17 December, 2014

Civilization would be a good thing......maybe we should try it sometime!

 When asked what he thought of western civilization Mahatma Gandhi replied that it was “an interesting thought” and it “would be a good idea” -  a comment that must have ruffled a few feathers in the final days of that “high point” of British Empire and civilization the Raj. I have thought about this quote on several occasions in the past week or so as we race towards Christmas – surely another of the “high points” of “western civilization”. In the mad, hurly burly of the Christmas run up we have witnessed once again the unacceptable face of our “civilization”.  Black Friday saw us binging on excess and in addition scrambling and fighting in shops to get a bargain. This was soon followed by an all-party report on the rapid growth of charity food banks warning that Britain is stalked by hunger caused by low pay, growing inequality, a harsh benefits sanctions regime and social breakdown. And, as an add on to this, when I pick up my newspaper, watch TV or listen to the radio it is not long before I am aware of the inequalities in our land especially at this time of year; appeals from charities for us to support their efforts in providing aid and assistance to the many who are in some sort of need especially at this time. All this has, of course, in recent times been given a sharp focus because, we are told, we live in an unavoidable age of austerity. We have been living beyond our means; economies must be made is the new mantra of all the political parties.
The good Baroness with her bargains - ready for the poor!

It is only a week or two since Chancellor George Osborne set out his budget plans which the pundits suggested will mean savage cuts for us all but will disproportionately hit those most in need. Following this Conservative Peer Baroness Jenkins  helpfully advised us all  that  'We have lost our cooking skills. Poor people don't know how to cook.....I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.'  And then, in the past few days, the Minister with responsibility for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, posited that child benefit should be limited to a family’s first two children. This, Smith, suggested, would “save money” and prompt “behavioural change”. As Polly Toynbee commented in this morning’s Guardian “There can rarely have been a better fit for Ebenezer Scrooge than Iain Duncan Smith.” Toynbee went on to remind us that Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol asks, “Are there no workhouses?” he is told that many would rather die than go into one. “If they would rather die,” Scrooge replies, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”. This, it seems, is Christmas message of these austere times. As we increasingly are obsessed with money (or lack of it), the haves and the have nots and our obsession with the new religion – economics – the screw seems to be increasingly turning upon those who can least defend themselves. The message of Baroness Jenkins is clear – the poor can do more to help themselves. And Duncan Smith’s position is even more worrying. In his comments about “behavioural change” he is going back to the 1974 vision of Conservative minister Keith Joseph who suggested that “A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world … Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness … They are producing problem children … The balance of our human stock, is threatened.”  From this position there are only a few very small steps to a world that few would like. We are potentially into some serious stuff here – we should all be very, very afraid and worried at what our "civilization" is quietly turning into.  
Duncan Smith - ex Guards, ex-University of Perugia (Sorry,untrue, it wasn't
THE university in Perugia but a small college which he left after only
a few months and without gaining any qualification -  he fibbed on his CV and
was caught by the BBC). Ex-College of Management (Ooops! sorry again, another
"porky"* on his CV - he only attended for a few days and gained no qualifications).
He is, however, a senior member of the government and lectures the less
fortunate on their "behaviour" and how they must not cheat or play the system
by claiming things for which they are not entitled. Well, I suppose he would know.
  [* "porky" =  cockney slang for "pork pie" = "lie" ]

But we are not, it seems, very afraid for we increasingly accept all this as the norm. Such was the outcry at Joseph’s comments in 1974 that he lost the contest for the party leadership. Today Duncan Smith’s comments in the same vein hardly raised a whisper of outcry, such is the state of our modern “civilization”.  We have become accepting of our unequal society and we have taken on board the message that there is “no alternative”. The screw must be turned and sad though it is, it seems we are comfortable that some will suffer more than others. It is the way of things. It can’t be helped. There has been a deafening silence from politicians of all parties when there should have been outrage.

In researching this blog I came across this from the “estimable” Baroness Jenkins: “I spent about 2 hours in Tesco last week, putting things into and out of the trolley, trying to work out where to save the odd pence or two to stretch it further.  Fine as a one off, but imagine having to work out every single penny every time you go shopping.  I was thrilled to find four HUGE potatoes (600g each) for a pound which will go a long way. Lunch tomorrow will consist of soup for 11.5p per portion – recipe as follows. 1kg bag of frozen mixed vegetables 65p; 2 stock cubes 2p; half enormous potato 13p; one onion 10p; can of baked beans 25p; 10 grams lentils 10p. Two slices of cheap Tesco bread (2p per slice) with very cheap own brand cheese spread (4p) and a tomato 3p (got another good deal at the market 40 tomatoes for £1.20) and finish off with custard (two packets at 6p each) and half a banana.  So reasonably nutritious and I hope filling, but it has been time consuming planning it and this is only day one.  Imagine having to plan like this every day?  Baroness Jenkins is right – “imagine having to plan like this every day..........”  Most of us do not have to do this, and would not like it if we had to; many however do have to suffer this day in day out. Instead, we  and the Baroness walk round the supermarket and pick things from the shelf with abandon, we have our little “treats”, we buy in bulk to get the best price, we use our credit cards and scramble with the rest on Black Friday to buy another flat screen TV, computer game, coffee machine or designer outfit that we do not need but which is “a bargain” or the latest “must have” object of our desires. And at the same time as we do this one of the elected “leaders” of our “civilization” Iain Duncan Smith speaks of “behavioural change” being applied to those who cannot live the life that most of us do. I'm forced to ask myself maybe it is us, the haves, who need the "behavioural change"

Although I might decry the opinions of people like Jenkins and Duncan Smith I am ready to accept that they are trying to be helpful – it would indeed be a good thing if we were all able to regularly use our cooking skills to create cheap, nutritious and “exciting” meals. It would, too, be a good thing if benefits could be more accurately focused to ensure that all members of our society received what they needed and wanted for “the good life” but that seems hardly the point. In the end we have to deal with the here and now and my reading of the situation is that our civilization is failing a significant part of the most vulnerable in our society. As I have oft argued before, times have changed even in the sixty plus years since I was a child. In those days and before there were different expectations for all. Yes, there was inequality but it was rarely so visible as in today’s world. I rarely if ever met or saw someone who was much better off than me so I was “happy with my lot” – I knew no different. People were not defined in the same way as today where materialistic possessions are the salient feature.  Everyone largely “made do”. Life, I believe, was simpler – harder maybe in terms of work - but with many more certainties. Few of us would wish to go back to those times for a variety of reasons but equally, as a society, people had fewer expectations. Today, our TV and newspapers are filled with “the good life” which is pushed at us incessantly. We are overtly and covertly reminded  of what we all need and are entitled to as part of the 21st century  good life. A cosmetic advert of many years standing tells women “go on, you’re worth it.......”. Watch the adverts between children’s programmes on TV and see how young minds are impressed with the desirability of the latest doll or toy gun or computer console. How does the family who are struggling cope with this as Christmas rears its head? How does the mother with little in her purse and a small child in hand walk through the supermarket or the shopping mall and see the latest “must have” or the glitzy adverts selling the good life and not hope and wish (and yes) expect much more than she has. It is nonsense to believe otherwise. In these contexts encouraging people who have little to be better cooks or devising policies that will effect behavioural change are not only unhelpful they simply further demonise disadvantage.

And I wonder, what Gandhi would think of our twenty first century “civilization? I wonder, indeed what a civilization is?  My Oxford Dictionary tells me many things but it all boils down to one phrase:”an advanced stage in social development and organisation”. It also refers to issues of culture and the development of various artistic, religious, scientific and technological forms, the development of recording systems,  urbanisation, an increasing complexity of social and economic interactions, the development of some form of taxation system to ensure that the administration of the entity is able to function, people fulfil increasingly specialized occupations and careers to sustain the civilization, some kind of trade system  develops enabling all to gain what they require so that they might not only  survive but gain increasing access to ownership. And, perhaps, most tellingly, and as a result of all this, food surpluses in order that all the members of the “civilization” might be sustained. It is easy to see how this definition might encompass the Egyptian, the Mayan, the Roman, the Greek or any other of the societies that we regard as “civilizations”. How does it sit with our own I wonder? Well, clearly we fulfil many of the criteria – we are increasingly urban, people do fulfil specialized roles, we are indeed a treasure house of art, literature, scientific and technological development, we do indeed have taxation and administrative system, we trade and many of us acquire greater and greater wealth. And......yes, we have food surpluses - but some are not able to access these and have to rely on charity to live. It would seem impossible to not arrive at the conclusion that superficially we do tick all the boxes as a “civilization”. But for me there is another factor than these cold definitions civilization. The word civilization or civilized holds an extra dimension. It is a term which has some moral or ethical aspects. To be a civilized human being would, I believe, be to have some humanitarian aspects and humanitarian features such as kindness, empathy, sympathy – in other words someone who could not be described as a savage or uncouth or uncaring person......or "uncivilized". Yet in our “civilization” we increasingly see – and accept as an unfortunate by-product  of our way of life increasing numbers of people on zero hours contracts or being paid less than the accepted minimum wage which our society deems necessary to ensure a baseline for living. We see, in this land and civilization of plenty, increasing numbers of people having to resort to food banks in order to sustain themselves because our civilization is not providing them with the means by which to gain what they need. I read the other day that the UK is the sixth richest nation on earth and the fourth in Europe with the highest standard of living. We would, indeed, seem to be at the forefront of “civilizations” yet such is the inequality in our society that while some are paid less than the bare minimum deemed necessary to live others are paid eye watering amounts – and we accept it as inevitable. It is indeed Gandhi’s comment of many years ago come true: “There is sufficient in the world for man’s need but not for his greed” . Against this backdrop our elected leaders tell those in greatest need that they should help themselves by learning to cook and that our leaders will reduce the amount it pays the poor or disadvantaged by reducing  benefits in order that costs are reduced and “behavioural change” of the most vulnerable ensured.  Mmmmmm?
A food bank visitor here in Nottingham

As I pondered all these things over the weekend I read my weekly New Statesman magazine. As I took it from the polythene wrapping there fell out a leaflet – it was Christmas appeal from one of the major charities.  I idly read it – it spoke of providing a Christmas meal for homeless people, of providing a warm and secure environment for the cold days of mid-winter and of providing some basic services – advice, access to basic health screening, replacement clothes, a haircut and so on. It told me of a 37% rise in the number of people living rough on our streets during the past three years and of  77% rise in the number of rough sleepers in our capital city over the same period. Our capital city, acknowledged as one of the world’s richest yet most unequal places. A place where we were advised on TV only a few days ago by the crass celebrity Myleene Klass that a house costing £2 million is “like a garage”. London is now the home to vast numbers of homeless people, food banks and individuals/families living on the very edge. I read all these things and nodded sadly to myself – and was largely unmoved. I wasn't angry and I should have been - that is a measure of how far we have fallen.
There's no alternative - because we say so -
and we won't be doing our Christmas shopping
at the Westminster food bank. Pull up the
ladder George - we are all right - forget the Oiks!

Sadly, I reflected, I have heard it all before – I, like I am sure many others, have become accustomed to it, we accept as the unavoidable norm, it is no longer news – “the poor” as they say “are always with us”. To use that awful phrase much loved by American politician Donald Rumsfeld - a man, like Duncan Smith of so little intelligence and humanity - the poor are now largely "collateral damage". Chancellor George Osborne reminded us in his recent budget: “there is no alternative” – budgetary targets must be met and this means welfare, wages and living standards must be reined in. Get over it, "move on" is the subscript to all this. "You’re alright Jack, look the other way........" .and sadly, we increasingly do. Our civilization can no longer be a civilization based upon the actions of the Good Samaritan it is instead a society that Dickens would instantly recognise based upon the beliefs of Thomas Gradgrind, his notorious headmaster in Hard Times who was dedicated only to the pursuit of profitable enterprise and where charity and good works were an anathema for they had no economic worth and where cold facts, numbers and the balance sheet were valued above all.

And then, and then............. I read something else in the leaflet which did hit home and which suddenly “rattled my cage”. It made me feel very, very uncomfortable as I sat in my nice house with my flat screen TV, my full larder, my mobile phone, my central heating and my burgeoning collection of Christmas cards from family and friends all wishing me happy Christmas and sending me love and best wishes. It was something which suddenly made me realise just how well I had learned  to accept what is increasingly unacceptable. It was a small thing but so alarming to me. Yes, I understood that there were homeless people, that many had to visit food banks, and that many will not this Christmas enjoy the quiet pleasures and seasonal luxuries that I will take for granted. But then I read this: For many homeless people a visit [to one of the charity’s centres to enjoy a hot meal and receive support and advice] is the only time of the year when they will be called by their name”.  As I looked round at the Christmas cards displayed on our walls and as I looked at the pile of cards I was about to post to our family and friends it all suddenly hit home. Poverty, homelessness, food banks, austerity, unequal societies and all the rest of this sad part of our “oh so clever” civilization can boil down to this – that we have allowed to develop a situation where some of our fellow citizen and human beings are nameless for much of their time – unknowns, statistics. A society where charity food banks providing damaged or out of date food are just a small part of a terrible spectrum hiding much more telling and insidious aspects of our great western civilization.

I cannot imagine in my most desperate of dreams what it might be like to be so isolated that I am only rarely, if ever, called by my name. One’s name is the most basic manifestation of our self – it defines us and gives us credibility in our own eyes and those of others. It is what and who we are. If I add on to that the fact that I might also be homeless, devoid of possessions, hungry, cold, dirty, frightened, uncertain about the future, not in the best of health then I think I might feel that  I am a nothing, truly invisible, a non-person in our modern civilization. It is almost a dystopian 1984 type scenario alive and well in 2014. This is what austerity can really mean for many. And as I read these words I wondered how Baroness Jenkins’ pleas for the poor to develop their cooking skills or Iain Duncan Smith’s “behavioural changes” or George Osborne’s “there is no alternative” fits into this equation? They have a terrible callousness and irrelevance. We should indeed be very afraid and very angry at what we and our great society are becoming.

And, as I took out my credit card to make my on-line donation I looked again at our Christmas cards and was reminded of that first Bethlehem Christmas depicted on so many of them. Two homeless people on a donkey arriving in far off town where they are unknown and where there was no shelter for them until, at last, a kindly man or woman took them in. Maybe it was an act of charity for there is no mention in the Bible of the room rates for innkeeper’s stables! In the stable they perhaps received some kind of warmth, maybe some simple food –  maybe the leftovers from the inn’s kitchen – and a place of rest after their wanderings. Not a million miles is it to what is increasingly a part of life for many in modern day Britain  – and in many other parts of our great western civilization - where the disadvantaged all too often have to rely upon charity and goodwill for their sustenance. And I wondered if we have progressed at all?

Maybe, had Iain Duncan Smith travelled along the same route as Mary and Joseph, he would have castigated them for their lack of forethought: “You need to change your ways”, he would have said, “adopt a more sensible form of behaviour......You really should have taken out a private health plan so that you could book into the Bethlehem Birthing Clinic (PLC) on arrival rather than relying on some innkeeper’s kindness in a strange town where you knew perfectly well that everywhere would be fully booked. That way you would have been well taken care of  by an outsourced company and not be a burden to society  or a drain on the national exchequer” .  Duncan Smith would have told it to them how it is! And certainly, had Baroness Jenkins been present in the stable in Bethlehem she would have told Mary in no uncertain terms that she could easily make a good wholesome meal for herself, Joseph and new baby if she casseroled the hay and a few dropped grain seeds from the floor while Joseph caught the stable rat for a bit of protein in the casserole. And then, while the casserole was cooking, she could milk the cow and Joseph could sheer a couple of the sheep to spin some wool to make the baby’s shawl for such a cold night. “It’s common sense isn’t it” the good Baroness would say “didn’t your mother teach you anything”?

And I thought of another Gandhi comment: “Jesus is an ideal and wonderful......but you Christians are not like him are you!” Could anything be more true - I think not. Gandhi was right. Western civilization  would indeed be a good thing......maybe we should try it sometime.

28 November, 2014

Cricket - a metaphor for life?

The faded photograph at the Adelaide Oval
In one of the many rooms of cricket memorabilia at the Adelaide Oval Cricket Ground is a large, framed but faded black and white  photograph – over half a century old. For those unfamiliar with cricket the Adelaide Oval is one of the greatest of the  world’s cricket grounds and the scene of many of cricket’s greatest moments over very many years. It is the home of the South Australia Club and a premier Test Match ground. It was the home of arguably the world’s greatest batsman, Don Bradman and is the scene of some of the great cricket stories and legends. One of the greatest and perhaps most infamous Tests of all time was played there over eighty years ago when England were the visitors in the famed “Ashes bodyline series” of the early 1930s. It is a picturesque, even beautiful ground - some regard it as the most beautiful cricket venue in the world - set in parkland where, as you walk around it, one can feel the ghosts of cricket’s past, of great names, great stories and great cricketing deeds. Even though one is in a great modern cricketing arena on the far side of the world one  still feel the links with cricket’s past – English village greens, warm English beer and the sound of ball on willow. The Adelaide Oval is, in short, what cricket is all about.

Phillip Hughes is struck by a bouncing ball
Today, however, its flags are flying at half mast following the tragic death of one of South Australia’s – and Australia’s great modern players – Phillip Hughes. Hughes, a young but greatly talented, experienced and skilful player was struck by a bouncing ball while batting for South Australia against rivals New South Wales in Sydney earlier this week. His death, two days after the event has rightly stunned the cricketing world.

As I read of his death I was taken back to late November  2006 when I fulfilled a long held ambition and visited the Adelaide Oval and I again thought of that faded photograph. It was a photo taken in 1960 showing one of cricket’s great innings – that of Ken Mackay and Lindsay Kline, two Australian players facing what was then the world’s greatest team – the mighty West Indies and within that team cricketing gods such as Sobers and Worrell as well as some of the most feared bowlers in the world – Wes Hall, Lance Gibbs and Alf Valentine. As I toured the Oval eight years ago I have many wonderful memories – the Bradman statue, the trophies, the bats and  balls that have been held by great players and won games, the many photographs recalling great deeds and great games – but none stand out in my mind quite so much as that faded photograph from 1960. For within it, I thought then and I still think now, is what cricket is all about. And, indeed in many ways, I might add it is, like cricket itself,  a kind of metaphor for life.
The Adelaide scoreboard records Hughes for all time.
So why did I think of it when I read of the sad death of Phillip Hughes?

Cricket, I believe, is in a way unique amongst sports. I suppose that it could be that American baseball comes close but not to the same degree as cricket. Most sports - be they team games like football or individual pursuits like, say,  tennis – involve some kind of equality of competition – the whole team against the other team or the single tennis player against another individual. Cricket, however is different for although it is a team sport  at its very heart it is the battle between an individual - the batsman - and the rest of other team.  Eleven against one. And that was what was at the heart of the faded photograph.

So what did the old photo speak of? It told the tale in one stunning shot of the final moments of the Test Match between Australia and the West Indies at the Adelaide Oval in 1960. It spoke of the very essence of cricket and, as I have said, cricket’s metaphor for life. The West Indies were on track for victory, it was 4 pm on the last day of play, only two hours cricket remained. For Australia to gain a draw they had to avoid being bowled out (i.e. all the batsmen out) before the end of play at 6 pm. The West Indies needed to take only one more wicket (i.e. get one batsman out) in that two hours to claim victory. They were the hottest of favourites to win the game, it seemed a mere formality. At just after 4 o'clock an Australian wicket fell and the last Australian batsman came in – Lindsay Kline. Kline was a bowler, he was not a high profile batsman, he was what is called in cricket parlance a “tail ender” –  not in the team for his batting skills. He was a player who should easily be got out by the opposition. The other batsman, Ken Mackay, was a little more experienced and accomplished  as a batsman and the Australian strategy was clear. As the senior batsman Mackay had to try to defend as many balls as possible and not expose the weaker batsman Kline to the mighty West Indian bowling attack. Runs were irrelevant – Mackay and Kline had simply to avoid either of them being dismissed, survive the two hours. If either of them were out then the Indies had won. The odds were overwhelmingly stacked against the Australians - it was quite simply a chance in a million and the West Indians could feel the scent of victory! Already, one or two in the great crowd were leaving the stadium, defeat was staring the home side in the face.

On my guided tour
What followed was one of the truly great two hours of cricket and cricketing folklore as the West Indian bowlers hurled every kind of bowl – fast and spin - down at the two batsmen. The West Indian fielders gathered close around the batsman to put them off,  to intimidate them and to look for the slightest touch that would give a catch and so give the West Indies a deserved victory. The faded photo catches this perfectly – Kline standing with his bat defending his wicket, every member of the West Indian team, except Hall the bowler, standing  so close to him they could touch his bat, their hands ready, bodies arched like lions ready to pounce upon any small error he might make. It was Kline and Mackay against the West Indies, and slowly but surely the two Aussies "dug in", refused to be beaten into submission. As the tension mounted the West Indian attack speeded up their bowling rate so as to hurl more bowls down at the Australian batsmen; a total of 905 balls were bowled in that day and 315 in that last two hours while Kline and Mackay stood at their wickets - these bowling rates have never been beaten since.

It was the stuff of Greek legend when a mere mortal takes on the Gods; it was the stuff of which Wagner could have made an opera! Mackay and Kline played over after over without scoring – simply defending their position, backs to the wall. When the bowlers changed ends, and whenever possible, they tried to score  a single run so that the more experienced Mackay would be facing the bowling. And the minutes ticked by as the Adelaide Oval clock slowly moved towards 6 pm, the crowd watching with bated breath, huge intakes of breath as each bowl was delivered and the batsman survived yet again. There were close calls, and heart stopping moments. As allowed, the West Indian bowlers took the new ball when it became available – that in itself making it more difficult for the batsmen, for the new ball behaves differently than a well used one. Slowly the game edged towards its final minutes and as it did so the West Indians became more desperate, often relying on the huge fast bowling powers of Wes Hall, to the point where he was becoming exhausted.  Kline had come to the crease with 101 minutes to play, he batted 110 minutes due to the extended last over. Mackay and Kline batted together for 283 balls, not including no balls. It still today is  the longest last wicket stand (in balls bowled) for which records have been found. Wes Hall, the most feared bowler in the world strained every muscle in his giant body hurling balls at terrifying speed towards the two batsmen but still they held their wickets. But Wes Hall, despite his fearful reputation and despite his great desire to give victory to his West Indian team, was also the consummate sportsman; not once did he bowl a bouncer to injure Kline as he would surely have done against a more accomplished batsman – he knew and respected that Kline was a tail ender of little batting skill and no matter the prize Hall chased, he would remain a gentleman and sportsmanship would still prevail. Kline’s achievement and Hall’s sportsmanship passed into cricketing folklore and earned both cricketing renown. And as the clock ticked to 6 pm the last over began Mackay faced Hall who was by now totally exhausted from his gargantuan bowling efforts. The over went on and on until the very last ball of the over and the match. Mackay successfully played the ball - Australia – or rather Kline and Mackay - had succeeded and earned the draw! A group of schoolboys, cheering, rushed on to the pitch. The West Indians looked dejected. But.........no,  there was still one small bit of drama left, it was not over. The umpire called “no ball”, so the final ball had to be bowled again! Wes Hall looked exhausted, dejected, it seemed that he may not be able to bowl it. Mackay, meanwhile, had to muster the concentration to play out yet another ball to save the match. One wonders what went through his mind. Later, in his own words, he said  “As I faced the last ball I thought – if it’s going to be short I won’t let it hit my bat, I’ll take it on the body or the head if necessary.” As Mackay had anticipated, a tired but hopeful Hall let loose a short-pitched bowl. Showing exemplary courage, Mackay let the ball hit his ribs, resulting in a major bruise, but ensuring that he had seen Australia off to safety. The game was drawn.

Forty years on........ old foes meet again,Wes Hall
and Lindsay Kline being acknowledged in
 the 2000 Test between Australia and the West Indies
As the dejected West Indians, and especially the completely worn-out Hall (he had taken 11 minutes to finish the final over), made their way to their dressing room Kline and Mackay were raised shoulder high by the invading Australian fans: they had batted out the required  time and in doing so pulled off the most sensational cricketing escape of all time. They had done their duty, faced the whole of the greatest cricket team on earth and were not found wanting. In doing so Kline scored only 15 runs - the most he ever scored in a Test Match - but that was irrelevant, it was the essence of what he had to do – not get out. Mackay scored in total 62 but in his partnership with Kline 41 – but again, the numbers are irrelevant, neither player would or could ever play a more important innings no matter how many runs they scored.
Hughes at the peak of his career

As I stood there in 2006 and looked at the photo in the Adelaide Oval and as I today, eight years later,  read of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes the opening line from Kipling’s great poem “If” came into my mind: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing their and blaming on you........”. Kipling’s poem, like cricket is metaphor, a description of the qualities of a good life. And there also ran through my head the words of the first verse of my favourite poem, Vitaï Lampada by by Sir Henry Newbolt:

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play, and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote —
      "Play up! play up! and play the game!"

And Kline, Mackay, Hall and all the rest had indeed “played the game”. In Kipling’s words they had:

[forced their] heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

They had, too, followed their Captain’s orders to the letter, and not been found wanting when the chips were down.  As each had stood and faced the bowlers they had been crowded with the opposition players – the close field........". There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight......” the opposition waiting like vultures to pick them off just as the boy in Vitaï Lampada stood, doing his duty, carrying out his captain's orders in the  gathering twilight of "The Close" (as Rugby's cricket pitch is known) the opposition close fielders  hovering, threateningly and silently around him waiting for his least mistake, ready to pounce. He, like Kline and Mackay half a century later did  not[lose]their heads”.
Hughes in Test Match action - like Kline and Mackay before
him, total concentration as the leather missile flies towards
him and the close fielders gather around.

And that in a nutshell is life. There are times when we have to be team players, work with others to get the results that we want – be it at home, in the family or at our work. There are times when we have to follow orders – even though sometimes we might fear failure or might want to do otherwise – we have to sink our own wishes in favour of the greater good. There are times to be brave and times to be cautious, times to hit out and times to hold back. And, throughout our lives there are times when we have to stand up and be counted, be “tested” by others as to our inner strength and temperament as Kline and Mackay were for two hours on that day in 1960. The innings of Kline and Mackay summed all of this up. And indeed so did the West Indies too – Hall and his compatriots played the game, they too were tested and not found wanting. They strove "heart, nerve  and sinew" to outwit and overcome the joint obstacles of Kline and Mackay and in doing so ensured not only Kline and Mackay’s place in the history books but also their own through their effort, skill and above all their sportsmanship. Again in the words of Kipling: “[they] met with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same.
The Trent Bridge screen this morning

“Play up, play up and play the game.........”

As I read of the sad death of Phillip Hughes I thought about all this. I have never been good enough to play serious cricket – a half reasonable fielder but with little batting or bowling skill.  But I do know a little of what it feels like to walk to the crease and stand before the wicket, bat in hand as the bowler runs down to hurl this missile at you whilst around you are gathered the close fielders, waiting to pounce on your smallest mistake. In that split second, even in a fun game on a scrubby patch of grass, you know that you are being tested; it is you against the world. Phillip Hughes, as a first class batsman, would know it well. He would have known what Kline and Mackay knew and felt as they stood there on that far off day. Many of the tributes paid to this young man have spoken of his love of the game and how, sad though it is, he died doing what he loved – playing cricket and facing the opposition while they gathered around him just as they had gathered around Kline and Mackay, testing his resolve and purpose. Testing him not only as a cricketer but as a human being. Hughes. like Kline, Mackay, Hall and the rest would have known the truth of Kipling when wrote:
Hughes' colleagues try to assist him

And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

All of these thoughts flooded into my mind as I read the sad news from Australia. I Googled the Adelaide Oval this morning and saw the flag flying at half mast and Phillip Hughes’ name and birth/death date displayed on the scoreboard. His last entry on that board. I thought, too, of that wonderful day eight years ago when I walked around the ground on a guided tour and saw first hand many of the things that I had only heard, read and dreamed about. And I remembered that faded photograph and thought that Phillip Hughes would have looked at it often and been able to empathise with the players portrayed.

Soon, I expect, his photograph or some other memorial will rightly be displayed amongst the memorabilia for future generations to marvel at and for those who saw him play and remembered his death, it will like a twitch on the thread, take them back to November 2014. I have just read that there is to be a state memorial service to the player and here, on the other side of the world, I have just seen the photograph of Hughes currently displayed on the big screen at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground just a couple of miles away from where I live here in Nottingham. Hughes’ death is resounding across the cricket world. Trent Bridge has a strong historical link with the Adelaide Oval for in the early 1930s when the infamous “bodyline” Ashes series was played out in Australia two of the two of the main protagonists, English bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce were both Nottinghamshire players who under the orders of their captain, Douglas Jardine adopted “bodyline bowling” to counter and intimidate the great Australian and South Australia player, batsman Donald Bradman.(see blog "So Here Hath Been Dawning": May 2012) The ensuing dispute about the use of the tactics by England at the Adelaide Oval almost brought the British Empire to its knees.It was one of cricket's darkest hours and still today can raise the blood pressure for it is about the very essence of the game. Sadly, perhaps, echoes of this can still be heard with the tragic death of Phillip Hughes – he was struck and killed by a high speed bouncing ball.............. “Play up play up and play the game........”
 Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;

If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Hughes, wearing his beloved "green baggy" - the Australian 
international cap - signs autographs in happier times. He did, 
"Play up, play up and played the game"
Postscript: Today (3rd December) we read of the funeral of Phillip Hughes in his home town of Macksville. His family, friends, well wishers and the great and good of both Australia and the wider cricket world were there. Eulogies and heart felt words were, of course, spoken and some in particular caught my eye – those of the Australian Cricket captain and team mate of Hughes, Michael Clarke. He spoke of how he had walked onto the Sydney Cricket Ground pitch on the night of Hughes's death remembering the moments they had shared together on the famous ground that was also the place he was fatally injured:

“I stood at the wicket, I knelt down to touch the grass, and I could sense he was here with me, telling me tea’ …"Picking me up off my feet to check if I was OK, telling me we just needed to dig in and get through to tea before passing on a useless fact about cows, and then swaggering back to the end, grinning at the bowler and calling me through for a run in a booming voice.” Clarke told mourners that, for him, Hughes will always be at the ground where he last batted. “His spirit has touched it, and it will forever be a sacred ground for me. I can feel his presence there.....Hughes will be, forever, 63 not out.......[but] we must play on.”

And as I read these words I thought how they resembled the spirit of the game and life – “get through till tea”........ “dig in, don’t give up”.......just as Kline and Mackay (and countless other cricketers) had done all those years before.....and as people all over the world do in their daily life. And I thought of the final words of Vitaï Lampada - which, of course means "The Torch(es) of Life" - reminding us of this as a metaphor for our own lives......carrying on, keeping going, keeping the flame alight, never forgetting......Play up Play up and Play the Game.

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind --
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"

20 November, 2014

Of Saints and Sinners........

I am in something of a quandary and at the same time a little concerned about what I am going to write in this blog – or rather what, in a world of internet trolls, its repercussions might be. Let me explain.

Chedwyn Evans in happier times
In recent weeks there has been an crescendo of comment and vitriolic criticism in the UK press and wider society about the professional footballer Chedwyn Evans. For anyone not familiar with the story Evans was convicted about two and a half years ago of raping a young woman in a hotel after a game. He was sentenced to five years but released, as is usual, in a shorter time having served the minimum required. On his release he was anxious to resume his footballing career. His club, Sheffield United, have been under considerable pressure from public, press, politicians and high profile personalities not to take him on again. The club initially took a sort of half way house position and allowed him to train in order that he regain match fitness but today they have been forced by pressure of public opinion to withdraw that offer. In the last week or two various local personalities have said they will disassociate from the club if he does play for the club; for example,  Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill has said she will have her name removed from the stadium if the club reinstate Evans and even a local MP (and Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg has weighed in by saying that the club should not allow Evans to turn out in the club colours. I have to say at this point that when politicians start lecturing us about morals  then I am immediately suspicious!  I have absolutely no doubts  Clegg’s intervention is more to do with the fact that many of his constituents have petitioned the club on the matter than any moral viewpoint he might have; with a general Election only months away and his seat in jeopardy he is simply pandering to his electorate. In a letter to the Guardian yesterday  a correspondent said “Evans is a convicted rapist and until such time as that verdict is overturned he should not be allowed to play for the club”  Another correspondent writes: “The key fact is that he is unrepentant......”  When correspondents to the Guardian are damning a man then I know that he is in trouble!

Of course, there is no doubt that Evans has been found guilty. It is equally true that he still protests his “innocence”. There  are issues about the amount of alcohol that were allegedly consumed, about whether the sex was consensual and indeed about the veracity of some of the testimony of “witnesses” . But even allowing for all that Evans is in a hard place – and maybe rightly so. Yes, as many argue, he has served his time, paid society’s price for his crime so, they argue, he should have a clean slate. Sadly, however, it isn’t that easy; feeling is running high – the self righteous mob is on the loose. Those great guardians of the national conscience and morality big business are threatening to withdraw sponsorship. And it is here where I start to wonder.  I wonder not  about the dreadful nature of the “crime”, nor about Evans’ ultimate guilt for there is little doubt that sex of some kind took place and for me that very fact suggests that Evans was seriously at fault and open to censure especially so given his profile and the circumstances. But I wonder rather about our response and our desire for what in the end looks to me very much like revenge.  In the final analysis, the only people who really know the answer to Evans’ guilt as to the charge of rape are Evans himself, the young woman concerned and God. All the rest is conjecture, gossip, opinion and prejudice. No matter how many juries he appears before or how many petitions are raised the final judgement is still only a matter of opinion and that seems to me a very dubious reason for desiring the eternal damnation of an individual. 

And, I begin to wonder about our rather strange view as a society which seems to me to involve a number of double standards. At one end we castigate and take moral standpoints – probably quite rightly – about situations like that of Evans and yet at the other we tolerate, support and get seeming pleasure from our media, advertising, the fashion world and wider society  which thrives on promoting an endless diet of the sexualisation of women and relationships. From the earliest age girls are, in a myriad of ways, sexualised; reputable shops sell “grown up items of clothing for girls, TV cinema spews out a constant diet of sex (both overt and covert) much of it involving varying degrees of overt, covert or implied  violence towards women, many of our newspapers daily carry front page photographs  of scantily clad young women – all to encourage us to buy. And few of us do not buy into it in some manner - if we did not then the big business and global enterprises that produce the stuff would offer something else to satisfy our desires. At the same time we accept that sport pays young men like Evans huge amounts of money and they are worshipped as young gods  inhabiting a bizarre world where everything can be bought and their every need satisfied.  In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph – an august journal of middle class probity if ever there was one – was a large photo of the actress Helen Mirren emerging, scantily dressed from a swimming pool. The photo had little or nothing to do with the article, the Telegraph could have chosen any one of thousands of pictures of Mirren - but it chose that one. It was clear titillation.  I have absolutely no doubts that those vilifying and threatening  Evans and his club will at the same time enjoy much of what is thrown at us in the modern society via TV, cinema, advertising, sport and the media even though it is the sort of thing that creates a world where a wealthy and famous young man feels he can go out and have sex with anyone he meets. In short, as I say, there are many double standards at work here. maybe, just maybe as well as demonising Ched Evans we ought to look also to ourselves and our base values.
What would he think of all this?

Anyone who has read my blogs before will know that with great regularity I write about modern football – and invariably, no matter from what premise I start I always  manage to criticise the modern game and in particular the negative role models projected by young men such as Evans. Huge amounts of the criticism directed at Evans are rightly based upon the role model he will present to youth if he is reinstated. Similarly the fact that Sheffield initially suggested that they might allow him to train with them has caused great distress amongst his critics. That offer has now been withdrawn. But I wonder if we (say) substituted IT specialist for professional footballer would it still work? Let me explain. Suppose an IT specialist was convicted of rape in exactly similar circumstances to Evans and upon release from prison wanted to resume his career. In that situation, having been locked up for almost three years he might want to go on a training course to update him/skill him up so that he is familiar with the latest developments that have occurred in that fast changing world before he looks for a job or sets up his own business. Would we deny him the chance to go on a course?  That, I believe, is not dissimilar to Evans who simply wants to get match fit by training so that he might resume his footballing career. And if we would deny that opportunity to the IT specialist (as apparently Sheffield United have done to  Evans) then I have absolutely no doubts we are going down a truly dreadful path to an unforgiving society and one which basically says that anyone convicted of a crime – yes, even rape - must serve their sentence for the rest of their lives. That recalls the penal servitude imposed on prisoners who were shipped off to Australia two centuries ago – is that what we are about in this, the 21st century,I sincerely hope not, but the present paranoia and vitriol does not bode well.  I wonder what Charles Dickens writer of that great tale "Great Expectations" would have to say about! The "hero" (if you can call him that) Abel Magwich, returns from his lifetime of Australian penal servitude having made his fortune to meet the young man Pip who he has sponsored (without Pip's knowledge) over many years. The secret sponsorship has allowed young Pip, a boy from a poor background, to rise up and become a well connected gentleman. Magwitch was the arch criminal but he reformed and tried to do the right thing, and to make up for his former wicked ways. Dickens, of course, returns to the theme  of redemption in many of his great novels - the innate goodness of man and our power try to be better: Scrooge, Sydney Carton and Thomas Gradgrind  are just three of many examples. I have absolutely doubt that if Dickens were alive today he would have some pretty scathing things to say about the strident, self righteous voices that are emanating out of Sheffield and other places at the moment.  

As I write this I wonder, continuing on the literary theme, how many of Evans’ critics have enjoyed the wonderful musical (or have they actually read the very thick book!) Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables . If they have, then they will know that the hero, Jean Valjean, is a convicted criminal and when he is at last released after many years,  in desperation  he steals some silver plate from the priest who has given him sanctuary. When Valjean is apprehended by the police with the plate still in his possession he is returned to the priest who silently forgives him and tells the police a lie that the silver was a gift to help Valjean. In other words, forgiveness was the name of the game and the priest was giving Valjean a second, or maybe even third chance, for in front of the police he gave Valjean even more silver to take away. He was giving him the opportunity to show that he was a new man, to redeem himself. The rest of the story as they say is history. It may be trite, it may not be directly comparable, but I have absolutely no doubts there are small parallels with the Evans’ situation and those that would cast stones need, I believe, to think on those things. You cannot enjoy the story, empathise with Valjean and the actions of the priest and at the same time castigate Sheffield United or Evans for wanting a second chance. To do so is both logically and morally perverse. A real life story of redemption – it's the story of Jean Valjean made real in Sheffield!

But, for me, I am still confused. I don’t know what to think. My antipathy towards modern football and the highly paid superstars of the game who by their on and off the field behaviours and attitudes consistently let themselves and their fans down ensure that I have many of the same feelings and instincts as the many of those who want Evans forever damned. I am, too, anxious about the role model he presents and the fact that if he is reinstated he will in a short time be earning huge amounts of money and again living “the high life”. Finally I am concerned that professional football has a huge capacity to quickly forget – forgiveness never comes into it! Week in week out we see superstars letting themselves, their clubs and their fans down by their bizarre behaviour and negative role models but score a couple of goals and all is forgotten – and this combined with the huge amounts of money involved  ensures that morals are quickly “bent” to suit the need and the situation! I have absolutely no doubts that many of those same folk who are currently calling for Evans to be dammed will, within a few weeks be cheering him if another club does re-sign him  and he starts scoring goals. All will be forgotten and consigned to the dustbin of history. We will hear the awful cliché “move on get over it”. That is the nature of the game and modern life – today’s angst, moral maze and news is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper,  and anyone who argues otherwise is naive. But given all that and no matter what he has done, no matter how culpable he is, I find it increasingly difficult to accept that a person should be forever damned and that an individual’s future should be dictated by the loud voices of the indignant, the self righteous, the strident, the angry and the vengeful. That, I believe, is the easy option for society: society need no longer worry about it. We "good" people would never behave as did Evans would we so “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key” is the call. It makes all the rest of us feel good about ourselves - we have locked up  a real monster, not all like us nice people! But.......forgiveness, reconciliation and being aware that someone actually can  atone for their misdoings is so much harder for men and women to swallow. It's uncomfortable to know that someone we once despised and felt superior to can actually do good and earn redemption and respect - be redeemed. It takes away our perceived moral superiority. Indeed, go back to the climax of Les Miserables  and that is exactly what happens to the policeman, Javert, who has chased and harried Valjean over the years. Javert is unable to accept that Valjean has indeed turned out to be a “good man” and by his deeds won redemption. Javert is unable  to reconcile his unwavering belief in authority and law with the kindness exhibited by Valjean, and so powerful does this become that Javert's raison d’être is vanquished - he commits suicide.  Forgiveness and redemption are very, very hard for all concerned.

John Profumo
I am also reminded of the famous case of John Profumo, a high flying government minister in the 1960s.  In July 1961, at a party Profumo met Christine Keeler, a model with whom he began a sexual relationship. Rumours about the affair began to circulate. Since Keeler also had sexual relations with Yevgeni Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy so the affair took on a national security dimension. In December 1962, a shooting incident in London involving two other men who were involved with Keeler led the press to investigate and  Profumo was forced to admit that he knew Keeler but denied there was any impropriety in their relationship. Newspapers continued publishing stories, and it soon became apparent that Profumo’s  position was untenable. He was forced to admit that he had lied to Parliament and he resigned from office. Before making his public confession Profumo confessed the affair to his wife, who stood by him. The scandal was instrumental in bringing down the Conservative government, and the resignation of the Prime Mnister Harold Macmillan.

But it didn’t end there. Profumo, vilified and deserted by the high society he had previously enjoyed, had to make a new start and shortly after his resignation he began to work as a volunteer cleaning toilets for a charity in the East End of London. He continued to work there for the rest of his life. It was said after his death that he simply"vanished into London's East End for 40 years, doing quiet good works". Eventually after much persuasion he became chief fundraiser for the charity, and raised large sums of money. All this work was done as a volunteer. In the eyes of most commentators, Profumo's charity work redeemed his reputation. His friend, the social reform campaigner Lord Longford said he "felt more admiration [for Profumo] than [for] all the men I've known in my lifetime". In later life and in recognition for his good works Profumo was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and received the honour at a Buckingham Palace from the  Queen. In 1995 Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invited him to her 70th birthday dinner, where he sat next to the Queen. His redemption complete. The Profumo story rang a few bells with me and raised  something I have thought a lot about in the last few days.  

When I was working, I regularly led the school assembly and, as I have read the continuing tale of Ched Evans, one story has come back to haunt me. I have wondered if I had been leading an assembly in a Sheffield school in the past few weeks could I (would I) have told this story? Here it is:

Once upon a time in a land far away, lived twin brothers. The two boys were likeable, but undisciplined, with a wild streak in them. Their mischievous behaviour  began to turn serious when they began stealing. First small things from shops but then breaking into houses – with each crime they got braver and more daring.  They were always caught – they were fined, put in the village stocks or put into prison but each time they returned to their life of crime and their crimes became more hurtful and unpleasant. Then one night they stole some sheep and in the process badly injured the shepherd who had been looking after them. It was decided that something had to be done about them, a lesson must be taught.  The local magistrate  decided their fate: the two brothers would be branded on the forehead with the letters ST for "Sheep Thief." This sign they would carry with them forever they were told. Everyone would know what they were and what they had done. They would never be forgiven. They were dragged before the whole village and the blacksmith branded their foreheads with the two letters.

One brother was so embarrassed by this branding that he ran away; he confessed to his brother that he could never live in the village again. The two separated and never met again The other brother, however, was filled with remorse and reconciled to his fate. He chose to stay and try to make amends to the villagers who he had wronged.  At first the villagers were sceptical and would have nothing to do with him. But this brother was determined to make reparation for his offences and he persevered. Whenever there was a sickness, the sheep thief came to care for the ill with soup and a soft touch. Whenever there was work needing to be done, the sheep thief came to help with a lending hand. It made no difference if the person were rich or poor, the sheep thief was there to help. Never accepting pay for his good deeds. He lived his life for others.

It was many, many years later, when a traveller came through the village. Sitting outside  inn enjoying a beer and eating lunch, the traveller saw a very  old man with a strange brand on his forehead seated nearby. The stranger noticed that all the villagers who passed the old man stopped to share a kind word and to pay their respects; children stopped their play to give and receive a warm hug. Both the old and the young, man and woman would have a chat and a smile at the old man. Curious, the stranger asked the innkeeper, "What does that strange ST brand on the old man's head stand mean?"

"Oh, I don't know. It happened so long ago...long before my time" the innkeeper replied. He scratched his head and then, pausing briefly for a moment of reflection continued: "...most folk say it stands for SAINT – I’ve heard so many of my customers say That man’s a saint”.

OK it’s just a story. It’is about redemption and making up for our misdeeds. It is about John Valjean. And John Profumo. But, is it applicable to Ched Evans? Probably not – the Evans' case given the unique situation and implications make it rather special. Can a sinner become a saint – and should they be allowed to? I don’t know. But in the last few days I’ve wondered, what if I had told that story today in a school assembly and  a child had afterwards asked me if it applied to the Ched Evans situation - what would I have replied? I honestly don’t know what I would have said.  Should I have told that child that Evans should be be allowed to show that he is a changed man? Would I have said he should play for Sheffield again so that everyone could see he was a changed man. Or should I have said Evans should be like the twin who left town never to be seen again. Again, I don’t know. But, as a famous footballer Evans holds a huge ace in his hand – by his words, deeds and behaviour he could be a real force for good and in the process show that he is indeed a reformed character and just the sort of role model football and  young people and wider society needs. He could be a real focus for change – not just about rape but about society’s wider attitudes and confused thinking about our morals which are constantly under attack from the media, advertising, TV and cinema.  It would take, on his part, huge bravery to turn out in front of hostile crowds but just as the twin in the story, that is the price to be paid when one faces up to one’s accusers. It would also be very difficult for his club – but again it would be a measure of their desire to present something positive.  Or, on the other hand........ maybe his critics are right – maybe he should not be allowed to resume his former life but should quietly disappear? I simply don’t know.

Mr & Mrs Kassig - forgiveness is hard but
I suspect they think necessary and, as Christians,
an imperative
What I do know, however, is that a way forward must be found and despite what those who would claim otherwise there are no easy solutions. Forgiveness  is a two way process – one half is the accusers being able to forgive and offer a second chance, the other is that the receivers of forgiveness have to act upon it and show by their words, actions and behaviour that they are indeed changed. Earlier this week we heard of the dreadful beheading by members of the Islamic State of the young American aid worker Peter Kassig. In a truly humbling appearance and statement his distraught parents said, amongst other things, "Please pray for  Pete........ at sunset this evening. Pray also for all people in Syria and Iraq around the world who are held against their will.........and lastly please allow our small family the time in privacy to mourn, cry and yes, forgive, and begin to heal."  The Ched Evans affair is not of the magnitude of that terrible event in Syria and anyone who argues that it is utterly wrong. But the fact that Peter Kassig’s parents in their darkest hour can even mention the word “forgive” is a lesson for us all both as individuals and as a society; we need to step back and think rather more carefully than we are doing at the present. Within this dispute there are issues that go to the very heart of justice, belief, morals and of what it is to be human and to be a member of our modern society. It is about what we might expect of others and indeed what we ought to expect of ourselves as human beings.

17 November, 2014

"To say a great big Thank you, I mustn’t forget..."

The game's on - what sport is about - not the great stadia
and the highly paid stars but the effort, friendship, excitement
and memories of a game well played on a damp and misty day 
November, late Autumn, and whatever the events or expectations of the next few weeks and months it is one of my favourite times of the year – no, it is the favourite time of the year for me. After breakfast yesterday morning we went out for our usual Sunday morning walk around the country park. The morning was heavy with damp, dank mist, visibility down to a few hundred yards, cars had headlights on, no sun piercing the dull November sky. Everything was shrouded in dampness, the last of the flowers, plants and bushes have died off and a damp chill pierced through our coats. Pat muffled up with woolly hat and gloves, me with my warmest jacket on entered our local playing field on the way to the country park and through the mist I could see four or five young men putting up the goalposts and goal nets on the football pitch in readiness for the morning’s game -  a task that I have done on so many occasions over the years.
The sparkling spider's web
And, as we walked I stopped and watched the posts being erected and – like a twitch on the spider’s thread – remembered the many, many times that I have stood on similar mornings to this helping, watching and waiting for the game to begin when my son was playing football as a child and a young player. He is long retired from the game – family life, injury and the passing of his fortieth birthday mean that playing competitively is a thing of the past. He now helps to coach his own sons and other young boys in the village where he lives (see blogs for September 26th & 29th  2014). The wheel has gone full circle.

As I stood there  peering through the mist the words of a much loved song sun at school meandered through my mind: Estelle White's wonderful Autumn Days

Autumn days when the grass is jewelled
And the silk inside a chestnut shell.
Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled.
All these thing I love so well
So I mustn't forget, No, I mustn't forget.
To say a great big Thank You
I mustn't forget
Clouds that look like familiar faces
And the winters moon with frosted rings.
Smell of bacon as I fasten up my laces
And the song the milkman sings
So I mustn't forget, No, I mustn't forget.
To say a great big Thank You
I mustn't forget
Whipped-up spray that is rainbow-scattered
And a swallow curving in the sky
Shoes so comfy though they're worn out and they're battered
And the taste of apple pie.
So I mustn't forget, No, I mustn't forget
To say a great big Thank You
I mustn't forget.
Scent of gardens when the rain's been falling
And a minnow darting down a stream
Picked-up engine that's been stuttering and stalling
And a win for my home team.
So I mustn't forget, No, I mustn't forget
To say a great big Thank You

I mustn't forget.

Around "the loop"
Autumn Days  - each week when I used to lead the school’s hymn practice if we  ever asked the children which hymn they would like to sing they nearly always chose this one, whatever the season! Whenever we sang Autumn Days it never failed to be sung as loudly as possible and with a real joy, the children often swaying to the rhythm as they sang. Not only has it a jolly melody but I think speaks to children of things that they can relate to – it certainly does with me: sparkling grass, the smell of a cooked breakfast on a chilly morning, fresh milk on my cereal, frost, the football season............. all things that speak of being secure and all being well with the world. As I stood there watching the match preparations I experienced the same feelings, smells, tastes and words of a quarter of a century ago: hot coffee from a thermos flask, a bacon sandwich, the jokes and good humour of fellow parents as we stood on the touchline, the smell of embrocation on the legs of the young players, the promise of a hot meal when John and I returned home full of the events of the match, the after match banter, leg pulling and sometimes critical analysis when things had gone wrong. And they were all good memories of what now seems a far off time – but as the words of the song say “.....I mustn’t forget, no I mustn’t forget, to say a great big Thank you, I mustn’t forget”

The still, silent and misty lake
And so we carried on with our walk. We went around what we call “the loop” – a longer walk around the very perimeter of the country park. The  thickening mist seeming to dampen all sounds. Occasionally a cyclist or other walkers and their dogs would loom out of the misty dampness. Spiders’ webs glistened in the hedgerows, puddles littered our path. Trees that only a few weeks ago were showing the brilliance of early autumn gold, red and orange now are beginning to look dull yellow, brown, black and bare. Where only a few weeks ago bright red berries decorated many of the wayside bushes these too have been picked clean by the birds or have died off. The world is closing down for the cold winter months ahead. As we passed the still lake ducks floated silently on its surface or pecked the last few seeds or bits of bread left by children who come to feed them. The grey waters of the lake disappeared into the distant mist and as we passed the Country Park Visitor Centre I noticed the windows a little misted up as a few visitors enjoyed the warmth of the cafe, drinking their cup of coffee or tea whilst wrapping their chilled fingers around the warm cups.

Our Autumn garden
And so, having walked a little over two miles we turned homewards and back though the playing field. We heard the sounds of the football match long before we actually saw it through the mist; a cheer telling us that one side had scored. And then there it was – one side in yellow the other in red. Mansfield Boys against the local team, Ruddington. On the side of the pitch spectators and coaches all offering their encouragement and advice – just as I had done a quarter of a century ago. And I remembered again all those, what seem now, far off times when John followed the same route as many of the boys who were running around in front of us might well do: playing for the various village youth teams – Elms Athletic, South Notts Colts, Ruddington Village, The Jolly Farmer’ Pub - representing the local Rushcliffe Area schools, representing the Nottinghamshire schools side, playing for Nottingham Forest Juniors and then  being signed by Notts. County and captaining their youth team, playing at Old Trafford home of Manchester United, the "Theatre of Dreams", against David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and others who went on to be the superstars of the English game, being invited for a trial for England schoolboys.........    And so it went on, the memories, all of them good, flooded back as if yesterday.  And it all started on misty mornings like this one, so very long ago. As I watched the youngsters and heard the shouts of the spectators and coaches my mind was filled with both a regret that those happy days are long passed but also of gratitude for wonderful memories to reflect upon and the words of Autumn Days again went through my head...... “I mustn’t forget, no I mustn’t forget, to say a great big Thank you, I mustn’t forget”.

And then it was time to go – back to the warmth of home and a cup of coffee. Our daily exercise done and a part of my life unexpectedly revisited on a misty and damp Sunday morning. As we walked the few hundred yards back to our house I looked forward to the next few weeks; the end of November is near and cold winter will start to appear over the horizon. There is already a sense of the year fading – the last weeks and days of 2014 are sliding away. Already shops are showing the first signs of Christmas.  Pat and I stood in our local supermarket on Saturday and the shelves were heavy with Christmas fayre – nuts, puddings, decorations and the like and already notices have appeared in our village shops advertising Christmas events. On my walk through our village today workmen were putting up the annual Christmas trees outside the shops. Then we will be into the very heart of winter – freezing January and February when all will be hoping that the Spring will begin to soon show itself, that  the earth become unfrozen, that the first snowdrops and daffodils will poke through the soil and that the first warm rays of Spring sunshine return again. And as we walked up our garden path, tired from our walk around the country park and for me down memory lane. my front door keys at the ready another few words from the past came into my mind,  Robert Browning’s wonderful Pippa’s Song:
The year's at the spring
    And day's at the morn;
    Morning's at seven;
    The hillside's dew-pearled;
    The lark's on the wing;
    The snail's on the thorn:
    God's in His heaven—
    All's right with the world!

Could there be anything more evocative than those few words that promise all is right with the world and that the dark days of coming winter will come to an end once more? It is a message of hope - that life will return, a new year will be beginning, all will be, as Browning says, "right with the world". As I recited these wonderful words in my mind I thought back to another age – over fifty years ago when I first saw Browning’s lovely Spring thoughts. In was hot, late Spring day in May 1961 when I sat down in a classroom at my secondary school to take my Art GCE “O” level. I had opted to take the section of the paper involving calligraphy and manuscript writing and the set task was to write Browning’s poem in manuscript writing and suitably illustrate it as a piece of manuscript. I never forgot the words – indeed, in later years I would often use them with classes of children as a piece of handwriting practice – and they still, like the words of Autumn Days had and have the capacity to raise my spirits and take me back in time to what seems now a different age. “So I mustn’t forget, no I mustn’t forget, to say a great big Thank you, I mustn’t forget”