29 April, 2011

When Words Lose Their Integrity........

This morning I posted my local election and AV voting documents. It took me only micro seconds yesterday to complete my vote but rather longer to work out which slip went where in the various envelopes!  As I completed the process I noticed in my  newspaper, which lay on the table, the various comments about our Prime Minister’s latest contribution to the cultural and political life of the nation – his 'calm down dear' put down to the Labour MP Angela Eagle. I also noticed at the side of my newspaper, one of my birthday presents: a copy of Bertrand Russell’s seminal 'History of Western Philosophy'.

In the couple of days since Mr Cameron’s comment much has been written which you may or may not agree with – you may regard it as sexist, a bit of fun or whatever. For me I find it very sad and at the same time rather worrying in that it represents an aspect of politicians in general, and David Cameron in particular, that is unedifying and quite frankly unacceptable. Also for me, it links very closely with my AV vote. I thought about this as I filled in my voting slips, looked at the newspaper and the Russell book and recalled some words of historian Tony Judt.

 David Cameron is the Prime Minister. He is, I understand, a  descendent of  William IV. His education at Eton and the Oxford showed him to be academically very able and he left Oxford with a 1st in PPE – no mean feat. Whatever one’s views of him or his politics it cannot be denied that he has been instrumental in turning the Tory party round and got them back into power when only a few years ago they looked unelectable. I might not like the man or his politics but I cannot but acknowledge a CV like this! But at the same time I find him representative of a worrying trend in politicians in that he seems bent upon reducing everything to its lowest common denominator. His party have oft complained over the years about dumbed down youngsters, bog standard comprehensives, poor teaching, broken Britain and the like but to me he represents all of this with a  vengeance. The quality of his argument, his  tendency to reduce all to the lowest level and the sloppiness of his ideas never ceases to amaze. Tony Judt, if he was still alive, would weep. 'For many centuries' wrote Judt in his final, moving book, 'The Memory Chalet', 'in the western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility  of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary .... but it was never a matter of indifference: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested, at best, confused ideas.'

Only  a few weeks ago at the start of the AV Referendum campaign I watched Cameron give a speech against the proposed changes in which he said AV was just like Usain Bolt winning a race and then being told he hadn't won, that the  guy who came second had.  I saw this same argument peddled again yesterday when I read the 'No to AV' leaflet which had dropped through my door – a photo of four sprinters crossing the line and the man who was in third place being declared winner. Now, if Cameron is as bright as his CV seems to indicate he will know that this is an utterly fallacious argument and for him to peddle it and to put it forward as a reasonable commentary is at the best misleading and in my view tantamount to deceiving the electorate. Anyone reading this blog will know why it is misleading and incorrect – but briefly, winning a race is about one, measurable criteria, that is, who is the fastest. Winning a political debate or voting in an election is about opinion not fact and there are many shades of opinion. It is about ensuring that the parliament or council fairly represents the viewpoints of its electorate. AV or some form of proportional representation may go some way to address this.  Many will vote against AV because they feel that it might put back the ultimate goal of true proportional representation and I would respect their viewpoint on this. I cannot, however, accept Cameron’s nutty analogy.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying whether I support or dislike AV. Having read much of the 'No' literature there are indeed many powerful arguments for voting against. What I am against is this dumbed down popularisation of the arguments. I'm further worried, and indeed very cynical, when I read in the 'No' literature that I should vote against the measure because David Gower, Darren Gough and other famous sports stars and 'celebs' are doing  so. David Gower tells me 'I'm used to a system in sport...where if you win, you win; it's as simple as that....I can't see why politics should be any different'. Well, David, if you can't see why it should be different and why an election is not like a cricket match then I'm afraid that speaks volumes for your intellect and I'm not sure that I want your advice. I don't somehow see in yesteryear Churchill or Atlee or Macmillan or Foot or indeed Thatcher looking for support from the sporting heroes and celebs of the day!

Many of course would argue  that there are valid arguments to support the 'first past the post' system. Indeed there are and it is these  that our Prime Minister should be enunciating – not this drivel about winning races. But, sadly, in his anxiety to appeal to all people as a 'regular guy', Mr Cameron frequently  slips into this regurgitation of false truths, jingoistic comment and sound bites. In doing so he treats the electorate with contempt. Either he knew what he was doing (and as he is a bright lad I cannot believe that he did not) and is therefore guilty of misleading the electorate with this canard. Or, he does not understand the arguments and the issues and is therefore not competent to be PM.

He is not, however,  alone in this anxiety to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Gordon Brown and Blair before him were equally anxious to take the populist line of argument or curry the electorate's favour by aligning themselves with popular culture – telling us that they were a keen viewers of the 'X Factor' or 'Strictly Come Dancing' and the like. Our political debate is increasingly characterised by simplification, celebrity comment, popularism and PR speak. On the night New Labour swept to power in May 1997 I watched the results confirming a Labour victory – but my celebrations were short lived. At first relieved that after so many  years the Tories were out, a few minutes later my aspirations in tatters when I  heard the truly awful and banal singing of the mindless 'Things can only get better' New labour 'anthem' signalling to me that aspiration and inspiration were, if not dead, certainly in 'extremis' – it was all a PR exercise meant to curry favour and appeal to the masses not inspire and motivate them.  This cannot be what Prime Ministers – indeed politicians in general - should be about. If they do not inspire, widen horizons and convince by the force,  logic and rightness of their argument then they are, to use a much used cliché 'unfit for purpose'. Sadly my verdict on Cameron could equally apply to many members of the government and the Shadow Cabinet. What has happened to the giants of political debate, the great orators, the politicians who, even when you totally disagreed with them, you knew that deep down they were right and knew more than you. Where are the people who inspired by the breadth of their argument and wit? A brief read of the 'memoirs' of Tony Blair illustrates my point completely - banal story telling of the worst tabloid kind rather than a lucid and thought provoking exposition of political belief and action. Instead of policy, comment and argument based upon intellectual rigour and sound philosophy we have  3rd rate dross thought up by the likes of foul mouthed Alastair Campbell or by  Essex ex-'News of the World'  man Andy Coulson and then put into the mouths of our leaders.  If the level of our debate is to be rooted in popular appeal, shoddy arguments and the lowest common denominator comment then we are entering dangerous waters – it is in these regions where extremism flourishes. The facile argument, the ill thought out analogy, the populist phrase, the intentional manipulation of the facts by spurious argument are but part of the same 'rabble rousing' scale  which encompasses and characterises extremist parties like the BNP.
The wit of David Cameron as he 'puts down'
Angela Eagle

And so to Angela Eagle. To her credit Ms Eagle did not make a fuss about the comment from Cameron. Perhaps she felt, like me, it was all just a little sad. But what does it say about Cameron? Is he trying to impress us by showing that like the rest of us he watches TV and he knows the advertisement catch phrases? Is he trying to align himself with a  pathetic, failed film maker, Michael Winner, famed for this mindless phrase and who only a few weeks ago was in serious trouble because of the objectionable comments he was tweeting about the size of journalist Victoria Coren’s bosom? Or is Cameron just an old fashioned male chauvinist pig? Is he trying to say, 'I'm your mate' - I'm just like you? Or is it just another dimension of a man who breaks bread with the grotesque 'Oxfordshire set', a reflection of the company he keeps - politicians,  alleged 'celebrities' and  media personnel from News International and the like.  People one could only describe as upper class riffraff  - a number of whom are closely linked with a number of very dubious events and life styles. . People like boorish, overgrown schoolboy Jeremy Clarkson who  would roar with laughter at Cameron's comment to Angela Eagle. Take your pick - but whichever one you choose the result is the same it makes Cameron look a boor and a fool - not a Prime Minister and certainly not a statesman.

Sadly, I do not believe the comment to Ms Eagle was a slip of the tongue. If it was, then in a Freudian way, it says something about Cameron’s sense of humour and his viewing habits if these are the things that come into his mind in a flustered moment when he is corrected on a matter of fact. If it was not, then he knew what he was saying and doing and stands accused of  sexism. As with the AV comment – he cannot have it both ways.

But the real losers are ourselves and democracy when the quality of argument and discussion is reduced to this in the scramble for power.  As Judt so succinctly put it  'There is now a glib "popular" articulacy based upon shoddy prose and quality of argument and when words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.' We should all be worried - not about AV or First Past The Post or Proportional Representation - but about the abilities and the motives of our elected representatives. 

14 April, 2011

Another day in Paradise!

I read this morning of our Prime Minister’s latest words on the subject of immigration. I am determined not to rise to the bait – I’ll save that for another blog! Indeed, as each day passes, I find that rather like the mythical 'Angry of Tunbridge Wells' in his or her letters to the Times or Telegraph there is so much I could (and perhaps should) rail about in relation to government, politics,  people, society, the world at large, bankers, etc. etc. etc!
1930's Nottingham family
But no, this morning I will strike a more positive note.

In the past year or so we have all complained about banks, austerity, changes to the health service, Wayne Rooney, educational issues, the price of petrol – the list is endless. And it is true there is much to complain about, there is much to change for the good of all, there is much that we should not be pleased about. There are indeed many – too many - in our society who are deprived and on the wrong end of the good life. On a more pessimistic day I might argue that the present government (if indeed that is what it is!) are doing their damndest to ensure that the disadvantaged group becomes even greater and more disadvantaged – but , no, I will be optimistic!

The reality is that for the vast majority and indeed for society as a whole we live in what many would describe as paradise. When thinking about this I’m often reminded of the Phil Collins' song 'Another Day in Paradise' or the even more poignant and biting 'Streets of London' by Ralph McTell

So how can you tell me you're lonely, 
And say for you that the sun don't shine? 
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London 
I'll show you something to make you change your mind

There are indeed many in our society who usually though no fault of their own are seriously disadvantaged or living in situations and conditions that the rest of us cannot appreciate. But, for the majority we are better off than we have ever been.

Childhood illness and deformity was
 commonplace until relatively recently
In 1957 Macmillan famously said 'You’ve never had it so good......'  and no matter how much we might think otherwise he was right then and still right now. The policies pursued by Macmillan and his contemporaries – especially Atlee - meant improvements for ordinary people that only a few years before would have been quite unbelievable. Oh, for politicians of the intellectual and moral vigour of Macmillan and Atlee today – instead we get PR men completely devoid of ideas, intellect or moral fibre and who are 'stage managed' like puppets in thrall to unelected advisers and big corporations of the Murdoch type.

But to return to the positive. Look back at old photographs and films and the living conditions of most of the population were far removed from today’s expectations. Go into any major city any day of the week and see ordinary people coming back with shopping bags and car boots laden with purchases – many of them undeniably 'luxury goods' – in the sense that they are not 'necessities'. Credit cards mean instant gratification and although the bill ultimately has to  be paid, the reality is that people still enjoy the 'good life'. Houses with bathrooms, hot water, labour saving machines, dining out, a well stocked fridge, a car on the drive, a doctor easily available if required, hospital treatment 'free' when needed, major diseases a relative thing of the past because of the improved hygiene and living conditions available, our refuse taken away on a regular basis, a free school for our children to attend and so on. What is there not to like about it?

Go to many third world countries and residents there would very quickly swap their conditions for ours. No, compared with many and compared with the past most of us live in paradise.

But of course we do moan, we find fault. Perhaps it is part of the human condition. Perhaps we have become 'soft' and dependent. Perhaps the maxim 'familiarity breeds contempt' has a resonance. Perhaps, like the society envisaged in H.G. Wells’ 'The Time Machine', we have become a society of lotus eaters who are unable to grasp reality because our every need is met.
A Sheffield miner after the shift
in his 1930s 'bathroom'

I read this week a number of letters in the Guardian where readers complained at the 'poor service' they got in relation to the collection of their rubbish – too many separate bins to fill, only collected every second week etc. Now many of the points might have some validity but my bins have been collected this morning on their usual two weekly cycle – one week for household rubbish and the second week for paper/cans and garden waste. All I have to do is put out my bin the night before and by breakfast time next day my rubbish has gone. What is there, when one is realistic, to complain about? I was talking a couple of weeks ago to a man of my generation who complained bitterly and refused to separate his rubbish – everything went on the same bin – 'I’m not doing the council’s job' he said. Hmmm. Not sure about that!

My late mother always said that in her day people were so much more honest – 'you could leave your front door open and no-one would enter or steal anything' she would pronounce and perhaps she was right. I think that there perhaps was a more moral and honest atmosphere. But, I also think, that it had something to do with the fact that most people didn’t have much worth stealing! No DVD players, plasma screens, flash cars on the drive, mobile phones, computers etc. The house I grew up in was furnished with second hand furniture and what money we had was in mother’s purse – not a lot to want to steal! Today ordinary people have wealth and possessions that our grandparents could not imagine.

No, whichever way I look at it, the vast majority of us are better off today – but perhaps we don’t always appreciate it. At  a personal level, I was reading through the old documents that I inherited from my mother. I found my grandfather’s death certificate. He died at 61  (in 1953) of 'congestive heart failure'. My mother died in 2002 aged 82  of 'congestive cardiac failure'. And a year or so ago I was diagnosed with heart failure. Bit of a family tradition! The difference is that such is  medical and social progress that I am supported by a battery of pills, regular check ups and blood tests, my own heart failure nurse at the end of a telephone or e-mail 24 hours a day and if I am hospitalised, go into a cardiac unit resembling a 5 star hotel. I am told that if I take my pills, keep a reasonably healthy life style and the like, the heart failure should not be a problem and may well slowly improve. And this all for 'free'! What is there to complain about. And yet I do moan - if go to my GP for my regular blood tests and have to wait I moan, if I can't get an appointment for a few days or a week or so, I moan.  But deep down I know that I am lucky.  If I go to A & E, as I did some months ago when I  cut my finger, I had to wait a couple of hours – my injured finger was rightly not judged to be life threatening. But if I go suffering breathing difficulties or symptoms that might be 'heart related' I am whisked into the emergency rooms and seen immediately. What is there to moan about? A far cry this from just over half a century ago when the doctor’s bill had to be paid and the weekly wage had run out.
When I visit Nottingham city centre I see youngsters
 in expensive  trainers - I can't remember the last time I
saw teenagers with bare feet.

As I walk around my kitchen and switch on the dish washer, check that the washing machine is nearing the end of its cycle, stand by the radiator to warm my hands, peer into the freezer to select what I will have for my tea, visit my downstairs loo, I am minded that it is a million miles away from the house I grew up in during the post war years. One sink in the kitchen with a cold water tap. No bathroom, a lavatory at the top of the back yard which my mother stocked with torn up pieces of the Daily Mirror to use as toilet paper, no dishwasher or washing machine. A fireplace in the front room but no other form of heating in the two up two down house. The larder largely empty, partly because with no fridge food could not be kept, but mostly because mother shopped as required – when she had the money. It was not uncommon that by Thursday lunch we had run out of money and my mother would borrow from her  sister who worked in the mill – this to see us through till my dad got his wages later on Thursday or Friday or even Saturday. As a long distance lorry driver Dad was sometimes 'away' until Saturday and in that event couldn’t pick his wages up till he got back on Saturday morning – then we had real money problems! One of my abiding memories is of the day my mother got her first Hoover - for which she had saved up. She really did think herself blessed - no more sweeping with a brush - and when she at last managed a fridge -well, a her worries were over! But we weren’t unusual – that was how it was for so many people and in fact compared to many we were 'well off'.  Today people would pop out to Comet and buy a Hoover or fridge and not even think about it. No, for most, today is paradise indeed.

Of course, the reality is that for many 'paradise', the good life, isn’t really happening – disadvantage, employment, education whatever means that many cannot access the 'luxury' that most of us experience. This, however, does not mean that for the majority things are not better – despite austerity, despite cut backs, despite banker’s bonuses we have 'never had it so good.' And in a strange way I believe that when those of who are in paradise moan about the situation and how it affects us we are somehow taking the spotlight off those who  really are in difficulties. Perhaps this is the increasing challenge for politicians of all parties and for our society to ensure that all can access what the majority already has. But that might be the subject of another blog – be warned!
A weekly bath or the paddling pool -
but I can remember a tin bath filled with
 boiled up water  on a Friday night.

At the height of the tuition fees protest a few months ago BBC News interviewed a number of students who were rightly protesting and understandably anxious about their future in the light of the government’s proposals to introduce a significant rise in fees. A young man was interviewed and he complained bitterly about the government’s proposals. He had just completed his 'A' levels and done very badly – the result being that the university place he thought he had was no longer available. He was therefore going on a gap year. He complained that this was going to cost his parents some thousands and that it would delay his eventual entry into university and he might therefore be subject to the proposed increase in fees – costing both his parent’s and eventually himself money. I could see his logic and had a certain sympathy. 'Where are you going for your gap year?' asked the interviewer – the response was 'Thailand – I’m going to get a job in a beach bar'. He continued 'I think that it will be good – it will help my CV and give me the skills to  get a better job'.

At that point I lost the will to live – this seemed to me like the personification of Wells’ lotus eaters – totally out of touch with reality. Here is a young man complaining (not unreasonably) about a government policy that may well affect him. He is complaining that the fees increase will cause him and his parents financial hardship but in the same breath saying his parents and he will shell out significant money to spend a year on the beach in Thailand! Hmmmm. He furthers his argument by telling us that this year on a beach will enhance his CV and give him skills he was unable to access or develop in his previous twelve plus years in one of the finest educational systems in the world. I wonder on what basis he believes this? Having spent all that time in full time education he had still 'blown' his 'A levels but somehow thinks that a year working in a bar on a beach will make up for this and do what twelve plus years in school and the benefit of his parents’ support have not done. No matter how I try I cannot work out the logic of this. There seems no thought that 'I’ll use the year to improve my  academic qualifications  , or put the money I would spend in going to Thailand towards my increased potential university fees, or get some other work in the UK to boost my earning and my CV at the same time' – no a year on the beach in Thailand is going to solve all his problems. My feeling is that the young man needed a reality check.
No labour saving devices!

And this is the problem.  Although there are many things wrong in our society and many who are seriously disadvantaged, the majority are in relative paradise but don’t see it that way. The young man in question felt that the way to deal with a particular set of problems was to go off to a beach on the far side of the world. It is the same as the rest of us complaining that the government’s cuts will cause us great suffering – for many they will, but for most they will not.  I might be a little worse off, I might have to wait a bit longer in A & E, I might not get quite the expected interest on my savings, I might have to pay a bit more for my petrol, I might have to consider whether I can afford to go to the pub a couple of times a week or dine out with the same regularity – but for the majority few of these are life threatening decisions. They are choices – and the young student also was making choices – although there was a serious situation in relation to his qualifications and his future education or job prospects the opportunities were still there – if he did the right thing - if he made the right choice. His relative wealth and the safety net provided by society meant that he had, like the rest of us,  options and choices  and a beach in Thailand was his choice, his preferred option! In years gone by he may well have not had that choice - the failed qualifications may have meant an end to his aspirations, his parents may simply have been unable to have considered funding his gap year - whatever. I wish him well – except if I ever interviewed him for a place at university or a job I might be unimpressed by his life style choices and his logic! 

But in our way we are all like him - increased wealth, changes in society  and the like have meant that for the vast majority of us it is all about choices and not hard life and death decisions. The safety net of the welfare state, the benefits of our health and education system, the quality of our housing and the rest mean that the vast majority do not have to make the same tough decisions about life and death  that our grandfathers and grandmothers had to make. Compared with our grandparents we are in paradise. The vast majority of the decisions that we make are about  how we can make life a bit more comfortable rather than whether we have anything to eat  - when that is the decision one has to make it focuses the mind somewhat and thoughts of a beach in Thailand become of less significance or do not even come into the equation!   

'Oh think twice, it's just another day for you, 
You and me in paradise'.

05 April, 2011

How Times Have Changed.

Finney as I remember him.
Today, April 5th, is  89th  birthday of one of the footballing greats. Certainly the greatest player who ever played for his club and many would argue probably the greatest player this country ever produced. Tom Finney of Preston North End.

A quietly spoken man. Slight, almost gaunt - as a player not an obvious athlete. Indeed, at 14 he weighed less than 5 stones and stood only 4ft 9inches tall. He would have never made it in the game today where brute strength and no little ignorance  is the required CV for the bash and crash aggression which today passes for sport of all kinds but especially football.

I saw Finney many times, queued for his autograph regularly, was present at Stamford Bridge when the iconic photograph -  'the Splash' - was taken of him and I was there  at his final game and stood in the throng on the Preston pitch as he said his last farewell in 1960 – a  match against Luton. As he ran onto the pitch at the start of the game the crowd joined together to sing "Auld Lang Syne" and at the end of the game, Finney having given a little speech of thanks (no monosyllabic grunting, no expletives, no drunken revelry or spraying of champagne)  the crowd surrounding him sang 'For he's a jolly good fellow' and clapped and cheered. A huge amount of love and respect from the Preston crowd – his one and only club. My abiding memory of Finney was not goal celebrations in the style of Rooney, not athletic power play but silky skills as he picked up the ball on the half way line and jinxed down the right wing close to where I used to sit as a child on the cinder track at the side of the pitch or later stand behind the metal barrier or stand. He would drift pass one then two players and approach the angle of the box, the full back waiting to pounce. He would hover, ball between his feet waiting, drop his shoulder and go the other way. The full back would lunge but Finney had gone, or if the defender was unlucky, he caught the great man and a penalty was awarded.
Bradman in his prime

Bill Shankly who played with Finney at Preston was one of his greatest admirers. Shankly’s wit is renowned  and he got it just right when he said: "Tom Finney would have been great in any team, in any match and in any age ... even if he had been wearing an overcoat” and later when asked to compare one of his Liverpool stars with Finney he said  "Aye, he's as good as Tommy – but then Tommy's nearly 60 now”

I thought about all this as I read the latest objectionable revelations about Wayne Rooney's behaviour - and thought  how far we have come as a society. Like Rooney, Finney was from a very humble background but not only was he a superior footballer and sportsman he was also a more mature and responsible person. We make so many excuses for players today - young men from humble backgrounds who suddenly find themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams, the pressure of the game, the pressure and intrusion of the media etc. etc. What we also forget is that they are living the dream and they consistently behave like fools and yobs. I am reminded of two comments from real stars of days gone by. Keith Miller, the Australian test cricketer of the  fifties usually regarded as the greatest all rounder Australia ever produced. He once famously said of pressure in sport; 'playing in a test match isn't pressure - pressure is having a messerschmit  up your bum' - Miller had been a bomber pilot in the war. And closer to home, the great Bolton centre forward Nat Lofthouse, one of Finney's peers and a great personal friend. Lofthouse died recently and Finney attended his funeral. Lofthouse had worked in the mines and continued to work there while he played football for Bolton and he often said 'Football's not work it's easy money - I've worked down the mines and I know'. Perhaps Mr Rooney and his ilk need a messerschmitt up their tattood bums and work experience down the mines to assist them in growing up and getting a grasp of reality.

And as I thought about this blog, another name came to mind – not a footballer, but unarguably the world’s greatest cricketer – Bradman. Similar to Finney in so many ways. Not a sensationalist, not a rabble-rouser – quiet, ultra disciplined, focused with consummate skills. He was revered abroad as well. When Nelson Mandella was released after 27 years in prison, one of his first questions  was, "Is Sir Donald Bradman still alive?" A few years ago when in Australia I had a never to be forgotten day at the Adelaide Oval – Bradman’s 'home'. We had a guided tour and the guide proudly told us that a huge percentage of 'the Don’s' runs were from singles – not from whiz bang crash boundaries. 'That’s boring' said one of the young Brits (baseball cap facing backwards!)in the group. 'No it isn’t' said the guide – 'it’s skill'. When Bradman scored his world record score (334)  at Leeds in July 1930 he scored only 46 fours the rest were singles. He scored 300 in one day. His career average records that he scored about three quarters of his runs from singles rather than the big hit – rolling his wrist, guiding and gliding the ball through the gaps. In the whole of his test career he scored only 6 sixes! Twenty Twenty Cricket would never have suited Bradman – nor would the chanting crowd or the Barmy Army who want instant excitement and gratification. Personally I believe it is all to do with brain cells – they have too few and this means they can’t concentrate for long  enough to enjoy the subtle parts of the game! Like a drug taker they need a regular  'fix' - a goal or a violent incident, a boundary or a screamed rant at the ref. Like a drug taker the small skills and nuances of the game are insufficient to register in their addled minds.The tension and the 'excitement', the violence and the aggression has to be constantly hyped up to satisfy the habit - just as the drug taker has to constantly increase his 'fix' to gain any satisfaction, so too with modern crowds the adrenalin has to be fed with glamour, excitement, aggression, power, goals, runs, action, controversy. There is no place for the quiet skills and integrity of the game.

The Splash!
Finney and Bradman were similar and yet very different. Finney from a large, poor family was born within yards of the Preston North End ground and from the earliest days wanted to be a footballer. His father insisted he learned a trade - plumbing - and to this day he is known as the 'Preston Plumber'. His mother died when he was four - he was thus reliant on his father. His father, a keen football supporter gave him one bit of advice "Accept the rules of the game. The referee is always right and nothing you say or do after a decision could or should alter anything". Finney played his whole career without being booked or sent off. Bradman was from a small family and lived in the Australian bush. With no playmates he practised his cricket - hour after hour hitting a ball against a water butt. There was no point hitting the ball hard - he would have to had to run after it so he concentrated on skill and control. It made him the consummate batsman. As a youngster he was taken by his father one day to the Sydney cricket ground - on that day he vowed that he would play there and from that moment on he was a driven man. Both Finney and Bradman were articulate thinking people. This was the age before players had agents to speak for them or to advise them what to say. Finney's hero was the Preston player Alex James and he said of him " he had sublime skills" - I don't somehow see Rooney uttering those words! Finney's comment is perhaps also indicative of the reason for the changing times. Sport today (indeed, perhaps life too) is not based around 'sublime skills' or finesse or subtlety or sporting conduct. It is, like today's modern world, brash and  'in your face' - instantly accessed and instantly forgotten.  Batsmen no longer 'walk' when they know they are out - they await the umpire's decision and often accept it with ill grace. No, it is based around power play, athleticism, strength - and sadly 'gamesmanship' and intimidation. In tennis, long gone are the long rallies - they are replaced by power serves and brute strength - even in women's tennis. And crowds follow the lead - they no longer appreciate sportsmanship or gentlemanly conduct. Winning is all. The famous (or infamous) bodyline test series of the 1930's was a series that questioned the soul of cricket and how it should be played. It would not even get a mention today.

No, sport has changed in so many ways – players, crowds, expectations, rewards and behaviour. I thought about this when reading of Mr Rooney’s latest outburst – his expletives into the camera when he scored his hat trick at the weekend. There are all sorts of views on this – we have to expect it because players are so wound up, cameras shouldn’t be put in the face of sportsmen (somehow this is twisted into blaming the cameraman – the logic of that escapes me), aggression is part of modern sport and sportsmen and women would not be so good without it. Hmm! – I’m  not sure I can accept any of those.

Bradman is welcomed by English supporters
at the Oval - don't see this happening
in today's great arenas
The comment yesterday by Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was exactly right. Redknapp said of Rooney's expletive filled hat trick 'celebration'  "I don't know why he did that. I don't remember Bobby Charlton doing that when he used to smack goals into the top corner from 35 yards. Why do these young players have to be so angry with the world? I don't know why. They are getting hundreds of thousands of pounds a week." 

I recently watched a TV programme about the German keeper Bert Trautmann who famously broke his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final.  The old black and white films of the huge crowds that flocked to grounds in those days – Main Road packed with 50 and 60 plus thousand week after week – was a nostalgic trip.

I remembered that I had stood there on many occasions in that era and, after the game, climbed into my Uncle Ken’s car for the trip home to Preston. My uncle had a bit of cash – the only member of our family to own a car -  and by the time the late fifties came  he owned a rusting 2.4 Jag.  As I climbed in it outside places like Main Road I felt like a king! As we sat on the car park waiting to get away from the ground – Main Road, Burnden Park, Anfield, Old Trafford, Elland Road, Hillsborough  and the like, wherever Preston were playing – 5 o’clock would approach and my Uncle would turn on the radio. A car with a  radio – boy was I moving in the top circles – and we would listen to the strains of the 'Sports Report' theme music. Even today, over half a century later, at 5 o’clock every Saturday afternoon as I hear the 'Sports Report' tune - whether I am sitting at home, driving  or whatever, I am transported back to those far off days. I can hear the purr of the Jag engine, I can smell the leather upholstery, I can taste the flask of coffee left in the car for after the game. I can see the flat capped supporters pressing against the side of the car as they made their way home – still waving their scarves or spinning their rattles.  These great, good natured crowds were non-threatening, friendly  and mature.

Bradman on his way to his record score
I  remember too, in 1962, going to night school on February 20th.  When I got there  everyone, including the teacher, had gone  to Deepdale to see the FA Cup replay with Shankley’s Liverpool. I ran through the streets and arrived about 10 minutes after the kick off. The gates were closed, I had no ticket  and I stood listening to the roaring 37,825 crowd.  Then, some nearby double gates burst open and stewards good humouredly  escorted fifty or sixty of fans out and shepherded them to another area of the ground where there was more space. I didn’t waste a second. I slipped in, squeezed through the crush and clambered up the floodlight! I've often thought of contacting the club and telling them (and the FA) that they had the attendance wrong - it was 37,826 - I sneaked in without  a ticket! This was Shankley’s first great team and the game ended in a 0-0 draw.  I was at neutral Old Trafford a week later  with 61,539 others to see PNE beat Liverpool and progress into the next round against United. A 0-0 draw against United at Deepdale  was followed by a 2-1 trouncing at Old Trafford in front of another 63,351 fans. I  was disappointed with the result but exhilarated to see the great post-Munich  side of Charlton, Herd, Quixall, Foulkes, Setters Cantwell and Giles.

Finney speaking after his last game -
and I'm on there - standing with my friends in the middle
of the very back row at the top of the picture!
 The crowds stood, squashed together and swayed back and forth as the game ebbed and flowed.  They were good natured and infinitely better behaved and more responsible. Supporters might wear their club scarf – I had a knitted woolly blue and white striped hat made by my mum – but generally wore their everyday working clothes.  So much less intimidating than today’s crowds where segregation, separate turnstiles, armies of 'blokes', who Peter Pan like, refuse to grow up and want to wear their replica shirt embossed with the name of their hero like so many overgrown schoolboys. These are the order of the day.   Today CCTV monitors the crowd’s every movement, everyone is supposed to sit down – partly for safety – but, as the police will tell, you this is more to do with the ease of controlling people.
 The aggressive atmosphere that permeates today’s games, when Ferguson rages, Rooney screams expletives and crowds bay for blood, as if they were watching gladiators at some Roman amphitheatre, is a long, long way from the on and off field sportsmanship of years ago.  Rooney’s aggression  is what makes him  a great player we are told – and I think back to those far off days and wonder if that is so?

There have always been hard men –  the late Bill Brindley, always said of his days at Nottingham Forest and Notts County, 'I was never a great player I just stopped great players playing' – Chopper Harris, Nobby Stiles, Norman Hunter – the difference was that they knew what they were doing. It was part of the game plan. Rooney and his ilk are different – it is uncontrolled – they are violent, immature people. And I look back and wonder, does Rooney’s aggression really make him a better player than Giggs, Charlton, Greaves, Pele, Lineker, Eusabio, Best, Duncan Edwards, Law, Beckenbauer, Moore, Finney, Matthews, Cruyff etc.  or is it that, like the playground bully, the aggression and uncontrolled temper is a substitute for his playing, intellectual and personal deficiencies.

I often wonder if we will ever see the likes of players like the great Eusabio again. The greatest Portuguese footballer and a man still today often voted as the 'fairest' player in the world. Humble in the extreme and from very poor origins he stood only 5ft 9 inches tall. At the height of his career playing for Benfica the crowd were chanting his name. After the game he said "When I first heard the whole Stadium chanting my name I honestly felt dizzy" - no expletives there! This was the man who on his second game for his team as an 18 year old  single-handedly almost won the game for them. Four nil down at half time he was brought on as substitute and scored a hat trick - he had scored a hat trick in his first game too! The game ended in a 6-4 defeat for Benfica but then the opposition was the great Brazilian team Santos captained by Pele! It puts Rooney's hat trick 'celebrations' against West Ham, a team who have struggled all season, into perspective! But my favourite story of Eusabio is one I can remember seeing. The 1969 European Cup Final at Wembley between Benfica and Manchester United. With the scores 1–1  he came close to winning the game for Benfica in the dying seconds of the game. He broke through the United defence and unleashed one of his famous drives -  he was noted as one of the hardest hitters of the ball in the world. Amazingly, his shot was foiled by a spectacular  Alex Stepney save. As Stepney lay on the ground clutching the ball, Eusabio stood and applauded and as the keeper stood up shook his hand to acknowledge the great save. That's sportsmanship - and I don't see it being Mr Rooney's reaction - nor sadly do I see it being Mr Ferguson's reaction either. After the game, when United had won, there were no moans and recriminations from Eusabio. No regrets about the save - just a sporting 'well done' to United and 'you were the best team'.  We have lost something in recent years.

Alex Ferguson’s managerial rants, Andy Murray's on and off the court expletives,  Serena Wiiliams’ grunting power play, 'bash it and crash it' cricket, Ashley Cole's increasingly unpredictable behaviour, Rooney’s on the field violence and abuse and his off the field life style choices - and the rest - mean that the sportsmanship,  grace, intelligence, discipline and skill of sport is at a nadir and sadly, the end result is that their  actions provoke and influence. It makes violence, foul language and aggression part of the expectation at big games – it is not only a bad model for youngsters but it also makes crowds the intimidating beasts that they have become. I wonder what fond memories today’s youngsters will have – Rooney’s scowls and four letter words, vicious tackles, abuse of referees, complaining managers, policemen with batons and CCTV to control the crowds.

Finney's 'splash' remembered today
at Deepdale
Such a long way from Main Road all those years ago as I sat looking through the window of the Jag and waved and smiled at the City supporters who waved and smiled back – whatever the result.  And such a long way from the days of Finney and Bradman. And when I think of Harry Redknapp's comment questioning why current stars are 'so angry' - when they 'earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a week' and are idolised by millions I know there is something profoundly wrong with sport, football and indeed society.Our sporting heroes have changed - they are now idols not heroes, mindlessly idolised for the glamour and life style, sensationalism and competitive athleticism not their charm or grace or skill.  The people that I have written about in this blog - Finney, Bradman, Eusabio, Lofthouse, Trautmann etc. all came from very difficult backgrounds - poor in the real sense of the word, humble, an ex-POW in a foreign country, a coal miner and the like - but their background or their fame didn't make them angry or vicious or violent - it helped to make them better players and  mature, thinking people.  What would the great sports writer and journalist Alistair Cooke write today? Over seventy years  ago he wrote of the golfer Bobby Jones: "What we talk about here is not the hero as sportsman, but that something which a civilised community hungered for and found: the best performer in the world who was also hero as human being, the gentle, wholly self-sufficient male". People like Jones, Charlton, Moore, Finney, Eusabio, Trautmann, Bradman, Miller - and today Giggs - were similar, true heroes. They were, first and foremost, men who displayed personal qualities to applaud and to  inspire and for us lesser mortals to emulate. And these qualities were epitomised in their style of play and the way they conducted themselves on the field of play.   They were sportsmen who showed us the best in human nature and endeavour, they were men  to aspire to as people and who inspired us to the best - not the charmless, graceless individuals that day after day make the headlines for the wrong reasons.   

Happy birthday Tom – and thanks for the good memories.