good idea – but for it to work there has to be a fundamental shift on our values and aspirations.  As I said at the beginning I don’t see that happening any time soon – and in the mean time those  lucky enough to win the meritocracy race and be most highly valued – most full of merit in the eyes of society - will enjoy its benefits. And the rest – especially our young - can go to hell.